Sunday, July 20, 2008

Louis Gray Ponders Ethics. Again.

Mr. Gray won a free 3G iPhone from the folks at SocialMedian and two things are clear:

1. Louis really, really, really wants the phone (me too, and I absolutely don't need one, but still, me too)
2. Louis is struggling a little with propriety and ethics, but not so much that he’s not taking the phone

Although I predict Louis will regret giving up his Blackberry (assuming he sends more than a couple of few word e-mails per day), I think he handled this situation appropriately. He thought about it, but still took the phone. I think it is important to think about it, but, in this case, I also think it is OK to take the phone.

It’s good for journalists to be pure. But bloggers aren’t journalists. I admire the ethics of Walt Mossberg and his purity comes in handy since he’s making purchasing recommendations, often on items costing more than several hundred dollars. But still, even Walt lets Kara Swisher trash Yahoo week in, week out (day in, day out) when Kara’s wife is an executive at Google. Kara refers to that in her disclosure every time she writes about Google or its competitors, so there's no issue as far as disclosure. If even Walt and the WSJ draw the distinction that blogging is not journalism that’s plenty good enough for me.

While Louis is a great critical thinker, he seemingly aspires to never be critical simply for the sake of being critical. This puts him into a very, very small slice of the blogsphere. It’s a nice piece of the pie to carve out. I trust Louis to be honest about what he thinks and therefore don’t worry about the ethics issues where he’s concerned.

Louis was pretty honest about disclosing the one fact that probably was most important (for me) when assessing how much Louis currently values SocialMedian. He expressed some guilt over not having used the service much. I’m not sure if this was guilt at not using the service much or guilt over not using the service much and STILL winning the phone. But either way, the thing he disclosed that I thought very important was this: he isn’t using the service regularly. That says quite a lot really.

One of the hardest things about “reporting” anything is that inevitably you meet people, you like them and it’s all of the sudden difficult to write something about someone you’ve met and liked that might not wind up sounding so good. I ran into this problem more than a few times. The one thing I learned was that in the long run, the good people will not hold a grudge with you speaking your honest opinion and when someone does hold a grudge against you for doing that, it says more about them than it does about you.

Louis disclosed all he needed to disclose. While I don’t think having the iPhone will impair Louis’ ability to accurately portray his feelings about SocialMedian, in the short-term I think winning the phone will make Louis want to use the service more. But in the longer run if the service isn’t providing enough value to invest his time in on a regular basis, having the phone won’t change any of that. Either way, we at least have enough information to decide for ourselves whether we want to trust Louis’ opinion on the service or not. I find absolutely nothing improper about this.


gregory said...

he needs to test drive one, get what it is all about ... then give it back

louisgray said...

@Gregory, maybe your suggestion would make sense if Apple sent me the iPhone to test. That's not the case here. In this case, a 3rd party service, who I covered before and will cover again, held a contest, which I did not participate in or lobby for, and I happened to win.

For me to give up the iPhone would indicate I felt that my coverage had led to the phone, or influenced the voting, or if I believed the iPhone was in return for prior or future activity. Instead, the voting was democratic across the service's users.

Could the voting have been manipulated, just so I would win Maybe. Could SocialMedian employees decided to vote for me, or internally, have been told to vote for me, in exchange for past coverage? Sure. Maybe. But that's got the conspiracy hat on too tight.

And, as Robert said, being a blogger and not a salaried journalist, the situation is different. When I was a journalist in college, I got free meals if I was reviewing a restaurant, or a free t-shirt here and there, but it was very rare. If Jason wanted to thank me for anything, he always had the option to give me the iPhone straight-up, with no need for a contest, and that would have been okay too, as far as I'm concerned. I just want to be visible and transparent so people who think it will change my behavior can watch and see.

louisgray said...

Robert, interestingly, one of the notes I have in my blogging "to do" folder reads:

"SocialMedian update?"

I think SocialMedian has a good product. OF course, being so FriendFeed heavy as I am, every tangential product looks a little like that one, and it's hard to compete with the FF team. But I've watched Social Median grow, and add features. I want them to do well, and always provide feedback where I believe they could improve. I have before, and I will continue to do so, iPhone or not.

Ken Stewart said...

Robert and Louis, there is no foul here... I like to get my ideas out there and debate, just like the next blogger, but if someone wants to give me a gadget, I'm not going to say no...

I'm not really even sure there is an ethical debate here ;-)

I hope both of you keep sharing your thoughts with the world, and if a free 'something' comes your way, so be it!