Jul 01

Dear Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell & Chris Anderson: You are All Right about “Free”. Now Shut Up.

“In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.”

Are you kidding me? “Free” with a capital F? What are you, Effing Jesus?

Chris Anderson seriously needs to slow down. I saw him at South by Southwest and felt his “content should be free” shtick was more of a marketing ploy to push his book than genuine advice to help people build a business model. It was very disappointing, and at this point, I’m not sure his free book is worth the time it takes to read.

Well, Malcolm Gladwell wrote this New Yorker article stating that when you give something for free, people assume it has no value. He pointed to YouTube, which has yet to make money for Google. Okay.

THEN Seth Godin jumped on the Free (note the capital F so as to not offend Chris Anderson) bandwagon and went on an ad hominem attack stating that Anderson’s Wired is making money with free, while the New Yorker, who Gladwell writes for, is not. Apparently, free gets people’s attention in an A.D.D. world.

Guess what? You are all right. Now shut up.

Chris Anderson. You need to appreciate that not all people want their content to be the same as everyone else’s. When things are free for everyone, we do not have that choice. The Wall Street Journal will ALWAYS be able to charge people for content, so long as that content provides their readers with a competitive advantage for their jobs. If money is an exclusive barrier that makes subscribers part of a club others can’t afford, they’ll pay for it. People like the exclusivity that money affords them. Just ask the people who actually venture to TED. If it makes me money, saves me more time, or makes me happier than what I can get for free, charge me money. Apple does it and it works just splendidly for them.

Malcolm Gladwell. You need to acknowledge that the web crashes barriers. Web hosting is DISGUSTINGLY CHEAP unlike print. The best thing the New Yorker could do to preserve itself is to kill its presses, go web-based, and hire bloggers who fit their style. As soon as you launch a paid subscription, someone else will come up with a cheaper or free subscription with something similar, and it can be just as good and paid for by ads. Maybe they’ll even go user generated and just hire some editor who is brilliant but lives in his mom’s basement. Seth is right. You need to learn to leverage the web better.

Seth Godin. “In a world of free, everyone can play.” True, but not everyone can win, or even stay afloat. Free IS a relatively cheap way to get attention, but not always able to keep that attention. People want content to do certain things for them. If the free stuff doesn’t do it, they’ll pay for something else.

Oh, and don’t tell me that free is the future and then blog using TypePad instead of the superior AND free WordPress. Seriously. Software is code, and code is content too.

Free content can suck. Proprietary content can suck. Just don’t suck at delivering the content that your current and potential readers want and you are okay. I feel like I’m watching a bunch of kids throw sand in each other’s faces in the playground.

  • Phewson

    Um . . . so do you think before you speak or do you just like to type for fun?

  • http://sethgodin.typepad.com Seth Godin

    Back where I come from, “shut up” is fighting words…

    but I’m a writer, not a fighter, so no worries.

    I fear you misinterpreted my point about “everyone can play.” In a marketplace with close to infinite supply (80 million blogs), then it’s very difficult to charge money for content that’s not noticeably faster, more valuable or tribal than the free stuff.

    The book review example is a good place to start. If you wanted book reviews ten years ago, they were scarce and you had to pay. Now, book reviews just as good as those in the paper (sometimes better) are easy to find. Why? Because everyone can play.

    Thanks as always for reading. I’ll shut up now.

    Seth Godins last blog post..The risk/reward confusion

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle


    I’m glad you don’t want to fight. I don’t like fighting either. I am just tired of Chris Anderson saying that there is no way to charge for content. Yes, free is attractive, but so is the exclusivity money affords. I’m not sure why you jumped on this bandwagon.

    Newspapers and record labels are going away because they just aren’t as good as what is on the web. Here are some examples:
    1.) Newspapers. Why not interview the politicians or musicians you write about, interview them, and then UStream it so people to interact with them? A price barrier keeps out the people who aren’t as into the topic as those who are really passionate about it, so charging for it could actually make the conversation better. Conferences like TED have done this for years–why not apply this concept to the web?
    2.) Movies. Make movies events. They are already using 3D which is genius, why not hand out limited edition posters or have exclusive live show beforehand at the theatre? I would pay for these but would get irritated if my movie stopped to show an ad or was riddled with gratuitous product placement.
    3.) Music. Honestly if musicians distributed their music themselves or through very small, specialized and personable record labels, people would pay for it. I love music by Stones Throw Records. I pay for it because unlike large record labels, I want them to stick around and make more.

    If you read what I wrote about Malcolm Gladwell, I did say verbatim that you are right. The newspapers should embrace the web or will be ended by it. The landscape is competitive and has changed.

    People pay for what they are passionate about. Your fans love you and pay for your books because it means you stick around. Star Trek buffs would shudder at the thought of not seeing the film in high-def at the theatre. If something is free for everyone, there is no barrier between those who really interested in something versus those who are not. Sometimes, people want those barriers.

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  • Mike

    I think you hit the nail on the head with music and movies.
    I will gladly pay more and travel out of my way to see a screening of something where there is an event before hand and I will not buy CD’s anywhere other than at shows.
    Warped Tour and Bamboozle have been great for discovering new bands to listen to, meeting said band and picking up their CD’s for less than half of what I’d pay in a store.
    Doesn’t it fall back towards Seths whole purple cow thing? Free (capital F) is great but what’s so special about it when I’m inundated with free. /my2cents

  • http://schipul.com Ed Schipul

    Flipping “Free” around to look at it from a business perspective, I was once told the keys to business are:

    1. Sell at a profit. You can’t sell at a loss and make it up on volume.
    2. Have a recurring revenue model. Any sale takes too much energy to make it up the margin without some recurring revenue.
    3. Love what you do.

    It takes all three. Thus “Free” or “free”, except as loss leaders, do NOT work. Wired mag must charge. WordPress, if you can download and configure it, is free (time OR money, right?). But ease of use and hosting? There is a fee for that.

    Another example – if you are a passionate blogger but sell at a loss and have no recurring revenue, then what you do is A HOBBY. You might be awesome, but your free content is NOT your livelihood. It is probably 100% accurate. Yet your lack of transparency, economic transparency, demands we read it with a modicum of suspicion! (perhaps like Fox News?)

    The phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” comes to mind.

    To sum it up, this is really “The Paradox of Free” in which all three authors make factually correct but exclusive points. Positions that SELL books! For money! Can you imagine that they are seeking a bit of controversy?

    Oh shut up! Oh wait, wasn’t that in the title of your post Michelle? Your FREE blog post? Heh.

    Ed Schipuls last blog post..Adriana Z. Fernandez on Commercial banks’ exposure to real estate at Houston Growth Summit 2009

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle


    Thank you for bringing up the controversy factor. Free is easy to preach, but if Anderson had to sit down and actually help magazines and newspapers turn profits, I doubt it would always be his solution. It’s not a turnkey for everything because sometimes, content is too expensive to obtain and useful to others to give away for free.

    Mike brings up a good point too: “Free (capital F) is great but what’s so special about it when I’m inundated with free.”

    Honestly, Anderson’s book marketing people got involved too early with this. I’m tired of Free already.

  • http://sethgodin.typepad.com Seth Godin

    The thing is, Chris hasn’t said that there’s no way to charge for content.

    What’s true is that there’s no way to charge for mediocre (average) content delivered in a noisy environment with lots of free substitutes.

    I guess it would help to read his book first before telling him to shut up.

    Seth Godins last blog post..The risk/reward confusion

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  • http://www.michellesblog.net Michelle Greer


    Chris Anderson came to Austin at SxSW and basically made everyone feel stupid, or put some of them to sleep. He wouldn’t even let the audience or the panel discuss free as in libre and not free as in beer, which honestly is more interesting to me anyway. Maybe he ate a bad taco or something and was just in a bad mood.

    The audience was perplexed as to how to get value out of his second panel. Anderson at one point chided one questioner like he was a little kid. In his defense, it was a silly question, but Anderson’s reaction was quite unnecessary and set the tone of the entire panel as adversarial.

    Honestly, it was a big disappointment. I loved the longtail and felt it really opened my eyes to a lot of things. At SxSW, I felt Anderson was there to pitch his book first and provide value second.

    Will “Free!” have the same tone as Anderson’s SxSW panels? Because if so, it’s not worth the time it takes to read.

    I basically included you in the conversation because Malcolm Gladwell brought up some good points. I buy Gladwell books because they are insightful, and as long as they stay that way, he doesn’t have to do anything for free. Sometimes being mysterious and unaccessible makes you more desirable to people, and they’ll pay more for a piece of you. Free doesn’t address that. His approach is different from yours, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. So maybe “Shut Up” was just a reaction to “Malcolm is wrong”, because I think Malcolm Gladwell is awfully smart.

    Michelle Greers last blog post..How the Newspapers Can Stay Alive: Hire @Scobleizer

  • http://blog.eyeviewdigital.com Daniel Sevitt

    I kind of came to the same conclusion as you in my blog last Thursday although less eloquently and less contentiously.

    I’m not as convinced about Mr. Gladwell’s smarts as Mr. Godin is, but I’m pretty convinced that Mr. Godin is smart so by logical extension… I’ve totally confused myself.

    My whole problem with the issue is that I don’t think Chris Anderson has said anything particularly revolutionary or even interesting. Television and radio have been pretty much free for a while now. Of course there are paid alternatives but the penetration is pretty low until valuable content (Sopranos, Howard Stern) drives it up a bit.

    I don’t buy 3D as the savior of movies. Movies will be saved by great content in a value-for-money environment. It’s that simple.

    Journalists are whiny babies. They want their product (“News”) to be worth more and they cry when the free market demonstrates its true value. They are paying the price now for spending too much money chasing Diana/Paris/Monica and pretending that it’s news. Even the New Yorker (which I love) has to understand that it’s a minority interest fanzine with an inflated cover price plus sales tax. Mr. Gladwell seems so off the pace with his near-rant that it calls into question everything he has published to date. You could even say that his disingenuous rejection of Free published for free on the New Yorker’s site make him an out and outliar. Geddit?

    I don’t know why

    Daniel Sevitts last blog post..Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin And Me

  • http://uber.la John McElhenney

    So I keep getting hammered for my harsh attitude and you my dear have got a bit of an EDGE yourself. But me thinks you doth protest too much.

    Yelling SHUT UP at 3 of the luminaries of the web is a nice tactic, but merely that a tactic. And dropping the stealth f-bomb is a nice touch to.

    I don’t think I’d be given any slack for your inflammatory tone, but I do applaud it.


    John McElhenneys last blog post..Dell’s Studio Design Studio is Wonky, But Only on a Mac (grin)

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle


    Part of the purpose for the inflammatory tone is to incite someone to prove me wrong. I see tons of freemium software companies go under. It’s not the cure-all, particularly if you accommodate a niche that is more than willing to pay for your software.

    I just don’t understand the point of the argument.

  • Phewson

    ad hominem . . . who cares how a person made you feel . . . just to incite replies doesn’t make a point.

    it shows a desire for attention . . . so . . . did you get the attention you wanted?

    do you feel better?

    how about this . . . read what your peers write and don’t just argue for the sake of contention.

    be respectful.

    you may not get so many replies, but you will certainly earn more respect in the long run.

    you love to unleash those attack dogs early, don’t you?

    honestly, you sound more rash that well thought out.

  • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

    @Seth — 80 million blogs are worthless exactly because there are 80 million of them.

    In fact, I’d argue that the more “free” stuff exists — that isn’t high quality — the more valuable non-free becomes. It’s at least one way to cut through the garbage, and if the non-free is still garbage (which happens a lot!) at least there’s someone accountable.

    Accountable means you can quit, you can report a bug, or whatever that medium requires.

    Of course really quality free stuff does hurt. Quality free software cuts into commercial software, and quality blogs or news sites can certainly cut into for-money sites.

    Free isn’t enough to win, exactly because there’s so much of it.

    @Michelle — I agree with your main point. I’m curious about your thoughts on this idea:

    Since “getting popular” is hard whether or not it’s free, why be free? If the only way to true, sustainable success is high quality, and quality is worth paying for, why not charge right out of the gate?

    Might it be sustainable to just charge for a blog/newsletter right off the bat?

    Certainly in the financial sector this happens all the time. There are newsletters that are $500/year and 100,000 subscribers. Could that — or some less extreme version of that — work elsewhere?

    If so, how? And what are some requirements for that to work?

    Jason Cohens last blog post..Get 5 seats of Code Reviewer for $5

  • http://michellesblog.net Michelle


    If you have the quality content or software that people need, they’ll pay for it. Just get it in front of an influencer who’s opinion is respected, impress them, and then let them talk about it. I call it “the Oprah effect”.

    It seems often with software that people make things free so that you become their beta tester. The application takes on the needs of the community and then when it’s really good, they start charging for it.

    Here’s the thing though–if it’s free and it still sucks because you don’t have the money or the time to invest to make it better, what was the point to either me or you?

    I’ve signed up for so many half-finished apps and wasted so much time because an app was built on a good idea but didn’t actually accomplish what I wanted. If selling a money-back guaranteed app means you’ll have enough money to actually code something worthwhile, sure, I’ll spend the two minutes to sign up via PayPal.

    I’m just tired of being a beta tester, frankly. It’s half the reason I don’t really read TechCrunch anymore, because they’d rather break news about new apps vs. actually point out good ones.