Conflicts and passions

The controversy surrounding bloggers with business connections is important to understand.

Paragon of telecom virtueThere's a lot of heat in the media today about disclosure, over a story that needs to be written now and again which isn't such a big deal. Doc Searls says he sees the question of blogger disclosure as "a typical, predictable, stir-the-shit mainstream journal's dig against blogging." But if we're really about honesty and discussion, such stories are much needed, if only to keep everyone from becoming complacent about our shared shortcomings.

That several of my friends, notably David Weinberger and David Isenberg, both honest as the day is long, are the subject of a Wall Street Journal article about their involvement with FON, a startup that got a lot of attention, including this blog, concerns me because I think the article's premise was misguided (it was looking for conflict with the assumption it was bad). Pursuing the hot light of influence is like being a moth, we have to be reminded how easy it is to be burned to a crisp. Yet it raises a very important question we all need to keep in mind as we co-evolve this world: Who's seeing things clearly?

I am a deeply conflicted blogger, not a journalist, which I gave up being when I became deeply conflicted. In addition to having founded a company that I write about sometimes (and that is concerned precisely with identifying influence, both hidden and public), I work with several companies that I write about, mostly in relation to questions about where the market is headed. My disclosure page, which I believe was one of the first in the blogosphere after I harped about blogger conflicts of interest in 2002, is here and you can always see what my conflicts past and present are

I assume I don't see things as they are, only as I see them, and I work hard to ask questions of myself before making any judgments about the world that I am going to write down. We have to if we're going to try to acknowledge reality when it conflicts with our views. I also tell readers about my conflicts and remind them that I could be totally full of crap because of them—though that would probably be attributing too much cleverness to myself. I'm pretty transparent and have always made a terrible lier.Paragon of hyperlinked virtue

Like Glenn Fleishman, a friend (that's a disclosure), I am very concerned about disclosure and conflicts of interest. Like Doc Searls (another friend—gawd, I am conflicted) I don't think conflict is only about money, but unlike Jeff Jarvis (an acquaintance) I don't think journalists are intrinsically worse at anything, such as disclosure and humility, than other people.  Like Nicholas Carr (never met him, but I read his blog), I believe the disclosures made in the earliest postings about FON, on Sunday, were not repeated in other postings, but the hype was. Like Britt Blaser (a friend and sometimes collaborator in business and politics), I see both sides of the story and recognize that as thoughtful, passionate people the Davids (Weinberger and Isenberg) were falsely labeled as have conducted some kind of subterfuge.

Glenn Fleishman goes on to say that because both Davids write frequently it is hard to tell what their role in society is. Here, I have to disagree, because this assumes people have one role. I practice a kind of portfolio career from which I make money in a number of different ways, and so do the Davids. It is not a crime to do that, if one discloses. Don't make the mistake of thinking that writing is always journalism.

The sources of hype, however, need to be constantly identified and people do need to be reminded of any conflict, financial or philosophical, that may shape their messsage, so that they can make more informed decisions about the messages they receive in the media and the blogosphere. Both are equally corrupt and the blogosphere, because of the personal quality of the messages, is far more insidious in its ability to trick people into believing because it feels right to do it.

Last year, when Doc Searls and I were in the midst of a pretty ferocious blog argument, I made the point that we cannot make the mistake of trusting the founders of Web companies simply because we know them or believe we know them.

I think bloggers far too frequently go easy on their allies or perceived allies.

We also need to be reminded that the A-listers are living in a very strange world where they (or "we," if you include me in the list; I think of myself as a perpetual outsider) get invited to join "advisory boards" (disclosure: I am on the advisory boards of Socialtext, Volitional Partners and iVideoTunes). Nicholas Carr's observations about this odd reality, where influence is cultivated at conferences and in cross-linking, are spot-on. The temptation to be overly optimistic about something in which we have an interest, even passing financial interest or merely enthusiasm, is why we need to have rude questions asked by journalists or other bloggers or our kids or parents.

If it isn't clear from this posting that the blogging world is deeply interconnected and, therefore, in need of a bit of DNA interruption to develop greater genetic and philosophic diversity, as well as a higher degree of self-examination than previous less personal media, then we're in trouble, because we've come to take ourselves too seriously. 

When we hear that the press is out of line to ask such questions of propriety, I think of the problem we see every day with the U.S. government, which no longer welcomes questions. No one in a democracy is above reproach and everyone engaged in democracy must learn to endure reproach with grace. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should answer questions when asked by Congress or the American people, so let's welcome questions, even rude questions, when they are asked.

So, am I upset that Rebecca Buckman (she has interviewed me a couple of times, by the way; another conflict) of the Wall Street Journal questions the Davids' motives? No. We all need to be kept honest. Pursuing the hot light of influence is like being a moth, we have to be reminded how easy it is to be burned to a crisp so that we don't get too close to our own interests when shaping the interests of others.

UPDATE: Tristan Louis has another good take on this in The New Gatekeepers