The top of TechMeme is all about the AMD-slash-Microsoft giveaway of Acer Ferrari notebooks to a handful of bloggers. The idea, evidently, was to provide review machines that these bloggers could check out and then return or pass along. Apparently, there was no set time to return the machines, so effectively a person receiving one could keep it forever if they wanted to I guess. I think it’s a great idea.
The response has been quite varied to this campaign. Some like it. Some don’t. Some see it as Microsoft “buying” good will. Some see it as Microsoft reaching out to the blogosphere.
But the Microsoft angle is only part of the discussion. There’s also a theme going on about whether bloggers should hold themselves up to the same level as journalists. For instance, most journalists don’t accept gifts. Should bloggers not accept gifts either? If you view yourself as a journalist, minimally disclosing who gave you an item would be a good idea.
Here’s the thing about accepting “review items” though: If you view yourself as a journalist blogger and you go around asking for review items, you can probably get them. Lots of them too. In fact, at some point out, if you become very well read, the review items will seek you out–more often than you’d like. Marketers will ask you to review this or that. They’ll email asking if you want it. Email again asking if you got it. Email again asking if you checked it out. Email again asking if you need help. Email again asking if you’d like a demo. The result? You’ll become selective. You’ll only want the latest and hottest items–items that aren’t so easy to get. You’ll turn down the rest. You won’t want to receive items for review that you don’t want to review. Point is that success as a blogger reviewer tends to have its own dampening affects on accepting “gifts.”
Also, realize that many journalists and journalist-bloggers can get free, press passes to conferences. The same conferences that others sometimes pay big money for. And then there’s the swag. There’s the confidential information. There are lots of things you can get. Some are trinkets. Some are quite valuable.
There’s another side to this though. Although at times I consider myself in “reporting mode,” many times I’m more developer than journalist. I’m sharing my experiences as a programmer, as someone building a software business, as someone sharing their enthusiasm for new technologies and ideas. In this mode–which I’m in much more often than when I’m in journalist mode–the “gift” question gets a little more complicated.
I’ve been in more than one startup, for instance, that benefited greatly from “loaners”–some of which were never returned, some which were. The items spanned from software, to free training, to equipment worth tens-sometimes-hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many times there were NDAs restricting what could be said about these loaners. I think back: what if I’d been blogging at the time? Accepting these “gifts” from a business standpoint makes sense. If you view yourself as a journalist blogger, then things can get confusing. Disclosing what you can is a good idea. Another is to give yourself permission not to blog everything. That’s often what I do. I’ve learned not to feel pressure that I have to blog the latest tidbit I might have learned by accident from a conference hallway discussion. I guess this in itself shows that I’m less of a journalist blogger than a developer blogger.
Update: A couple people have mentioned that the criticism against Microsoft for passing out these review notebooks to bloggers is in part due to the fact that it’s Microsoft doing it.
For instance, here’s yesterday’s Slashdot story on Microsoft’s notebook campaign: Microsoft Bribing Bloggers with Laptops. Many of the comments are quite negative about Microsoft sending out review machines to bloggers. Some people defend it.
And here’s a Slashdot story from last year (Apple Gifts Top WebKit Contributors with MacBooks) about Apple giving MacBook Pros to top contributors to the open source WebKit project. (Yeah, I know. It’s not exactly the same.) While several of the comments are quite favorable, there is concern about establishing a program such as this long term.
Interesting how both actions received pretty much the same range of responses–although the distribution seems to be different.
Update #2: Joel Spolsky sees this differently. He’s also a software developer and a founder of a software company. His take is that the ethics of blogging (which is that a blogger should avoid conflicts of interest by refusing gifts, for instance) trumps his developer (and I assume his company’s) interests in receiving free or loaner products or services.
I can respect Joel’s decision, but here’s the catch: Let’s say you’re not a blogger and yet have the opportunity to receive loaner products that’ll help your new, growing business. Is it unethical to take them? I imagine most would say No. Now, if you add in blogging then Joel argues you have another concern–to maintain the trust of your audience. So this means that because you’re blogging while trying to launch a company you can’t take advantage of vendor partnerships (or potential ones that you’d like to evaluate) that loan you equipment? That doesn’t seem right. For the sake of the company, it almost seems like it would be better not to blog. I imagine you could construct a wall between the company and blogging activities, but like Joel suggests this would be almost impossible. We’re all human. We all have friends, relationships, motivations. Keeping things reasonable, seems reasonable to me. Not a strict ban. Am I wrong?