“Free” Isn’t Worth Reading, But It’s Worth Discussing

by on July 1, 2009 · 19 comments

Image Courtesy of Flickr User Pieter Baert

Image Courtesy of Flickr User Pieter Baert

I’ve been reading many critiques of Wired editor Chris Anderson’s new book, Free, after first reading Malcolm Gladwell’s review in The New Yorker.  Gladwell’s piece is fantastic as it illuminates just how wrong Anderson’s central claim really is.  Anderson writes that:

In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.

Gladwell quickly dismisses this by pointing out that YouTube, one of Anderson’s case studies, is set to lose $500 million next year.  As Gladwell puts it ” If [YouTube] were a bank, it would be eligible for TARP funds.”

But Anderson’s wrong-headedness goes beyond this one case.  Gladwell likens Anderson’s naivete about online distribution to that of Lewis Strauss, the former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who Anderson himself quotes in Free.  Straus famously—and as Gladwell points out, quite inaccurately—predicted that “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”  Gladwell points out that just as Strauss failed to realize that fuel was just one of many inputs to the distribution of power, Anderson fails to realize that while the price of transistors may be plummeting at logarithmic rates, other costs associated with digital distribution remain fixed or are increasing.

Anderson’s responds to this critique in a post on Wired.com that fails to answer nearly any of Gladwell’s points, but instead asked why Gladwell felt “threatened” by Anderson.  I doubt he does.

To those who have been regular readers of Wired, all of this should come as no surprise.  The unambiguous mismanagement of Wired.com is the greatest illustration that Anderson doesn’t really understand the web.

Joel Johnson, a former Wired.com employee, has a great post on Boing Boing about this very issue—a post which I discovered by reading a Gawker post entitled “The Case Against Chris Anderson.”  The irony of Johnson’s account of working at Wired.com—and those of several commentors to the post, also former Wired.com employees—is that Anderson, the author of a book on how giving things away for free makes sense, has mismanaged an outlet that should be doing just that.  Comment #7,# 10, #14, #16—a dialogue between Anderson and former Wired.com employees— are particularly worth reading.

But we needn’t rely on the words of disgruntled former employees to show that Anderson doesn’t get the web, take it from Anderson himself.  When speaking about Wired and Wired.com in 2006 Anderson said:

A monthly magazine like ours — which combines long-form journalism, lavish design and high-end photography — really shows paper at its finest. Online, the design is lost, the photos become thumbnails, and you have to click through as many as 16 screens [to read the longer articles].

This betrays just how ignorant Anderson is about the web—he’s squandered the opportunity to make Wired.com one of the most innovative sites on the web today. Gawker’s Nick Douglas responded to this by quipping “In other words, Wired can’t find a decent web designer.”

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Anderson’s attempt to explain away the unattributed Wikipedia quotations in his book not only call into question his ethics, but also his understanding of how to properly work with information found on the web, which in turn calls into question any claim of authority on the subject matter of the book.

Several folks in the blogosphere have pointed out that another quotation which Anderson uses in the book is taken out of context. “Information wants to be free,” as famously spoken by Stewart Brand at the 1984 Hacker Conference, is incomplete.  Stewart’s full statement was:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

It’s that fight between expensive information and nearly free distribution that needs to be explored.  Anderson could have drawn on his own struggles with Wired.com as a way to address this theme.  Instead, we’re left with a book that seems flawed from the outset.

All of this adds up to Free not being worth its very non-free cover price.  However, the blogosphere’s cataloging of the missteps of the author, and the ironic way which they actually illustrate the changing nature of information-based products, makes for very interesting reading indeed.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    The Internet has spawned a number of urban legends: emergence, the long tail, the link economy, net neutrality, and Free. Let's end this madness.

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  • http://srynas.blogspot.com/ Steve R.

    Cord, while you have made a very appropriate observation when stating: “It’s that fight between expensive information and nearly free distribution that needs to be explored.” I think that you miss several important points.

    First, if someone want to contribute free time to the development and dissemination of information, such a Wikipedia, they are free to do so.

    Second, from the free market perspective, if “expensive” information leaks out into the public domain that is the way it is. The free market system is not meant to guarantee you a profit. Also, as a corollary, if information is “expensive” and it is subject to “leakage” but you want to make money but can't because of the “leakage” – don't do it.

    So if you can't compete with “free” to bad, you have no business being in business. Its a competitive world.

  • http://www.cordblomquist.com cordblomquist

    Steve, I agree that trying to fight copyright violation, or “leakage” as you put it, is futile. The costs of suing the entire world for copying something like a newspaper article is just too high.

    However, subscription models for niche information, such as trade publications, are likely to work well into the future. This is especially true when subscriptions are bundled with access to archives, something that's not easily copied. Lexis-Nexus or Westlaw are other good examples of information that most likely will not be free anytime soon.

  • http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~tblee Tim Lee

    Westlaw and Lexis seem like poor examples, given that much of they largely re-sell information that was produced at taxpayer expense and is technically in the public domain.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Damn it, Tim! If you're going to start a new post instead of continuing an existing thread on that topic, the least you could do is to include a link to your new post in the old thread. For everyone else's benefit, here's a link to your new post: http://techliberation.com/2009/07/01/defending-

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Since Tim has now started a separate thread on this topic, I'm posting this comment in both threads.

    It seems me that Chris Anderson's strongest argument for the business case of “Free!” is that giving away content or a service can attract an audience. The critical question then becomes: How valuable is that audience? How successfully can those eyeballs “be monetized”? This, in a nutshell, is why I've become such a broken record about defending smarter online advertising: The more money publishers can make off selling adds, the more viable “Free!” will be. The central point being missed in the debate about behavioral targeting is not just that it will increase ad revenues generally, but that it's likely to increase ad revenues the most for publishers whose content/service currently has little value in pure contextual advertising, where ads can be targeted only based on the keywords associated with a particular page or site. Thus, the publisher of a site about East Asian politics will get very little for his content, since few advertisers are likely to want to bid on keywords like “North Korea,” “DMZ” or “ASEAN.” By contrast, if that publisher could work with an ad network that lets advertisers target ads on that site to each visitor based on their likely interests (as determined by creating an anonymous profile through their tracking their browsing behavior across other sites in the ad network), that publisher will be able to compete directly for more highly valued advertising.

    In essence, advertising would thus be democratized because what would become economically valuable is getting the eyeballs, not having content that is directly related to valuable products and services (say, digital cameras). Put another way, this would empower consumers to “vote with their clicks”: Revenue would more closely match the choices of consumers as to where to spend their time and attention.

  • http://www.cordblomquist.com cordblomquist

    Perhaps they are poor examples for some reasons, but what Lexis and Westlaw sell is a valuable database of information that is otherwise hard to find. The individual pieces of information may not have a lot of value, but when organized, clearly some people find it very valuable. This sort of thing, the curation of information into a more usable form, is something that will likely continue to be offered on a subscription basis to niche communities.

  • http://www.cordblomquist.com cordblomquist

    Amen to that, Brother Bennett!

  • bradencox

    I think Westlaw and Lexis are great examples, precisely because they ARE from government sources! As any attorney will tell you, even in today's world where statutes and many cases are available online from federal and state sources, Westlaw and Lexis are indispensable. There are a lot of value-add services (commentary, shepardizing, etc.) that turn “free” into “fee” when it targets a niche audience (in this case, lawyers). It's the serving smaller markets point that in his New Yorker article Gladwell makes about pharmaceuticals.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    God, I hate when he does that, it's just bad manners.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    God, I hate when he does that, it's just bad manners.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    God, I hate when he does that, it's just bad manners.

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