How to support writing in an age of free info?

25 Oct 2009

The Guardian had a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, What The Dog Saw, that depressed me a little bit. It had nothing to do with what the reviewer said about Gladwell’s book—which was largely positive.

The bit that got me is when the reviewer notes that all of the articles in the book are available for free on Gladwell’s website.

If you like, you can go there and read the original New Yorker articles, complete with beautiful layouts and cartoons. You can even print them out and staple them together using an industrial stapler from the stationery cupboard at work. A trial run suggests that this could occupy an idle lunchtime.

This puts the reviewer into a quandry…

Why buy the book if the content is free? And what does that say about me? Is the feeling of being mugged by the publisher trumped by the virtue of convenience? The book is beautiful and brings together the writing that made Gladwell the extraordinary figure he is today. That alone is worth paying something for, but if you want to avoid mental anguish it might be safer to buy it for someone else.

Apparently the irony of this stance is completely lost on the reviewer, who’s writing for a newspaper that is available for free online! I paid nothing to read his review.

Yes, there is online advertising. But my understanding is that so far this is nowhere near sufficient to support a regular newspaper.

In an age where information is increasingly free, I hope people will take a different view of it, and will be willing to pay for it to be packaged conveniently for them, or even just so that they can be certain that the newspaper, magazine, website or whatever that they love will continue running.

However, it’s a public goods game, one where lots of people benefit from free online information, but no one individual reader feels any responsibility for making sure it gets paid for. (Soon, I’ll have more to say about these public games and climate change.)

I feel like there must be someway of getting people to pay for information, without putting information behind walls, and without websites having to do cheesy fund drives like public radio and TV is forced to do.

Some researchers have found that reputation can be a powerful way of getting people to cooperate. Most of us want to look like nice, altruistic people, so if we can have some way of advertising how nice we are, then that will make more people want to be nice. (I suppose we could get into a niceness war, and people could cheat on the advertising, but still…)

Using reputation this way might help people cut energy use, since they could show off how green they are, and then their neighbors and friends would be motivated to move in the same direction.

Maybe something similar would work with online information. You could send some money to the Guardian, or your favorite blog, or whatever, and then get a little badge in return that goes on your Facebook page, or your blog, or whatever saying that you donated. (There could be different classes of them, for high and low donators.)

If all it was is a little picture, then that could be easily copied and faked. But if the badge links back to the site you’re supporting, then when you click on the badge, the site could confirm that you are indeed a donator. And what’s worse than not donating? Pretending you’re donating, and then being exposed as a fraud.

So what do you think? Does anything like this have a chance? Did Chris Anderson already cover this in his new book, Free?


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »