Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Seth Godin is Wrong About Malcolm Gladwell Being Wrong About Chris Anderson

When I read Malcolm Gladwell's nasty review of Chris Anderson's new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, I found myself agreeing over and over again. "Does he mean that the New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels?" Gladwell asks. "Yeah! Exactly!" I cheer. But then I'm a writer who gets paid very little. I have a stake in this, and I see my chances for maintaining a career in this thankless business withering away.

On the other hand, I'm a blogger and a guy who can't afford to get a daily newspaper delivered to my door.

Chris Anderson is the presumably well-paid editor of Wired Magazine and the probably very well-paid author of The Long Tail (the subtitle, "Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More," says it all). His new book argues that the future will be all about making money off of free shit. The problem with this is that it means all of us will be doing a lot of work for the love of it, and a few others will be making money off of our work. (But then doesn't this describe the work of a writer today anyway?)

Gladwell has a lot of good points:
“Information wants to be free,” Anderson tells us, “in the same way that life wants to spread and water wants to run downhill.” But information can’t actually want anything, can it? Amazon wants the information in the Dallas [Morning News] to be free, because that way Amazon makes more money. Why are the self-interested motives of powerful companies being elevated to a philosophical principle?
"Malcolm is Wrong," reads the title of a recent entry from superblogger Seth Godin. He's a little too reverent: "I've never written those three words before, but he's never disagreed with Chris Anderson before, so there you go." And a little too dismissive and self-satistfied, like a believer talking down to an atheist:
The first argument that makes no sense is, "should we want free to be the future?"

Who cares if we want it? It is.

The second argument that makes no sense is, "how will this new business model support the world as we know it today?"

Who cares if it does? It is. It's happening. The world will change around it, because the world has no choice. I'm sorry if that's inconvenient, but it's true.
Sure, the world is changing. But like the luxury retail business, there may be reckoning for the so-called Free Economy. Does Twitter make any money? YouTube, Gladwell points out, "will lose close to half a billion dollars this year."

Godin is right about what we'll pay for:
People will pay for content if it is so unique they can't get it anywhere else, so fast they benefit from getting it before anyone else, or so related to their tribe that paying for it brings them closer to other people. We'll always be willing to pay for souvenirs of news, as well, things to go on a shelf or badges of honor to share.

People will not pay for by-the-book rewrites of news that belongs to all of us. People will not pay for yesterday's news, driven to our house, delivered a day late, static, without connection or comments or relevance. Why should we? A good book review on Amazon is more reliable and easier to find than a paid-for professional review that used to run in your local newspaper, isn't it?
Wait, did he say that book reviews are more reliable on Amazon.com than in a newspaper? First, one has to wade through a lot of shit reviews ("I loved it!!!!") and a lot of ramblings. Second, what is it that Godin thinks book reviews do? If you're looking for an absence of negative comments to help you decide whether or not to buy a book, okay. Or if you want preactical advice ("This books was too long!"), fine.

But if you didn't know that a boxed set of all of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series just came out, then it's nice to happen upon a copy of the New York Review of Book. Michael Dirda's review, "This Woman Is Dangerous," from the July 2 issue, is much more than a positive review and practical advice. It's an entertaining, well-crafted 4,500 word discussion about who Highsmith was, what her books were about, how they affected culture and their place in American literature. What hobbiest, what dilettante has the time to do that well? (And, I might add, what blogger or Amazon reviewer has an editor to proofread and tighten their prose?)

"When there are thousands of people writing about something," says Godin, "many will be willing to do it for free (like poets) and some of them might even be really good (like some poets). There is no poetry shortage."

No, there's not, goddammit. But maybe there should be. Ironically, because professional poetry answers only to an insular group of academics, precious little of it is palatable--or relevant--to our culture in general. Could it possibly be any better among casual, part-time poets?

But Godin is absolutely right in much of what he says here:
The reason that we needed paid contributors before was that there was only economic room for a few magazines, a few TV channels, a few pottery stores, a few of everything. In world where there is room for anyone to present their work, anyone will present their work. Editors become ever more powerful and valued, while the need for attention grows so acute that free may even be considered expensive.

Of course, it's ironic that sometimes people pay money for my books (I view them as souvenirs of content you could get less conveniently and less organized for free online if you chose to). And it's ironic that I read Malcolm's review for free. And ironic that you can read Chris's arguments the most cogently by paying for them.
Then an editor's role becomes organizer and focuser.

And yes, I am aware that I've been arguing with reviewers instead of reading the book. But what's the incentive to read the book? I'm not getting paid or anything.



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