I’ve been reading Chris Andersons new book “Free” (for which, ironically, I paid $34.99 at Chapters Book Store). Anderson is the guy who brought you “The Long Tail”. In Free, he argues that the new business model is going to be giving standardized stuff away for free, and selling rare customized stuff. For example, give music recordings away for free, sell the concert. Give standardized books away for free, charge an arm and a leg for the specialized, customized speech to large corporations.
His arguments are certainly persuasive, at least in the realm of information driven industries, like newspapers, books, music and other digitally stored, knowledge based industries. Essentially Anderson suggests that because digital storage is so cheap is doesn’t need to be metered, so the variable cost of information is at an all time low. He calls this an environment of abundance and contrasts it to industries that manufacture tangible things, like cars, which operate in environments of scarcity. So the smart play develops a fan base or audience through low cost digital give aways, and then charges for the high cost, scarce customized stuff, that requires a person to be present (like a speech or concert).
At the same time, “free” creates a number of non-financial costs. When mass quantities of free information are available to individuals, they require processing. And it turns out our human brains are not designed for processing of huge quantities of information. Thus, while the source of information is abundant, due to the extremely low cost of information storage, the source of scarcity is in our ability to process information. In other words, the competition in the new world of free will be for our attention.
And it turns out that our attention is limited. We all know our email inboxes are overflowing. I regularly download free manifestos from the website “Change This”, but often don’t read them. When it’s free, I don’t feel guilty when I don’t get around to reading it. Anderson says that we shouldn’t feel guilt about this type of waste, because there is no cost to it. No environmental impact, no physical waste of any kind.
Here’s where I struggle with what Anderson is positing. In a recent article in Walrus magazine, Daniel Richter notes that the internet has actually resulted in fewer, bigger best sellers. I believe that this is because shopping on the internet is different than shopping in a store. On the internet, the experience is generally on the home page of the store — which promotes best sellers and most reviewed books. In bookstores, there is a better chance that I will randomly run across a book, pick it up and on impulse, decide to buy it. Impulse buying is rare on the internet, unless it is on the first page. It’s difficult to browse in an online bookstore — most people are very task focused. Thus the internet reinforces the best seller syndrome. And then the influence of blogs and other web 2.0 sites amplify this echo through the net.
The result of the “free” internet revolution in information has been that there are actually fewer influencers. (See Clay Shirkey’s book Here Comes Everybody). Turns out that while there are many more voices in the internet speaking, only a very few are actually listened to — they are essentially broadcasters on the internet. The remaining 99% of sites are merely reaching extremely small audiences.
So if the internet creates fewer best sellers, it will be harder for new, unknown authors, musicians to break through. Which will reduce the number of ideas and discourse within our society. There are consequences of free.