Will "Fake" Steve Change the Face of Blogging?

There was a lot of buzz online since last spring about The Secret Diary of Steven Jobs, a blog that contains the musings of an individual openly portraying Apple’s chief executive. The writer hit on subjects top of mind for Silicon Valley watchers using a comedic touch, while avid readers continually tried to guess the true identity of the blog’s creator.

Some of the mystery disappeared in early August when the writer was revealed as Forbes magazine senior editor Daniel Lyons. But interest in the blog entries seems likely to remain. In this case, readers may not have cared that this wasn't the work of the real Steve Jobs. "The reason it became popular was that it was funny and spot-on and sounded like it could have been written by Steve Jobs," says David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR.

Could it have been? Probably not. Blogging experts agree that prominent CEOs would be hard pressed to create a stream of thoughts as engaging and entertaining as Lyon’s. "He set the bar really high for real CEO blogs,” says Debbie Weil, a corporate blog consultant and author of The Corporate Blogging Book. “Because it’s written by a journalist and author and because he's so good and clever, he is setting the standard for CEOs; and the average CEO is not a professional journalist. A well-known CEO is going to have a hard time publishing something as witty and revealing as this."

Because their CEOs likely won’t be able to replicate the success of Lyons' work, it's possible that other companies could decide to set up a similarly fake blog and hire a professional writer to craft the entries on behalf of their senior executives, says Weil. But she cautions that readers will eventually uncover the truth with a little detective work, such as by checking IP addresses or examining the syntax a blogger uses.

Scott says companies shouldn't even bother trying. It's a risky move that may not be accepted as easily as this particular blogging venture. Companies must be weary of crossing the line between informational (even entertaining) and promotional. "This was okay because it wasn't [Lyons'] company, and he wasn't trying to be vindictive and mean to Steve Jobs." Scott points out that this blog is also not serving as a sales and marketing vehicle for Apple. He add that this situation is different from Wal-Marting Across America, a blog set up by a couple traveling across the country in an RV and documenting their stops at Wal-Mart stores. It turns out they were freelance journalists and the trip was sponsored by Wal-Mart.

Overall, Scott says Lyons desire to create and maintain the blog are unique. "It's a rare person who would go through the trouble to impersonate someone in this way," he says. "Very few blogs are written to be purporting to be someone else. I and other observers of blogs are against untruthful blogging practices, but this was different. It would have been a big problem if he was an employee of Apple or Microsoft."

Scott predicts this fake blog won't have any ill effects on blogging in general and will likely raise the overall visibility of blogs. "I have yet to see anything that is wrong with the blog," says Scott. "I don't think it's wrong to create a comedic thing unless it was to promote something. If it's not harming anyone or promoting a product or harming Apple, I don't think it should be considered wrong."

This case serves as a reminder that companies must maintain the integrity of their blogs to retain their overall reputations. Scott stresses that bloggers must never pretend to be someone else and if they create a blog that discusses their company, they must mention their affiliation. He also notes that material from another source shouldn't be included in a blog without the original author's permission. What should be included: disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest. Lastly, it's never a good idea to lie. "Never make up a customer story just because it makes good blog content," says Scott.