Joel on Bribes - Shawn Oster
Shawn Oster (gravatar)

Joel on Bribes

Almost anyone that follows software development blogs will have stumbled across Joel Spolsky and many refer to his blog posts as some kind of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Software World.  He recently weighs in on the whole bloggers accepting gifts from vendors debate that is making bloggers draw lines in the sand and is on the side that disagrees that bloggers should accept such gifts.

Joel Spolsky is wrong.

The whole thing boils down to bribes.  A bribe is a secret agreement that is simultaneously advantages and disadvantages to both parties.  Accept money secretly to promote a product and both you and the other party gain; they get a positive review while you have a bit more dosh, yet if either side breaks the agreement both of you lose, their product is seen as so poor it can't stand on it's own while your reputation is in the toilet.  Secrecy is key to a bribe, without it there is no leverage, no incentive.  The question is, what is left if you remove the concept of threat from an offer like Microsoft's?

If there is a public exchange of product you could say that the one accepting the offer is only accepting it to get something for free.  The interesting point here is that by wanting it they are already endorsing the product.  Case in point, I've been offered free AOL online service more times than I care to remember but I've never once taken it because I don't care for AOL.  On the other hand I've been offered free pints of Guinness at various "Believer" events and I've taken each one gladly, of course I would have also paid for them.

You could also argue that a person may lose their objectivity, that they may feel a certain obligation to be nicer than they normally would have.  First, someone that alters their opinion because of a free laptop is not really someone you should be listening to in the first place or they really didn't have much of an opinion to start with.  Second, there are a quite a few people that are already starting their reviews from a non-objective place, whether that's pro or anti-Microsoft.  Personally just to get me to try Visual Basic again you'd have to put a 30-year bottle of Balvenie on the table along with a full box of Cubans.  I'm sure Visual Basic is actually a great language now with .NET but I'm definitely NOT objective about it and I have no incentive to try to look past my bias.

Lastly, without leverage, there is no way Microsoft can truly affect a blogger.  What can they do?  Never send the blogger more free stuff that they didn't ask for in the first place?  They can't hurt or take anything away from the blogger, all the blogger can do is end up back where they started.

This laptop give-away is nothing more than the free samples they give you when you wander CostCo or the free vials of cologne you get in the store.  There are no back-alley deals, no hidden handshakes, no threats of leg-breaking or public exposure.  This is basic marketing 101.  I can't help but think that the people that make the biggest deal over this are those that fear that they themselves could easily fall prey to being swayed.  I gladly accept free samples of Sara Lee cakes at CostCo, doesn't mean I'm ever going to buy a single one of them.


  • Anonymous (gravatar)

    Anonymous said
    February 27, 2008

    There are two issues here that Joel and Shawn, as well as others, keep getting confused.Joel stupidly equates a blogger's opinion to the likes of the information one can obtain from Consumer Reports. They are not the same and not even close.First of all, Consumer Reports charges for their information. They take my money and in return provide me both information and a promise that the information gleaned is unbiased and untainted. In order to uphold this position of unbiasedness, they most not give anyone any sort of ammunition toward a conspiracy theory by accepting gifts that could be argued that are bribes in favor of a positive review, etc...Bribes, as Shawn points out are done in secrecy but as far as ethics go -- there is nothing unethical about accepting a gift, disclosing the fact, and blogging about it. Of course, Joel is correct in the diminished credibility aspect but that's your choice as a blogger to accept gifts or not. Ethics don't come into play here because no promises are being made. Just one's credibility comes into question which does not affect my expenditures.I don't think folks like Shawn and Joel give readers enough credit. They almost insult our intelligence by pointing all this out to begin with.People who want accurate information will pony up the dollars and buy into the likes of publications like Consumer Reports and we know and understand this. And those of us who structure our buying habits around blogger's opinions, including those that accept gifts in lieu of a review, pay for what they get -- we know and understand this.It's just common sense.If bloggers blogging on technical matters want to earn credibility, they need to speak to the facts and the facts alone. Often, too many bloggers are out there writing stuff without proof or having all their facts.

  • I agree. I don't see anything wrong with being given a product with the hopes that you will review it (but not obligated to do so). How many people are going to rush to buy a new version of a product when they are fairly happy with how the old one works.Obviously, Microsoft feels that if people use the product, they will like it and encourage others to switch. Obviously, the publishers of the book thought that Joel would read it and like it or they would not have sent it.These people are believing in their product to such a high degree that they are giving "samples" away for free, the same way I've received free razors, diapers, lotion, etc.My buddy Joel might need to dismount from his high horse on this issue.

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