Monday, June 29, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell takes apart Chris Anderson's "Free"

Pondering the narrow topics John McPhee has explored in his career, a critic once wrote, “One day John McPhee is going to bite of less than he can chew.” I’ve had the same thought about the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell books, to tell the truth; like Thomas Friedman and others, he seems to specialize in taking a really good, interesting idea and expanding it far beyond anything I wanted to know.

I say this to introduce what I found a compelling Gladwell piece in which he takes apart another author – Chris Anderson, author and editor of Wired – for a much greater sin: failing to report (or perhaps even understand) several essential points that turn his thesis on its head.

The thesis in question is Anderson’s much-cited theory that “Free” is the news business model – certainly in the digital world and, increasingly, in meatspace as well. (As widely noted, neither Anderson's book nor magazine is free.) For both a citation of the Anderson ideal and Gladwell’s brutally effective rebuttal, this:

"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 [from publishers] 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?

Having effectively dismissed the central idea in “Free,” Gladwell then happily proceeds to demolish a lot of the pseudo-factual evidence Anderson uses to support it.

For one, Anderson uses YouTube as a poster child for his point. ““Nobody is deciding whether a video is good enough to justify the scarce channel space it takes, because there is no scarce channel space,” he writes, and goes on:

Nobody is deciding whether a video is good enough to justify the scarce channel space it takes, because there is no scarce channel space. Distribution is now close enough to free to round down... which is why YouTube’s founders decided to give it away. . . . The result is both messy and runs counter to every instinct of a television professional, but this is what abundance both requires and demands.

Ooo. Bad choice, Anderson. As Gladwell telling points out, YouTube is a spectacular money loser. It costs its owners (Google) something like $360 million just for the bandwidth to serve up all those billions of videos. Even worse (for YouTube) was the discovery that advertisers don’t want their ads placed alongside most of the crap (skateboarding cats and bad dancers). In order to sell ads, YouTube pays roughly another $200 million to license quality commercial entertainment.


To recap: YouTube is a great example of Free, except that Free technology ends up not being Free because of the way consumers respond to Free, fatally compromising YouTube’s ability to make money around Free, and forcing it to retreat from the “abundance thinking” that lies at the heart of Free. Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube will lose close to half a billion dollars this year. If it were a bank, it would be eligible for TARP funds.

Finally, Gladwell demonstrates what shallow reasoning Anderson and so many techno-utopian evangelists employ. Take a famous example from the 1950s, when Lewis Strauss, chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, predicted “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy that is too cheap to meter.”

Well, we all know that didn’t happen; Gladwell shows why it couldn’t happen: Strauss made his prediction based on the assumption that nuclear energy, compared to coal or fossil fuel, would generate electricity so cheaply it could be given away. In the words of another AEC commissioner: “Even if coal were mined and distributed free to electric generating plants today, the reduction in your monthly electricity bill would amount to but twenty per cent, so great is the cost of the plant itself and the distribution system.”

Obviously I am quite taken with Gladwell’s analysis, and urge you to click through to the New Yorker and read the whole thing. Because thinking and writing like Gladwell’s, I can assure you, does not come free – or even cheaply.

U{DATE: Josh Young points me to an analysis that says Google's loss is much less than the Credit Suisse number Gladwell cites. In truth, nobody knows, but I am sure Google doesn't want it to be free.

Friday, June 19, 2009

More mush, fewer facts

Jeff Jarvis reminds us today that UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently described the internet era as “more tumultuous than any previous economic or social revolution.”

Perhaps that isn't even worth correcting, but I believe it's dangerously ignorant. Too much of the debate about trends in media and communication nowadays is animated by similarly myopic and ignorant arguments. (I'd include Clay Shirky's claims about coverage of the 1968 Chicago riots, discussed here yesterday, in that group).

I mentioned this in a comment on Jeff's blog earlier today.

In just 35 years between 1844 and 1879, the world first experienced dependable electric lights, the telegraph, the telephone, a transatlantic telegraph cable, publication of the Communist manifesto, motion pictures, locomotives, the discovery of penicillin …and dozens more. Add a couple more years and we can throw in the Model T, locomotives, and AM radio.

I’m sure he’s right that better communication will [bring] changes in foreign policy. Good thing, too.

But the most tumultuous period ever? Such ignorance undermines the credibility of everybody who makes claims like that, certainly including the hugely unpopular PM Brown.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Come on, professor

In a valentine to Twitter on the TED blog, NYU Prof. Clay Shirky declares that social media (especially Twitter) have exposed developments following the Iranian elections as never before.

[T]his is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. I've been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted "the whole world is watching." Really, that wasn't true then. But this time it's true ...

I think it's fantastic that we have TWitter and outher sources, and like cellphones (and faxes before them) social media surely are wonderful tools for self-organizing response.

It takes nothing away from those facts to call "bullshit" on his contention, however.

The 1968 Chicago riots were carried live on all three American television networks for an audience of at least 50 million people in this country alone.

There are about a million Twitter users.

Come on, professor.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Not with a blog but a twitter

I'm posting much less often here than I did while working fulltime in journalism.

For starters, I know less about what's going on. I'm less engaged in the cut-and-thrust and don't feel entitled to comment on everything that floats by. I reject the Olympian, detached pronouncements of many critics and don't want to fall prey to that myself. I've always disdained those who "wait up in the hills until the battle is over and then come down to shoot the wounded."

I've also concluded that much of what passes for debate in the field nowadays is tired, threadbare and unproductive. There's little to be gained from pointing out the factual errors underlying some doomsayers' predictions, for example; it doesn't change their behavior. There's no point encouraging publishers worried about paying the rent to spend more time pondering the relative value of a newsriver versus a topics page.

I remain optimistic about the future of a professional journalism that follows standards and applies expertise to help people verify and filter their information overload. While tomorrow's journalism won't be a mirror of today's, neither is it likely to involve rejection of all today's institutions and standards.

And, in any case, the 140-character frame of Twitter seems to fit both my mood and my schedule better than longer blog posts most days. I am more active there, as @howardweaver, commenting on a range of topics, certainly including news and journalism. You might enjoy the occasional tweets of "AP Moron Watch" examples, or episodic terse exchanges with the gravedancers.

I'll continue to use this space for subjects where I think I have something valuable to add. And I remain eager to hear from you, here or at howard (dot) weaver (at) gmail dot com.