Even with the purest of intentions, people have bias, which can rise from an infinite number of sources, be they financial, personal, emotional, career-oriented, or any other. The topic of bias and disclosure flares up often in the increasingly complicated world of blogging and journalism, and as many of us both participate and cover the world in which we work, new rules are being adapted, usually with some push back by those for whom the existing set of rules worked well. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tried to step in and provide guidelines for bloggers with conflicts, asking those who received compensation for their efforts to disclose it. But even if you assume they intend to eliminate bias, they're not even close to answering for all potential bias cases. Not even my gimmicky and fun set of disclosure icons, put together at the end of 2009, can correctly anticipate every situation.
With this weekend's flareup over TechCrunch founder (and AOL employee) Mike Arrington's CrunchFund making headlines again, more lines are being drawn in the sand about what is appropriate for a man of Mike's position to do. His employees have explained they operate independently of his activities. His employer says the rules are different for his organization. His critics have called him names and penned him as having crossed the line. But this topic isn't a new one. It's just got an intriguing name behind it, someone that many of us watch, who draws attention good and bad, depending on your view, thanks to his being visible and arguably, on top, in his field.
More than three years ago (In August 2008), I wrote that "If you look hard enough, conflicts of interest are everywhere." The first topic I brought up back then was if bloggers should cover companies they invest in, and at the time, I said "Investors in a company usually know it very well, especially if it's an early-stage situation, where they will know it better than the general public. It's no secret they'll likely be more positive on the company, but if they're fair and disclose the relationship, you may learn a great deal." In this post, I also said "disclosure is needed" if bloggers joined boards, took day-job positions with a company, or participated in starting or buying a company. It's always good, at least for me, to have the body of work to point to when issues like this come up, as they do regularly. At the end of 2008, again discussing bias, I said, regarding my own preferences, "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."
It's not my place, as a mere tech blogger and Silicon Valley marketeer, to assess the appropriateness of Mike's new fund. I am not involved, had zero knowledge of it in advance, and don't believe I am impacted by its existence. The story is interesting, and that's it. But the tumult over the discussion is really all about detecting bias and trying to divine one's intent out of their writing - to see if their words can be less trusted due to their outside interests. And that's the crux. Being genuine, transparent and truthful, despite any perceived bias, will always win. Being honest and direct and overdisclosing to the point of amusement, is always better than having to disclose after the fact.
Maybe I should disclose to you that despite never having worked for Mike (we're still talking about Mike Arrington), and having minimal contact over the years, I have never had a bad experience with him. Every experience has been good, be it in person face to face, be it in conversations on the phone, by email, or even Twitter DMs and Facebook messages. The last time I saw Mike was at a swanky Los Altos gathering where we talked briefly. He shook my hand (not something he likes to do) and said it was good to see me. We even talked a bit about Seattle and how he's writing less at TechCrunch. Mike previously invited me to TechCrunch headquarters in Palo Alto (when they were located there) and even gave me the scoop (by a few days) that he had hired MG Siegler away from VentureBeat. You might even try really hard and say that I am biased in favor of TechCrunch because I've previously worked for a company that was covered by the site (when I was working at my6sense), that TechCrunch covered my joining Google, and maybe it's in my best interests to be nice to Mike and the TechCrunch family if I ever want products I am associated with in the future to be viewed nicely. But this points out how hard it is to really determine what's in the author's head. You can't tell me why it is that I wrote something when I did, and you can't know what prompted me to do it.
Enough about Mike. He's a great firestarter for topics though, right?
At the end of last week, there was a quick story on Mashable that listed a few tips on how you could score your next job using social media. It's a pretty typical story for the site - a list style post that has a small number of things you can do to improve your life using the Internet. In the post, the author referenced my joining Google by saying, "take a tip from Louis Gray, whose demonstrated love and dedication for Google+ got him hired as a product evangelist."
With all due respect to the author, whom I don't know, his fast summary was balderdash. I didn't ever say in my post that my love and dedication for Google+ was the reason I was offered a job with Google and he didn't ask. It should be noted I underwent the same hiring process as any other candidate looking to join Google. The same 10+ interviews you have read about, and the interview process started months ago - before Google+ existed. The way I found out Google+ launched was by way of a tweet from Matt Cutts. I didn't get any early look at the product, and didn't get tipped as to when it was launching. The process for my being hired into the social team at the company was well under way before Google+ launched, and I would like to think that reasons I was hired were more tied to my body of work and job history than any excitement about the project itself. (I also haven't cleared this post with Google PR or anyone at Google, and don't plan on making that a habit)
That leads to another level of bias to discuss. After Google approached me late this Spring about possibly joining the company, I was cautious in terms of what I would say about their products or planning. I was cautious not in the perspective of making sure not to say anything that would talk them out of hiring, but in fact, the reverse. I made sure to be just as fair as I always have been, calling out issues that made sense, and praising where it made sense, so that if I were hired or not hired, readers of the blogs would not see any change in my approach. For example, in the months after our discussions began, I said it would take several days to move my music library to Google music and continued to praise Spotify. I even said in mid-July, after more than a half dozen interviews, that I thought Google+ should leverage smart algorithms to personalize the content. I also railed against people pointing their own domains to Google+ instead of their own content, saying "I am hesitant to endorse forwarding your identity to a third party domain you do not control."
But where could I have disclosed "I am currently in the interviewing process at Google"? I couldn't, of course.
Similarly, in the past, I could not disclose if a company I was working with was seeking a venture capital round, an acquisition, a partnership or any number of things where the guarantee of non-disclosure, by agreement, trumped the request for disclosure here. What's more important than seeing if you need every single potential source of bias listed out on the page, as I often do, is if the author has established a record of being truthful, genuine and open to their biases. My posts here and elsewhere are biased, and the number of potential biases that impacts my choices of what I use and what I write about is legion.
Maybe Mark Zuckerberg was really on to something when one of the hallmark statuses available to Facebookers was that of "It's complicated." Life is complicated. It becomes more complicated based on who you know, what you do, who you interact with, what value they provide you, what they say to you and all who impact you and so on. I am confident that even though I am working hard to impact a great project at a visible company, my body of work stands for itself and I stand for something. Bias is complicated and the best way to classify bias is if you can find a direct link to an action that delivers another action which would not have happened without the first. You can try all day to divine the intent of the source, but you can't read their mind. Them being genuine first and always clears it all up.