Few attempts at rewriting the rules of business have been met with as much hostility as the latest theory touted by Chris Anderson, editor of the technology magazine Wired. His latest book, Free: the Future of a Radical Price, expounds a philosophy of “freeconomics” – businesses in a vast range of industries, he argues, should emulate the giant giveaway of the internet. Bold, perhaps, but also spectacularly badly timed. And the response has reflected that. The Economist, for one, has roundly criticised Free. “The lesson of the two internet bubbles,” it intoned, “is that somebody, somewhere, is going to have to pick up the tab for lunch.”
What is really puzzling is that the backlash against Anderson’s ideas has taken this long to happen. The response to his first book, The Long Tail, an analysis of online businesses which sell a wide variety of items in very small quantities, compared Anderson to Copernicus, no less, and its title became a buzz-phrase for the new media and marketing classes. But eventually his theory wilted in the face of empirical evidence.
Both books contain a grain of truth; however, in each case it is buried beneath a pile of dramatic, improbable extrapolations. Anderson correctly notes that digital technology has lowered the cost of production (and reproduction) of digital goods, the cost of transactions, and the cost of acquiring customers. However, the giveaways his freeconomy depends on require someone else to pick up the tab, and in the current economic climate, with profits evaporating and jobs being shed, there is little enthusiasm for altruism or wild punts. In addition, media owners and executives have turned viscerally on the notion of giving away their key products. Rupert Murdoch, who could be heard lauding Web 2.0 a couple of years ago, now echoes the fairly common view that aggregators such as Google are parasitic. Understanding how such flimsy ideas became so popular in the first place involves looking back to the infancy of the magazine that incubated them.
In 1992, Louis Rossetto, an expatriate American living in Amsterdam, was getting exhausted. For a fruitless two years, he had been pulling a blueprint from his backpack. It was for a new magazine that would foretell dramatic changes in business and society as computers became networked – but nobody wanted to know. However, his fortunes took a turn for the better when he met Nicholas Negroponte, the well-connected Boston socialite and academic.
Negroponte was seeking a publicity vehicle for his “concept factory”, a novel business proposition spun out from the venerable Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Negroponte’s Media Lab didn’t trouble itself with boring engineering and scientific research – the empirical bedrock of technological innovation, which takes years to bear fruit. The Lab was designed to coax corporate sponsorship with attention-grabbing ideas. This was Hollywood with P T Barnum thrown in.
Few of the whimsical concepts from the Lab – furry alarm clocks that run away, “ambient furniture” – would ever be viable products, but they generated acres of newsprint. And the press coverage drew in the sponsorship. Negroponte sold the proposition that his whizz-kids knew the future, and if you, too, suspended disbelief, so could you. A new business had been created. Negroponte became Rossetto’s first investor, and his flagship guru. Wired magazine was born.
Wired married an admirable American can-do spirit to the techno-utopianism of earlier media prophets such as Alvin Toffler, a former associate editor of Forbes magazine who has been writing since the 1960s about technology’s future and its impact. But Wired also inherited Toffler’s bossy, declamatory tone. The future wouldn’t just be different, it would be unrecognisable; history would be erased, and existing businesses must leap out of the way. The necessity to preach “rewriting the rules of business” in every issue set Wired on the path to hubris.
The answer to the puzzle of Anderson’s popularity lies in the roots of Wired itself – a mix of manifest destiny and opportunistic hucksterism. Anderson is primarily an evangelist for a vision that dictates a specific shape and structure for the internet. This may be premature. And, coincidentally, it is a vision that directly benefits one company, Google, at the expense of the telecommunications and media industries. Both of Anderson’s theses were inspired by critiques of the internet that fatally undermine this vision. Arguably, both amount to exercises in public relations rather than economics.
The Long Tail was a response to an essay by Clay Shirky, a prominent technology writer who also teaches at New York University. Shirky’s argument dampened much of the nascent utopianism about blogs, pointing out that the readership of early blogs followed what economists call a Pareto curve, or “power curve”: a small number of sites (the “head”) attracted a huge number of readers, but most (the “tail”) had few or none. This jarred with the utopian notion of the internet as a new kind of democracy. Why bother to participate if our fates were decided for us by a few block votes?
So Anderson turned the notion upside down. The blockbuster was over, he proclaimed, and, like a man possessed, he began to see long tails everywhere. It was the Guardian that lauded this logic by comparing Anderson to Copernicus. The implicit message was that the little people would win. Many people were so keen to believe that Web 2.0 would make the world fairer that they rejected any evidence to the contrary. It was only last year, with an exhaustive study of online music sales by the economist Will Page and an experienced digital retailer, Andrew Bud, that a more useful picture of digital markets begin to emerge.
Page and Bud found that most of the songs available for purchase had never been downloaded, and that the concentration of hits was more pronounced than ever before. On the file-sharing networks, the same pattern emerged. So, carrying a huge retail inventory, though cheaper than before, was of little or no value.
Now, with Free, Anderson has turned to the criticism that the internet destroyed the value of movies, newspapers and music. Firms could, and now should, cross-subsidise this unprofitable activity, he argues. But cross-subsidies aren’t new: they have been the subject of decades of observation by economists. Nor are they a panacea. Alan Patrick, co-founder of the Broadsight media and technology consultancy, points out that despite falling marginal costs, the idea of anything being “free to produce” is a myth; the costs are hidden elsewhere in the system. While at McKinsey, Patrick ran simulations of the “free to produce” business model and found that “it results in wholesale value destruction with no accruing market benefit, unless you can build an extremely commanding lead and get the whole positive dynamic of increasing returns working for you. But that’s hard and rare.”
Explaining the popularity of Wired-style theses should keep sociologists busy for years to come. They will doubtless note the business culture’s appetite for upbeat nostrums, and the media’s desire for myth-making. Business pays lip-service to genuine innovation these days, but, like the modern politician, it is keen to hear about the virtues of constant structural reorganisation, or how to adopt the ephemera of radical change. A speaker who can supply this market with new buzzwords can command 20 times the income of an American magazine editor. So one can hardly blame Anderson for trying his luck. And the buzz-phrases wouldn’t have spread without frequent repetition by an uncritical media. This could be evidence of a lack of confidence or expertise in explaining technical subjects – but it’s the same cynical resort to novelty that Negroponte banked on when he backed Wired magazine.
Anderson’s vision today looks curiously conservative and static, and is both deeply reductive and pessimistic about human nature. We are happy to pay when we perceive value, even for the most unlikely products, such as bottled water. The ideas at the heart of Free do little to explain that. For the “little people to win”, we need to draw on our human capacity for organisation and inventiveness, and engage in real, not virtual, politics. Fittingly, and not surprisingly, Free has had a critical mauling. So, perhaps the Wired era is over, departing like a snake-oil salesman at a medicine show who – having poisoned the town – can’t leave quickly enough.
Andrew Orlowski is Executive Editor of the Register
Chris Anderson: for and against
The Long Tail’s fans . . .
"Each year produces a book that captures the zeitgeist . . . This year
Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail has helped to reinterpret our world."
"It is a powerful idea that provides us with a new(ish) way of looking at the world. Copernicus did the same thing for many people when he pointed out that the earth went round the sun."
"I strongly recommend this one to anyone who wants to understand how economics is changing."
"Mr Anderson’s book does an excellent job of spotting trends and fitting them into an easily accessible theoretical framework."
New York Times
"The Long Tail does something that only the best books do – uncovers a phenomenon that’s undeniably going on and makes clear sense of it."
Slate online magazine
"By applying the long tail to the online world, Anderson brings intellectual order to what often looks like pointless activity."
"[Most technologists and bloggers] are envious of Mr Anderson, whose brainwave quickly became the most fashionable business idea around."
. . . and its critics . . .
"Is most of the business in the long tail being generated by a bunch of iconoclasts determined to march to different drummers? The answer is a definite no . . . our research also showed that success is concentrated in ever fewer bestselling titles at the head of the distribution curve."
Harvard Business Review
. . . and the response to the yet-to-be-released Free . . .
"Anderson’s idea of freeconomics offers a beautiful, if infantile, dream of a return to the Garden of Eden."
"Free to produce is a myth – the costs are hidden elsewhere in the system."
Alan Patrick of the Broadsight consultancy
"Reality is reasserting itself . . . the lesson of the two internet bubbles is that somebody, somewhere, is going to have to pick up the tab for lunch."