Normally I do not do rapid-fire, real-time blogging. Time is always the issue and I like to get a full picture of what is going on before having my say. But the intensity of Wellsphere blogstorm is the reason to jump the gun.
I have quietly followed Wellsphere since the earliest exposes on Valleywag and Uncov. Last summer, when several bloggers contacted me with concerns about Wellsphere promotion tactics (more on that later) I still did not think it was worthy of public comment. But now that the acquisition by HealthCentral has been announced and Dr. Val penned an excellent summary of why health bloggers have a problem with Wellsphere, I feel obligated to share my perspective.
Wellsphere epitomizes all that is wrong with "Health 2.0 movement"
Why would I say such a thing? Let's get started with economics of the deal.
Many bloggers felt cheated by the company taking their content, not being upfront about the deal and making money from their hard work. They have every right to feel this way about how they were treated! The irony however is that Wellsphere was hardly a successful business and their approach was not just unethical, it was extremely foolish. The equivalent of stealing lollipops from kids in broad daylight. You will get busted, it will get noisy and everyone will know what despicable person you are (verbatim description of Wellsphere CEO).
So why did Wellsphere sell the company and for how much?
The terms of the sale have not been disclosed, but all signs point to this being a fire-sale. That is what happens when the company runs out of money, has to shut down and fire employees, but instead hands assets for pennies on the dollar to save face. Why do I believe that was the case at Wellsphere? Let's look at their traffic. I would ignore the announced claim of 4 million monthly visitors and use independent data from Compete. Assuming 3 million pageviews (visits by pages per visit) at pretty generous assumption of $10 CPM (revenue per 1000 page views) they should be making about $30K per month. Certainly not enough to pay for a dozen employees in Silicon Valley. Given that they raised $3M two years ago they should be out of money by now. Recent twitter conversations (part 1, part 2) confirm this theory, just as the post from a former employee about life at HellSphere.
So does this mean bloggers have no grounds for outrage? Wrong!
I do not think the problem is in the fact that someone is making money from your work, the real question is whether you are being treated fairly and upfront. Google makes a lot more money off anyone on the Internet than Wellsphere but are we as outraged? Employers make money off employees but (in most cases) everyone knows what the deal is and enters it knowingly. Anyone who sells you anything makes a profit margin - that is all expected. What most bloggers found to be the most galling and distasteful is how Wellsphere handled its pitch, in Dr. Rob's words it was "flatter and finch". Here is the big problem with Health 2.0 companies - they act warm and fuzzy with their members, while their real priority is profits and shareholders. Once the community finds out that the profit is more important that warm feelings, guess what they have every right to feel abused. The real problem with Wellsphere (and a few more Health 2.0 companies) was misrepresentation and fibbing. Once people decide you are a crook, it is over Charlie.
Does this mean bloggers should not syndicate their content? Depends.
Of course you should never share your content with companies that impose onerous terms (look at the rights Wellsphere asked for!), and professional writers are allergic to the idea that someone may somehow profit from their work. Still there is value in getting wider promotion and distribution, even if this just gets your name out even if people are not always clicking back to your blog. If you have a blog, chances are you want to toot your horn and this means using all available platforms - as long as they do not make you feel cheated. The problem with Wellsphere is that they took very respectable ideas and turned them into a joke. In effect they have been pissing in the well and now it is coming back to bite them.
What is the difference in approaches to content aggregation?
Here is something to think about. Nature.com also happens to aggregate blogs. In fact, they republish original contents (excerpts), similar to what Wellsphere does. I am not even sure if they are asking for permission (have not checked). In fact, original Dr. Val's story about Wellsphere ended up as the top health story and Dr. Val is rather happy than angry. Why is that? Nature is not making a pressure sale and is not conducting itself in ways people find offensive. So the benefits of broader distribution take precedence over fears for many.
I should add that Trusted.MD Network also syndicates blogs (being one of the first to do that), but we learned about sensitive community relations early on, after making some initial mistakes. Though we have not been aggresively promoting the blog directory for a while, I was somewhat peeved that Wellsphere's tactics soured more bloggers on the idea of syndication and they asked to remove their feeds from Trusted.MD. That's fine - no biggie. But another claim from Wellsphere is more disturbing. They had the gall to claim organizing the "first-ever health blogger conference", while we have been doing this for two years in 2006 and 2007! Still, being copied is flattering, even if you are copied by complete D-bags.
If Wellsphere is a "Rotten Apple" what does it mean for HealthCentral?
The whole reason the controversy has erupted now was the acquisition. Unlike Wellsphere, HealthCentral is a reputable name which is now at risk of getting tainted. I do not blame anyone there, if you have a chance to buy significant traffic at a fire sale price, why not go for it? The problem now is that in addition to buying a property they are buying ill will of health blogosphere - which shows no signs of cooling down. While HealthCentral CEO said when the deal was announced he believed the majority of health bloggers are happy, the firestorm on blogs and twitter showed that the unhappy bloggers have simply been silent - right until now. What can happens to an acquisition dependent on goodwill of member bloggers?
There was a relevant precedent about two years ago. A professional blogger community, Performancing.com agreed to be acquired by PayPerPost.com, detested by many bloggers for promoting undisclosed, credibility-busting paid reviews. The bloggers attracted to Performancing.com which originally showed so much promise felt cheated and betrayed. They started bailing and filling Internet with posts on how much they hate PayPerPost and the Performancing team that sold them out. Soon PayPerPost realized that the whole rationale of the deal has tanked and called off the acquisition. Does this remind us of something? Wellsphere's problems now would be owned by HealthCentral. The damage done to the reputation of the company with contributors and advertisers can easily outweigh the gains.
Do you think the acquisition goes through in the end? What would you think of HealthCentral if they go ahead with the deal?