What have you heard about #BlogHer09 so far? Stories are circulating around the web that the conference is no longer about connection and content and community and is instead all about sponsors and swag and greed. Check out this damning video by a Chicago writer who worked at the Pepsico booth for a few days. Read Jessica Gottlieb’s followup interview with him. Another blogger asks, “BlogHer ’09: Does Swag Pervert the Purpose?” and a disenchanted blogger I met at the Saturday night cocktail party posts a crazy photo of all the plastic swag she picked up.
Here are just a few of the big vendors represented at BlogHer09:
But lest you think I’m above all this, let me tell you a little story.
A (Fake Plastic) Fish Out of Water
For two weeks before BlogHer, I was staying up late and running around like mad trying to finish up projects and prepare for the trip. Finding out I had won the style consultation with Tim Gunn only accelerated the frenzy. Oh crap. Not only did I have to worry about what to bring, but I now had to think about whether it was stylish enough! I didn’t think I cared about such things, but somehow I got sucked in.
I got no sleep Wednesday night. I got to the airport late and had no time to eat anything but a muffin before boarding the plane. I refused all the snacks on Southwest because they are crappy and of course wrapped in plastic. After taking the train from the airport to the hotel, I arrived at the Chicago Sheraton exhausted and famished. In a word, depleted.
I needed a nap and a shower. Instead, I ended up at a BlogHer cocktail party with a glass of wine in my hand and then whisked off to dinner with my friends Jennifer (The Smart Mama) and Sommer (Green and Clean Mom) and Lyne from Ecostore USA, where I consumed more alcohol, the effects of which I tried hard to mitigate with food. Arriving back at the hotel (after freaking out a cab driver with Jen’s new tattoo) we made our way to the People’s Party (alcohol and swag) and the 704 Party (alcohol and swag.) And while I either missed out on swag (arriving too late) or refused swag that was offered, I never passed up an opportunity to drink. Finally, during a conversation with Sommer, I realized that my head was spinning and that if I didn’t leave the group immediately, I was going to fall on the floor.
Not the best way to start a conference and not the greenest situation either. To say I got sick is an understatement. I don’t think I’ve been that wretchedly sick from alcohol since I was in college and my dad was standing in my bedroom doorway saying, “Good! I’m glad you’re sick. I hope you remember this feeling for the rest of your life.” Well, I guess I remembered it for 24 years and then forgot this weekend. I refused the plastic spear for my martini olives only to end up with a plastic bottle of Pepto Bismol that my roommate Micaela (Mindful Momma) was kind enough to run out and get for me.
So why am I telling you this story? Because I feel like overconsumption is overconsumption. Whether we’re stuffing ourselves full of conference swag or too much food or too much alcohol, this need to fill the empty void inside us comes from the same place. And that’s what I want to explore.
How Do We Know Who We Are?
How many of us know who we are? What our core values are? I wish I had not arrived at the conference so depleted. I wish I had not in fact lost some of who I am in the frenzy leading up to BlogHer. Perhaps I could have attended sponsor parties without feeling defensive. Without feeling I needed to protect myself from aggressive marketers who saw me as prey and from aggressive bloggers who saw me as competition for swag. These were my perceptions. Other women had a completely different experience. I wish I hadn’t missed the opportunity to interact with the women grabbing swag bags and ask them how having all this stuff made them feel.
Because until we understand who we are and the needs that drive us to seek more, more, more we will never (I fear) get out from under The Story of Stuff. Marketers understand this. It’s their job. They get paid to exploit the fear and emptiness that we all feel occasionally (and some of us feel all the time) and to offer their brand of comfort. A new phone. A new plastic toy. A new color of eye shadow. A new backpack. A new pair of jeans. New new new new new new new STUFF. And yet we never get filled. We just want more.
Lynn Miller from Organic Mania succumbed to the barrage of swag without even intending to! She wrote about her swag experience and a bit of regret in her post, “Greenies in Blogherland: SwagHer“. She writes,
Aside from the environmental implications of all “that stuff” we really don’t need, the other major impact of “SwagHer” was that for many women, all that time lining up to get into swag suites came at the expense of deeper conversations with the women we commune with online everyday. It’s sad that so many women left Blogher bemoaning the fact that they didn’t have time to really talk and connect with the women they met. What were we doing?
I ended up with a bit of swag myself:
- Born To Blog T-shirt
- Coupon for a free pair of Gap jeans (not yet used, although I probably will use it)
- 2 bags of soapnuts
- Canvas tote and note pad from iVillage
- Flash memory drive from Bounce (I returned the garishly scented sample of Bounce to the vendor)
- Bamboo cleaning cloth and biodegradable bamboo wipes from Scotch.
This list is extremely modest compared to what most bloggers went home with. But that’s only because I was on my toes the whole time, refusing offerings as often as others were accepting them, and evaluating swaggetry based on personal criteria I’d already established. So while I too felt buffeted by advertising messages in the lobby, in the elevators, in the hallways, and in the sessions (Even the Green Session was sponsored by Michellin) I didn’t have to think twice about whether or not to believe those marketing messages or to accept their products. Why? Because I have already defined my standards.
We have the power to change the world. Why aren’t we using it?
Even before the Blogher conference, women had been writing about feeling overwhelmed by pressure from PR reps to accept and write about products. In fact, Momdot (a site for moms who blog, apparently) tossed out a controversial PR Blackout Challenge to members of their community so women bloggers would take a break from the stress of having to write product reviews. And in the Bogher Green Session I attended on Saturday, one of the women complained that she was on a first-name basis with the UPS driver who delivered products to her house every day to review.
My reaction: Huh? This really happens? I get pitches from PR reps every single day, and most of them I delete because they are not relevant to this blog. And while I do review and promote a few products that I believe in, I certainly don’t post my shipping address on my blog so companies can send stuff whenever they want. In fact, I actively ask for samples of products to review when I feel that they are important for Fake Plastic Fish readers to know about. And I certainly don’t feel compelled to write a positive review if I think the item actually sucks.
As bloggers, we have incredible power! We have a voice that people listen to. We have a platform. And the fact that so many big companies are willing to sponsor an event like BlogHer and court bloggers at such an event proves it. So why are we willing to give up this tremendous power that we have — power to help create a better world — to sell out for a few trinkets? Why aren’t we using the power that we have to demand BETTER products for ourselves and our children? Why do we accept the PR pitches at face value? Why aren’t we questioning every single promotion we receive and challenging the status quo?
Who Are You As A Blogger?
If you have a blog, please ask yourself these questions:
1) Who am I as a blogger? What is my purpose for writing?
2) Do I have a mission? If so, what is it?
3) What does my ideal world look like? How can I use my blog to help realize that ideal?
4) Who is my audience? Why do they read my blog? How can my blog help them (and me) to be our best selves?
5) Do I really want to do product reviews?
6) If not, do I sometimes do them even if I don’t want to? Why? Where does the pressure come from? How can I just say no?
7) If I do product reviews to receive merchandise, trips, or fees, do I fully disclose any and all compensation (including contest entries) I receive?
8) How does the free stuff make me feel? Is it in line with my core values? Or does the stuff take the place of other things I am missing in my life? Connection with other people and the planet? (Just asking!)
9) How can reviewing products help to create the world I want to see?
10) If I choose to review products, what are my standards? How do I know if a product is truly safe for me, my family, and the environment? What 3rd party resources can I check to verify that a product is truly green and not simply green-washed?
What Can BlogHer Do To Get Back To Core Community Values?
Here are a few suggestions for BlogHer. What else do you guys have to add?
1) Less Luxury. We understand that sponsors are important in order to keep conference fees affordable and to be able to offer scholarships. But does the conference need to be held in such a luxurious hotel? Couldn’t BlogHer keep costs down and reduce the need for big sponsors like Pepsi and Walmart and Proctor & Gamble by holding BlogHer at a more modest venue and focusing more on human connections and content?
2) No Branded Sessions. As @JMcNichols tweeted during the conference, “The sponsors don’t bother me. Brand every chair if you want. What bothers me is the sponsored programming. Not what I’m here for. #blogher09” We could have done without 15 minutes of Michellin promotion at the start of the Green/EcoBlogging Session.
3) Stand up to Swag. The Green Team put together a list of green swag ideas that were presented to the vendors. But we were also told that the list was just suggestions and that the vendors were still free to bring what they wanted. Why? If we have so much power, why are there no rules for the kinds of swag vendors can bring and how they can present it? Why was there a huge plastic Mr. Potato Head toy in every official Blogher swag bag, even for women who don’t have kids?
4) Sunday Swag Recycling. It would have been nice to have had a swag recycling area open on Sunday morning. That’s the time many women are packing to leave and realizing they have too much stuff. I’ll bet many of them would have made use of a Sunday morning swag area.
5) Don’t Promote Unofficial Parties. I realize BlogHer was trying to be helpful by sending us a list of the unofficial parties (aka swag feeding frenzies) taking place during the conference. But since Blogher has no control over what happens in these parties, the organization would be wise not to promote them.
6) Sponsor-Free Swag-Free Track. There are many bloggers who write for the love of writing. Or to promote a social cause. Or to connect with others around a common issue. They may or may not accept advertising, but promoting products is not the main focus of their blogs. It would be great to have a track dedicated to Authenticity. Finding our authentic voices. Discovering what our values are as bloggers. Writing well. Developing leadership. Realizing our true power. Naked and unbranded.
I have more to say about BlogHer09 and about my trip to Chicago. But that’s enough for now. I had a lot of fun with my blogging buddies and would love to share some of those experiences as well as my personal plastic-free and plastic-full moments. I’ll write about that stuff next week. Just wanted to get the major issue out of the way.
And ironically, I’m hosting another product give-away here tomorrow. But please don’t roll your eyes. It’s a different kind of give-away.