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July 20, 2009

Filed under: culture»pop»trendspotting

Free Launch

A couple of weeks ago, visitors to were greeted with one of the site's largest headlines, of the type usually reserved for breaking news, pitching editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The magazine ran an excerpt of the book (which was, itself, based on a 2008 Wired article). It held a conference that featured Anderson as a speaker, and Wired bloggers wrote adoring posts about his comments. When Malcolm Gladwell penned a scathing review of the book in The New Yorker, Anderson got another above-the-fold headline to ask, in a peevishly defensive tone, "Dear Malcolm, Why So Threatened?" One has to wonder how well Free would be recieved without the benefits of a Conde-Nast owned soapbox.

Poorly, I suspect. True to his word, at least, Anderson released Free at no cost (for a limited time) in a variety of electronic formats, including Kindle. I grabbed it in the same kind of spirit that I read Harry Potter: sooner or later, someone will want to talk about it, and I'd like to be in on the joke.

I didn't expect to like the book, since I've been spectacularly unimpressed with Anderson's previous attempts at Big Thought, and so far that trend remains unbroken. That's nothing special--I read (or start to read, at least) lots of books that I disagree with--but in this case, his over-occupied bully pulpit irks me, as does the degree to which I'll have this nonsense quoted at me by "innovation" types over the next couple of years. So as I read Free, I'm taking notes on the Kindle, and I'm going to try a section-by-section commentary on it. The book is short, it shouldn't take long. Since I'm doing this as I go, I may pick out questions that are answered later on--I'll try to point that out honestly if it happens.

I don't expect that this will be hilarious (Anderson is not a particularly good writer, but he's no Tom Friedman) and I certainly wouldn't expect it to be well-researched (obligatory snark: the same is true for the inspiration), but it should be cathartic. And maybe it'll prove helpful for those who are equally suspicious of the book's vision. Because let's be clear: in reality, nothing is ever free.

Part 1: Keep Moving Those Goalposts, You'll Score Eventually

The point of the first chapters of Free, as with any of these business-lite trend books, is to convince you, the reader, that the author's argument is both A) a revolutionary new theory that's relevant to everything around us, and simultaneously B) simple enough that it can be captured in a series of easily-capitalized buzzwords. In theory, this is the easiest part of the book: keep it low on specifics, high on hype, and save the nuanced qualifications for later. And yet, only a couple of pages into the prologue, Anderson is already screwing it up.

In my Kindle copy, at least, he's actually screwing it up from the first sentence, when he apparently forgets to capitalize Monty Python, but that's just grammatical nitpicking. The real mistake comes when he trumpets the Pythons' increased sales of physical merchandise after the creation of a free, high-quality YouTube channel. Anderson writes:

And all this cost Monty Python essentially nothing, since YouTube paid all the bandwidth and storage costs, such as they were.
Techno-utopians: lowering costs by having other people pay for them since 2008. If Anderson claims that there is such a thing as a "free lunch," make sure it's not because you're footing the bill.

This kind of retort is so obvious (even setting aside the weasel words "such as they were," given Youtube's remarkable bandwidth/storage costs), and so blatantly unrefuted, that it can't help but set the tone for the following two chapters. In chapters one and two, Anderson repeatedly backs up his hypothesis that the new kind of free (no, I will not submit to his silly capitalization) is different from the old kind by showing historical examples of its use. It's so revolutionary, it's just like what some guy did 100 years ago!

Say what you like about Gladwell, who writes the same kind of fluffy anecdote-as-science trendspotting, his skills at research and writing are polished enough that you don't notice the gaps in the argument until you put the book down and take a moment to think about it. It is illustrative of how lazy Anderson is as a writer that his examples are not only ill-suited to his purpose, but they're also stunningly cliched. So we're presented in the first chapter with King Gilette (who gave away razors but sold the blades), Jell-O (which gave away recipes in order to sell the product), Wal-Mart's promotional pricing on DVDs, and a variety of other staple anecdotes. My favorite so far is in chapter one (location 280 of my e-book), where he proclaims that

Musicians from Radiohead to Nine Inch Nails now routinely give away their music online...
Really? From Radiohead all the way to Nine Inch Nails, huh? Well, those are certainly unexpected and obscure choices. A better writer might have looked up at least a couple of indie groups experimenting with new revenue models--find two more, and you could do the old "from Radiohead to xxxx, Nine Inch Nails to yyyy" construction. But I suspect he's not that interested in the actual musicians, as much as the namedropping.

The effect of all this banality, as Anderson introduces his argument (chapter one) and performs the obligatory categorization into four "types" of free (chapter two), is that you're not enchanted or distracted enough to suspend disbelief while reading. When he opens the second chapter by literally considering the dictionary definition and etymology of "free," your mind starts to wander. Or, in my case, you find yourself continually pulling apart every sentence and example for the absurdity within.

Let's take a moment, quickly, to examine Anderson's four types of free, to which he devotes the second chapter. They are, in brief:

  • Direct cross-subsidies, which simply shift the cost of free products to something else
  • The three-party market, also known as ad-supported services
  • Freemium, or free services supported by a small number of paid upgrades (see: Flickr/Flickr Pro)
  • Nonmonetary markets, like Wikipedia or trading sites
Something should be immediately apparent to you: none of these are particularly new, or even very interesting. They're not even that different from each other: all but #4 are just a way of shifting the cost from one place to another, just as with Anderson's Monty Python example. The last two types have been increasingly popular on the Internet, but they're not exclusive to it. This "radical new price," in other words, turns out to not be very radical or new. In many cases, they're neither: Google is a classic ad-supported enterprise, deriving 97% of revenue from ads. They've successfully adapted the TV network model to applications, that's all.

So what's the point of Anderson's many categories? I'm not entirely sure he's got one. He demonstrates his classification system with another less-than-captivating example: a breakdown of Real Simple's guide to "36 Surprising Things You Can Get For Free" (I am not making this up). This, he says, is evidence that the categories are useful models for chapters ahead. With a build-up like that, I can hardly wait.

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