Bribing Bloggers

There’s an interesting debate going on about whether bloggers should accept gifts from vendors.

Lately Microsoft, working through their PR agency, Edelman, has been getting rather aggressive about trying to buy good coverage from bloggers. A few months ago they invited bloggers out to Seattle to meet Bill Gates, with all expenses paid (hotel, airfare, etc). Last week they send out a round of expensive laptops with Vista preinstalled. These are not loans, by the way: they’re completely free laptops (“yours to keep!”). Here’s the offer I received from a Microsoft employee:

I’m working on getting some hardware out to key community folks, and I’d like to offer you a review PC. I’d love to send you a loaded Ferrari 1000 courtesy of Windows Vista and AMD. Are you interested?

This would be a review machine, so I’d love to hear your opinion on the machine and OS. Full disclosure – while I hope you will blog about your experience with the pc, you don’t have to. Also, you are welcome to send the machine back to us after you are done playing with it, or you can give it away on your site, or you can keep it. My recommendation is that you give it away on your site, but it’s your call. Just let me know your opinion on Windows Vista and what you plan to do with it when the time comes.

Sounds nice, huh? What could be wrong with that?

Robert Scoble says “it’s an awesome idea.” He says that as long as the bloggers disclose that they got the laptops free, they’re acting ethically. And he says that Edelman is just “doing their job,” which is therefore by definition ethical:

On Edelman’s side? Is sending out laptops ethical? Of course! That’s their job.

Scoble is wrong.

Just because it’s someones job to do something, doesn’t make it ethical. Robert, your logic is faulty. Unless you want to assume that anything that Edelman does in the name of promoting Microsoft is automatically ethical, this logical argument you are making is simply false. For example, if Edelman paid a bribe to a government official to standardize on Windows, that would not be ethical, even though it’s their job.

So. Does disclosure work?

The theory here is that if a blogger admits to receiving a gift, the reader can make up their mind as to whether that blogger has any credibility on this topic. Imagine this innocuous series of events:

  1. Blogger gets free Vista PC
  2. Tries it out
  3. Feels obliged to blog about it
  4. Writes “I got a free Vista PC. It has a really sharp-looking on-screen clock!”
  5. Reader thinks, “hmm, no credibility, but that’s a nice looking clock there. Maybe I’ll get Vista.”

Effectively Microsoft has bought publicity and goodwill. And even though the blogger has fully disclosed what happened, their message is corrupting the medium.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, and the only conclusion I can come to is that this is ethically indistinguishable from bribery. Even if no quid-pro-quo is formally required, the gift creates a social obligation of reciprocity. This is best explained in Cialdini’s book Influence (a summary is here). The blogger will feel some obligation to return the favor to Microsoft.

These gifts reduce the public trust in blogs. Recently I wrote a nice article, for example, about Sonos. I bought the system with my own money, liked it, thought it had some great UI that programmers should pay attention to. Most people understood the article to be what it was: a positive review about a good product, influenced only by the fact that the product was good. But some people thought it was just a paid advertisement.

This is the most frustrating thing about the practice of giving bloggers free stuff: it pisses in the well, reducing the credibility of all blogs. I’m upset that people trust me less because of the behavior of other bloggers. Don’t even get me started about PayPerPost.

Anyway. I do not have clean hands. I accepted that stupid cell phone from Sprint fully intending to never write about it, and later decided it was so bad I should just write a negative review. For a couple of years, I accepted a donation of colocation space and facilities from Peer 1 Network, but only because they were the best colocation facility and backbone provider I could find, and only because Joel on Software is really a non-profit, advertising-free site and I was happy to accept the sponsorship. Google donated a Search Appliance to provide search for Joel on Software, also mostly as a community service on their part, which was very nice. They probably intended to get some free publicity out of it. They did.

Microsoft’s crazy offer, though, made me think a lot more about this whole thing, and I’ve decided that from this point forward I’m not accepting anything, full stop. Even if my moral logic is faulty, and there’s nothing wrong with accepting gifts, I personally feel that it’s not worth the reduced credibility. Who are the most trusted reviewers out there? Consumer Reports, probably. They don’t take anything from vendors. They even buy everything they review at retail, which is what I’m going to do.

Today, Fog Creek Software pays the Peer 1 bills. I declined the Microsoft offer and bought my own fully-loaded Dell laptop (a D620) to try out Vista. My conclusions:

  1. Do not, under any circumstances, consider upgrading an XP system to Vista… even if it’s fairly new and even if it’s Vista Supremo Premium Ultra-Capable.
  2. When you get a new computer, if it comes with Vista pre-installed, that’s when you’ll upgrade.
  3. Don’t buy a new computer now just to get Vista. If your current system meets your needs, stick with it until you really need a new system. Vista is not reason enough for a new PC.
  4. Need more details? Read Paul Thurrott’s review.

It’s impossible to be completely pure here. I’m not an isolated test lab in the middle of nowhere doing nothing other than testing products. The ways in which I am influenced are many. Disclosure is not always possible. I may forget things. Things can get blurry. I might have gone to a bookstore, looked at the Apress section (my publisher) to see if they have anything new and interesting, seen a good book, bought it, given it to one of my summer interns, and then it shows up in a critical scene in the Aardvark’d movie. And Gary Cornell, the publisher of Apress, is a close personal friend. OK, was that unethical? I’d have to live in a monastery to completely avoid those kinds of conflicts of interest. I’d have to bore everyone to tears to disclose them, and I might forget stuff, so disclosure is not even a practical answer.

I’ll keep trying, though, to earn your trust.

This message was brought to you in part by Fog Creek Software, a company I started, which pays my salary and which allows me to work on Joel on Software during working hours using their equipment, and which also hosts the website Joel on Software, bought the rack of servers it’s running on, and pays all the bandwidth bills. Fog Creek and I hope that you will feel goodwill towards us as a result and hopes you will consider evaluating our software products, and, if you find they meet your needs, we hope you will buy them so that we can afford to not only pay our programmers, staff, landlord, and bandwidth bills, but perhaps have a little bit of money left over to give the owners a dividend which, in my case, will probably go towards a new hot tub. By reading this article you are contributing, at least indirectly, to the Joel Gets a Hot Tub fund.

About the author.

In 2000 I co-founded Fog Creek Software, where we created lots of cool things like the FogBugz bug tracker, Trello, and Glitch. I also worked with Jeff Atwood to create Stack Overflow and served as CEO of Stack Overflow from 2010-2019. Today I serve as the chairman of the board for Stack Overflow, Glitch, and HASH.