I like Chris Brogan. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I sincerely admire his intellect, his wit, and — during these days of wall-to-wall speaking engagements to promote his book — his stamina! Nobody gives more to his audience than Chris. Nobody even comes close.But the glow around this beloved blogger has been muted in recent months over perceived ethical lapses. Here are some of the issues that have been reported on the blogosphere. I am neither defending nor supporting Chris in any individual example – just establishing some of the issues which will allow me to get to my point:

Kmart – In a case that became a lightning rod for the “sponsored conversation” controversy, Chris did a paid “review” of a Kmart shopping experience, which was arranged by Izea, a company that had also retained Chris on its advisory board. The article was clearly marked by Chris as a paid post but the ethics of “renting out” authenticity and the idea of corporations manipulating trusted voices on the social web touched a nerve.

Panasonic – As reported by Leah Jones, Panasonic paid Chris to attend a consumer electronics trade show and provided gear for him to review. While at the show, Chris networked with Sony, a powerful Panasonic competitor, who later retained him as a paid consultant. Some critics chastised Chris for apparently back-stabbing his original sponsor. In defense, Brogan stated that everything was within the confines of agreements between the parties.

Book-beating – One of Brogan’s most persistent social media mantras is “it’s not about you and your stupid company” but if you just started following Chris in the past eight weeks you might perceive this to be a gross inconsistency. He has relentlessly pumped himself and his book, providing more fodder for detractors. He explained in a blog post that he has given us “mountains of stuff for free” and it’s time to “trade it for some loot.”

Most of the stink bombs lobbed at Brogan seem to come from dim-wits trying to bring down anybody smarter, harder-working and more successful than they are. But there are also thought-provoking criticisms out there from seemingly intelligent, well-meaning people. What’s going on?

A lot of the criticism is hailing down because the social web is in the throes of growing pains. Most of our teenage angst boils down to our — and Brogan’s — tangle with the central question of social media: How do you monetize and keep your audience and integrity intact?

Through these incidents, Chris has become the poster child for this question, but it is something we will all have to come to terms with until we address three pervasive issues:

Number one: A need for standards.

People are offended when the “rules” of conduct are broached … but wait a minute … there are no rules! Chris has stated many times that he’s not a journalist, implying that he doesn’t have to live by those strict standards. But what is he? What are WE?With the demise of traditional media and the meteoric rise of the social web, the line between blogger/journalist/advertiser has blurred. More important, as blogging becomes a mainstream communication channel, some readers probably aren’t going to be discerning enough to separate expectations of trust and ethics between true journalists and a high-profile “trust agent.” And why should they have to work to figure it out?

It’s OK for our channel to be a hybrid. It’s not OK to be a bastard-child making up the rules as we go along. It’s not enough to keep covering our collective asses by saying there is a list of disclosures somewhere on a web page. Perhaps there is a need for a certification process for blogging like there is for nearly every other profession. This involves training, standards and a “seal of approval” that distinguishes those who uphold a set of ethical guidelines. Blogging has become an important, profitable industry but it needs to mature and that probably means some kind of professional governance (shudder).

My grandfather earned the title “master plumber.” Perhaps some day I will complete a certification to become a “master blogger?” I would proudly do so.

Number two: The responsibility of leadership.

Chris is the first from our ranks to cross that invisible line between friendly neighborhood blogger to national celebrity … and it happened very rapidly. It’s kind of like somebody being elevated from mayor of a village in Alaska to a national political candidate in two years. Folksy authenticity played well in Wasilia but exposed Sarah Palin to unbearable criticism on the bigger stage.Is it possible to be a statesman AND a folk hero? This seems antithetical to the social media “authenticity” mantra. Something has to give.

Chris is a beloved personality and, with his media exposure, has become the de facto spokesperson of the social media nation. There is an increased responsibility that comes with that. Recently, some of his readers complained because he was coming across as “mean.” Isn’t “mean” sometimes part of being “authentic?” You see, despite what we say, we really don’t want transparency from our leaders. We want leadership from our leaders: likability, stability and behavior beyond reproach.

How do we resolve the authenticity-leadership puzzle?Number three: Realizing that social media is also about money.

We’ve set ourselves up for failure by continuously chanting “it’s all about community.” Sure it is, but it’s also about money. Little wonder critics pounce at any attempt to make a buck off the trust we’ve earned with our tribes. Yet we don’t have the luxury to write with journalistic impunity while the sales and accounting departments handle the revenue side of the business! Bloggers have to be accountable for content AND revenue.I’m amazed at how many people still think the social web should only be an altruistic endeavor. We should recognize social media for what it is – a variation on an old theme. To those who preach that there is no room for sponsored blogs, I have two words: “Paul Harvey.” Paul was a popular, trusted American radio commentator who would deliver the news, seamlessly sashay into a colorful discussion of the Bose Wave radio, and then turn right back to the news again. Folks, this was a “sponsored conversation.” We’ve had them for decades and we’ve survived.

Bloggers need sponsors because we can’t feed our families with page views and tweets. The difference is, we always KNEW what Paul Harvey was doing and when he was doing it. Chris has set a great example in this area by plainly stating where he gets his money and when a post is sponsored. But is that the case with everyone? Shouldn’t we follow a set of uniform guidelines to let people know when we are being “Paul Harvey” and when we aren’t?

This has been a long blog post (thanks for hanging in!) and it’s time to turn it back to you. Help me here. What’s your view on the social web’s growing pains regarding leadership, monetization and professionalism?

Illustration: www.chrisbrogan.com

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