Not Even a Penny for Your Thoughts? Another View of 'Freeconomics'

In his new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, to be released on July 7, Wired editor Chris Anderson suggests that many businesses can profit more from giving things away than they can by charging for them. Knowledge at Wharton described the concept behind the book in a March 4 article, titled How About Free? The Price Point That Is Turning Industries on Their Heads. Now, in a review of Anderson's book in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, offers an opposing point of view that will bring little comfort to industries shaken by the devaluation of intellectual property.

It's no secret that the zero price point has made mincemeat of the newspaper industry and most other businesses that count on customers willing to pay for at least part of the costly process of unearthing information or creating something entertaining out of thin air. Anderson dismisses the mainstream media's concern about the destruction of their business model. In the free economy, he writes: "There may be more [journalists], not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media. But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free — paying people to get other people to write for non-monetary rewards — may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation."

Gladwell cites that same passage in his review, noting that "it is not entirely clear what distinction is being marked between 'paying people to get other people to write' and paying people to write. If you can afford to pay someone to get other people to write, why can’t you pay people to write? It would be nice to know, as well, just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for 'non-monetary rewards.' Does he mean that The New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels? Anderson’s reference to people who 'prefer to buy their music online' carries the faint suggestion that refraining from theft should be considered a mere preference."

You can hear the hoorays from those in the "credentialed halls of traditional media." But Gladwell is quick to douse such enthusiasm with the same weapon against Anderson's assertion that a free economy is an irresistible force. "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 that there are no iron laws."