J.M. Reep

Turning “Free” Into Currency

In Reviews on July 19, 2009 at 6:47 pm

First of all, before I discuss the substance of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free, I’m compelled to comment on the scandal that accompanied the release of his book. Simply put, Anderson was caught plagiarizing material — mostly from Wikipedia. He copied and pasted large chunks of text without placing that text in quotation marks or acknowledging his source.

For me, this violates two of the most important rules of research writing. First, and most obviously, Anderson’s plagiarism is inexcusable. He’s a magazine editor. He of all people should be familiar with the rules associated with quoting and documenting sources, and so I have a very hard time believing that his repeated instances of plagiarism were honest mistakes. Writers do know the difference between their words and someone else’s words, so when he read one of the long, undocumented passages that he copied straight from Wikipedia, he should have seen the error. One wonders if Anderson even proofread his own book!

Second, I have an issue with his frequent use of Wikipedia. Now, I’m not one of those people who say that Wikipedia sucks or it’s unreliable or full of errors, etc. No, even if everything in Wikipedia were 100% accurate, I would still take Anderson to task for using Wikipedia. The reason is because Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and all encyclopedias, even Wikipedia, are ultimately superficial. An encyclopedia isn’t supposed to examine a subject in detail; it simply offers an easy-to-read overview of the subject. What Anderson’s use of Wikipedia tells me, as a reader, is that he didn’t go quite as in depth into some of his subject matter as he could have.

(Plus, there’s also the issue that a lot of the material in Wikipedia articles have been copied and pasted from other online sources. It’s possible that Anderson plagiarized text that was already plagiarized from some place else!)

It’s a real shame that this scandal has erupted because it threatens to obscure the central argument of his book, an argument that I think is very important for anyone creating content or trying to sell stuff online. Anderson’s argument is that the realities of the digital marketplace, a marketplace that is as close to a true “free market” as anything humankind has ever seen, drives the costs and prices of certain goods (but not all goods) towards free. In the digital realm, free isn’t just a marketing gimmick, it is a necessary part of doing business.

Free applies best to intellectual content: music, film, images, and books. This is content that can be easily reproduced, stored, and distributed online at virtually no cost at all. Free comes in to play when the products distributed are made of “bits” instead of “atoms.” So for example, an ebook can be “sold” for free, but the physical copy of that book that you might find at the corner bookstore, still has a price attached to it. The intellectual content in the book and the ebook may be the same, but the packaging of that content is very different, and the nature of ebooks is such that it is possible to distribute millions upon millions of them for free.

The point that I thought was the most interesting, though, a point that Anderson makes a few times but doesn’t quite emphasize as much as I think he could have, is that “free,” in the digital realm, isn’t one-sided. “Selling something for free” doesn’t mean, as a lot of worried corporate executives think, that you are simply giving something away and not getting anything in return. If that’s what’s happening — if that’s what you’re doing — then you’re doing it wrong!

Selling for free means transforming the currency of exchange. We’re so used to thinking that “currency” means “money,” that if you don’t have money in your pocket, then you can’t make an exchange. But money is only one form of exchange. Those companies and entrepreneurs who have been successful with selling products for free have figured out ways to exchange their product for something other than money — in some cases something that is more valuable than whatever money they might receive from a traditional exchange.

One example that Anderson cites is GOOG411, a telephone directory assistance service that Google set up, ostensibly, to complete against “411” services offered by telephone service providers. GOOG411, like most of Google’s other products and services, was free, but Google’s motive in setting up GOOG411 wasn’t to simply undercut the phone companies’ profits, nor was GOOG411 simply another way for Google to dispense the vast information resources that they have access to. Instead, GOOG411 was a way for Google to test and refine voice recognition software that they has been developing. Every time someone calls requesting information, Google collects data on speech patterns. Google is betting that the data they are collecting will be valuable (far more valuable than their current costs for operating GOOG411) for voice recognition technology that they will sell to companies in the future. So Google is happy to make its directory assistance service available for next to nothing — and the only currency that you need to exchange for this service is to allow Google to listen to you speak.

So “free” isn’t about giving something away and not receiving anything in return. Instead, in order for “free” to be effective, you have to decide what it is that you really want in exchange — what is going to be worth more to you than money? It could be any number of things, both tangible and intangible.

I’ve already begun putting Anderson’s ideas into effect. For a few months now, I’ve been giving away the ebook versions of my novels for free. I’m still doing that, but now I’m asking readers who download one of my novels to take a few minutes to write a review of that novel (at Amazon or Goodreads or Borders or wherever) when they finish reading it. It takes the reviewer just a few minutes to write a review, but a positive review (assuming it’s a positive review!) is worth more to me than the few dollars I would have made from a sale. That’s my currency of exchange: I’ll give you a story to read if you will write a review of that story when you’re done.  That’s how I plan to use free to work for me.


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