There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Laptop

In this slow news week, a ripple is being felt in the blogosphere over Microsoft sending certain bloggers $2,000 Acer Ferrari laptops fully decked out with a copy of Windows Vista and Office 2007. Companies sending out review software/hardware in order to get some space in a popular column is nothing new. The bruhaha is over whether these power laptops are being lent out for review or as a free-and-clear gift. And if it’s a gift, is it ethical for the bloggers to accept them and how will it impact their Microsoft coverage in the future?

This isn’t only about bloggers and people who review and talk about technology. Is there something deeper at play that will force web workers to take a more critical look at their own ethics should they find themselves in a similar situation?

Ed Bott isn’t keeping his Acer Ferrari, but he doesn’t have a problem with those that will. Brandon LeBlanc is taking some heat on his blog because he talked about the computer a few days before mentioning that he got it as a gift from Microsoft. Most recipients aren’t complaining, but does this mean that everytime they blog, “Gee, this computer is fast” they should disclose that they got it as a gift from Microsoft? Will they feel a twinge if they’re critical of Microsoft products? will be addressing the issue of ethics and transparency in 2007.

Who are you? Are you someone different online than in real life? Do you fib or tell little white lies to your boss or clients so they think you’re busy, or under paid or maybe more knowledgeable than you really are?

It’s not always black and white. Have you charged clients for time that you were working with a manual open in front of you? Have you ever taken a job simply for the money but convinced the client that you were doing it because you really believed in what they were doing? Have you purchased software for professional use with a personal license?

At what point do you tell yourself that you’re not too far over the line, and who sets that line? When you’ve earned a negative reputation online, it’s more difficult to gain back respect. When you meet someone face-to-face, you are in the moment. You are what you say, what you look like, your body language and what happens in the next 5 minutes. When you’re building your professional stake online, you carry your history around with you wherever you go. If you’re going to be yourself, there’s nowhere to hide.

We are still using yesterday’s “rules” to predict tomorrow’s reactions. I’m sure the folks at Microsoft’s PR firm didn’t anticipate that their marketing gesture would produce a negative backlash as it did. It will be interesting to see if this experience is just a blip in a slow holiday week, or will it help set a course for how traditional corporate deals with an online community it wants to embrace but can’t control. Just ask Sony.