Book Review: ‘Free’ by Chris Anderson
When Chris Anderson wrote ‘The Long Tail’ it radically changed the way new media professionals look at the supply and demand chain on the internet. Especially for those of us with a background in marketing, Anderson’s book contained compelling theories and arguments how selling to niches can be made profitable. Anderson’s view on ‘the death of the 80/20 rule’ stirred up quite a bit of discussion. In his new book ‘Free’ he extends upon his notion that ‘advances in technology allow many things to be produced for more or less nothing.’
Anderson’s new book is all about how ‘free’ is transforming traditional economics. He starts out by providing extensive background on the origin of this peculiar word. One of the claims Anderson makes here is that we’re currently seeing a new type of free arising, which is different from ’20th century free’ as the author proclaims. The essential difference being that this type of free truly has no strings attached whatsoever. Sounds too good to be true? It is.
What becomes clear of the in-depth history lesson about free is that the term in itself is nothing more than a container. An empty vessel if you will which has different meanings and social impact trough different times and cultures. Be it a bit too extensive part of the book for my taste, looking at the problematic place of free trough history does underline nicely how difficult it is to bring ‘free’ in to play within organizations. Village Voice for example was facing serious drops in circulation and when in 1996 the newspaper decided to stop charging a cover price (thus making it freely accessible and distributable) the readership more than doubled. Yet, the writers felt the impact of their work diminished even though they were read by twice as many people. This goes to show that even when bringing free into play may have a positive impact business-wise, it also has a social factor to take account for. In the video below, Chris Anderson gives a taste of the effect of free on industries and of what his book is about:
A large part of Chris Anderson’s ‘Free’ is about the history and change in thinking about free. While interesting, I feel that Anderson dedicated too large a part of his book too dealing with the problematic nature of the term and way of thinking. When he finally gets round to discussing the impact of free and the way this changes markets one notices that this is both the lesser (as in amount) and least (as in quality) in-depth part of the book. He talks a lot about how ‘reputation economy’ and ‘time economy’ come in to play but doesn’t take the next step in really narrowing down how organizations should deal with this. Sure there is some general advice like ’embrace abundance’ but more important questions like how one ‘reflates’ a market demolished by a challenger that uses ‘free’ as a business strategy are left unanswered. Pity, because even though I agree that the amount of money in market doesn’t evaporate but is redistributed, I do not agree with his implicit notion that one should simply except that this money is lost. If the value is being redistributed to the users (in case of the classifieds industry and Craigslist) then there must be innovative ways to be found to bring at least part of that redistributed value back into (monetary) circulation again.
What I like about the book is that it has a real personal feel to it. Though the book was influenced by editors and a writing assistant it still feels like a highly personal work. That also means the work has a certain repetitive flow to it as far as the central argument is concerned, but let me be honest and say he’s not the only bestselling author who suffers from that issue. In spite of some of my earlier mentioned critique of the book I would definitely consider this work mandatory reading material for new media professionals. Not only will you be able to better grasp the ways one could think about ‘free’ (which in this web 2.0 era is becoming increasingly prominent), it’s also a good overview on how certain new media companies operate and how this effects both the service and the playing field.
To conclude I’d like to share with you something I often state and which continuously came to mind while I was reading Chris Anderson’s latest book:
Free is not a business model. It’s a business strategy.