I loves me some free Malcolm Gladwell

I no longer subscribe to the New Yorker. I did, but I realized that the only thing I ever looked forward to were the Malcolm Gladwell columns and that if I waited long enough, he’d eventually put them up on his website. Ironically (and I think I’ve got the right use of the word here) this is exactly free-ridership that Gladwell critiques in his review of Chris Anderson’s “Free: The Future of a Radical Price”.

Anderson’s basic premise is a familiar one. Websites like hulu, YouTube, The Huffington Post and the like are able to distribute material for free — material that they didn’t produce — simply because the costs of distribution are so cheap. Anderson suggests that as time goes on, more and more of the things we consume (journalism, for example), will move more and more to this model.

Gladwell takes issue (and of course, takes us on a tour of past Utopian “free” distribution in the process):

The only problem is that in the middle of laying out what he sees as the new business model of the digital age Anderson is forced to admit that one of his main case studies, YouTube, “has so far failed to make any money for Google.”

Why is that? Because of the very principles of Free that Anderson so energetically celebrates. When you let people upload and download as many videos as they want, lots of them will take you up on the offer. That’s the magic of Free psychology: an estimated seventy-five billion videos will be served up by YouTube this year. Although the magic of Free technology means that the cost of serving up each video is “close enough to free to round down,” “close enough to free” multiplied by seventy-five billion is still a very large number. A recent report by Credit Suisse estimates that YouTube’s bandwidth costs in 2009 will be three hundred and sixty million dollars. In the case of YouTube, the effects of technological Free and psychological Free work against each other.

This is not a new problem. Apparently the same issues can be found in atomic energy. Cheap to produce, expensive as any other source of energy to distribute (and never mind the political or potential safety issues).

Besides the costs of distribution, Gladwell talks about the issue of production, and that’s what really got me thinking. Online journalism, for example, is growing by leaps and bounds while print journalism is in decline. More to the point, amateur (or semi-amateur) journalism in ascendance. From Anderson:

There may be more of them, not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media. But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free—paying people to get other people to write for non-monetary rewards—may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation.

Getting away from Gladwell’s concerns about journalists not-so-graceful transition from writers to mentors, and ignoring the fact that many professional journalists (e.g. Fox News) clearly do not take their profession seriously, my issue is that journalism is a full time job.

Admittedly, my experience here is somewhat limited, but in recent weeks and months, as I’ve thought more and more about science popularization, I’ve been paying closer attention to the range of stories that science journalists cover. I’ve tried to keep abreast of current events myself, even if only in the very limited realm of astrophysics (a field, I’ll remind you, in which I hold a Ph.D. and a professorship). It is surprisingly difficult. There comes a point where people who truly have something to say will want to be compensated in a manner commensurate with the amount of time and knowledge they’re putting into it, and if the market doesn’t bear that cost, then the market gets amateurish reporting in every sense of the term.

I’ve commented before on the need for great science popularizers. There’s also a need for great science journalism (as well as every other flavor). For those non-scientists out there, I have news for you: for the most part, we find out about the big advances the same way you do, through the Dennis Overbye, Ira Flatow, or someone like that. I’ve tried doing the legwork to be as uniformly well-informed as they, and I’ll tell you, it’s too much for me.

Of course, another problem with “free” is that if I am so price sensitive as to avoid buying a New Yorker, then I’m willing to look foolish by talking about a book review that came out more than 3 months ago. Oddly, Gladwell doesn’t directly touch on that.


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