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FridayReads Twitter controversy raises issue of what is an ad

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Salman Rushdie, author of one of my favorite books, “The Satanic Verses,” told me last month he was reading Michael Ondaatje’s new bookThe Cat’s Table.” Dan Pfieffer, the White House communications director, mentioned to me he was reading “We the Animals,” Justin Torres’s slim and evocative debut novel.

No, I am not bragging about my attendance at a cocktail party for the powerful and the literate. Both men remarked on their choice of books on Twitter, using the hashtag “#FridayReads.”

The hashtag has several iterations on Twitter — the sarcastic aside, the playful game or the system to collect one conversation on Twitter into a stream. #FridayReads falls into the last category. Started in 2009 by Arlington County author Bethanne Patrick, the hashtag is used by about 7,000 bibliophiles every week (guess on which day) to tell their Twitter followers and the folks following the hashtag what they are reading.

(Disclosure: Patrick has written for The Washington Post as a freelancer, and I have met her three times in social situations more than a year ago.)

In the two years since its inception, the hashtag blossomed into a literati lovefest for librarians, famous authors and readers — until two weeks ago. Some of the users of the hashtag realized then that Patrick and her small staff earned money off the hashtag.

Starting in March, publishers began to pay FridayReads to offer their books as a giveaway to one of the people who used the hashtag. Patrick created a Web site for the company and posted the information about the paid promotions on theFAQ page. Before that, she had given away books from her own library.

Two weeks ago, users including New York Times best-selling author Jennifer Weiner began to tweet that the hashtag made money off contributors. Author Maureen Johnson wrote on Twitter: “I didn’t realize it was a moneymaking business where publishers paid to promote books.”

Others followed suit, surprised that what they saw as a simple communal love of books helped a group make money. When I spoke to Johnson that day on the phone, I wondered: What’s the difference between contributing to #FridayReads and Twitter? The issue seems to me a microcosm of a much larger social-media message: Companies make money selling your conversation to advertisers. Johnson has opted out of some companies, but not Twitter. A compromise that she makes because of the service’s value, she said.

Author Katherine Catmull compared the dilemma with meeting a tequila salesman at a party, striking up a conversation and sampling his liquor. In one scenario, the salesman says up front: I peddle tequila. In a second, she finds out later that the friendly guy was really a walking ad — an encounter she would find suspect.

Catmull and many of the users wrote online they are willing to give #FridayReads the benefit of the doubt. They just want transparency. Catmull’s suggestion: Label the paid-promotion tweets. It’s a suggestion Patrick took. Any paid-for tweet will carry a second hashtag: “#promo.”

It’s a strange evolutionary era right now — with businesses bubbling up, disappearing and reappearing in a new guise all the time. Consumers can sometimes be left with little information to piece together what is and isn’t an ad.

Patrick apologized and said in a phone interview that she realizes she’s in virgin territory and “that doesn’t mean I’ve done everything correctly.” Still, she’s proud of the community, and the business, she has built a tweet at a time.

In the meantime: My #FridayReads is “The Power of One,” about a South African boxer. I’ve taken to practicing uppercuts between chapters.

What are you reading?

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