The blogosphere has been abuzz about best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell's review in The New Yorker of best-selling author Chris Anderson's new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Gladwell did not genuflect to Anderson's book as blogger Seth Godin and other internet gurus did.
Janet Maslin in the New York Times also gave Free a tepid review, but no one in the blogosphere or anyone who has more than a passing acquaintance with the Internet pays any attention to what the Times says about the Web. How can the Times assign someone who knows nothing about either topic to review a book about the Web and the new economy it's creating? Maslin's review was so inconsequential, ill informed, and ill conceived that it's obvious that the Times is in stage two – anger (stage one is denial) – of the five stages of grief, as described by Anderson in Free.
The Times must be furious at Anderson for suggesting that all content will eventually be free and reminding his readers that the free Craigslist killed newspapers' lucrative classifieds business. The people at the Times want to dismiss anything that reminds them that it is a "dinosaur blog," as one of my favorite cartoons called newspapers.
But enough about the feckless Maslin review; the review that's causing the buzz is Gladwell's.
On the surface, Gladwell's review seems to be a thorough, thoughtful review – way too thorough. You'd be much better off investing a little more time and reading the book rather than Gladwell's biased review. And the book is worth reading or listening to – Anderson reads it, just as Gladwell reads his books, although I think Anderson is a better reader.
In fact, anyone interested in doing business on the Web or competing with a business that's on the Web (in other words, everyone in business) should read Free because it's packed with new, useful, realistic ideas about radical new pricing models created by the digital revolution and the virtually free distribution, processing, and bandwidth costs that now exist because of Web-driven technological advances.
After reading Gladwell's review several times (which, to Anderson's point and ironically, is free on The New Yorker's Web site), I got the distinct impression that Gladwell was being a little pissingly jealous and piqued. Here, for me, is the most telling quote from the review:
"His advice is pithy, his tone uncompromising, and his subject matter perfectly timed for a moment when old-line content providers are desperate for answers. That said, it is not entirely clear what distinction is being marked between 'paying people to get other people to write' and paying people to write. If you can afford to pay someone to get other people to write, why can't you pay people to write? It would be nice to know, as well, just how a business goes about reorganizing itself around getting people to work for 'non-monetary rewards.' Does he mean that the New York Times should be staffed by volunteers, like Meals on Wheels?"
In other words, Gladwell, as clever a writer as he is, hates the idea that anyone would write without getting paid. It's a trend he can't bear to think about. He has to dis the research and the trend toward free because it could knock him out of a top tax bracket. Writing for free is anathema to him.
Therefore, I am anathema to him.
I do not get paid for blogging – on my own blog, http://www.mediacurmdgeon.com, on Jack Myers MediaBizBloggers, or on The Huffington Post. On my own blog I do not accept any advertising, even automated Google AdSense links, because I do not want the perception that advertising has any influence on what I write. Jack Myers also does not sell advertising on MediaBizBloggers.com. I hope The Huffington Post sell lots of ads and make lots of money so they can continue to distribute my blog posts free. I write because I like to get my opinions out into the public sphere, to start a conversation on issues I think are important, and to enhance my reputation.
Furthermore, here's Gladwell's last line in the review: "The only iron law here is the one too obvious to write a book about, which is that the digital age has so transformed the ways in which things are made and sold that there are no iron laws." Gladwell, with his head firmly planted in the sand, doesn't want to believe there are any iron laws, but the pragmatic Anderson does.
Anil Dash writes a blog at http://dashes.com, and he got into the Anderson-Gladwell brawl with the most insightful comment I have read on the subject: "Whenever I see somebody getting their dander up, I think of one of the first things I ever blogged about ten years ago: We hate most in others that which we fail to see in ourselves. Ah hah!"
About a week before Free was officially published, Chris Anderson had a Tweet with the tiny URL included where you could download an audio version of the book free. He later Tweeted with the URL where you could get the book free online. Obviously, he had to offer the book free in several versions, which of course would upset Gladwell. He sells his books.
But because I like hard copies of books that I am considering using in one of the college courses I teach, I ordered Free from Amazon.com ($16.99, not $26.99, the price Gladwell quoted in his review – I'll bet because he didn't want people to know they could get it cheaper on Amazon.com). I could have purchased Anderson's The Long Tail along with Free for $26.50 and received free shipping, but I already have a copy of The Long Tail, which I have as required reading in a course. So now I will require two of Anderson's books in at least two of the courses I teach and none of Gladwell's, although I do have Blink and Outliers on the recommended reading list in one of my graduate courses.
To my surprise and delight, I not only received the copy of Free that I ordered, but another box with four copies of Free, four large mailing envelopes, four UPS pre-paid mailing labels, and a personal note from Chris Anderson asking me to send the book free to four people in order to spread the word. Anderson obviously walks the free walk, and because of that he won my support and gratitude.
As Anderson understands and writes about, the DNA-coded compulsion for reciprocity is so strong in human beings that I will somehow find a way to reciprocate and bring him more fame, credibility, reputation, and, perhaps, money someday. I will do nothing for Gladwell. What has he done for me?
As Dan Ariely points out in his brilliant book Predictably Irrational, because Anderson gave me his book free – he gave me a gift, as it were – he established a social relationship with me, which is much more powerful and long-lasting than the market relationship I have with Gladwell. I bought Gladwell's three books and, thus, have no relationship with him except an impersonal, money-oriented market relationship. So when he wrote a negative review of a book by an author with whom I have a social relationship, I'm upset with Gladwell and will not be tolerant of his review, which like his books, is based on an understanding of the realities of the past, the old economy, not on an understanding of the new economy.
But I will be tolerant and agree with the positive, knowledgeable review given to Free by Jeremy Phillips in the Wall Street Journal. Phillips knows what he's writing about; he's executive vice president of News Corp., which owns the Wall Street Journal.
The Journal is not free and charges for complete online access to its content, so it obviously doesn't buy into all of Anderson's arguments for free. But unlike the New York Times and The New Yorker, its journalistic standards are high enough to take an objective look at a significant contribution to our knowledge of the new economy and assign someone both unbiased and knowledgeable about the subject to write a review of Free.
Read it or listen to it. Anderson's book is full of radical yet practical ideas. Gladwell is just full of it.
Until he retired in 2002, Charlie Warner was Vice President of AOL's Interactive Marketing division. Before joining AOL, he was the Goldenson Endowed Professor at the Missouri Journalism School where he taught media management and sales, and he created and ran the annual Management Seminar for News Executives. Charlie can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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