FON’s unsavory buzz

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.

11 thoughts on “FON’s unsavory buzz

  1. vinnie mirchandani

    WSJ takes money from advertisers. Gartner takes money from vendors. I am ex Gartner and knew how to handle thse conflicts. Wall street analysts know their banking colleagues make a lot of fees from vendors they track. Buyers know these “conflicts” exist and factor them in to decisions. Are you trying to hold bloggers to a higher standard?

    …heck most of us are starving artists!

  2. Tecnorantes

    Diferencias entre web 2.0 y web 1.0

    Cuando las empresas querían generar ruido en la web 1.0, compraban anuncios en la Superbowl.

    Cuando las empresas 2.0 quieren generar ruido, compran bloggers.

    Nicholas Carr, en referencia al articulo del Wall Street Journal, criticando duramente a Fo…

  3. Ejovi Nuwere

    FON USA Advisors, AGAIN

    Today there was a WSJ article written by Rebecca Buckman that tries to create a scandal of FON’s use of an advisory board. I’m a little disturbered because as the US Country Manager it was my responsibility and ultimitely decision to build the USA advi…

  4. Mark Evans


    i agree the disclosure is a key element for bloggers offering paid or even non-paid services to companies they write about. the question is whether disclosure gets them off the hook. as you said “echo principle” is a key element of the blogosphere. i’m not sure if the answer is a “rule” that prevents bloggers from writing about companies they have relationship with. this works in mainstream journalism – my realm – but does/should it apply to blogosphere where it’s about the conversation rather than objective reporting?

  5. David S. Isenberg

    Adulatory coverage? I am one of the FON advisors in the WSJ story. We all had doubts and anxieties and we expressed them publicly. Heartfelt coverage is more like it. Here are my hopes. Here are my fears. Here’s what I hope they get right.

    Stacking the deck with bloggers? If a company needs engineers, it stacks the deck with engineers, doesn’t it?

    The blogosphere works on the echo chamber principle? As if mainstream media doesn’t outdo itself everytime a white blonde woman goes missing. Want to see exactly the same clip of the state of the union? If you midd it on ABCD you can catch it on GEMSNBC or NEWSCORPFOX or VIACOMCBS or TWCNN. Au contraire mon ami, I think the blogosphere has more nuance and individuality than any of the more conventional media. Echo chamber? Echo chamber? Echo chamber? Echo chamber? :-)

    Nicholas if I have not disclosed enough, write to me, I have nothing about this affair to hide.

  6. Enrique

    Hello, Mr. Carr:

    I went to FON website trying to find a LINUS near my home (LINUS = a person sharing bandwidth).

    I was guessing being an ALIEN (a person conected, paying a fee)

    Up today they only accept LINUS users. No ALIENS, no BILLS (a person sharing connection and recievieng money).

    The estimated fee for an ALIEN is more or less 40 euros ( 45 dollars) per month.

    For less money I can get a connection for my only use. (20 Mb for 30€, more or less.)

    So, this sound to be a Bubble 2.0

    You are right saying Blogosphere echoes respected bloggers opinions. They (FON bosses) are going to take advantage of that.

    Martin Varsavsky founded YA.COM. He sold YA.COM to Deutsche Telecom for 540 Million euros. A lot of people working for YA.COM was fired a year after. (Crisis?, Debt?)

    I do not trust false prophets.

    Thank you for your clear opinion.

  7. Phil

    If you were right, as they say, I’d agree with you. If the bloggers in question were hyping Fon uncritically; if they weren’t disclosing an interest; and (especially) if Fon weren’t the kind of thing they’d be writing about anyway, then there’d be a story. I don’t read all the bloggers in question, but as far as “David Isenberg” is concerned not even one of those conditions applies.

    I’m willing to bet this will be a real issue some day, but this isn’t it.

  8. Joris

    I’ve got a question about this Fon thing. Lets say I share my wifi, then thats really nice of me. It’s also really nice for people passing through my neighborhood. In the integrated neighborhoods of the past where people worked, lived and spent time in the same area this might have worked. But now most live in suburbia, work where there are only offices and shop where there are only other shops. So when I’m not at home ie in a shop in town or at the airport, how will Fon be able to give me internet access? There will not be any other residential Fon points there since no one lives there. There might be lots in other neighborhoods but what good will that do me? I mean if I’m in those areas I’m probably there to visit a friend anyway. I can see how Fon would work in an integrated shopping/living/working area, ie Manhattan parts of Barcelona etc. but it won’t work today, for the majority of people. For it to work it would have to partner with Starbucks and the like and even that will not give them the coverage they say they seek. And even in Manhattan, lets say I live there and share, my bandwidth will not be sufficient to provide access to the daily influx of shoppers and workers. Fon just can not create the network and network effects that it needs to prosper. Fon=Fad.

  9. Merodeando por la enredadera

    Terremoto FON

    Martín Varsavsky decidió, a mi juicio con buen criterio, lanzar FON como empresa apoyándose en los blogs. Y lo ha hecho utilizando blogs propios y apoyándose en el poder de la blogosfera para diseminar ideas. Dicha estrategi…

  10. Hitchhiker's Guide to 650

    The New Old Boy Network

    About 6 month ago, I had thought that the world of entrepreneurship has really changed and that various factors had make it much much more accessible to the “average joe.” I called it the rise of Armchair Entrepreneurship

    Today, I realize…

  11. Dennis Howlett

    FON…hmmm…HQ Madrid…hmmm…Spain…hmmm…a country that has elevated bribery and corruption to an artform. Hmmm…Telefonica is the monopoly ADSL backbone provider – the same company that lies to its customers and when that doesn’t work, they simply cut you off when trying to complain.

    FON ‘might’ be a special case.

Comments are closed.