August 25, 2008

If You Look Hard Enough, Conflicts of Interest Are Everywhere

Cyndy Aleo-Carreira, contributing editor at The Industry Standard and professional guest poster in a number of Web sites, including this blog and Duncan Riley's The Inquisitr, has a great discussion starter this evening on bloggers and their conflicts of interest. The piece, titled Out of the Navels and Into the Mirrors, asks specifically if bloggers should talk about companies where they have a financial investment, any kind of part-time or full-time role, or if they should become friends with those they cover. Though broad, her questions likely resonate with many of us involved in blogging and reporting in general, and it's very likely you'll find a wide array of answers, depending who is polled. But each of us comes in with specific likes and dislikes, or personal history, which impacts everything we do, and displays our underlying bias, financial or not.

First, she asks, "Should bloggers cover companies they invest in?"

I almost immediately want to say no. But in actuality, investors in a company usually know it very well, especially if it's an early-stage situation, where they will know it better than the general public. It's no secret they'll likely be more positive on the company, but if they're fair and disclose the relationship, you may learn a great deal.

Good examples of people who talk about companies they are invested in include Fred Wilson of AVC, and Mark Cuban of Blog Maverick.

Second, she asks, "Should bloggers continue blogging once they join boards, take day-job positions with a company, or start/buy a company?"

Again, disclosure is needed. There are many official company blogs that are written by employees, openly. There are other blogs, like Mini-Microsoft, written anonymously, by an employee who is not an approved representative of the company who has unique insight as a full-time employee.

In a more close to home case, Adam Ostrow, CEO of ReadBurner, stopped blogging about ReadBurner on Mashable when he helped acquired the site. (See also: Did ReadBurner Acquisition Cause Conflict of Interest for Mashable?) When I joined the team to help as an advisor, I spelled out my hope to be transparent, and will disclose the role any time I get close to talking about the space.

Finally, she asks, "Should bloggers make friends with people from the companies they cover?"

I think this is absolutely human nature. I have a tendency to be positive on this blog. I talk about companies I like, services I use, and others I have big hopes for. In the process of investigating these services, often I trade a lot e-mails and phone calls with entrepreneurs, which can get to knowing them well or considering them friends. Most of the time, it's not the same kind of friend you can watch a baseball game with or catch a movie, but you do end up rooting for them and may at times gloss over some bugs in hopes they'll suceeed. (See also: My Double Standard for Web Services and Does Negativity Deliver Credibility? If So, That's Nuts.)

Being friendly can lead to a more collaborative environment, where you can both get information early, but also lend a helping hand to those who need it. I've never shied away from playing an informal QA role for services that need aid, and I want to instill a level of trust with those I do engage so they know they can trust me with confidential data.

Beyond these questions, my biases are everywhere, and they impact how I write and my opinions, which do show up. I happen to prefer Apple Mac OS X to Windows, even with the occasional glitch that impacts my Apple experience. I happen to be LDS and wasn't too excited about the rumors spread last week. I like sports, I tend to think Cal is better than Stanford at just about everything, even when it's clear I'm wrong, and I do have friends in the blogosphere - some of whom I've done podcasts with or traded e-mails with or phone calls. I will link to them more often, I will interact with them on social sites more often, and I will comment on their posts more often. (Cyndy and Duncan included)

On rare occasions, interactions with people behind services also results in free stuff, which for some, could lead to bias. I have free t-shirts from Disqus, FriendFeed, and Browzmi, for instance, all which came after I wrote about them a few times. I have a world-famous CenterNetworks sticker, and my babies have schwag from ReadBurner, Shyftr, NewsCred and other places (largely because I asked for it). I also represent standard demographics. I'm male in my early 30s. I live in California, in the Bay Area specifically. I work in the tech sector for a private company, and have since 1998. I have two young kids. Each of these things impacts my view of the world and what I like or don't like.

Rather than setting hard and fast rules about bloggers going out of their way to avoid topics they likely know well, or asking them to be friendless automatons, we should ask them to be more transparent and clear if they are acting with real bias. It's that which will make the difference between trusted and untrustworthy - and enable bloggers to look in the mirrors comfortably again.