Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What the future of free will be

I just read Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Free by Chris Anderson, “Priced to sell: Is free the future?” for The New Yorker. Gladwell is best known for his books, The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. In the 80’s he was a reporter for the Washington Post, his website Gladwell.com says he “covered business and science.” According to Wikipedia his articles, “often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences.” Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired. He has two books about the future of free online content, The Long Tail and Free. His Wikipedia page ironically notes that he “generated controversy for plagiarizing content from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, among other sources, in Free.”

I have not read Free, but the premise is digital content will continue to be free. Recently Steve Ballmer said something similar. Gladwell starts his critique with an example of the state of old content providers. In this case, the negotiations between the Dallas Morning News and Amazon to license the newspaper’s content to Kindle, Amazon’s electronic reader. Amazon wanted seventy percent of the subscription revenue and the right to republish the newspaper’s content on any other portable reader. Old content creators are barely hanging on, going online only, or just simply going away. Newspapers are dying. Anyone invested in holding onto hardcopy newspapers, are trying to figure out a way to save the institutions.

Recently Rupert Murdoch said every Newscorp website will start charging within the year. Gladwell uses Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal as an example. He writes, “a million WSJ subscribers are quite happy to pay for the privilege of reading online.” Gladwell goes on to argue that free network television is struggling while a pay for content cable television is doing well. Gladwell does not like Anderson’s argument. Probably because it hits close to home for a famous writer like himself. Gladwell does not like that Anderson overlooks the cost of “plants and powerlines.” Of course Gladwell is right about that. The delivery system for our electronic world is the expensive component. But I think neither Gladwell, nor Anderson, nor Ballmer know what the future of free will be.

Tech Dirt writer, Mike Masnick, on the Gladwell/Anderson controversy.

The answer to Gladwell’s question is simply one of economic efficiency. You can pay people to write -- just as Encyclopedia Britannica does. Or you can get other people to write for non-monetary rewards -- as Wikipedia does. The latter is a lot more efficient a solution, and the difference in productivity and output is quite evident.” Masnick goes on, “. . . competition happens, and when it does, price gets driven to marginal cost. You might not like it. You might wish it didn’t happen, but arguing against the fact thats how markets work is like arguing that the sun won’t rise tomorrow.

Gladwell ends with a great insight.

The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold there are no iron laws.

I think the latest example of that, is Rupert Murdoch’s forecast of charging for online content across the board. Murdoch would not be the first. There are a few examples. Harper’s is not free, you must have a subscription to the hardcopy magazine to gain a username and password to their web presence, same for Cook’s magazine and Consumer Reports.

So, what is the argument between Gladwell and Anderson? Co-founder of Type Pad and Moveable Type blogging tools, Anil Dash, hits on what this is really about.

I am sure that both of these authors’ books absolutely do lean more towards anecdotal evidence than statistical proof. And honestly, it’s okay that these books don’t necessarily follow the tenets of hard science. In many cases, they’re arguing that a cultural trend is becoming true, or is about to become true, and the reality is that asserting these trends actually helps them come true. In short, these are books designed to create culture, presented in the the guise of reporting on culture.

I think Dash is right.

We should keep in mind that the best of this new world order is that many people are contributing to the dialogue of ideas because they have a passion for it and are not driven by financial gain. Which is probably one of the reasons for the quality of so much free content to be quite high. It is going against the culture to start worrying about not only compensation for your content or copyright infringement at this point. Most blogs go to great lengths to give credit. Not only by naming the source, but also by posting a link to the original document that was quoted. That is about as transparent at it gets.

One thing I am certain about, is that I disagree with trying to predict where all this will go.

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