I’ve been expecting something like this to happen for awhile now: my friend Paul Kedrosky points to a story in the Wall Street Journal that looks at all the attention the “share your Wi-Fi” startup FON got after announcing an investment from Google, Skype and Index Ventures.
As the story notes, some of that attention came from people who sit on the advisory board at the company, including “citizen journalism” pioneer Dan Gillmor, David Weinberger of Joho the blog, technology lawyer and blogger Wendy Seltzer, tech commentator and Berkman Fellow David Isenberg (who has a response here) and Ethan Zuckerman of My heart’s in Accra.
Is that a big deal? Probably not. And the WSJ story has more than a little whiff of muck-raking about it, since it insinuates that all of the coverage was driven by the prospect of personal gain. I don’t know Dan Gillmor (who started bayosphere.com), but he seems like a fairly decent guy, and I don’t think he would do that. The story also mentions Mike Arrington of TechCrunch.com, but doesn’t say whether he’s advising FON or not – it just says that he doesn’t usually write about companies after he becomes an advisor.
But while the story doesn’t have a lot of actual meat, it does get one wondering why there was so little discussion (apart from at Om Malik’s blog, Glenn Fleishman’s and here) about the gaffe involving whether Speakeasy had an agreement with FON or not. The story also contains this helpful overview of the problem of conflicts of interest in the blogoverse:
That can be a murky issue in today’s clubby blogosphere, where many people including venture capitalists, lawyers and journalists write about Web issues and companies — and often, each other — with little editing. The rebound in Silicon Valley’s economy, coupled with the popularity of cheap, easy-to-use blogging tools, means there are more aspiring commentators than ever opining about start-ups and tech trends on the Web. And increasingly, it is difficult to discern their allegiances.
The point is a good one. Bloggers, particularly those who advise or sit on the boards of startups, and receive either cash or stock, are walking a fine line. Even those who regularly party with the founders and receive exclusive looks at things, like TechCrunch.com does, are walking a fine line. As the blogosphere grows up, that will become more and more of an issue, and it will help determine how others see the blogging “industry.” Adam Green of Darwinian Web, who was one of the first to pick up on Paul’s post, has a longer and more in-depth look at the various bloggers involved, and Seth Finkelstein has some thoughts too.
Doc Searls says that he has changed his bio page to include disclosures about his interest in various things, an idea he based on the Disclosures page that Berkman Center director John Palfrey (of TopTenSources.com fame) has. And Nick Carr has some worthwhile thoughts over at his Rough Type blog. Glenn Fleishman has also posted more about it on his personal blog, as have David Weinberger and Ethan Zuckerman.
It’s interesting to see the range of reactions from those involved — all the way from outrage and defensiveness (perhaps deserved) to a grudging acceptance that more disclosure might be required. Tristan Louis thinks the FON affair says a lot about how A-list bloggers have become the new “gatekeepers”, a topic my friend Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 has written about more than once as well. Meanwhile, Mitch Ratcliffe has a long and thoughtful – and conflicted – post on it at ZDNet, and Kent Newsome has some thoughts as well.