Software That Plays Tag

This week’s WSJ.com column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about Jiglu, a sort of automatic tagging service you can see in action somewhere on this blog:

If you’re a writer, you hope your words will be etched in stone for eternity. If you’re a blogger, you’re happy if someone stumbles on your writings a few days after you posted them. Blogs, partly because they often consist mainly of commentary on things that have just happened, and partly because of the way they are structured (most recent postings first, making it easy to ignore everything you wrote before), are a transient medium. Rarely is a blog post treated as permanent. We write, then we forget.

The problem, I conclude, is that amidst all the writing, and despite the power of tagging

Blog posts, left to themselves, tend to have a short shelf life.

Briton Nigel Cannings thinks he has the solution to this: automatic tagging. He sees value in all those old blog posts of mine (he may be the only one) and reckons all that old content out there is a repository of wisdom that just needs to be sorted out better. Tagging it ourselves, he thinks, just isn’t enough because we don’t always see what we’ve written in a broader context. “Manual tagging is the first step” to sorting and storing blogs and other online content better, he says, “but it still relies upon people understanding themselves, whatever they’ve already written about, and how their content fits in with other people’s content.”

More at Loose Wire – WSJ.com.

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Enough Mainstream Silliness, Please: The Social Web Works

I’m a big fan of mainstream media — course I am, I work for them — but I’m also a big fan of the other stuff. Like Wikipedia. It’s usually the first place I start if I’m trying to familiarize myself with a new subject, even a new one.

Which is why I get uppity when mainstream media disses Wikipedia with the kind of broad-brush strokes it usually accuses the online world of making. Like this one from The Boston Globe, in a story (not a column) about social finance sites:

The wisdom of the crowd may be a fine way to discover the most amusing YouTube video, but Wikipedia has been vilified for inaccuracies, and the online world hardly has a reputation as a trustworthy source.

In one short sentence the writer manages to dismiss

  • YouTube as a mere site for “amusing” videos,
  • the “wisdom of the crowd” as a mere mechanism for finding stuff,
  • Wikipedia as apparently the mere butt of vilifiers, and
  • the online world as, basically, untrustworthy.

Sources? Examples? A measure of balance? Er, none.

Now I like the Globe, and I love the IHT, where I read this, so I’m guessing this might just have been a bit of sloppy editing or last-minute “background” so enamored of editors. But frankly I can find very little vilifying of Wikipedia, at least if one counterbalances the criticism with the praise  — and the sheer numbers: nearly 2 million articles in English, in the top 10 websites. (The best source, by the way, for criticism of Wikipedia is, er, Wikipedia; the piece has 125 external references.)

So, come on, mainstream journalists. The time is past for sniffy, unsubstantiated asides about things like Wikipedia. The social web has already established itself and proved itself. It ain’t perfect, but neither are we.

Sharing the wealth – The Boston Globe

The End of Blogging Utopia

Blogs are great, but is it just a vast honeycomb of echo-chambers, where we talk to and listen to only those nearby?

Author and funny guy David Weinberger comments on Ethan Zuckerman’s remarks (both interesting fellas, and well worth reading; David in particular an antidote to the relentless and humorless self-promotion of many A-list bloggers) about how blogging grows in the developing world, the bloggers there start to write for their local audience, muting the ‘Global Voices’ effect that was Ethan’s dream.

I’ve watched this happen in Indonesia in the last year, as blogging takes off and hits critical mass, in terms of writers, readers and commenters. Quickly the issues become more local, the discussion more localized, the topics less interesting to outsiders. This is probably being mirrored all over the world.

The truth is that Global Voices — where people write from different corners of the world, and are read all over it — is always going to be just a small minority. The distortion in the first five years of the Blogging Revolution was that this small minority was the blogosphere. These were the early adopters who helped introduce blogging to each culture by looking, and talking, outwards. As critical mass was reached, the later bloggers had no need, or interest, to ‘talk outwards’: instead they addressed a larger subset of the audience they knew and wanted to reach — the people around them.

It’s not that bloggers changed their audience as blogs went mainstream on their home turf. It’s that the bloggers who came later just saw the medium differently — as another tool to participate locally. And because they are in larger numbers than the early adopters, and because they wrote about stuff relevant to their peers, they became the new norm.

There are exceptions, of course. Some bloggers have an audience that spans borders because they write about issues that aren’t geographically constrained: Richard MacManus has built a thriving business writing about Silicon Valley from New Zealand; my old chum Ong writes as much about Malaysia as he does Indonesia (and if you think those two places sound like more or less the same topic you’d need to spend some time in one to know how far apart they are.) Even this blog has tried to address a perhaps overly large topic (technology and the individual) with limited success.

That’s because the general trend of blogging is towards the specific — writing about things that the writer cares enough about to write, and the readers enough of interest to stick around to help make the blog a success. But I don’t see this as a bad thing. The impetus in newspapers is the same — those newspapers that survive are going to be those who understand and reflect their readership, which means giving as much attention to their specific concerns — however banal — as to international events.

The point here is that we read blogs who write about things we care about. The truth is that we tend to lean towards the familiar, and attach ourselves to those who can best tell us what just happened to something or someone we know (Paris Hilton, our local football team) and point us to things we care about (the bus service, relationships, dogs.) This may often mean geographically localised, but actually it’s really about being culturally localised: We read stuff that speaks to us. If we’re interested in dogs, but more specifically the Dandie Dinmont Terrier, we’ll read anyone who writes about that breed, whether they’re down the street or in Vientiane. As in all things, we tend to blogs that write about what we care about.

I think this is not a bad thing. Blogs are compelling because they’re personal: They’re a window into people’s souls, because for some reason the lingua franca of blogs has become not pretension but authenticity. So we learn huge amounts about people and about ourselves from reading blogs (and blog comments, the afterglow of blogging). Of course it would be great if we included into our daily blog-reading diet stuff from places we’d not been, cultures and issues we’d not been familiar with before, but that’s a tall order. Only a few of us are wired that way.

We should thank Ethan and his Global Voices team for helping spread the word of blogs. But I suspect from here on the revolution is going to take on a life of its own. It may not be as heady and utopian as the early days, but it means the medium is putting down roots. Which means it’s here to stay.

How to Really Read Blogs

People often ask me what blogs to read. So I thought I’d put together some thoughts on why some blogs are better than others, and how to get the most out of the blogs that you do read. There are five basic rules:

Rule #1: A blog isn’t a publication. It’s a person

Joi1The thing about blogs is that the most interesting ones are interesting because of the people who write them and the people who read them. You’ll find that while you’re drawn to a writer because of his/her interest in a particular subject, quite often they’ll write about something else which you’re also interested in. Take a guy called Joi Ito, for example, who is a Japan-based entrepreneur and investor in tech companies. Joi is a fascinating guy and his blog makes for great reading. But it’s not always about tech stuff. One post I read recently was about his reading a book by a woman called Betty Edwards about learning to draw. Joi is no artist, but this book was recommended to him as a way of relaxing. Now I know the book, and I know what he’s talking about. And because I like what he has to say about technology, I’m happy to read about his thoughts on meditation and drawing.

Rule #2: Never read someone who is “excited” about everything

Blogs don’t have to be brutally honest, but they can’t be fake. What makes Joi’s comments about drawing interesting is not just the fact that he has credibility in a field I care about (tech) but because what he writes is frank and, well, real. He’s not your average CEO type talking about how much money he’s invested in stuff and how excited he is by everything. We all have our ups and downs and they should be reflected in our blogs (I don’t do enough of this, to be honest. There, I’m being frank about not being frank enough.) The point is this: If we’re interested in reading someone’s thoughts on a subject, chances are we’re interested in their more life-oriented thoughts and experiences too. Without overdoing, it of course: I am very interested in Joi’s musings, but if he starts cutting his toe nails on his blog, even metaphorically speaking, I might not stick around.

Rule #3: Let a million flowers bloom, and then read them

Blogs thrive on the ability for readers to add comments. A great blog will have great, thoughtful readers, who add their comments on each article, or post. These comments will appear one after the other at the bottom of each post. Sometimes the comments are more interesting than the original article. Sometimes they’re not. But they’re definitely worth reading if you found the original article interesting. Joi’s post on drawing elicited a handful of comments which really added to the topic, especially after Joi added his comments to the comments. This is what the techie world calls a conversation. It’s not unlike a real conversation, actually, so it’s a good term.

Rule #4: Come in, the water’s lovely

If you’re reading blogs that interest you then you will quickly feel that you have some opinion to share. Share it. Still a startlingly small number of people comment on blogs but you really should. Chances are other people will love what you have to say, especially if you express it in a neutral way, as if you were joining a group of friendly looking people at a party. Of course, you have the advantage of knowing what they were already talking about before you sidled up, so be sure to read the original article and comments before throwing in your tupennies’ worth.

Rule #5: Follow the trail

Chances are if you like one person’s blog, you’ll like the blogs they read and the blogs they link to. Experiment. Try adding more blogs to your list of favorites and see whether you like them. If a couple of boring or off-color posts appear, you can always remove the feed from your list.

Remember: with blogs it’s not so much what you read, as who you read, and how you read ‘em.

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LOL? Not If You’re Dating By SMS

Technology can be a dangerous place for relationships. You’ve really got to know your lingo. And stay up to date with it. From this morning’s Sunday Jakarta Post (afraid this piece is not available online, but the Web site is here), which always has an amusing column at the bottom of the first page, we read of “Miss Twinky’s” difficulties with men who seem to have lost the art of chivalrous behavior. She was introduced by SMS to a guy who maintained a dialog via the medium, right up until he invited her for a date:

It was not much of a surprise that our first date would be at the movies but the real shock came from his last SMS that day; “You can choose the movie and venue. I’ll pick up the bill or do you want to share it? LOL” (Lots of love.)

I was stunned. I didn’t know how to reply and lost all interest to meet or get to know him.

And there the relationship ended. And with good reason. What kind of sleazeball would try to split the bill on a first date? Only, hang on a minute. Does LOL really mean “Lots of love”?  For those whose familiarity of acronyms predates the Internet, it may well mean that. But for regular users of Instant Messaging, or even SMS, it doesn’t. It means “Laugh out loud”. I suspect the writer might have been trying to tackle the problem of whether it’s chivalrous or patronizing to pick up the tab on a date before it happened, by making a joke. Of course he may not have been, but I think he might be granted the benefit of the doubt.

Another budding relationship crashing onto the rocks of technology.

Well, actually, strictly speaking, neither of us might be right. Chances are he meant what I think he meant: Wikipedia has it usually meaning Laugh out loud, though it does acknowledge its meaning as “lots of love” predates the Internet. There are other possibilities, though: The Wikipedia page on LOL lists “laughing out loud” at the top, and puts “lots of love” a seemingly lowly seventh, after a Loyal Orange Lodge, Lloret de Mar, Lands of Lore, Legend of Legaia and Love of Life, a soap opera. So it is conceivable our misunderstood and maligned Lothario might have been referring to two games, a soap opera, a coastal town in Catalonia or a Protestant fraternal organization.

And that’s just the start. The Free Dictionary lists 62 of different meanings of LOL (I think. You count), so he could have been making a reference to the Ladies of Lallybroch (a good name for a brothel, but in fact a community for fans of Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander series), Lawyers on Line (a wild bunch, I should imagine), Lewd Obscene Language (which should definitely rule him out for future dates), Longitudinal Output Level (ditto, for reasons of boredom), Love of Literacy (a worthy goal, but not necessarily something to bring up on the first date), or Lower Operating Limit (this at least has potential, if we’re talking alcohol levels).

If I were Miss Twinky I would drag his number out of the trash and start finding out what this guy really meant, or might have meant. At least the conversation would make a more interesting date than a movie. And we, more broadly, should learn a lesson from Miss Twinky’s discomfort. Acronyms and smileys do not travel well between people who do not yet understand or know each other. So they should be avoided. (I’ve always added three periods to my instant messaging and SMS messages, thinking they conveyed a sense of flowing conversation, softening any possible statement so it did not look like I was trying to have the final word. Turns out my Canadian friend thought I was being sarcastic. We’re still friends, but only after exceeding our Lower Operating Limits at Bugils several times.)

A lesson, then: We should vow not to allow an acronym, a smiley or period marks to come between us, and we should give the benefit of the doubt if we are not completely confident of their meaning. (Google is a good place to start educating ourselves.) And for Miss Twinky, I hope that maybe you’ll give your mysterious acronymizing date a second chance.

Measured vs Spewed: The New Reviewers

(A podcast of this can be downloaded here.)

The walls of elite reviewers come tumbling down, and it’s not pretty. But is it what we want?

I belatedly stumbled upon this piece in The Observer by Rachel Cooke on a new spat between editors, reviewers and blogger reviewers, and not much of it is new. There’s the usual stuff about how bloggers are anonymous (or at least pseudonymous) and the usual tale of how one writer got her spouse to write an anonymous positive review on Amazon (why hasn’t mine done one yet!) to balance against all the negative stuff.

As Tony Hung points out, the piece gets rather elitist by the end, although I have to like her description of Nick Hornby, a great writer and careful reviewer: “[H]is words are measured, rather than spewed, out; because he is a good critic, and an experienced one; and because he can write.” Measured vs spewed is a good way of putting it. It’s also a good way of thinking about the two very different beasts we’re talking about here.

There are two different kinds of reviews, serving two different purposes. The point here is that there are two different kinds of purposes here. If Nick Hornby likes a book, I may well buy it because I like Nick Hornby’s work. Of course, I’ll also enjoy his review as a piece of writing in its own right; chances are he’s put a huge amount of effort into it. It’s all about who writes the review. (And we need to always keep in the back of our mind the tendency, noted down the years in Private Eye, that reviewers in big name newspapers often seem to end up reviewing books by people they know, often rather well. It’s a small world, the literary one.)

If I’m reading about a book on Amazon I’m less picky about who and more about how many, and what. If 233 out of 300 people like a book on Amazon I am going to be more impressed than if 233 out of 300 people hated it. I’ll scan the reviews to see whether there are any common themes among the readers’ bouquets or brickbats. Take Bill Bryon’s latest, for example: Most reviewers loved it, and quite a few fell out of their chair reading it. Take Graeme Hunter, who writes: “Bill has managed yet another work of ‘laugh-out-loud’ ramblings, but this is his first to make me cry at the end.” That tells me that regular readers of Bryson are probably going to like it. But not everyone. One reviewer, J. Lancaster, wrote that while he was a big fan, he found the book “slow and ponderous and lacks the wit, insight and observation of, well, all his other books.” That tells me something too: Don’t expect to be dazzled all the way through.

Now note that these reviewers have attached their real names. They’re not anonymous, pseudonymous or fabrications of someone’s imagination or close family. Their writings may not be that literary, but that’s not what I’m looking for in an Amazon review. With Amazon, I’m looking to mine the wisdom of the crowd — the aggregate opinion of a group of people all with the same interest as myself in mind: not wasting our money on a dud book.

Compare what they write to the two snippets of blurb from big name publications on the same Amazon page:

New York Times
‘Outlandishly and improbably entertaining…inevitably [I] would
be reduced to body-racking, tear-inducing, de-couching laughter.’

Literary Review
‘Always witty and sometimes hilarious…wonderfully funny and
touching.’

Useful, but not much more useful than the Amazon reviews.

The bottom line is that reading a review on Amazon is like polling a cross section of other people who’ve read the same book. It’s like being able to walk around a bookshop tapping strangers on the shoulder and asking what they think of the book you have in your hand. Their responses are likely to be as spewed as an Amazon or blog review. But it doesn’t lessen their value. If all you want to know is whether the book is worth reading, you may be better served than some ‘measured’, self-conscious professional review.

This is the difference that the Internet brings us. It’s not either/or, it’s about consumers having more information about what they’re buying, and having a chance to give feedback on what they have bought. That all this is a little unnerving to those writers used to being far removed from the book-buying mob, and the pally/bitchy relationship they have with reviewers should come as no surprise. My advice: get used to it.

PS I spewed this piece out in 27 minutes. (You can tell – Ed)

Why Journalists Aren’t Loved

The first reviews for Loose Wire the book are beginning to trickle in and I’m beginning to get a sense of what it’s like on the other side of the fence. First off, you can understand why us journalists aren’t well liked: If we are pleasant to people when we interview them the interviewee goes away thinking that a good write-up is assured — what sicko would be nice to someone in person and rude to them in print? Secondly, we can so easily make mincemeat of a product, a book, a service, a company that may have taken years of sweat, toil and marital peace to create. A few clicks on our keyboard and all that seems to be undone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the growth of the blogosphere as a form of journalism, there’s a growing blur online between the subject and the writer. No longer, it seems, are writers constrained by conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest: We write about anything and anyone, whether or not we have an interest, such as a friendship, a financial stake or whatever. (And yes, lots of people declare those interests, but that doesn’t stop them writing about it.) Nowadays, smart PR people woo journalists and influential bloggers in the hope that when the time comes to write about their product/service/company, they’ll feel inspired by the friendship to write something nice, or constrained by the friendship to not write something negative. This may not be a conscious goal, of course, but the assumption can easily be proven once the article is out: Did they feel a tad hurt that they didn’t get special treatment for all that prior relationship building?

In my case, the first three reviews have been written by people I know — one of them a long-standing friend — so perhaps, like any interviewee, I couldn’t avoid the feeling that this person will do me a favor by writing something nice. Now on the other side of the fence, I can see how people might feel journalists are a two-faced bunch, being friendly over the phone or in person and then not writing something so friendly in print. But of course, our job is not about being nice, at least once pen hits paper. Then we need to think about our relationship with our readers, not with the person we’re writing about.

That said, you’d think I was setting up a posting that said the reviews were awful. They weren’t. The first batch of Jakarta reviews were not bad (the book is available on Amazon already,  but our first two launches have been in Indonesia cos that’s where I and my publisher live. More pix of the launches here.). Two of them are in Indonesian, one from the country’s largest circulation daily Kompas and one from Sinar Harapan, an afternoon paper, both of which did a fair job.

The only English language paper (OK, there’s another, but I’ve not seen it yet), the Jakarta Post, ran a review this morning, based in part on an interview I gave last week. The writer, young Australian journalist Jonathan Dart, felt that “it is full of useful tips and insights — but an advanced manual on modern technology it is not.” Fair enough; we make no claims to being that. His conclusion, however, is a positive one:

he’s also managed to do something which few technology writers — or species nerdus to be exact — have managed, a feat which is quite possibly a world first: He’s built a loyal fan-base of readers, many of whom would be comfortable in a social environment.

Jonathan did a pretty good job, and, I’m glad to say, didn’t appear swayed by our pleasant 90 minute chat during which I promised untold riches if he focused on my rugged good looks in his review. I’ve learned a lesson or two, though: Maybe we journalists need to manage the expectations of our subjects better — to prepare them for the reality that however much we like them as people, we’re not being paid to like them. We’re paid to represent the interests of our readers. But it might help to warn folk beforehand.

PS, thanks to the very nice and interesting Sharon Bakar, with whom I shared a panel recently, who recently wrote up her thoughts about the discussion here.

Email Wins Over RSS?

I’ve been obsessively watching email subscription to my blog via Feedblitz and while we’re talking modest numbers here, it’s great to see people signing up. (It’s on the left hand side of the blog below my smarmy mugshot.) Much more personal somehow, than an RSS subscription.

Which doubles the pain when someone unsubscribes. Was it something I said? Something I didn’t say? The way I said it? What’s the etiquette on this?

Email subscription to blogs is actually a pretty useful tool. It may look like a step back from RSS but actually it has its uses. I use it for those blogs that I definitely want to read, and can’t afford to ignore (knowing that some days I’ll only get around to checking my RSS reader once or twice.) Email I’ll always read. And most feeds look nice in Feedblitz.

But maybe Feedblitz has missed a trick. Given email is a two way street, wouldn’t it be good to make the Feedblitz subscription more interactive? Allow readers to comment on a post just by hitting ‘reply’, or at least to offer feedback to the writer (especially when they unsubscribe a day after subscribing.)

The iTunization of Books

Good piece in yesterday’s NYT about the future of books. Yes, we’ve been there before but this piece by Motoko Rich does a good job of bringing new elements and old elements to play, from MarK Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions to Yochai Benkler, a Yale University law professor and author of the new book “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom” (Yale University Press), [who] has gone even farther: his entire book is available — free — as a download from his Web site.

So what is the future of books. I think the important distinction to be made first is between books that are read and books that are referred to. The latter is anything with an index. Sure, people read them cover to cover too, but they are retained in libraries and on your shelves when you need to refer back to something, and you usually do that via the index. Indexes are old hat, and ripe for innovation. That innovation is digitization. Once the information, previously locked up in analog format, its accessibility dependent on the agility and diligence of the indexer, is free, the full potential of the book is realised. That’s why I think all reference books should be digitized, and offered in digital format by their publishers. It’s as simple as the way Google liberated the Internet.

So the real issue is about the first category: the books that are read for their own sake. This is more difficult. Such books offer us not just a bit of reading pleasure, but an invitation to enter a universe created by the author. And it doesn’t have to be fiction; travel, history, even economics — any subject where the author has embraced the form that books offer to emerge with a body of work that is designed to be digested as a body of work. If you get my drift.

Now I’m a bit of a conservative. I think this format works because it is the best delivery mechanism for this thing. The book has been proven to work better than all other forms of delivery and writers have, over the centuries, explored the format and made it the success it is. This, I believe, will continue to work.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other kinds of “book”. There’s no reason that the “iTune-isation” of music — where the music industry has had to adapt to the rise of the single digital music track download and the demise of the “album” (and presumably the “concept album”) — can’t continue to make inroads to reading (although a whole other subject here is the possible collapse of concentration, focus and flow that arises from this).

And then there’s the idea of “book mashing”, where books are no longer the result of one person’s creative genius, but the combination of a writer and her fans’ comments and contributions, or simply an online collaboration a la Wikipedia.

Then there’s the economics of book publishing. This need to be addressed elsewhere, but publishing definitely needs the shakeup other media are experiencing, and Print on Demand and digital books are providing that. Can only be a good thing, so long as it leads to, or continues to offer, compensation for the creator. A creator needs to eat. (Really. We’re not just skinny through lifestyle choice.)

The final word in the NYT piece goes to Mr. Danielewski, second novel, “Only Revolutions,” will include hundreds of margin notes listing moments in history suggested online by fans of his work. He reckons that “the bar that the Internet is driving towards: how to further emphasize what is different and exceptional about books.” In the end this is what we can hope for from the Internet’s rude bumping up against entrenched ways of doing things.

Conflicts of Interest, And The Search for Truth

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch has an interesting post about conflicts of interest, bounced off a comment by Jason Calacanis who quoted a rumor he had heard that it was possible to “buy a review at TechCrunch”. (In other words, pay money to get a positive review on the website).

There are some good points in here, and in the comments, so let’s go through them. I’m sorry if this is overlong. The issue is close to my heart.

First off, I think Michael misunderstands when he assumes Jason’s quote “just the appearance of impropriety is impropriety” means “when it comes to your reputation, an accusation is all it takes to ruin it, regardless of its veracity or lack thereof.” That’s not my understanding of the term, and I think this where the root of blogging/journalism problems currently lie. (I don’t know either of these two gents personally, so I’m just basing my comments on Michael’s account.) The appearance of impropriety, in my view, means when the person in question may be seen to be doing something improper, whether or not they are. Example: taking a ride on a corporate jet to Barbados of a company you cover for your paper. Maybe it’s a freebie with a holiday tagged on the end. Maybe it’s the only way you can interview the CEO because he’s too busy and you’re stuck in Barbados in your suit waiting for a flight back. But it may appear improper to readers, who wonder whether you’re going to be unduly influenced by the high life, so you probably don’t want to do it. Or you insist you pay for the ticket yourself. Or you take your own flight to Barbados and stay in a separate hotel. The appearance of impropriety is important. You as a reader want to be sure your journalist/blogger understands this important concept.

Actually, Michael does get it, as he writes “I want to state quite clearly that I have never taken a payment for a review and never will. Sure I’ve been offered money for a review a couple of times. But it would be completely unethical for me to take it. I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that. Companies that have offered to pay me have never been written about on TechCrunch.” In fact, Michael might consider actually naming these companies if they don’t back off quickly, to warn readers that they may be trying the same stunt with less ethical bloggers.

Then Michael explores the idea, put forward in the chat by Steve Gillmor, that “we all have conflicts, there is no such thing as objectivity.” Michael agrees. I don’t, and this is where I get worried. He uses examples from NYT, allegedly running a puff piece about a company because its CEO is allegedly influential within the NYT, and an AOL blogger who writes glowingly about an AOL which I won’t repeat here, because I don’t know about them, but he concludes that neither case is unethical: “I personally don’t think either of these cases are unethical. Because I know that human interaction drives all of this stuff, I know to factor that in when I read stuff.”

Ouch. This cannot stand uncontested. If true, the first case is highly unethical. The second, if true and if the writer pretends to be an objective commentator and doesn’t declare his connections to the company he’s writing about, is definitely so. Wherever there is a conflict of interest, ethics rears its ugly head. If the conflict of interest is not resolved — the writers not recusing themselves from writing about the subject, or not declaring their interest and consequent lack of objectivity, it’s unethical.

Then there’s the larger issue about whether there is no such thing as objectivity; this is more nuanced than Michael allows. Objectivity may not exist in the eyes of any commentator, but it should remain an aspiration, a guiding path. We all try to be objective as journalists/bloggers, or should be trying to be, or else we are letting down our readers. To declare that there is no such thing is to me a cop-out, a way of throwing up our hands and saying, “it’s too hard! Why should we even try?”

Then Michael talks about what he calls more subtle conflicts, for example, how he’s not being favored by Google PR because he’s harsh in writing about them. Meanwhile Yahoo et al include him in news embargoes because, he wonders, he often writes positively about them. Or when a company takes him to lunch? “Or writes something positive in their blog about TechCrunch before I write about them? Or here’s the read mind bender – what if I don’t write about a competitor to a company that I like? Doesn’t inaction count as much as action when we’re talking about conflicts?”

These are not, in my view, mind benders. There are clear rules for these things among credible journalists. First off, companies that don’t include people in their PR mailings because they don’t like what they say are childish, and need to be exposed. But it doesn’t matter; a good reporter/blogger shouldn’t be relying on a steady feed of early press releases anyway. To do so becomes unhealthy, the writer becomes lazy and dependent, and will (or should) quickly realise the chalice is poisoned: The goodies will keep coming if you write nice things. We laid into the White House press corps for accepting this a few years back: Why aren’t we decrying the same thing in technoland?

Yes, it is all about relationships, but not ones that depend on you always writing nice stuff. Free lunches: Don’t take them if you think it is in exchange for something. (In fact, if you can, don’t accept them at all. They’re not really free, as the saying goes.) As a writer you have to do whatever you need to do to maintain your freedom to write whatever you think is right. If that means keeping folk at arms’ length, do it. If it means having shouting matches every so often with industry sources who feel personally let down, do it. But keep your freedom to write what you think is right.

Michael’s conclusion: “Our lives are full of conflicts and thinking that envelopes full of cash are the only way people get paid off means you are watching too many made-for-tv dramas. Put everything you read through a filter and form your own opinions on things. Don’t look for the golden fountain of objectivity. It doesn’t exist.”  Once again, I’d say no. Find the voices you believe are objective and listen to them. Of course there’s a filter; I’m a white middle-aged Western male who lived too long in the wilds of Asia. I’m bound to see things differently. But you’ll quickly tell what I believe in, and if you share the same beliefs, you’ll probably trust me to do the right thing. 

Finally, Michael does clearly state his position on consulting, advisory roles etc. and he’s dead on. In fact, I think his post raises important points and does a good job of looking for a path through them. But we shouldn’t forget (and here’s my bias creeping through) that journalism has been battling, to lesser or greater success, with these issues for centuries. There are clear rules laid down when a journalist works for a reputable institution, and, contrary to popular opinion, most journalists extract some pride in trying to follow them, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. (I was, as were all attending journalists, thrust an envelope with $100 in cash when I attended a relaunch of Indonesia’s intelligence agency a year or so back, before I realised what was in the package. it took me weeks to not only return the money to the right place but to ensure there was a record that I had returned the money.)

Bottom line: There are ethics, they are well-established and we should seek them out, declare that we will abide by them and then abide by them. It is a struggle and none of us is perfect (definitely not me), but we should try to be. It is not an excuse to say that in this Web 2.0 world the ethics are different. We should not be so foolish as to think we have invented a new world. If we ignore this, I’ll wager, the idea that blogs might become an impartial and important source of information will quietly and quickly die because no one will believe anything we write.