Personal Publishing

On Ethical Weblogging (Part Two)

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?

14 replies on “On Ethical Weblogging (Part Two)”

I think the hardest thing I have had to deal with is people requesting me to take stuff down. I’ve had two instances where people I don’t know have emailed me asking me to remove a post from currybetdotnet.
One was from a journalist who had taken exception to something I had written in response to one of his articles. His email was really snotty, and included a memorable line along the lines of – “It was also very difficult to find your email address, and if you are going to write things about professional journalists the least you can do is put your name to them” which made me smile given the fact that my name is plastered all over my blog.
The second time was from a business I had given a less-than-enthusiastic review of on one of my ghost walks.
In both cases I re-read the articles in the light of the complaint, and decided I was happy to stick by my original posts.
What I did was replied to them and offered to publish a ‘right-to-reply’ from them on the same page, more prominently than just having them post a comment. The journalist never got back to me, the guy with the business went on to say that he was amazed at my arrogance, I was damaging his business, and he would be consulting his lawyers. Haven’t heard anything from him yet though, and that all happened a few months back whilst I was travelling.

Fixing typos is something I just do silently. Bigger changes than that, and I add an Update: to the post itself. I suppose if I thought it was a big enough deal, I’d write a followup post linking to the original.
I don’t have any advertising on my site now, and I like it that way. I understand that folks with considerable hosting costs probably need to do something to generate money, but I am generally annoyed by blog advertising.
I think I have a responsibility to be transparent. Transparency isn’t the same thing as truth, but it makes it clear that what I’m writing about is the truth as I see it.
In the interests of transparency, I don’t delete commenters who disagree with me. I delete spammers if they get through my filters, the occasional wildly off-topic comment, and commenters who are excessively rude to me or other folks leaving comments. Yes, I get to decide what counts as excessively rude, it’s my site.

Transparency is key. I don’t think it really matters what you do as long as you are open about it. If people don’t like it they can stop reading.
Rather than totally deleting abusive comments, some blogs replace the body of the comment with something like “[Abusive comment deleted]” but retain the name and URL of the poster. This removes the nonsense from your blog, but allows your readers to investigate if they want to. I’ve never seen anyone do it, but I’d have some admiration for a blogger who replaced comments with “[Comment deleted because I disagree with it]”.
“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?”
It’s usually easy to distinguish people who are making an honest attempt to work towards truth from those who are just trying to sell you a point of view. None of use knows for sure what the common good is, but we’re more likely to discover it together if the waters aren’t muddied by disinformation, however well intentioned. It’s a hoary cliche, but I do think honesty is the best policy.
[Does posting anonymously invalidate everything I’ve just said?]

Advertising can be a slippery slope. Instead of writing for your audience or yourself, you might start writing for Adsense.
Freebies are a no-no. But there’s no harm in writing about what someone gives to you if everyone knows you don’t keep it. Walt Mossberg doesn’t keep demo gadgets, he sends them back to the gadget companies on their dime. If someone sent you a book to review for example, you could just make it known that all books you receive are donated to the public library when you’re finished with them.
As in all things, transparency is key, sunlight is the best disinfectant, etc.. etc…

I think it’s OK for some bloggers to take freebies – the ones who have built up a reputation that they cannot be bought. In many cases, this ends up as a scenario in which a PR agency or multinational sends you a product hoping for a good review (they think that saving you a few quid will buy your love), only to be greeted with a permanently-archived and brutally honest evaluation. In that case they get less than they bargained for.
I view this as a kind of open beta-testing of a product. I have, in the past, ripped products to shreds even though I had them for free. (And in one of those cases, the company refused to send a courier to pick it up again. Nice.)
Anyway, bloggers who are or seem to be total sellouts should not accept freebies. Others may.

I think, personally, that it’s incredibly important to leave posts as they were – not only because deleteing them seems unethical, but also because it helps serve as a reminder to yourself that you sometimes get things wrong, both to yourself and to those that read you.
It’s that fallibility of certain authors that makes them more human, and makes me (a) read them, and (b) want to engage with them.
How you deal with corrections though, is a very different thing. If you view your posts as your views ‘set in stone’, then some form of addendum seems appropriate. If you see them as conversation, then you just have to hope that someone reads further and catches you correcting yourself.

I have zero problem with freebies [Gosh! Really?!!], so long as the person blogging is being upfront about it from the start.
I do applaud what I see as the very high ethical code you have in these matters. You set the standard, better than anyone I can think of.
I do wonder however, to what extent your standards are informed by the fact that, as long as I have known you, you’ve been working for large companies. I wonder what would happen if you suddenly were running a start-up from your spare bedroom, how that might change things [not that it necessarily would, of course]. It’s just interesting to me how circumstances affect one’s ethics.
At the end of the day, I think you either respect your readers or you don’t- and likewise, your readers can tell either way PRETTY QUICKLY. The one thing that successful bloggers all seem to have is this aforementioned respect. Lose that, lose everything.

most people clue in pretty quickly if they are reading what ends up being an advertisement. i’ve written in the past about specific products that i love but i feel really strange when someone asks me if they can send me something so i’ll post about it so I tell them no. but i do have blog ads on my site, so maybe it looks like i ‘am for sale’ in that way. i vacillate between being glad i make $80 a month to pay for hosting and hating the way my sidebar looks and what it represents.

Transparency has been mentioned a few times here. I think that is a key aspect. Openness is another. It’s no coincidence that these are 2 of the 4 features I raise in my ‘Accountability in Social Software’ article.
Others may still not agree with your opinions, but as long as you are open, transparent and fair they can’t attack the person or process that generated those opinions.

Well, here’s the rule that I use (I don’t really differentiate between writing for a print publication or on my weblog) because I can’t simply refuse to write about anything I’ve been given for free.
I don’t keep anything that’s sent to me, although I will use it. Either the object in question gets sent back to the manufacturer/marketer, or it gets auctioned off and the money given to charity. If I really like something and want to keep it I give an equivalent sum to a good cause. Anything for which this doesn’t apply (trips, services etc) usually gets a disclaimer.
As others have said, transparency is the key. And because you’re under no compunction to write about a given product, you’re well within your rights to tell whoever it may be to sod off.

After my blog picked up in popularity, I did get quite a few authors that offered to send me their books. None expressly asked me to write a review on my blog. I readily accepted the books since all were related to the topic of my blog (helping corporate employees leave their job to start their own business) and I really enjoy reading other perspectives on entrepreneurship.
I have read most of the books that have been sent to me and did mention some in blog posts – but only because I felt the content would be useful and compelling to my audience. I would never feel comfortable touting a book or product that I was not excited by or didn’t find of value.
I agree with you that this can be a very slippery slope. Thanks for making me think about it!

Personally, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong about writing about the freebies you get, provided it’s clearly stated that it [I]is[/I] a freebie (and the companies know that you’re not just going to write about everything they fling at you, and that you may very well say bad things about a product if it’s deserved), and not something you’ve been after forever and finally gone out and bought. You won’t be able to make much in the way of comment about value-for-money, necessarily, but it’s not going to make the product itself any different having received it for free.
As for sending it back? I don’t think it makes much odds, really. If you get sent a decent gadget and want to keep it, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’tthe company who sent it to you did it with their eyes open, after all.
On that note, I want to know what the Nokia gadget is, and whether it’s any copthe fact you’ve decided not to blog about it just because they sent it to you seems a bit counter-productive, really 🙂

IMHO, abusive remarks can be deleted. Differences of opinion, or criticism can be debated, so shouldn’t be deleted. As for deleting comments that one doesn’t agree with, what’s the point in having a blog if issues can’t be aired and discussed? Changes in one’s point of view can be noted in subsequent posts, with a link to the original post. Freebies can be discussed in an objective manner taking care to point out good and bad aspects, but being careful to avoid enthusiasm or hype. Just my tuppence worth.

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