On Ethical Weblogging (Part Two)

08/11/2006

One of the issues I agonise most around on this site are the ethics of weblogging – what I feel is acceptable behaviour and what I don’t. I’ve written about it briefly before a few years ago, but I’ve never written anything down or abstracted it out particularly successfully. I’ve got a few things that seem to me to be solid. For example, I don’t feel a particular responsibility to always be right, or to only write things that I know to be true, but I do feel a responsibility not to write things that I know are false. I’m also pretty clear that if I write something and then discover that it’s not true, I should add a note to the post concerned saying that I discovered it wasn’t true but that I should also write a new post pointing to the fact that I’ve discovered I was wrong. I waver a bit on that stuff and make value judgements on how significant an error has to be before it gets a new post about it, which is probably a bit woolly, but then this is about a set of personal ethics rather than absolute truth.

Another area that I’m pretty clear on is editing posts that you’ve written. I have absolutely no problem going back and correcting grammar, spelling or even reworking sentences after the fact to make them read more effectively. Some people are concerned about that stuff. I am not. I’m also quite comfortable with adding addenda to the posts concerned after the fact – as long as I date the addenda separately and make sure it’s clear that they’re additions. I’m genuinely committed, however, to keeping the substantive parts of a post the same – and that concerns when I’ve made a mistake, or when I’ve regretted saying something or whatever. If I regret writing something, I’ll add an addendum to that effect, but I won’t take it down – that misrepresents the discourse, distorts the discussion one way or another. People may already have linked to the post concerned with their opinions on what I said originally. Changing that substantive part cheats and seems to me to not take adequate responsibility for what you’ve written. There is one set of exceptions, I think, and that’s where I’ve written something that could cause significant and unjustified harm to people (normally other than myself) simply by its presence in the world. Publishing other people’s addresses, for example, is clumsy and irresponsible and I’ve done it once and it was clearly right to remove it. In those rare circumstances I add an addendum noting the change and apologising. That seems reasonable.

The final area that I tend to worry about, and the one that’s causing me most angst today, concerns freebies, gifts and advertising. I sort of roam around this territory one way or another, trying to steer a reasonably ethical course. I don’t take advertising at the moment because I think it distorts your voice and makes you seem slightly for sale. I think this is much more true of formal advertising structures rather than YPN/Adsense-like structures, because in the latter case there’s much less imperative to be careful what you’re saying for fear of aggravating advertisers. So I tend to prefer that stuff. I can imagine taking advertising in the future – I don’t believe it to be evil, I just think it has the capacity to be troubling.

Freebies cause me similar concern. PR companies have twigged to the fact that getting their products in front of webloggers can result in them getting their products all grassrootedly in front of real people who might like them. So many webloggers I know get offered free things and get treated differently in particular circumstances so that they will write nice things or be generally most positive to organisations or products. This is known in the business as influencer marketing and for the most part I find it a bit troubling. If you’re operating as a peer in a peer-based environment then it seems to me that you should basically be trustworthy and that has to mean that you have to make it clear that you’re not for sale. This is why I have never posted anything on my site that I have been asked to by an employer and why I never would. I’ll talk about things that my employers do when they’re great and exciting, and of course working for them means that you’re exposed to more of the great and exciting things that they do, but if they ask me to do it directly, I refuse on principle.

The freebies thing is where I tend to be most uncomfortable. Many people don’t worry about this territory at all – particularly ex-journalists who have become inured to the idea of receiving testable products. Other people are comfortable with the idea of simply sticking a disclaimer on any post that involves a product that they’ve received for free. I’m not sure what I think about these approaches. Clearly, any demo product that I’m sent can’t compromise me in my business dealings, so that’s a concern and one I take very seriously, but given that I’m a maker rather than a broker or dealer those concerns don’t really seem to come up an enormous amount (also people often want to send me novels which isn’t really going to affect Yahoo! enormously). It’s the stuff concerned with editorial integrity that worries me more.

My current rule of thumb is as follows – if someone wants to send me something I will make it clear that on general principle I will not talk about the thing they send me on my site. If it’s an object I was going to buy anyway, I’ll actually go and buy it instead so as to allow myself to comfortably write it without feeling ‘for sale’. But generally if I am sent something for free I will not talk about it at all. If they know this and still want to send the thing to me, then that’s up to them. I have put off a bunch of PR people in this way over the last year or so, but it’s seemed to keep me relatively free from angst which is the main thing.

That’s not to say that it’s right in every case – I feel a bit differently about things that come from small companies or start-ups that I believe in, and there have been a few times when I’ve felt so comfortable with my positive or negative feelings that I’ve felt okay talking about the product concerned (obviously with a disclaimer) – but generally no talking about PR-sent products seems to work pretty well for me. Of course, if larger companies send me things anyway I might be more predisposed to write favourably about their other products, so I’m going to make a commitment that for anything that I’m sent above a few dollars I’m going to disclose it immediately on my site one way or another. I’m not going to talk about the products themselves – that would rather miss the point – but I will make it clear that the company in question has sent me some stuff and every time I talk about that company for a while afterwards I’ll repeat the disclaimer so people can evaluate how reliable I’m being. Does that sound fair?

I’d be interested in people’s thoughts – How do you handle corrections? How do you reconcile advertising with truth? What are your principles about editing your own posts? What responsibilities do you feel you have towards truth? Or are you more interested in persuading people for the common good, even if you have to do so by dubious means? And how about those territories that I haven’t even touched on – like how you treat people who comment on your site and whether it’s okay to delete people who don’t agree with you, or are abusive? Any thoughts?