I'm writing this post partly to introduce myself, and partly (I hope) as a comment of interest in itself. I recently almost got a job as a monthly columnist for a well-known national print publication. It would have been a lot of fun - and visibility - with a chance to reach even more readers than the Huffington Post, and to start conversations that need to be started.
However ... when I took a look at the contract, I couldn't sign the bit that says "without limitation ... take no money from potential news sources." Not "take no money from any subject of a column without disclosing your interest," but no money, period. The very thing that I thought made me an ideal commentator - I'm part of the IT/Internet industry, I know what it means to launch a product, see one fail, try to raise funding, negotiate a deal, manage relations with a competitor - those very experiences were disqualifying me.
I had thought that disclosure would be good enough. I like to hear what people with vested interests have to say; they probably know what they are talking about. Conflict of interest is a fraught topic. As we used to say when I worked on Wall Street: "Two [related] investments is a conflict; three is synergy!" Of course, I like to know where people are coming from; that gives me what I need to assess their biases and motivations.
Never mind! We simply couldn't come to terms. The editor wanted me; the lawyers were firm.
So with that, let me talk about what I hope to offer here at Huffington Post. The first is indeed disclosure. To the point of boredom. There's a list of my investments/affiliations at the end of this column (as complete as memory can make it), and I'll maintain it at www.edventure.com. But more relevant, I'll mention my interests at point-of-posting, where it counts. Of course, those interests aren't purely financial. Like most journalists, I have lots of friends in the areas I write about. I have biases and prejudices, people who bore me, college friends in high places, and more. And I want to promote the use of IT in health care (I have aging parents), the primacy of emerging markets in world affairs, the commercialization of space travel and the decentralization/ startup-ization of air travel, among other concepts.
Arguably, all that will be more visible for me as a blogger, rather than less visible for me as an institutional voice covered by a blanket no-[financial-]conflicts policy.
The premise of the blogosphere, or user-generated content or whatever you want to call this new marketplace of ideas, is putting more power in the hands of the user - not just as a user-generated-content writer, but as a user-generated-judgment reader. That includes thoughtful questions: Do I want to listen to this guy Juan who's in love with Microsoft Vista? What credence should I give to Alice's remarks about the RayTek MiniTemp remote temperature sensor? (You can check out a pool's temperature with it.)
So, as with everything else in life, user empowerment is not just a privilege; it's also a responsibility. You can cede it to the New York Times, or to the collective wisdom of the blogosphere, but you as a reader are being asked to do more work, even as other readers (and industry actors) become writers.
In the blog world, there are no formal rules yet, though the mistakes of Edelman PR are helping us to define them. (My own disclosure: I'm friendly with various folks at Edelman, especially Renee Edelman, and one of my companies is considering hiring the firm.) To Edelman's credit, at least they are out there trying things. But by now, all those lessons should be learned.
The basic rule is disclosure first, because then you can safely leave it up to the reader to make the judgment of what ties are acceptable. Disclosure creates a decentralized market for acceptable practices per individual poster (and reader), as opposed to per institution. Yes, markets are more work...but people can get what they want - including opinionated commentary from people who know enough to have worthwhile opinions. I hope I will qualify.
So, in the spirit not of puffery but of disclosure, I've posted my bio on the HuffPost site. You can skip it if you want; it will also be up at www.edventure.com as soon as I can get the site up.
And here's the list I promised: My board seats include CVO Group (Hungary), Eventful, Evernote, IBS Group (Russia, advisory board), Meetup, Midentity (UK), NewspaperDirect, Voxiva, Yandex (Russia)...and WPP Group (not a start-up). My other other direct IT investments include Flickr and Del.icio.us (sold to Yahoo!), BrightMail (sold to Symantec), Orbitz (sold to Cendant), ActiveWeave, BlogAds, ChoiceStream, Dotomi, Linkstorm, Medstory, Ovusoft, Plazes, Powerset, Resilient, Tacit, Technorati, Visible Path, Vizu.com and Zedo. And I have some Google (my primary source of liquidity) in a brokerage account.
As a two-time weightless flyer, I am also active in the commercial space/airline start-up world, with investments in Constellation Services, Space Adventures, XCOR Aerospace and Zero-G. I will run the third annual Flight School conference, on the new air-taxi market, this June 20 to 22 in Aspen, CO.
Follow Esther Dyson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/edyson