A few weeks ago, the blogosphere's flareup of choice was around a handful of bloggers who had opted into a commercial program from KMart, where they wrote posts in exchange for gift cards to the retail chain. (See Chris Brogan's original post and the follow-up for a recap.) The controversy lay in whether participating in the campaign eroded the participants' credibility. Could their allegiance be bought for a few bucks? Would other posts be not so clearly labeled, but also paid for?
As somebody who has never posted a sponsored post, or been paid to say anything on this site, ever, I'm somewhat on the outside looking in for that specific discussion. But if you extend the idea of bias and influence a tad further, it's everywhere you look.
Longtime readers of the site know I play favorites. In February, I said I "don't play fair", favoring small companies over large ones. I promote services, people, blogs and ideas I like. I ignore conversations I don't care about. I choose products to not buy. I don't write about topics I don't find interesting. That's because the blog is personal, and I'm not an automaton.
My biases come from ten years of working in Silicon Valley, touching roles from product requirements to product deployment and evangelism, customer interaction and highlighting, public relations, business development, Web development, sales and advertising. My biases come from a decade and a half of being a near full-time Web consumer, finding services I've had good experiences with and those I've had bad ones, making and enforcing preferences.
If KMart came to me, offering $500 to do a giveaway, I'd almost certainly ignore it. Not because $500 is pocket change (it's not), but because I don't care for the KMart brand and going that direction isn't interesting to me. It sets a precedent and I would expect my readers to have the same questions they did for the others involved. But there are dozens of services who I have highlighted on the blog over the last three years, for whom I would be happy to highlight their latest updates, for free, because I find them interesting and I hope you do as well. I delight in finding new services and acting as an early adopter to find the good through the raw, and see potential.
I am biased. I am biased in favor of Apple and its products, as a long-time user. I am biased in favor of products I use and understand well, like FriendFeed, Socialmedian, Strands, Twitter, SocialToo, LinkedIn, Disqus, Lijit, Google Reader, SmugMug, BackType and many more you've heard me talk about. I am biased in favor of the entrepreneurs whom I have had early relationships with through e-mail, by phone, or in person. I am biased in favor of bloggers and other content producers who I believe write well on subjects that have my interest.
In August, I talked about this issue a bit, saying, "If You Look Hard Enough, Conflicts of Interest Are Everywhere". And in the case anything got official, as it did with ReadBurner, I told you all about it.
Even though I like these products, these people, and their ideas, the idea is to continue to be trusted. What liking a product doesn't do is force me to make up things that they don't do, or gloss over clear issues. If I were to say issues weren't there, you wouldn't trust a review. If I were to say a product did something it didn't, my credibility would disappear. But I'm not swayed to like a product because I've gotten paid, because I haven't been. Practically the only items I've ever received from these companies are T-shirts, and while I love logo'd T-shirts like any other Valley geek, it's not enough to flip me to the dark side.
I'm biased, but I'm transparent. I bet you're biased as well. We all are. You can see it everywhere.