July 12, 2008

The Company We Keep - Friends and Reputations Online

As blogging and ways to monetize high-traffic content evolve, the pairing off of power bloggers into friends, allies, and business partners becomes more interesting.

The lotto-sized win in the battle for high-power friendships is, as everyone knows, Mike Arrington. To be a FOA (friend of Arrington) is to be anointed into a lucrative Web 2.0 economy.

As I watched the Winer-Scoble-Israel vs. Arrington-Feldman-Calcanis feud this past week, I had some of my own observations about the tricky aspects of navigating blog-related friendships and partnerships.

On one side we had Shel, tormented by puppeteer Feldman, sworn to go after Winer next, who's BFF is Scoble, whose old company fired Feldman.

On the other side we had Feldman, fallen into a potentially great mainstream deal with some non-mainstream (and I would argue some not-so-funny) content coming back from the archives to bite him in the ass, backed by the newly-retired Calcanis whose business interests align with those of Feldman, who spends a whole lot of time at the business/home/Internet-economy of Arrington.

This is the point at which I state: Blogging makes for some strange bedfellows.

The popular M.O. of the A-List guys during a high-profile Internet dust-up is to call on their friends to back them up. This means they ask their friends to call off the dogs or to incite the mob (depending upon which side of the equation they're on), to make a public statement of support or perform a public shunning (depending upon which side of the equation they're on), to absolutely and without question choose sides.

And choosing sides can suck. Because the web is hyperlinked, sides don't always make sense. (I know this is true when I find myself aligned with Dave Winer.)

We are not linear here. We are human and networked. Our relationships are at the same time deep and distant, meaningful and sometimes non-sensical.

But for many, our reputation is important.

By reputation I don't mean, "He's a great guy," or "She's a smart lady." You can have a reputation for being entertaining, obnoxious, brilliant, an asshole, an expert in a particular field, a mom, a dad, a cancer survivor, and most likely you are a rich combination of these characteristics which inform the stories you tell online.

Our archives tell our story not just chronologically, but in relationship to others, among the links in and links out. Asking anyone to read us from front to back before making a judgment as to the kind of person we are is asking a lot. People aren't going to examine all of our posts--they're going to read our front page, the last thing we said, or the thing that someone else points them to--even if that thing is old and we decided it was stupid a long time ago.

That's why emerging tools and technology for compiling and tracking our participation and reputation over time and across social media interest me.

These tools can take the legacy of our contributions and help new readers understand not just our content, but our context. We are more than a single post or video - we are our collected pixels spread out over space and time.

I think these tools will give us new freedom in our friendships, and require less side-taking requirements on behalf of friends who find themselves in compromising positions.

The ability to track our participation and reputation across the net lets us take risks without tossing our entire body of work down the toilet. It gives me the freedom to stand up like a sniper bitch on occasion without compromising my Internet reputation as a "nice lady" (cough) altogether.

I empathize with Feldman's friends for their troubles over the last week even though I think he's a cry-baby for thinking that shock-jock content might not come back to bite him as he sought out mainstream deals.

I support those who spoke out on the important issues around the whole fiasco. I also support those who didn't choose sides or participate in the discussion, even though I think the discussions it spawned were valuable and tremendous and much can be gained by taking part.

But not everyone is required to weigh in, nor should they be. If we were to pick all the issues we care about and try to participate in all of them, we could never keep up. If we were to jump into every debate, every conflict, we could lose our minds. It is up to each of us to decide what conversations are important to us, and I don't assign blame for opting out of those I think are significant.

Taking it back to friendship, this is important to me because:

I WILL NOT make a public statement every time an online friend does or says something stupid, or something I don't agree with.

I WILL NOT LET you infer from my silence that I agree or disagree with them.

I ABSOLUTELY reserve the right to remain friends with my friends - or part ways - without a defending my decision; and what I may say to them in private or public about a particular post or comment is up to ME.

Of course, there are more complexities to the company we keep online. And as time goes on, things make less sense than they ever did. I think this is a good thing, but some days I'm not so sure.

Last week was one of those days.