Anderson and Gladwell: A Healthy Debate about the Inevitability of Free

The term “thought leader” is sometimes used rather freely, especially in the world of business.

For an example of genuine thought leaders, one need only follow the recent public controversy stirred by Malcolm Gladwell’s review of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price.  Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired, and Gladwell, a contributor to The New Yorker, are perhaps two of the best-known commentators on societal and business trends.  Both have authored books whose titles (Anderson’s Long Tail; Gladwell’s Tipping Point) have become reference points for a wide range of discussions about the emerging global economy.

Although I have read Gladwell’s critique – and the subsequent critiques of his critique – I have not yet read Free, so I can’t comment on the substance of Anderson’s book.  The resulting debate, however, highlights the tensions between the traditional purveyors of content — the multi-billion dollar publishing, television, motion picture and music industries – and the businesses and customers who have wholeheartedly embraced digital media — that is, just about anyone who regularly goes online.

(To get into the particulars of the Anderson-Gladwell debate, be sure to read this TechDirt piece by Mike Masnick and associated comments.)

Naturally, the creators and distributors of professionally-produced content want to gain some measure of control, recognition and recompense for their efforts.  Is free, as some worry, a destructive force that must be contained lest professional producers lose incentive to stay in the content business and, therefore, we all lose? Or is free already leading to a reinvention of the professional media industry, in which customers become producing partners or where the product, which used to be sold at a price, becomes a valuable loss-leading marketing tool for an entirely new type of profit-making model?

These are both scary and exciting times for the industry.  The debate between these two thought leaders provides a useful framework for trying to understand this most fundamental development in the media world.

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