Bloggers are great at channeling outrage, but when it comes to their own affairs — or pet topics — they are uniquely defensive (I include myself in this critique). I’ve been trying to sort through the FON “scandal,” and the efforts to defend the bloggers involved has lead to some rather tortured explanations. Take David Weinberger’s defense of Wendy Seltzer:

Wendy says in her second sentence that she is on the board of advisors and it is true that she doesn’t then say the words Rebecca longs to hear: “Boards of advisors are typically compensated.” The suggestion that Wendy was trying to mislead her readers is absurd; if that were her aim, she would not have mentioned that she is an advisor. Yet the failure of some advisors explicitly to say “And we may be compensated” is the basis of Rebecca’s article.

Okay, let’s get real. “Disclosure” should have one overriding goal: full, complete, and UNAMBIGUOUS transparency. We can all find fault with Rebecca Buckman’s WSJ article that precipitated this dust-up, but as lobbyists in Washington are learning post-Abramoff, even the APPEARANCE of impropriety is to be avoided at all costs.

It understandable that David Weinberger would want to defend Wendy Seltzer, but it doing so he suggests that it’s okay to be ambiguous about whether “advisors” are compensated. I think Rebecca Buckman — and the entire online community — are fully justified in longing to hear: “Boards of advisors are typically compensated.”

That Wendy was not TRYING to mislead is missing the point. If the circumstances were sufficiently ambiguous for the WSJ article to be written and published in the first place, then the fault lies with FON and its blogger advisors. Instead of parsing who said or disclosed what, all of the bloggers involved should have stood up and said, “We’re going to aspire to a higher standard. We’re going to bend over backwards to make it clear that we’re completely above board. Our perceived failure to address the compensation issue is indeed a failure, and we’re going to correct that mistake going forward.”

It’s frustrating to feel that you have been unfairly accused, but in matters of propriety, the “grown-up” response is to take responsibility for the confusion, rather than churn out posts that read like federal court cases. To do otherwise leaves an aura of doubt.

I also found it fascinating that the word “gatkeepers” emerged again in the debate over FON. Tristan Louis echoed my post on gatekeepers, which generated no end of defensive flack, and the same is true with Tristan’s post. Here’s some classic defensiveness from Doc Searls in response to Tristan:

We’ve heard a lot about this before. I’ll grant that there’s a power-law curve, as Clay Shirky was perhaps the first to point out. But the notion of “membership” is a stretch at best. Clubbiness? As David Weinberger said yesterday, There’s lots to discuss there. I find the question of the “clubby atmosphere” to be especially compelling. But the Internet blew away the porches of membership. You don’t need to bark at a door you can just as easily walk around.

and

Among topics I pay the most attention to here (the Net, snowballing, podcasting, and disruption in general, to name a very few current ones), the topics are the first filter. Sources are second. And there the writing matters more than the writer. If you don’t know me, you stand a better chance of getting pointed to in my blog if you write something interesting (and syndicated) about a subject I’m caring about, than by belonging to any particular “club,” including the blogroll on the right, which I check less and less often.

You also stand a good chance if you simply send me an email (as Tristan did) or mention my name in a post (because I subscribe to feeds of searches for that, in addition to a variety of keyword searches).

Even if Doc strives for inclusiveness in his gatekeeping, he IS a gatekeeper and membership in his “club” is limited by definition (unless he reads a million blogs a day). And that’s OKAY. Gatekeeping is necessary to filter the endless sea of information — but defensiveness about the existence of Gatekeepers is serves no useful purpose.

Of course, my current pet topic — wondering about the Orwellian nature of Google — has brought forth an avalanche of defensiveness. Not a day passes that the headlines don’t support my thesis (and it’s just a thesis mind you, not an assertion of incontrovertible fact). Take today’s headline from EFF: Google Copies Your Hard Drive – Government Smiles in Anticipation. The reaction from Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Watch is classic:

The EFF is worried and warns not to use the feature. Should you be worried? If you are, you do not have to use that feature. But what about the unsuspecting user who doesn’t fully understand that data is being stored of a period of time at Google? I can see a reason for concern there. Can we trust Google with our data?

The bottom-line is that we currently have a say, and we do not have to use Google Desktop or that feature in Google Desktop. Also be aware that this feature is NOT turned on by default. If enabled, data is kept only for 30 days if not accessed, Google says. Google provides more info here.

Just because we can opt out, doesn’t mean we should NOT be worried. Danny raises the critical question “Can we trust Google with our data?” but then punts by saying the feature is not turned on by default. And data is only kept for 30 days. And THAT’S okay?

Danny is far more knowledgeable than I am about Google, but as I said to him the other day, it’s about tone and appearance. He may not be an apologist for Google, but he sure sounds like one sometimes.

And maybe he’s fine with that, just like the bloggers involved in FON are fine with their appearing overly defensive. But isn’t defensiveness a hallmark of “old” establishment institutions like Old Media? Shouldn’t New Media, as a true alternative, aspire to a higher standard?

UPDATE
Doc Searls responded to my “blogger defensiveness” accusation:

I’ve worked in, and with, countless institutions and organizations that are full of gates and gatekeepers. Exclusive territories. By comparison, blogs are the wide open spaces. Nothing about the blogosphere appeals to me more than the absence, or the ridiculousness, of “gates”.

At that last link, Scott closes with, So will it be meet the new boss, same as the old boss” — are we going to get fooled yet again?

Speaking only for myself, I have no interest in meeting, or being, a new boss. And I don’t think it’s defensive to say that Scott’s and Tristan’s characterization of my role has no resonance with my experience or aspirations, as a blogger.

I respect Doc’s right to manage his image and his desire to be seen as neither a “boss” nor a “gatekeeper” — maybe Doc can explain to me why the blogging world speaks about gates so pejoratively. Doc’s filter and the filters of other “A-list” bloggers serve a hugely useful function — they help us make good use of our limited time to surf and read.

I responded to the original uproar over gatekeepers in Blogging to a Higher Standard:

Technorati tracks 20 MILLION blogs — not all of them get attention from the blogosphere. Why? Because there are both human and technology-based gatekeepers that determine what gets attention. A completely open system makes no sense, because we’re not living in state of information entropy (although media proliferation often makes it feel that way) — when I go online, some things get my attention and others don’t. Why? Because someone is “barring the gate.” I think the term “gatekeepers” just offends bloggers’ liberatarian sensibilities, but regardless, the existence of gatekeepers in a structured information system is axiomatic.

We can romanticize the blogosphere as “wide open spaces,” but that won’t change the reality.