Chris Anderson’s “Free” isn’t Perfect, But I Think He’s Right. (Part 1)

I downloaded Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price from iTunes this weekend. (And I downloaded it for free, naturally.)

I was a fan of The Long Tail. It wasn’t always spot on, it was a simplification, and it definitely didn’t fit with a lot of my more “scholarly” reading, but I think it was a good book, and it really pointed to a significant change in the current information age.

Free, on the other hand?

I’m a little less taken with Free.

It’s not that I find fault with his primary premise– that as marginal costs come closer and closer to zero with the digital delivery of content, the only way to stay ahead of the curve is to go to a Free model, and hope that the big numbers and market dominance you get from going to Free will allow you to monetize something else. That concept really seems fundamentally solid.

My problem, actually, lies with many of the negative Amazon reviews being right. (I don’t remember the last time that I’ve had that particular promise– usually, I read one-star Amazon reviews in order to fuel my reading, as an ignorant nutball reading that my reading of the text needs to avoid and, indeed, counter.)

When you look at most of the negative reviews, you see a common criticism: what Anderson keeps expounding as new and revolutionary is really just the same-old, same-old. It’s bait and switch, loss leaders, the ad-based media model… Fundamentally, what Anderson is describing is a model that was created in the late nineteenth century and perfected in the first half of the twentieth.

Which is not to say that I agree with these pooh-pooh-ers. I think there is a fundamental change here. I think that, as long as it’s something that can be produced and distributed digitally, we’re approaching the point where there is such a thing as a free (virtual) lunch. It’s just that Anderson is downplaying the places where “Free” is the most revolutionary– and the most free– namely, piracy and the gift economy.

Very little (virtual or otherwise) ink gets used in this book describing the amazing amount of work that volunteers put in for dev and testing communities for things like Linux distros and the Mozilla family–purely for for the good of the community and a better end product for them as users. Little to-do is made about the rather revolutionary nature of (so-called) digital piracy, the only form of “theft” ever invented that deprives the original maker only of an opportunity, not of any property.

Instead, Anderson’s book is all about how to monetize Free.

On the one hand, this is one of the biggest questions of the current digital age. Everybody insisted that there was no “there” there when Google offered its IPO, that a business model based primarily on Free was obviously and completely doomed. But five years later, the company’s 2004 price seems like a smarter investment than ever. I would expect nothing less from the editor-in-chief of Wired.

But when you talk about how to monetize Free, it inevitably comes about that what you’re really talking about isn’t “free” Free, but “kinda” Free.

But Chris Anderson knows what side his bread is buttered on: he’s going to stick to the part of Free that’s going to appeal to and sell to people in business. Not because it’s the more interesting question, but because, well, they’re the ones with the money.

On page 98 of the book, Anderson writes:

Information that can be replicated and distributed at a low marginal cost wants to be free; information with high marginal costs wants to be expensive. So you can read a copy of this book online (abundant, commodity information) for free, but if you want me to fly to your city and prepare a custom talk on Free as it applies to your business, I’ll be happy to, but you’re going to have to pay me for my (scarce) time.

So if you own a Fortune 500 company, and you’re interested in finding out how Free can benefit your company, please— pay Mr. Anderson’s exorbitant-seeming speaker fees. You’ll be absorbing a hidden cost by doing so:

He wrote this book, rather than a far more interesting one, for the sake of you and your colleagues. So go support him, before he starts rethinking this whole free thing and I have to pay for access to old Wired articles.

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