[Tribune] Book review: Free, by Chris Anderson

Remember all that blogging about Free I was doing earlier this year? My review of Chris Anderson’s guide to something-for-nothing is in Tribune this week (26 September-1 October 2009) or you can read it in full below:

free coverSomething for nothing – main man on media or snake oil salesman?

Free: The Future Of A Radical Price by Chris Anderson

Random House Business, £18.99/free

Chris Anderson has two products to flog. Obviously, there’s the book, which is takes an intriguingly counter-intuitive premise (businesses can make money by giving stuff away) and demonstrates it to be scaled-up version of already established tactics, made possible by the low overheads involved in the delivery of online products. In fact, Anderson begins the story of Free in the world on nineteenth-century patent medicines – which is fitting, because with its impossible promises of entrepreneurs growing wealthy at no cost to consumers or themselves, Free is 80 per cent snake oil.

In the schema of Free, the book is a loss-leader (offered as a free text download and full-length audiobook from Anderson’s website) for the main product line – Anderson himself, available for public speaking engagements. Offering himself up as the man with a mainline to the future of media, Anderson has been racking up column inches in both the fidgety paper media and gloating online outlets with his aggressive assertions of the press’s imminent death. In an especially bullish interview with Der Spiegel, he even declared “media” and “news” to be non-words and announced that the media of the future will be a hobby (although not, presumably, for auditorium fillers like himself).

Funnily enough, Free the book doesn’t substantiate either Anderson’s bigger claims or the more vituperative criticism he’s drawn for the thesis. What it actually describes isn’t so much the future promised by the title, but the present we’ve been living in for at least the last decade. Anderson anatomises Free into many forms, from the free sample to the cross-subsidy to what he labels “Freemium” (basically, economy and first class services with a price of zero on the entry-level line). Google, of course, have built an empire on giving away their products – principally search, but also email, web browser and a whole mass of other applications – allowing them to essentially corner the means of production for usable information, and helping to drive customers towards the advertising they’re paid to place. Anderson draws heavily on the Google experiment to make his case.

He also draws on Wikipedia – not only as an example, but also as an unacknowledged source for a couple of large chunks of text. Such plagiarism is gross sloppiness, and sloppiness is typical of the book: there’s a failure to draw connections or make comparisons between different parts of the argument. Why, for example, do videogames seem to be so much more successful in converting free users into paying customers than shareware programs? Anderson provides the stats, but because he’s only interested it taking lessons from the financially successful segment of the free economy, the lower end gets overlooked.

And as for the unwaged workers of the free economy, like the Wikipedians who became his unwitting co-authors? Anderson seems confident that people will continue to labour gratis on the promise of community and celebrity. Coming from someone who gets well-paid for public speaking gigs assuring journalists that they can make a living by getting other journalists to work for nothing (“leveraging the Free”) it’s unclear why anyone should be paying tribute to this half-formed, self-serving economic theory.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. This review originally appeared in Tribune vol. 73, no. 36.