The Free Debate

Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of Radical Price has sparked up the debate about ‘free.’

Union Square Ventures has a good post discussing it. Thanks to James Cherkoff.

From Union Square:

Both sides of the debate about Free do not seem to acknowledge how fundamentally different the relationship between suppliers and consumers is on the web. Services are not offered for free at all. There is an exchange of value between users, the creators of the raw material – data, content, and meta-data, and the network where that data is converted into insight. This exchange is still governed by the basic laws of economics but the currency is not dollars, it’s attention.

I have this creeping feeling that’s been bothering me for a while now. Part of it is familiar and part of it is new: charities have a natural advantage over commercial enterprises on the internet as they sell something abstract (community, communication), and because internet media is conversational, ie. charities have something to talk about: changing the world. (That’s not something you can say about Coke.) That’s the familiar part.

The sense of unease has to do with the possibility that charities will actually let commercial ventures lead them. This was natural in the mass media age, when communication was expensive. Today it looks more like squandering your birth right. Charities will not fully embrace the web, get attention, built communities, harness people’s ‘cognitive surplus,’ provide purpose to donors’ lives, and change the world until commercial businesses show them how to do it – at which point they will have blown their natural advantage.

There is something in The Free Debate that charities should be interrogating very closely. When attention is the currency of a digital economy, where the price is ‘free,’ what does it mean to put a price on – pick your favourite abstract noun – community, communications, purpose, attention….

Can you see the source of my frustration? Commercial ventures are dealing with free in an economy of attention. Charities are pretty much the only people who can charge a fee, deliver a flash of emotion, and then weasel their way out of delivering the substantial engagement the internet makes possible. In general, it seems the charitable world is overcharging and under-delivering. I begin to question how long this can be sustainable.

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