Wilson Audio on the Nature of Forums and Blogs

May 27, 2010

The following is an excerpt form an article entitled “Familiarity Breeds Contempt” by John Giolas, marketing director of Wilson Audio, which appeared in Wilson Audio’s March 2009 Authentic Excellence newsletter:

oday, the challenge to maintain a correct impression of Wilson Audio is more difficult than ever before. On the internet, and particularly in “forums” and “blogs” (“blog” is contraction of the term “Web log”), erroneous beliefs seem to spread virally. A rumor, false technical information, or misinformation about a specific company can proliferate within the web community like a pandemic. The internet is a virtual Petri dish; factoids spawn there like virulent masses of fungal threads.

Forums are slightly different than blogs. A journalist or someone else of note usually hosts a blog. The blog host is the primary contributor and moderator of the site. Blogs are therefore generally considered to be more credible.

Forums are more like audio chat rooms. Accordingly, the forum is more like the wild, wild, west. There is a strange zeitgeist within audiophile forums. An atmosphere of certainty pervades the discussions. There may be a forum moderator, but this person’s role is strictly janitorial; the content is driven entirely by those that post to the site. Nearly anything and everything goes. Some posters seem to be generating controversy for controversy’s sake or perhaps aim to generate meaningless contention and debate. It’s therefore difficult to see the practical purpose of forums since a large percentage of the information presented by posters is either tainted or downright fallacious. Forums function more as a strange, self-indulgent pastime rather than a venue for thoughtful dialog.

Forums also seem to attract a disproportionate number of what I call “fundamentalist audiophiles.” These audiophiles are blindly loyal to a specific product or a pet technology. I have seen some very strange—and equally bogus—ideas promoted by the rabidly devoted fundamentalists. Even stranger is the frequency with which these ideas are accepted as fact. Fundamentalist zeal can be contagious and convincing. Perhaps this is because their language is tinged with a proselytizing fervor, an unshakable certitude that seems always to accompany a fundamentalist’s blind faith, regardless of how wrong they are on their facts. So strongly have some of these false views been held that those who have them have not hesitated to dismiss firsthand observations in favor of general presumptions held by people like themselves. What motivates participants to defend their audio ideas with the kind of ardent fundamentalism one usually associates with religious cults or ultra-extreme political movements remains a mystery to me.

Unfortunately, once an idea, factual or fallacious, gains momentum on the internet, the truthfulness and veracity of these ideas are rarely questioned or challenged.

Both blogs and forums are topically driven, meaning they are divided along a particular subject or theme called a “thread.” Since these “conversations” are conducted in a virtual environment, the participants are physically isolated from one another. Anyone can join the virtual conversation by posting his comments to the blog or forum. He can, if he wishes, maintain his anonymity or make up a false identity. The poster can put on any persona that suits him; can essentially reinvent himself with whatever image he chooses to project. Therefore, any individual can say literally anything about anyone or anything without any fear of accountability.

The ease of creating false identities encourages “shill” posters. A shill is a forum participant who pretends to be one thing when he is in reality another. For example, a poster can pretend to be an enthusiastic customer of a specific brand of products when, in fact, he is employed by or is the owner of the very company he is promoting. It has become disturbingly common for companies to promote themselves by posing as a satisfied client.

To be fair, blogs, especially those hosted by a legitimate magazine and moderated by a responsible writer, can be excellent sources of news and information. Some of the better-run blogs do not tolerate senseless contention. The polemical posts that practically define audiophile forums are far less common in the best blogs. News can be disseminated with an efficiency and timeliness impossible to duplicate in any other medium. But even within some of these more equable blogs, the discussion can quickly devolve into a rancorous debate fueled by zealous product partisanship. A sort of virtual mob mentality displaces reasonable discourse; a group consolidates and viciously and mindlessly attacks an idea, technology or company. It is often difficult to grasp the thread of “logic” that interweaves these acrimonious diatribes.

Since forums and blogs have no real barrier of entry and are in effect free, it has become de rigueur for new companies to promote themselves, announce new products, and to engage in market-driven dialogue on these sites. Given that the general tone of audiophile forums is a dark shade of unrestrained outrageousness, some of the more platitudinous rhetoric typical of self-promotion goes less noticed. Here again, well-presented, but fallacious syllogisms are offered up as undisputed fact. The approach is effective because it leverages the power of the world-wide-web and enables a new company to spread information to a demographic that is ostensibly qualified.

Less understandable is the number of established manufacturers who regularly do battle in the forums. My experience is that this is a colossal waste of time. There is very little in the way of thoughtful discourse within forums. Moreover, fundamentalists are rarely converted. And ultimately, there is very little relationship between these conversations and actual commerce. Spending time in unwinnable mêlées, often against unknown or even illusory virtual foes, is time better used building relationships with actual, flesh and blood customers.