Gladwell on Free
Malcolm Gladwell can be very frustrating to read when he isn’t on his game, but I think people sometimes lose track of how fantastic he can be when he’s on. (Particularly when he agrees with me, haha!) In a New Yorker review of his book Free, Gladwell really runs roughshod over Chris Andersen’s basic arguments. There’s too many choice quotes to excerpt so give it a read.
One thing that Gladwell didn’t mention, which occured to me, is that there’s another aspect of the whole “Free” concept that is self-defeating. Like lots of new media utopians, Andersen’s arguments require advertising to pull a hell of a lot of economic freight. The problem is that the more content there is, the less advertising is worth. Part of the reason that the television networks used to be able to run so many elaborate and expensive dramas was that they could charge a ton in advertising, as for decades there were only ever two other network channels to turn to for TV entertainment. Bonanza got huge ratings in part because there just weren’t that many other options. But, as Andersen has pointed out again and again, the costs to entry in many avenues of media have dropped so much that there is an incredible abundance of content. That’s great if you’re just looking for something to enjoy, but it’s bad news if you’re trying to get by on advertising dollars. The more choices their are, the less money you’re going to be able to command in advertising, and more and more content only continues to devalue your ads. That’s another strike against Andersen’s use of Youtube as a model for Free moving forward; the very abundance that the free video hosting makes possible ensures that no individual videos can command much in the way of advertising dollars.