March 18, 2009
The Fallacy of "Free" (part 1/2)

This is part 1 of a small piece looking at the discourse of "free" and "give away" policies and services online. It is part of the ongoing research I'm currently working through in examining the nature of value exchanges in a spreadable media environment.

"The idea of a pure gift is a contradiction." -- Mary Douglas

"Free" is a term that has come into vogue in recent years to describe many of the systems of information and services made available in the so-called new media landscape. In 2008, editor Chris Anderson proclaimed "free" to be "the future of business" (Anderson 2008) on the web. But the word "free" means to be exempt from something, so in calling these things free, we need to be able to answer the implicit questions of what, exactly, are they free from?

"Free," in many cases, has been conflated with "no-cost," with the suggestion that the web is rife with free goods and services -- free email, free social networks and video hosting sites, free content and information -- because we don't have to pay for them. The Free Software movement is a great example of a thoroughly-considered use of the term that addresses its multiple implications, both economic and ideological. But for the most part, "free" in popular marketing discourse is commonly assumed to be a measure of monetary value. And though the specific uses of "free" deployed by Free Software is outside the focus of this piece, there's certainly an important lesson to be learned from an old joke amongst users of Linux: it's only free if your time isn't worth anything. This joke gets to the heart of why the term "free" is problematic for describing the new economic and social models emerging online: to continue to call these things "free" implies that money remains the only thing of value to be given or gained, a proposition that runs counter to how most of these systems are regulated.

As we suggested in "If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead," the flow of information and services online is in many cases regulated in ways similar to those of gift economies, in which things like social prestige, reputation, and cultural capital are the central tokens of value and exchange. These types of exchanges are the ones typically referred to as "free." However, as Mary Douglas reminds us in her foreward to Marcel Mauss' foundational text on Gift economies:

"the whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding. What is wrong with the so-called free gift is the donor's intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient. Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties. Once given, the free gift entails no further claims from the recipient. The public is not deceived by free gift vouches. For all the ongoing commitment the free-gift gesture has created, it might as well never have happened. According to Marcel Mauss that is what is wrong with the free gift. A gift that does not to enhance solidarity is a contradiction" (Douglas 2000: vii)
In other words, something that is totally free -- something given completely exempt of both cost and social obligation -- is extremely undesirable in the context of any economy because it precisely does not enable any form of exchange, monetary or otherwise. A totally free gift -- a true give away -- is a unidirectional, one-time action, in which nothing is returned.

In monetary, commercial market exchanges, the exchange is "free" in the sense that it's discrete and does not insist on future ties and obligations to the vendor because I pay for the thing being exchanged. If I get a cup of coffee from a Starbucks, in paying for my coffee, I have severed all further obligation to the place and the person selling me the coffee. In fact, it would be incredibly strange for me to bring my barista a cup of coffee the following day. In non-monetary, non-market (or "gift") exchanges, the content of the exchange is "free," but the exchange itself comes with social ties. So if my neighbor invites me over for a cup of coffee and I accept, I don't have the pay for the coffee, but it would be considered rude if I totally ignore my neighbor later if we were to pass in the hall.

Thus non-monetary -- so-called "free" -- exchanges are actually the opposite of free in the sense that they actually create ties and obligations between the parties involved in the exchange. These ties may be informal, such as a set of implicit social protocols of behavior such as acknowledging the presence of something you've shared food with, or they might be formalized within a Terms of Service agreement. Thus, if I contribute a photo to a flickr community, or upload a video onto Youtube, or write and share a piece of fanfiction, I have given away my work for "free," but I have opened the door to form social ties with the communities I am engaging in. Similarly, sites like Youtube and Flickr are offering me a "free" service, but establishing an ongoing exchange with me for the contribution of content, audience-draw, and data. That we continue to call these exchanges free suggest that we need to expand our definition of what is valuable.