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July 28, 2009

Filed under: culture»pop»trendspotting


Last in a series.

Part 5: Is this the right room for an argument? No, this is abuse.

I will admit this: it took some nerve for Chris Anderson to write the last few chapters of Free. Oh, parts of it are harmless enough: a comparison to old theories of competitive economics, for example, or advice to embrace digital waste. One is obvious padding, and the other is a random plate of leftovers from when this book was a magazine article. But they're nothing compared to the chronicle of chutzpah that is most of the closing section.

It's hard for me to imagine, for example, writing a section on post-scarcity economies in science fiction--much less thanking an intern in the acknowledgements for actually reading the books and regurgitating summaries/analysis to me. I would have a hard time assembling, with a straight face, a chapter on reputation and gift economies that includes a study putting reputation at the very bottom of the motives for Wikipedia contributions. And it almost seems like a practical joke to write "China and Brazil Are The Frontiers of Free. What Can We Learn from Them?"--a chapter which states (without citation, evidence, or any appreciation for irony) that Chinese students are basically Confucian-trained plagiarists, that piracy is the cause of China's growing number of millionaires, and that generic drug prices in Brazil are an endorsement of "free." Seriously?

Of his closing chapters, the only one that's probably worth engaging at length is #14, in which Anderson attempts to answer the criticisms that have been levelled against his argument since its debut. To be fair, these are real arguments, many of which I've raised here. Whether you find his responses convincing will probably depend on your reaction to previous chapters. If you found him less than rigorous before (and I certainly have, what with the Wikipedia, plagiarism, technical misconceptions, and sloppy definitions), his counter-arguments won't change your mind. What frankly surprised me was, looking back at the chapter, how few challenges he actually answered in his replies. In the interests of space and sanity, I'm summarizing them here in the form of the classic Shorter format:

  • "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." - The low cost of individual transactions allows me to ignore their nontrivial aggregate costs.
  • "Free always has hidden costs/free is a trick." - The fact that I have just spent 13 chapters detailing the methods through which the costs of free products are defrayed should not be seen as trickery, but as magic.
  • "The Internet isn't really free because you're paying for access." - Cost of entry is only important if it matters to me, a wealthy, white, American male.
  • "Free is just about advertising (and there's a limit to that)." - Let's pretend I didn't just spend an entire book talking about web advertising. What were my other two models again?
  • "Free means more ads, and that means less privacy." - If we just act like our privacy is worthless, maybe it'll come true!
  • "No cost = no value." - Instead of being upset that piracy and competition from unsustainable business models is destroying your income, be glad that someone linked to you! (Alternate bonus shorter: It's your fault that people are stealing your intellectual property.)
  • "Free undermines innovation." - I am not going to address the question of drug research, and you can't make me.
  • "Depleted oceans, filthy public toilets, and global warming are the real cost of free." - Despite evidence to the contrary, not to mention my repeated efforts to extend my theory into the real world, externalities do not exist for digital goods.
  • "Free encourages piracy." - This straw man may look sturdy, but watch me knock it down! (Bonus Hyperbole Watch: Anderson once again compares "free" to gravity, as if it were an immutable physical law.)
  • "You can't compete with free." - Despite the fact that at least half of my examples are demonstrated money pits, you should emulate them.
  • "I gave away my stuff and didn't make much money!" - Maybe you're just stupid. Did you think of that?
  • "Free drives out professionals in favor of amateurs, at a cost to quality." - If society has to suffer for my ideology, so be it. (Note: I'm somewhat reluctant to joke about this one, since it's a response to noted anti-Internet troll Andrew Keen, and is thus probably another straw man. I do like his insinuation that journalists will simply be paid less--many journalists may choose now to scoff derisively and wonder if they've invented numbers that low.)
But as the saying goes, Anderson saves the best for last. In his "coda," he writes (location 3486):
...when the markets recovered and we looked back, we found to our surprise that it was practically impossible to see the effect of the crash on the growth of the Internet. It had continued to spread, just as before, with hardly a dip as the public markets cratered.
Wait a second: is he seriously claiming that the dot-com bubble was going to crash the Internet itself? As usual, it's unclear--he continues straight into a paragraph about the netbook market, where low-cost (but not free) computers are loaded primarily with the low-cost (but not free) Windows XP, and will soon be preloaded with the not-so-low-cost Windows 7. Our current financial crisis, he argues, will push people even more into the economics of free content, even though it will make it more difficult for businesses to embrace it as a model. And he closes his book, literally in the last three paragraphs, by running through a list of web startups (including Twitter, YouTube, Digg, and Facebook) that have failed to generate a profitable revenue stream. He concludes (location 3899): is not enough. It also has to be matched with Paid. Just as King Gillette's free razors only made business sense paired with expensive blades, so will today's Web entrepreneurs have to invent not just products that people love but also those that they will pay for. free [sic] may be the best price, but it can't be the only one.
Translation: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

In Conclusion

To quote Weezer: Why bother? Everyone knows these "airport books," as Anil Dash calls them, are terrible--why take the time to engage it in such detail? Why spend a whole week on it? Why not just ignore Anderson and his rampaging ego?

To answer, I can only say that sadly, many people do not bring nearly enough skepticism to the table, especially faced with the mighty publicity machine behind Anderson's work. His first "revelation," the so-called long tail, has run afoul of evidence time and time again--and this has not stopped it from being advocated as sound business strategy. I have had it quoted at me, and I expect the same to happen with Free. So at the very least, it's therapeutic to work through the book and marshall my thoughts on it.

But I have to confess to a less rational motive. For some time now, I've been bothered by the way that "Web 2.0" movements encourage us to commercialize ourselves, or at least to quantify that value: what's your traffic? Your PageRank? Your follower count? How much could you make with AdSense on your blog? How can you turn your readers into money? How much are you worth as a reader? We are all in the business now, it seems, of selling ourselves to the world--based on a set of values which I find, if not suspect, then at least highly artificial.

When we talk about a non-professional attention economy, or a "reputational" economy, what we're doing--partly, at least--is putting a price tag on ourselves, and on each other. It disturbs me to think about community this way. Call me a crazy hippie, but the people that I've met while writing here, to me, are not commodities to be traded. And I like to think that (while I attempt to minimize its harm to my career) I don't write this blog for a commercial benefit, monetary or otherwise. If nobody read it (a state of affairs blessedly close to the truth), I'd still write here, just for the pleasure of doing so.

Anderson is not to blame for the marketing of the reputational economy, but he's one of its strongest proponents. His Free is, in many ways, an attempt to lay out a blueprint for the monetization of your attention and spare time. Speaking personally, I don't appreciate the effort. He's offering Free. I say, keep the change.

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