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Gladwell Destroys Anderson's Free Argument

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 30, 2009

Drop everything and read the Malcolm Gladwell review of Chris Anderson’s new book Free.

Gladwell challenges Anderson’s key assertions: “Information wants to be free.” Free for whom? Free for Google or Amazon who profit by its being free but not for the content generators.

People love free. Do they? The Wall Street Journal charges for access to its web site. The Economist costs a small fortune. People pay a buck per song on iTunes. Free?

Companies can do free and also generate profits? Really? It costs hundreds of millions of dollars for YouTube to distribute free videos and it has had to buy professionally made content to charge advertisers who don’t want to advertise around free junk. Gladwell says that Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube will lose half a billion dollars this year.

I love enthusiasm. I am enthusiastic. Wired is one of my favorite magazines and Anderson one of my favorite writers. But being naive about technology and its power to change is a serious problem in a society besotted by high-tech fixes.

Of these three declarations, I can think of only one that turned out to be true.

“Information wants to be free.” “Twitter will save Iran.” “Rock and Roll will change the world.”

And thanks to David Armano on Twitter to point me to Gladwell’s review. Love that Twitter.

Reader Comments

Bob Gilbreath

June 30, 2009 6:00 PM

Anderson could not have found a worse time to publish this book. After an orgy of "free" mentality our global economy is in shambles. The idea of building a digital business by offering free services in return for eyeballs to advertise to is dead.

Meanwhile, companies like Kraft have found that by charging $1.00 for its iPhone app makes people value the app much more than if it was free.

Anderson will sell a ton of books and he's a very strong writer and thinking. But what we need now is a book that instructs the world on how to actually make money on the valuable content that we produce. That's where the future lies.

Michael Turro

June 30, 2009 8:44 PM

I find it strangely ironic that all of these "take downs" of the free argument seem to appear on the web - for free.

Anderson is not saying everything should be free - he's saying that free works as an ancillary to other activities that are not free. That argument is awful hard to disprove - the presence of even a single success (Google) affirms it on its face. The very fact that Gladwell's article appears for free on the web neuters any point he may have had. Beyond that Gladwell's cherry picking seems more like a personal axe grinding than a genuine refutation of Anderson's core premise.

But to my ear Gladwell's most dire offense (which Bruce repeats above) is the branding of Anderson and his work with the tired "techno-utopian" label. That line of argument is as unimaginative, unproductive, and ugly as the Luddite spear is from the other direction.


July 6, 2009 2:25 AM

Its not that information wants to be free - the notion is silly. We used to think that information that is controlled or curtailed in its availability has a value; conversely we used to think that information that is shared has no value, it is common, it is not scarce therefore cannot have value. The new mantra is the opposite - information that is controlled has no value, information that is shared has value BECAUSE we see value accruing to information once it is shared across empowered and creative individuals and organizations. This is the new "value" of information. Its not free - nothing is for free. But its value is that it is free to be acquired, available, accessible - whether paid for or not.

Daniel Montano

July 11, 2009 5:38 AM

1. Just because something is free today it doesn't mean it will be free tomorrow.
2. Just because something is free it doesn't mean that it doesn't generate value.
3. Just because something is free it doesn't mean that it doesn't hold value. Value is not limited to what can be monetized.
4. We need to qualify who we mean when we talk about "people". People are still very diverse and they tend to have very different tendencies, desires and inclinations. Some people may go for free more often than others.
5. You can't destroy the idea of free. It will always be there.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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