Tech Blog Payola?

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Suppose you have a stake in an investment fund and would like to get favorable publicity for the companies in your portfolio. One approach is to spend your day reaching out to influential tech bloggers, trying to sell them on the glories of these companies. But that takes so much time! How about this short cut: You could just be an influential tech blogger and sing the praises of the companies yourself .

It would be kind of like the payola scandals of the 1950s, when music companies paid disk jockeys to play their music, except that you get to be both the disk jockey and the music company, thus saving yourself the trouble of moving money from one pocket to another.

According to tech blogger Dan Lyons (who gained fame via the nom de plume "Fake Steve Jobs" years ago), this business model is catching on. Last week Lyons criticized Michael Arrington and MG Siegler, two bloggers who have a stake in CrunchFund and recently wrote in defense of one of its holdings, Path. This week Lyons reports that another well-known tech blogger, Robert Scoble, has been exploring possible participation in an investment fund. Lyons predicts that other "hacks for hire" will be doing so, too.

Would that be a bad thing?

Arrington and Siegler point out that when they wrote about Path they noted their connection to it. But is that full enough disclosure? I mean, doesn't a company like Path have companies that are rivals and companies that are strategic partners or potential partners--so isn't there a conflict of interest when Arrington and Siegler write about those? And if you add up all the rivals and partners of all the companies in CrunchFund's portfolio, aren't you talking about a lot of companies? How are readers supposed to know enough about these relationships to know when they should take the writing of Arrington and Siegler with a grain of salt?

I can imagine a couple of replies:

1) Now that anyone can have a platform--Twitter, Tumblr, comments sections, whatever--there can be hordes of skeptics combing the writing of Arrington and Siegler, and the list of CrunchFund investments, and bringing conflicts of interest to light. All you need is transparency and a bunch of people with too much time on their hands. (Arrington, in particular, sees transparency as the solution.)

2) You shouldn't think of a blogger as a "journalist" who is supposed to comply with some professional code of ethics. Bloggers can be politicians, entrepreneurs, and various other kinds of people who are part of the game they're covering. In fact, one of the best known tech bloggers, Fred Wilson, is a venture capitalist whose full disclosure is in his blog's title: AVC. But because he was a VC before he was a blogger, nobody complains about him having lost his journalistic integrity!

However satisfactory you think these answers are or aren't, I suspect they're the answers of the future. If so, the future will dovetail with the recent past. For the last few decades it seems that traditional beliefs about the human obligation to truth and the human capacity for objectivity have been giving way to the assumption that everyone has an agenda and it's up to the audience to figure it out. I'm not sure to what extent, if any, this change has been driven by the fact that technologies have been making it easier to discern the agendas--or, at least, to discern the web of affiliations that might suggest an agenda. Maybe it's just a happy coincidence.


[Postscript: Shortly before posting this I came across an exchange between Lyons and Scoble over whether Lyons had overstated Scoble's role in trying to start a new investment fund. In any event, the way I've put it in my post--that Scoble had been "exploring possible participation" in an investment fund--would, so far as I can tell, meet with Scoble's approval. And here, btw, are Siegler's and Arrington's original replies to Lyons.]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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