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

This is a continuation of part 1

The fallacy of "free" therefore, comes down in many ways, to a problem of language. However, as we showed in "If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead" with the use of the term "viral," language is never a small matter because it both describes and enacts power. That is to say, the words we use to describe things also influence how we understand them. In the case of "viral" marketing, as we persisting in talking about it as such, we continually obscured user-agency in the passing of content, which prevented people from asking the crucial question of why and for what purposes content circulated. Similarly, if we continue to talk about these systems as "free" or "give away," we perpetuate the perception that there is nothing being given back, that there is no exchange. In short, it makes it difficult to analyze the changing terms of transactions between businesses and users in so-called "free" models if we persist in speaking as if there is no transaction taking place.

Anderson's proposed models are a perfect example of the difficulty the language of "free" presents. Anderson himself clearly understands and acknowledges the need to expand the definition of value, concluding that "[Attention and reputation] are the new scarcities . . . Free shifts the economy from a focus on only that which can be quantified in dollars and cents to a more realistic accounting of all the things we truly value today." However, he suggests that some of the most successful web companies, such as Facebook and Google, are instances of a two-sided market wherein "the minority of customers who pay subsidize the majority who do not. Sometimes that's two different sets of customers, as in the traditional media model: A few advertisers pay for content so lots of consumers can get it cheap or free" (Anderson 2009).

The problem here is that even as Anderson pushes for moving the economic focus away from monetary value, the suggestion that advertisers are paying in the place of the users puts the emphasis back on money as the only measure of compensation, when in fact the users are paying -- they are paying in data and labor that makes services like Google and Facebook work. So advertisers are, in fact, paying for users, not in the sense of paying in place of them, but paying for the value they have handed over to the web company in exchange for services.

My point here then is not to pass judgement on the models that "free" seeks to describe, but rather to point out that the discourse of "free" is locking us into a very limited definition of value that is insufficient in describing the complex and evolving sets of social and economic relations that characterize much of what generates worth in a digital, networked economy. In continuing to frame these increasing complicated and multi-party exchanges as "free," we inherently devalue everything that is not money, everything that does not fit within the previously established criteria and business models that we have already proven to be out of date and in many way insupportable in the current media landscape. And in doing so, we continue to speak as if social worth, brand goodwill, fan advocacy, is still somehow "surplus," just a byproduct or precursor to the real return, when what we need to do is recognize that these things are the exchange. What is happening is not a giveaway, it is an exchange operated under a new set of standards and regulations, and it is not until we recognize this that we can begin to examine what those standards and regulations are, and how they are formed and negotiated.


Anderson, Chris. 2008. Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business. Wired, February 25.

Anderson, Chris. 2009. The Economics of Giving it Away. Wall Street Journal (online), February 2.

Douglas, Mary. 2000. Foreward: No Free Gifts. In The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, August.

Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, August.

This piece has also been cross-posted at