The problems with free

For the last fifteen years the world gorged on the free information flowing on the Internet. Free news, free comics, free stock quotes, free dating services, free medical advice, free recipes, and free history are just the beginning of a seemingly endless list of free things. Along the way, a fair number of philosophers and armchair economists tried to explain just how wonderful free things happen to be. I was one of them when I wrote Free for All, a book trying to understand free software.

Now that everyone finished swallowing as much as they could, the aura is starting to wear off. On Craigslist, it takes longer and longer to wade through the endless free posts and reposts. The number of people devoting their time to editing the Wikipedia is plunging. While the free content revolution unleashed a number of amazing collaborative opportunities, there’s a danger that it will have all of the staying power of the CB Radio.

Many writers, musicians and content creators are starting to toss around the word “sustainable” and asking whether we’re just like the settlers who moved onto the Great Plains and discovered that the bison herds are not infinite. When that ecology collapsed, the settlers fenced it in, an act that destroyed the romantic vision that anyone could go anywhere and feast on anything in sight, but gave the owners the incentive to care for the land.

As the content creators begin to fence in the Internet, they don’t need to destroy the free areas. It might make sense to pause a minute and consider the limitations to free because it’s the only way the web can rebuild itself and prepare itself for a future when information is not entirely free.

1) Spam, spam, spam

Free services encourage abuse because there’s no cost to blather on and on. Email may be cheap to provide, but fighting spam dramatically increases the cost. If 80% is spam-- a conservative estimate-- then it increases the cost by a factor of 5. The estimate is sure to be low because there are few new engineering challenges to providing simple email but the fight against spam goes on and on. If there was a charge of say 1/1000 of a cent to deliver an email, much of the spam would disappear quickly.

And spam isn't just a problem for email. Practically every part of the web is fair games. Blog owners fight bots who file fake comments just want to sell anything. Google spends a fortune crawling and then filtering out websites filled with nothing but ads for products.

2) Migration away from free arts.

The publisher called Baby Tattoo group used to just bundle their art by cutting down trees and turning them into books. They still do that, but now they're experimenting with getting the true fans to pay $1800 to spend a weekend at a hotel enjoying the company of the artists. Everything sounds wonderful and stimulating. Mark Frauenfelder, the editor of BoingBoing.com, called it “authentic, unmediated experience can't be reproduced online or traded on P2P sites”. Why spend time on an image that will be tossed around for free online when you can sell something like that for $1800?

O'Reilly Books is moving in the same direction. While they often give away free digital copies of their books, they charge $4200 to attend their Web 2.0. Paying such a steep freight to spend a few days talking about how to give away information for free is ironic, but what's O'Reilly to do? They can't pay the bills giving away free copies of the books and so they put great effort into creating an amazing conference. The books become brochures and the effort goes into building the conferences.

3) Walled gardens

Techdirt.com is a very modern web site giving away an excellent survey of important developments on the web. They routinely mock older media companies that grouse about the piracy of the web, repeating the argument that the old companies don't get what's cool about the web. When a newspaper announces a pay wall, the folks at Tech Dirt like to predict that the paywall will doom their content to irrelevance.

How does Techdirt pay the bills? By selling what they call "corporate intelligence", in essence creating expensive and custom reports for deep pockets. This may be a good business model that makes their customers happy, but it is just a paywall of a different kind with insidious effects. No one else can read these reports, in fact most people will never even know that they exist. The text is not indexed or cataloged by any library. The knowledge is private and hidden away. It’s the recreation of the old guilds.

4) Migration toward freeloading.

A blogger can spend hours reporting a piece or minutes adding a snarky comment or two about someone else's work. Even if the summarizer follows the traditional rules for fair use—something often ignored-- the difference in effort is so great that most bloggers will spend most of their time summarizing the work of others and adding just a bit to the mix. Sometimes small bits can be incredibly valuable, but most of the worthwhile nuggets are spread out over dozens of websites and finding requires a bit of work. Sometimes someone will canvas them all and write a better summary, but most of the time they won't.

5) Consumers are cut out of the loop.

The old joke goes that the person who supplies the gold, makes the rules. When consumers pay for content, the creators serve them. Advertising-supported sources are caught in a strange triangle. They need to attract readers, but they also need to please the advertisers who write the checks. The creators still try to attract the crowds, but they're forced to think of the needs of the advertisers. It’s a messy business that places the advertisers needs well above the consumers.

There is some safe, crowd-pleasing content may be supported by advertising, but the edgy, complicated, deep and controversial work is migrating toward paid hubs. Is it any wonder that many of the dramas celebrated by the critics come from HBO, a premium cable channel that requires subscribers to first buy cable and then pay extra for their shows? The people with the most controversial ideas bundle them as books and sell them directly to the consumer.

Free content is the exact opposite. The creators aren’t so interested in pleasing the free audience, just entertaining them enough to sell them something else. It’s not always a widget because free content is often pushing an agenda.

6) Endless advertising.

Take a look at the average free weekly in a big city, the ones filled with ads for bars and bands. They usually have one great article, a few short columns, a dozen cartoons, and endless ads. It's not uncommon to find that they're 90-95% ads. These papers are long-running experiments to find the ratio between the cost of content with the willingness of advertisers to pay to be alongside the content. The web may make delivery cheaper, but it doesn't change this fundamental economy in attention. Many websites are approaching 90-95% ads and it seems likely that they'll all head there.

7) End of democratic access.

When each person pays a small amount for a copy of a creation, the market becomes very democratic. If the price is small enough, as it was for newspapers, then the market is very broad and all inclusive. The poor, the middle class and even the barely rich don't have the kind of money that the Medicis spent supporting Michaelangelo, but together they can foster the career of wonderful artists and story tellers. If the poor can’t add their two cents, then only the rich corporations and the rich people can sponsor art. If free is the dominant mechanism, then non-rich can’t work together to nurture art.

8) Creating art is no longer a career.

One person told me that cartooning wasn’t killed by Internet duplication, only the old syndication business model. He told me that cartoonists might be forced to give away their art online, but they could still make money from stuffed animals and other branded products. Or perhaps they would give weekend lectures at a resort. That solution may be work for cute comics like Peanuts, but most of my favorite cartoons don't have cute characters and I don't want a stuffed version of Zonker Harris from Doonesbury or bedsheets printed with someone from Dilbert, items that some call the “buyproducts” of content.

Even when someone succeeds in making money from the buyproducts after giving away a cartoon for free, there are subtle differences. The cartoonist is no longer in the business of selling jokes, the cartoonist becomes a toy designer creating specs for toys. Cartoonists aren't cartoonists any longer. They're toy designers.

9) Rich people only.

Many artists who graduate from college tell me about the jealousy that appears when some kids start whipping out the checkbook to start up cool, cutting-edge businesses bankrolled by rich uncles or trust funds. Financial aid to art colleges is almost cruel because it encourages kids to get degrees in fields that require substantial investment to become established.

When content is only allowed to be free, it becomes a hobby. Hobbies are things that rich people have. That is to say people with surplus time and money.

10) Artists have nothing to trade with farmers etc.

It's one thing for programmers to swap software with other programmers. Each can return the favor and give as well as get from the commons. This is why open source software works so well for programming tools and libraries of routines useful to other programmers. But when the non-programmers show up, the mechanism is broken. The farmers and the carpenters can take, but they can't contribute to the others. While free goods online don't suffer from scarcity like food, the content still takes time to create.

If the content creators begin giving away their work for free, they don't have anything to trade with the brickmakers, the butchers, and the tailors. If they want to eat or buy anything, they need to find a day job.

11) Disconnection with the reader.

Subscription renewal rates were never a great way to measure the success of a publication, but they were still better than we have now. When people put up money, they speak loudly about the success or failure of a publication. While the free world is building new tools like Digg to measure the effect an article has on an audience, these are still manipulated and distorted by those who take the time to create automated bots. Controlling the spamming of these recommendation services is even harder than controlling fake email.

12) Rise of hidden agendas:

There was probably a time when the crowd wrote book and restaurant reviews for the pure fun of it. Some still do, but more and more of the reviews start to smell like they're written by the company. Some rave and others try to hide the connection by inserting a bit of false modesty such as claims that the waiters were too attentive and brought too many free, bacon-wrapped treats between courses. Then there are the competitors who arrive with the one star shivs to scare away the crowds from their rivals. I often feel like 50% of the reviews on sites like Yelp are written by a cousin, a spouse, or often the owner. Will it approach 100%? I wouldn’t be surprised.

The bias runs deep because most people with taste and the talent to write about it with clarity have real responsibilities to distract them. One Wikipedia entry for a best-selling author reads just like it was written by press agent. Who else has the time to write eight glowing paragraphs calling the author by his first name?

13) Algorithmic mob rule

At first glance, using sophisticated data mining algorithms to organize the information on the web looks clever, but what it really does is discount any individual wisdom. Urban legends start looking true to the data mining tools on the web because they're repeated so often. Anyone who spends their own time and energy doing serious research is drowned out.

Google has a web page explaining why they’re embarrassed by the results that their search engine returns when you type in words like “Jew.” Suddenly, all of the worst examples of human expression outweigh the best and Google is determined to let the loudest voices win.

14) Anti-green

Most of the schemes for supporting artists in the digital era involve leveraging some physical limit of the world: musicians give away music but sell concert tickets, cartoonists sell stuffed dolls, and writers sell t-shirts. All of these require dramatically more energy to produce and consume. People have to drive to concerts and someone has to deliver the physical goods. Now if only they made some digital device that would take a picture and record the sound from a place and let people go to a concert over the web.

15) Inconvenient

The other business models do more than waste energy, they waste time too. Sure, some people live next to Madison Square Garden, but everyone else needs to travel. And even that's not a solution because some inconsiderate artist may sell tickets to a concert in Giants' stadium. If only someone would some digital gadget that took a moving image and recorded the sound so we didn't have to traipse all over the world to attend.

Onward

The Internet community needs to move beyond the metaphors from the utopian dreamers and adopt the ideals embraced by the contemporary ecological realists. It’s time to stop using words like “free” and “volunteer” to describe all collaboration on the web and start tossing around words like “sustainability.”

This does not need to mean the end of the wonderful, free mechanisms that’s given so much to society. Indeed institutions like the Wikipedia may be so valuable that they can still survive on the power of their message alone.

There will be many corners of the Internet that continue to thrive with the free model. Open source software, one of the original utopian visions, can continue to thrive as long as it supports the needs of the programmers who continually nurture it. As long as the creators get more out of contributing, they will continue to give.

But other models will fail whenever they place too much of a burden on one person. Websites that try to harness the crowds to gather news have never gained much momentum because there is a terrible imbalance between the creators and the consumer. As long as only a few people do the work and most of the consumers do nothing but enjoy the fruits of other’s labor, the projects will fail.

The world at large has to stop expecting that all information should be free, all wisdom should be created by crowds of volunteers, and all data must be held in some grand commons. While information sharing online is dramatically cheaper than working with physical goods, gathering and even curating the information is just as labor intensive as any physical task. While it’s good to celebrate the wonderful things that emerge from the commons, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s starting to look like any other commons in the world. The challenge is to save the information ecosystem from complete collapse.