Free: The Future of a Radical Price
Free sells. That statement is at once oxymoronic and intuitively true: It's inconceivable that giving stuff away can generate significant revenues, but the promise of gratis goods or services is an irresistible enticement. In the mind of author Chris Anderson, this knee-jerk split reaction justified the researching, writing, and publication of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, wherein the Wired editor-in-chief waxes rhapsodic about the titular concept: its mottled past, its marketplace-in-aching-transition present, and its all-important future.
Anderson proffers pre-modern examples of free-as-lure--Jell-O exploding in the early 20th century after giving away recipe pamphlets, Gillette bundling "free" razor blades with "coffee, tea, spices, and marshmallows," South Dakota pharmacy Wall Drug building a customer base by providing free ice water--but his protagonists are the folks making free-derived bank today. Video-game companies are thriving under the so-called "freemium" model, wherein dedicated online players are teased into paying for extra privileges and upgraded versions of games that are free in a less enhanced form; the likes of Club Penguin, Second Life, and World of Warcraft are immensely popular.
Purchasers of a Sunday edition of London's Daily Mail received free copies of Planet Earth, Prince's 2007 album; the newspaper and the pop titan both made out like bandits, the latter experiencing a bump in circulation and the former selling out 21 of his London shows. Even Monty Python is coming out ahead: annoyed by grainy YouTube versions of their videos, the surviving members streamed high-quality versions of their most-watched skits and saw their DVD sales jump by 23,000 percent.
And then, of course, there's free's biggest enabler and biggest beneficiary. "Every time you search on Google, you're helping the company improve its ad-targeting algorithms," Anderson writes of the multi-billion-dollar search-engine behemoth. "In each case, the act of using the service creates something of value, either improving the service itself or creating information that can be useful somewhere else. Whether you know it or not, you're paying with your labor for something free."
Sometimes, Free's breadth stuns: It's astonishing to learn that, depending on where you live, college textbooks, an airline ticket, or a car can be had for nothing, or next to nothing. But what ultimately rankles about Free--as Anderson's 2006 niches-abounding treatise The Long Tail did--is the author's cherubic, la-la-la boosterism, his overeagerness to evangelize as the world of paid slips deeper into its death throes: his utter and complete lack of sympathy for the institutions and workers forever vanquished by the concepts he heralds. Giving Free away as a free zip file of MP3s doesn't appease; it adds insult to injury.