Issue: The current debate over FREE ignores the one thing that is priceless: TIME
Commentary by: David Vinjamuri
The online marketing community is caught in a kerfuffle over Chris Anderson’s new book FREE: The Future of a Radical Price.Â Malcolm Gladwell fired a salvo from The New Yorker and Seth Godin jumped in to defend Anderson.Â Even John Gapper of the Financial Times has entered the fray, with a spirited interactive book review of FREE.
Anderson, in a straightforward extension of his thinking in The Long Tail, argues that with distribution costs declining radically (and marginal distribution costs on the Internet approaching zero), content wants to be free.Â He points out that Free is a powerful concept, much more appealing than ‘cheap’.Â As marketers have known for years, an offer of something for ‘Free’ fundamentally alters consumer psychology and decision-making.Â He suggests that content should be free, that newspapers, record labels and other content providers should just get over it and find other ways to make money.
Gladwell makes a solid economic argument that content is not free, it’s almost free.Â And that the only thing really approaching zero is marginal cost.Â An airline might be able to put you in a seat for almost nothing, but someone still has to pay for the plane, just as someone still has to pay for all that bandwidth and infrastructure.
Godin makes the argument that Free is already here and that it’s good because it democratizes marketing and allows everyone to play.
Nobody, however, seems to consider the implication of all of this free stuff.Â It is consuming the most precious resource in human history: Time.
For Anderson, Godin and perhaps even Gladwell, the Internet and all of the Free stuff is a goldmine.Â As writers, they can spend their time panning the streams until they sift out enough precious dust to sate themselves.
For the rest of us, the new media world is rapidly giving us a headache.
Ask yourself the question, why do brands exist at all?Â Because consumers are willing to trade something they make more of (money) for something they can’t (time).Â Brands save us from the paralyzing indecision that we’d have every time we stood in front of a hundred kinds of toothpaste, or forty kinds of brown bread.
Yes, that’s right, we’re willing to pay more money for brands we know so we don’t have to spend Time deciding what’s good.
The fundamental problem with this world that we’re finding ourselves in is that consumers and marketers alike find ourselves drowning in free information.Â It’s great that it’s free.Â But we now spend more time than ever sorting and choosing and less time consuming.
The argument doesn’t matter, of course.Â Godin correctly points out that what is happening will happen.Â But the thought that newspapers will go away and their place will be taken forever by unpaid bloggers seems unlikely.Â All of the good blog models on the Internet rely on people contributing ideas cheaply or for nothing.Â Advertising hasn’t paid the freight for anyone.
So when this phase is done, when we no longer feel obligated to sort through 1000 meaningless, self-promotional Tweets on Twitter to get a good idea, what will exist?Â Probably some big brands that charge us for stuff we all like and some small brands that charge some of us for stuff a few of us love.Â And yes, some free stuff, too.
Of course it’s ironic that the one thing that’s clearly not FREE among all of this noise is Chris Anderson’s book.Â That still costs $17.91.Â To be fair, Anderson has said that Hyperion is going to let him make the book available for FREE online, but he can’t tell us just how.Â We’re guessing that it will take us some time to figure that out.