Archive for February 13th, 2008

Okay, now I’m scared. On Monday, I published a story about a boycott against Trend Micro for its aggressive use of patents against a competitor – a case that revolves around use of the free software Clam AntiVrius. By Tuesday night, the Trend Micro head offices were burning.

Well, not quite. But the story was widely picked up, and, whenever it appeared, people were making comments that were a variation on, “Well, I was going to buy some anti-virus licenses from Trend Micro, but now I’m not.” So my reporting has a large part of the responsibility for the spread of the boycott.

Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I support the boycott. The patent in question is such an obvious one that it never should have been granted, and I believe that Trend Micro is not only abusing the American patent system, but doing so in ways that could have serious repercussions for free software.

Nor an I so conceited as to imagine that, had I not written on the subject, the boycott wouldn’t have spread. Admittedly, as a regular contributor to Linux.com, I have a better pulpit than most for proclaiming what I think is important. However, with the Free Software Foundation supporting the boycott, it would have had a lot of attention without me. If in some alternate universe I hadn’t started covering the story, then some other journalist would have, and the results would have been much the same.

However, in this universe, I was the one who gave the boycott one of its biggest boosts. Again, this is not conceit, because every site that picked up on the story linked back either directly to my story or to its mention on Slashdot. And this simple fact suggests another with which I am extremely uncomfortable: What I write can have influence.

A lot of influence.

I don’t write a story that I lack interest in, and the boycott story interested me considerably more than most. However, lurching from story to story day by day in desperate scramble to meet my monthly quotas, I don’t think much about how a story will be received. Usually, I’m too busy getting the facts right and finding the structure to put them in, with a little worry left over for how many more stories I have to do before the end of the month.

Apart from a general hope that readers will find the result interesting, I don’t spend much time thinking what the reaction to any given story will be. And usually, by the time a story appears, it’s something I’ve finished with a few days ago, and I’ve moved on to thinking about another topic.

However, the spread of the boycott, coupled with the unwarranted amount of attention paid last month to my off the cuff ramblings about conspiracy theorists in free software, are making me realize that my attitude is too casual. I would be irresponsible if I ignored the fact that, when the wind is right, people are going to listen to me.

What exactly that means to me as a writer, I don’t know. I have no wish to become a pundit who imagines that everything he says is of absorbing interest, but neither do I want to be so paralyzed by the possible consequences that I can no longer write.

In the short term, my dawning realization means that I am more determined than ever to make sure that my facts are correct and complete, that I am impartial except when writing a piece clearly marked as commentary, and that I include all the necessary qualifications and nuances necessary to describe a situation with maximum accuracy. If I don’t, I risk misleading readers.

As for the long term – who knows? Maybe I just need to be more comfortable with the idea that I have an audience. But I’ve a nagging suspicion that the situation is not that simple.

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