Free Association with the „Free“ debate

Malcolm Gladwell’s review of  Chris Anderson’s book, Free, has generated some lively debate. Chris Anderson replied to Gladwell’s criticism on his Wired blog, but the problem with his reply is that it only deals with a minor side-point in Gladwell’s criticism, and leaves several thought provoking points unaddressed. (However, make sure you at least skim the comments section.)

Gladwell, on the other hand, seems to purposefully ignore a big part of Anderson’s argument, instead electing to attack a straw man, suggesting that Anderson wants all digital content to be free, which of course, is not his argument in the book at all. Even if Gladwell does raise some interesting questions, the gist of his criticism seems to sail wide as a result. (Full disclosure: I have obviously not yet read Anderson’s unpublished book, but I believe I have spent enough time reading about it and his own writing about it that I have a fairly accurate understanding of his argument.)

Another bestselling author, marketing wiz Seth Godin, had also weighed in and offers an interesting insight:

Like all dying industries, the old perfect businesses will whine, criticize, demonize and most of all, lobby for relief. It won’t work. The big reason is simple:

In a world of free, everyone can play.

This is huge. When there are thousands of people writing about something, many will be willing to do it for free (like poets) and some of them might even be really good (like some poets). There is no poetry shortage.

But this again, really cuts back to one of the actual problems with the internet: the high  noise (crap) vs. signal (good poetry) ratio.

Internet mogul, and HDNet founder, Mark Cuban offers a few thoughts as well in a post called Free vs Freely Distributed. Cuban seems to have a better understanding of Anderson’s freemium (free+premium) model, stating that some information needs to be free, while some information is worth being charged for:

In the long run, printed content producers should have a brand, and use their institutional knowledge, their core competencies and ability to procure, improve and market to maximize the value of their brands and the perceived value of their content. Whether its on a central website, a co produced website, in print or on a hologram in the evening sky, I should go to the NY Times because they have demonstrated to me that they have the very best articles on the subjects I am looking for. That they are the best source for breaking news about the topics I care about. THEY NEED TO MAKE SURE I DONT HAVE THE CHOICE OF GETTING IT ANYWHERE ELSE BUT WHERE THEY DICTATE.  If they cant make their content stand out from the open source masses and convince enough people to transact with them in  a way that makes them money they don’t deserve to exist.

However, Limitation of FREE; Godin vs. Gladwell by Guy LeCharles Gonzales might be the most rational post I’ve read on the subject so far:

Content + Context = Value — for both consumers and advertisers — and in today’s rapidly shifting media landscape, that equation represents survival for publishers.

I do agree with Anderson and Godin’s underlying point, the “freemium” model — giving away some content while offering a more valuable experience for a premium — but it’s neither a new idea nor a terribly innovative one. Take a walk through Costco any Saturday and you’ll sample a variety of items they’re trying to entice you to buy, from crab dip to fancy chocolates; it’s a model drug dealers have perfected, both legitimate and illegal.

Probably, some of the hyperbole over Anderson’s book could have been avoided by simply naming it Freemium, instead of Free, but, obviously, it is easier to transform hyperbole to shipped units. Bad publicity is better than no publicity.

If you are interested, you can follow Seth Godin’s Squidoo round-up of the debate.


One comment

  1. Thanks for the compliment and link, Sveinn. I think you ultimately nail the dustup there at the end: „it is easier to transform hyperbole to shipped units.“ Anderson is milking this fairly unoriginal idea for all its worth, but what I find particularly disturbing about it is how he views its implementation, as he illustrates with his GeekDad example. Have you read this one from The Awl:

    „What [Anderson] is proposing is down somewhere, on the scale of ethics, well beneath Wal-Mart’s policies…“

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