Gino Raidy: The Self-proclaimed Lebanese Online Community Never Really Liked Me and I Never Got Paid for a Post
Inspiring People from the Lebanese Online Community
A version of this article appeared in the April issue of Cloud 961 Magazine. You can download it here.
If you ask anyone in Lebanon about blogging, Gino’s blog is bound to get mentioned eventually. This 4-year-old blog, which is run by Gino Raidy has been read over a million times and won the Best Personal Blog Award at Beirut’s Social Media Awards 2013. It is both the most praised and most criticized blog in Lebanon. In this interview, I will be addressing some of the rumors about this blog as well as some insights from Gino’s experience.
Gino is a 23 year old blogger who currently works as a freelance journalist and fixer for several foreign press agencies in Lebanon.
Tell us the story of why you started your blog and how it became so quickly one of the most read blogs in Lebanon?
The blog started out as an extra credit assignment in a creative writing course at AUB in January 2010. The first post I wrote was about scouts and how important it was in my life, and why I think it helped so many people growing up. It got somewhere like 2000 hits in the first month, and I was like "wow, people are actually reading something I wrote!" So, I bought the domain name (which isn't that creative, I know) and started experimenting. I kept what worked, omitted what didn't. And its popularity slowly started growing.
It actually took over a year to really pick up. The rise wasn't as meteoric as some people might think, and there is no secret to how it got there. Just write original content, share it on social media and if it's good, it'll get around on its own.
How did you spread awareness about your blog online and offline?
Facebook. I owe a lot to this social network. I share it there, it is seen by my friends. If someone likes it, they share, their friends see it, and that's how you get the word out and get your blog recognized. Not ads, not hashtags, not asking people to check it out. Just try your best to write good stuff and share it, hoping it might help others, entertain them or just give them a chance to vent and know that they're not the only ones thinking or feeling a certain way about an issue or event.
You said, "The self-proclaimed Lebanese online community never really liked me." Can you elaborate on who are these "self-proclaimed" people and why do they not like you?
I started out as somewhat of an outsider to the Lebanese online community. I had never read a blog before starting my own, and I'm ashamed to say I rarely read other blogs today unless it's super interesting and I stumble upon it on LebaneseBlogs.com.
I guess when you're not in the online "social media guru" business, the love doesn't go around as much and is usually portrayed on Twitter, or in the comments on the blog (which I never, ever delete, no matter how inappropriate or insulting. Freedom of Speech #FTW). I don't mind, though, as long as it's starting a conversation, I favorite and RT these insults and attacks, because I have nothing to hide, and as a staunch advocate of freedom of speech and anti-censorship, I should practice what I preach and never censor or delete anything.
How do you keep your blog credible? How can your readers be sure that what you say is true, especially when reviewing brands? And how would you respond to people who say that brands bribe you with invites, gifts or money get the best treatment on your blog and when they upset you, you put them on your black list?
Simple. People can try for themselves. When I review a place or product, anyone can go and see for themselves that my kind, or harsh, review was fair and accurate. As for the "bribes" that have many people worried, there are two important things to remember here. The first, is always tell your readers what's happening. If I get an invite or product to try out, I make it public and share the news, so that if I ever do end up writing about it, people know how I got the chance to. Second, make sure the brands and companies know you owe them nothing. Even if they offer me my weight in gold (which is a LOT btw), if their product sucks, I'll say it or just never bother reviewing it because it's that lame.
As for money, I have never, and will never get paid for a post. It just feels wrong, and I can't write something I'm not wholeheartedly convinced of, or feel is being "imposed" on me by some gift or invite. The popularity of the blog has made reviewing spots objectively harder, so, as you may have noticed, the reviews are much, much less. When I get a call to try out a new restaurant for free, I usually don't go, and if I do, I don't write about it. But, if I really want to review it, I apologize, call again and book under another person's name to get the real feel of the place, so folks won't be "they paid him" if it's a good review, or "he has a personal issue with them" if it's a bad one.
So, I guess the answer to your question about credibility is, people can try for themselves, and I am confident they'll see my input and feedback was honest. Also, be honest about who you are and what you think. There's no shame in having a strong opinion about an issue or a product or a company.
Tell us about the times that you got in trouble because you voiced your opinion on your blog and about any updates with latest incident with BONOFA. Some people even said that you "fled the country" because of this
I utterly despise the "slander and libel" laws in Lebanon and how people and companies misuse them to intimidate. I've had a handful of lawsuits, but don't publicize that as much. I hate being "the victim" or "the martyr" like other online folks might market themselves as. Only two lawsuits ever became public, and that was because I was genuinely worried for my well-being, and got it out enough to make sure my rights are safeguarded, and then tried to quiet it down and move on quickly, cause again, I hate the "persecuted activist" vibe.
I'd much rather handle the cases properly, by proving my point and pressuring the legal apparatus to punish the perpetrators of a crime, not someone who reported on it. Personally, I hate the fact people try to shut me up, so I do everything within my power (peacefully and legally, of course) to try and get the "dirt" on them to the right hands and get their operations closed down. I'm also planning a couple of "3otl w darar" (damages) lawsuits against the would-be silencers to hopefully set an example that you can't use money and corruption to shut innocent people up, and that there is a price to doing that (so, police and judiciary, fail me not, or I go public!). I'd love to go into more details, but my lawyers are already going to scold me for saying this much before the cases have been closed.
As for me fleeing the country, that's silly. It'll take a lot more than a slander and libel case to get rid of me. I make regular extended trips to the U.S., this is nothing new. I'll be back before the summer season kicks off to cover all the cool parties going down, don't worry!
How do you keep your content fresh? And what do you respond to people who say that you write provocative posts just to get more hits on your blog and claim that your readership has decreased
I'm past the hits phase. If they get low, it does bother me of course and motivates me to find something cool to share and write about. However, the posts I write are always because I am genuinely interested in them or feel the need to shed light on them. Sometimes, a post I'd never expect to, goes viral, and others which I expect to hit, tank big time.
I believe you are referring to controversial posts like the ones criticizing the brutal crackdown on pot smokers in Lebanon. This has been a theme I've covered for the past 3 years, and I doubt the blog has been decreasing in popularity all throughout. It's also something I am actively working for offline: curbing police brutality and reforming the judiciary.
Sometimes, I just post less cause I'm too busy or need a break or underwent site maintenance. The hits are as solid as ever, and I'm expecting them to go back to the levels they were before my latest trip to the U.S. the minute I land and start pounding the pavement for new stories.
Advertising on your blog has increased over the years. Can you explain why you decided to monetize your blog and how did people react to it?
Yes, it has, and honestly, it's nowhere near what I think the blog deserves. The time and effort I put into the blog, and the costs of operating it (whether it’s the cost of data consumption or hosting, etc.) are rising now that it's independently hosted and mobile apps are in the works. I'm not rich, though, so being able to raise revenue from allotted and clearly marked ad space is not much of a problem. Till now, though, the market hasn't been that booming when it comes to online ads on blogs, but, it's getting there, and I see no problem with it as long as it doesn't affect content in any possible way (which is made clear to advertisers from the start).
How did your blog contribute positively to your life? And what is some advice you give to people who are on the fence about creating their own blogs?
It's changed my life. I started out as a Biology pre-med student at AUB, and since then, I've been through many jobs and projects I would have never imagined myself in. My love for neuroscience is still there, but at this moment in my life, I'm trying to pursue a career in journalism that'll hopefully be able to finance my dream of a behavioral neuroscience research lab in Lebanon, which I proposed last year on the blog and got amazing feedback on.
As for someone thinking of starting a blog, I say stop thinking and do it, now. Choose a name and write your first post. The more people who blog, the better. Never try to start a "successful" blog, just write what you care about and love, and if it's good, it'll pick up on its own. Don't do it just to add it to your resumes and get free stuff. That's peanuts compared to the impact a viral post might have on the folks who read your content. Plus, you're fooling no one. Don't blog just to blog, blog if you have something to say.
How much time do you spend on average on your blog (creating content & promoting it)?
Some days it’s endless hours, others it’s barely any. Depends on what's happening really and how much research and analysis a post needs. Sometimes, I can post from my phone, other times, it takes weeks and months to finalize an article. But, it's safe to say that it's an inseparable part of my life, and I check my WordPress app many times a day to make sure all comments passed through the spam filter (pro tip: don't put too many links in your comments, the anti-spam bots think it's spam) and when the idea becomes clear, I just need a laptop, and it'll be written and published in less than 30 minutes (hence the embarrassing spelling mistakes sometimes).
There has been a debate recently about bloggers' agreement with brands. Do you think that a blogger should completely reveal all the details of such agreements? Why or why not?
Absolutely. I'd advise against it, though, personally. Brands need you, you don't need them, so why sell yourself or bind yourself to their corporate stuff? Keep your distance I'd recommend, and if you decide to embark on such an agreement, make it public, so your "bias" is made clear to the readers who can make their own judgments on your content better. A good example of declaring your bias from the start in what I write, is my very outspoken atheism. When covering religious occasions or issues, the reader has a right to know that I fundamentally disagree with the religions in question, before he or she continues on to read my case against them (or for them), and if they feel the same way about that particular issue (such as civil marriage, women's rights and other unfortunately divisive topics in Lebanon today).
So, try not to be biased, but if you do decide to cozy up to a brand, make sure you let people know.