From Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s book, Free:
“Information wants to be free,” Anderson tells us, “in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.” But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas [news]paper to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?
[via The New Yorker]
Or, as it was put at a site called The Awl:
What [Chris Anderson] is proposing is down somewhere, on the scale of ethics, well beneath Wal-Mart’s policies of no longer hiring any full-time workers so as to avoid health and unemployment insurance. It is in fact some weird sort of neo-feudal, post-contract-worker society, in which he will create a dystopian and eager volunteer-slave system of “attention-paid” enthusiasts (which is to say, people with no other options, and no capital of their own) to create products from which rich people can get richer.
This is neo-feudal just like the blood-drinking monster society of Vampire: The Requiem was neo-feudal. Yes, the people at the ground level will continue to produce those things the more lordly need to survive — whether the “content” is crops or writing or blood — but the ones getting rich off that, the vassals who shuttle that content from the serfs to the lords, are all vampires, feeding, feeding, feeding. They keep the serfs fed well enough to labor but hungry enough to fear and love the teat, and like vampires these vassals might fight and fuck but they don’t create. They take advantage of people desperate to be heard. They take.
The notion is that the free economy created when everyone is publishing solely for free, writing just for the privilege of being read, investigating simply for the mad props of being in the know, will be the end of scarcity and that this will be great for the people with the microphones and speakers, who charge people to stand within earshot, and great for the open-mic talent, who write and speak and sing and report in exchange for a turn on stage. What’s unclear here — what’s still scarce in this model — is what these artists are eating and where these journalists are sleeping. How are their bills paid? Can they eat fan mail and send their Google Analytics data to their landlords as rent?
That Chris Anderson is both an editor and an author means that, in this interstitial economy, he got paid both to get others to write and to write his own book. Would you have written it for free, Mr. Anderson? I write for free because I’ve found no value in withholding my work, but if I continue to write for free, and discipline myself, can I be paid as my own motivating force? As my own visionary editor for my own career?
In a response to Gladwell’s review, Anderson wrote a bit about the (generally wonderful) GeekDad blog at Wired:
The other contributors largely write for free, although if one of their posts becomes insanely popular they’ll get a few bucks. None of them are doing it for the money, but instead for the fun, audience and satisfaction of writing about something they love and getting read by a lot of people.
So that’s the difference between “paying people to write” and “paying people to get other people to write”. Somewhere down the chain, the incentives go from monetary to nonmonetary (attention, reputation, expression, etc).
It works great for all involved.
I’m going to take advantage of Anderson’s language here and say this: he notes that a piece of writing would have to be “insanely popular” to warrant paying a writer. Thus he seems to be saying that it’s crazy to pay for writing — only the most over-the-top situation would call for it. His GeekDad model is also based on the notion that writers should be already employed somewhere lucrative, somewhere that doesn’t absorb all of their time, doing something that has real value (i.e. not writing). That his understanding of the process seems no more refined than “somewhere down the chain, the incentives go from monetary to nonmonetary” is almost shocking.
People near the bottom often write for free because they have the luxury of doing so or because they are desperate to be heard. Or both. When the possibility of breaking out and writing for a living is taken away, some valuable voices will go in search of other work.
Anderson also argues that passionate amateurs can write better in some areas than trained professionals. I agree. And they’re willing to write for free, which has value to the aggregator, but here’s the rub: If you’re the money-making aggregator, why not pay the amateur?
The Internet audience has indicated that it has a large hunger for that which is free. The consumer is not the only one to have a voice in the determination of value, however. The ability to find free and capable writers is not justification for getting paid for their work. That’s the point.
It is easy and possible to pay writers in pats on the head but it is better to pay them. It is adult. It’s the menschy thing to do.
To be fair, I’ve not yet read Free, so I may be reacting to nothing. (I’m reacting more to Anderson’s reaction, anyway.) But you can bet I’ll be getting this book from the library now, instead of the bookstore.
How much do you want to bet I’ll regret posting this tomorrow?