community, culture

In a fight between Chris Anderson and Malcolm Gladwell, I have five bucks on Chris

I just finished reading the new book Free by Chris Anderson, which I read on my sweet new Kindle for the low, low price of… you guessed it… free (the Kindle edition was free for the first month, but you missed it, $9.95 now).

freeFor those of you who aren’t familiar, Chris Anderson has been with Wired Magazine since 2001, and is currently the Wired Editor in Chief (a fact that I copied directly from Wikipedia, something he has also been accused of doing).

I’d consider Chris a member of the pantheon of Folks Who Can Decently Explain What the Heck Is Happening On This Planet Right Now, alongside Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Michael Pollan, among others.

However, I have only recently forgiven Chris for his long tail concept that unleashed hordes of marketing droids blathering on for hours about the long tail of this and the long tail of that a few years back. I’m not saying he wasn’t right, it was a great book. But, dude, you have no idea what you put us through. Torture.

Here is my attempt to paraphrase the 300 pages of Free in two sentences:

The price of digital content is moving quickly toward free. So stop bitching about it and figure out a business model that allows you to make a decent living anyway.

It’s a brilliant book. And I’m not just saying that because I work for a company that figured out a way to build a profitable business model that plays well with free. As I was reading, I kept thinking how eloquently Chris was stating complex concepts that I’ve been living with at Red Hat for years, but had never been able to articulate (he even mentions us in the book three times, score!).

I also kept thinking what another great truthteller named Bob Dylan once said: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the way the wind blows.”

Or maybe you do. Turns out there are a lot of people out there who passionately disagree with Chris Anderson about the conclusions he draws in this book that I found rather obvious.

A few choice examples: I was reading an interview with Chris Anderson in New York Times Magazine a few weeks back, and was startled by how the interviewer (who is known for being a bit rough) didn’t so much ask him questions as fire bullets at his character and watch him dodge as fast as he could. Here are some sample exchanges from the interview. The Q: represents a “question.”

Q: I wonder if all this is rooted in yuppie entitlement. What’s disturbing is that no one wants to pay for anything anymore, which is why we’re in the midst of an economic meltdown.

A: You do see a generation going online expecting things to be free, from their Facebook pages to their music downloads to their video games. I don’t think that’s driven by entitlement but by an innate understanding of the digital market.

Q: Frankly, if you want to be a public intellectual, you shouldn’t be using Wikipedia to research a book of ideas in the first place.

A: The level of scholarship and analysis on Wikipedia is improving by the day, and we neglect it at our peril.

Q: What did your parents do? Are they still around?

A: They are. They are both former journalists. My mother’s family was in radical politics, and her great-grandfather Jo Labadie was one of the founders of the American anarchist movement. My mother’s biography of him was called “All-American Anarchist.”

Q: In that context, your book seems like an assault or at least a trivialization of your family’s past, glorifying free enterprise in the place of political freedom.

A: Or an implicit affirmation. I’m a libertarian, small “l,” please. Free people, free markets.

Ouch. Why so hateful? Why are we shooting the weatherman?

Which brings me to Malcolm Gladwell. Now I’m a big fan, let’s get that out there. I’ve referenced his work in this blog more than once. And I’ll admit I once held a Anderson-like grudge against him for getting the marketing droids going on and on about tipping points.

So when I saw that Malcolm took the gloves off in a recent New Yorker review of Free, I felt like I was watching a re-enactment of Clash of the Titans. A sample quote:

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. And then there is his insistence that the relentless downward pressure on prices represents an iron law of the digital economy. Why is it a law? Free is just another price, and prices are set by individual actors, in accordance with the aggregated particulars of marketplace power. “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?

So aggressive. So angry. If you want to see Chris’s response, entitled “Dear Malcolm, Why So Threatened?”, check it out on his blog here.

The more I read the reactions, the more confused I became. The Times Online (UK) summed up my thinking pretty well:

But in the course of Gladwell’s attack, he makes two large errors. He assumes that Anderson is the evangelist of free, not its chronicler, and he ignores the central conceit of the book that consumers now fully expect to pay nothing. Anyone under 30 finds it laughable that paying for news, music, television, film or social networking could ever be considered a default position. While it is true that the digital age means there are no iron laws, anyone operating a business online has to define themselves against free competition.

Pretty simple. Why shoot the messenger? Anderson isn’t making the weather, he’s just reporting it.

The democratization of content has happened. We ignore it at our own peril. Those who embrace and co-exist with free will create the defining businesses of the 21st century. Those who don’t… won’t.

My good friend David Burney has been known to observe that revolutions are seldom started by landowners.

Seems to me like the people protesting Free the most own a lot of land.

Or used to.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


3 thoughts on “In a fight between Chris Anderson and Malcolm Gladwell, I have five bucks on Chris

  1. Fantastic summary Chris.

    Chris A. has chosen the perfect stance against attacks on the obvious.

    Posted by Andy Fitzsimon | August 4, 2009, 10:42 pm
  2. I am a huge fan of Gladwell as well.

    With that disclaimer, I believe that Malcolm Gladwell is responding from an unconscious bias that Andrew keen has consciously argued in his book, “The Rise of the Amateur.” Although Gladwell is very successful, his success is derived from the traditional media model. Our latest models include a lot of “noise” and people can succeed without paying homage to the traditional gatekeepers.

    I simply looked at it as a book review and although I didn’t agree with him I understood where he was coming from.

    Posted by psychologyofsuccess | August 9, 2009, 12:24 am


  1. Pingback: Free and the economics of Woodstock « Dark Matter Matters - August 16, 2009

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