When Web 1.0 startups wanted to build buzz, they bought Super Bowl ads. When Web 2.0 companies want to build buzz, they buy bloggers.
Like it or not, that’s one of the implications of an article by Rebecca Buckman in today’s Wall Street Journal, which reveals that Spain’s FON has put a bunch of big-name bloggers on its advisory board. The advisors are in line for a nice payday should FON prove a success. In case you were asleep a few days ago, FON’s announcement that it had received a batch of funding received a burst of glowing coverage in the blogosphere. Among those blogging about the deal, the Journal reports, were “most of the nine members of FON’s U.S. advisory board.”
All of the advisor-bloggers, to their credit, appear to have disclosed in their posts that they have a business relationship with FON. All of them, I have no doubt, are sincere in their enthusiasm for FON’s plan to create a public wi-fi network, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that they were motivated to post by anything other than that enthusiasm. They may well have written the same posts even if they weren’t advisors.
Still, this story isn’t just about the personal integrity of individual bloggers. It’s about a company appearing to stack its advisory board with influential bloggers and then reaping a windfall of adulatory coverage. Maybe the dots aren’t connected, but it sure looks that way.
The report raises other difficult questions as well. In particular: Is disclosure enough? The blogosphere works on the echo principle. When an influential blogger says something, his or her words reverberate across other blogs in the form of, usually, brief excerpts. Disclosures in the original post are unlikely to appear in those excerpts. The effect is that the buzz builds, but the fact that some of the sources of the buzz may have conflicts of interest gets lost. It may be that, to protect their integrity and that of the blogosphere, bloggers will need simply to refrain from blogging about any startup in which they have an interest of any sort.
Blogging is a new medium, and it’s no surprise that the rules of the road are still being hashed out. But hashed out they need to be. If not, citizen journalism may end up carrying an odor of citizen graft, whether it deserves it or not.
UPDATE: David Isenberg, one of the advisory board members, explains why he believes the Journal report is unfair and off base.