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A Great Debate About Ideas

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Here's an exciting development: a true debate on ideas, on the web, spontaneous combustion, involving some very well known great thinkers of our time: Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Mark Cuban, and Ellen Goodman.

Chris Anderson gathered the wood and laid out the fire. He's editor of Wired and author of The Long Tail, and, most recently, Free. The book says news, information, music, films, and all that are going to be free. (Well, it's a lot more than that; it's a book, not a blog post. But that gets the debate rolling.)

Then Malcolm Gladwell reviewed that book, and objected to its main points, in "Priced to Sell" in the New Yorker. The subtitle asks "Is free the future?" Gladwell -- you might know him as the author of the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, or as a blogger on the New York Times -- says no.

This is the kind of error that technological utopians make. They assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors -- that if you change the fuel you change the whole system.

Then Seth Godin posted "Malcolm is Wrong". Godin, whose blog is one of my favorites, always thoughtful and well written, is also the author of a whole shelf of good books on new marketing (most recent are Tribes, The Dip, All Marketers Are Liars; perhaps the most well known is The Purple Cow). I think he oversimplifies, but it's a very interesting post regardless. He said:

The first argument that makes no sense is, "should we want free to be the future?"

Who cares if we want it? It is.

The second argument that makes no sense is, "how will this new business model support the world as we know it today?"

Who cares if it does? It is. It's happening. The world will change around it, because the world has no choice. I'm sorry if that's inconvenient, but it's true.

Then Mark Cuban -- entrepreneur maximo -- joined in. He posted free vs. freely distributed, offering another reflected angle on the truth of it. He looks at the music industry, the battered but hardened survivor of 10 years of free, and says they're coming up with a new mix of free music with for-sale concerts, best-of-it-all, and add-ons. The money is in the distribution.

In the long run, printed content producers should have a brand, and use their institutional knowledge, their core competencies and ability to procure, improve and market to maximize the value of their brands and the perceived value of their content. Whether its on a central website, a co produced website, in print or on a hologram in the evening sky, I should go to the NY Times because they have demonstrated to me that they have the very best articles on the subjects I am looking for.

But wait, there's more: a refreshing fundamental view from Ellen Goodman, a true journalist, old school, who wrote "Journalism in the Twitter Era".

Forgive my bias, but old-fashioned journalism -- validated, vetted, edited -- is as central to our portrait of the world as it was in the predigital past. When the streets of Tehran are quiet as they are today, the most dramatic moments are not tweets and texts. They are when protesters go to the rooftops at precisely 10 p.m. to chant -- God is Great! Death to the Dictator! -- in equally old-fashioned voices.

I can't help thinking part of the problem is that everybody keeps lumping apples and oranges together. We have to pull some of this apart before we can really look at it. For example,

  • Some journalism, like reporting events, as in Iranians on twitter, will happen because people tell other people; it's human nature. Give us tools (twitter, again) and we'll share.
  • Other journalism, like investigative journalism, or going to a boring city government meeting, is work, not fun, not expression, and it isn't going to happen unless somebody (traditionally, advertising revenue) pays for it. But it doesn't have to be on paper, does it? Advertising can pay for it on the web, like it does where you're reading it right now.
  • Art, as in expression, is also human nature. I'm writing this because I want to; I'm not getting paid. Opinion, commentary, some story telling, that's going to happen like painting and music. Some people do it because they can't help it. That's going to happen with or without pay, and that's tending towards free.
  • Some art is born of commerce. Like it or not, Shakespeare and Hemingway and lots of greats wrote for the money. Bach and Mozart did it for the money. And almost every one of your 10 favorite films was done for the money. 
  • And it gets hard to distinguish, in art, between money and self expression; doesn't it? Don't most of the greats start out getting next to nothing for their work, but living on dreams of the future? And what about the greats who never made money in their lifetimes -- Van Gogh, for example. Was the hope of money a factor?

So I don't think the great debate is going to come to a neat answer. One of my favorite points, in all of this, is Seth Godin's last paragraph:

Neatness is for historians. For a long time, all the markets for attention-based goods are going to be messy, which means that there are going to be huge opportunities for people (like you?) able to get that most precious asset (our attention) for free. At least for a while.