Free: How Today's Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing

Chris Anderson's Free is an economic treatise on the history and psychology of "free" in the consumer lexicon

Free: How Today's Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing

Publisher: Hyperion
Length: 304 pages
Author: Chris Anderson
Price: $15.99
Format: Trade paperback
US Publication Date: 2010-04

Chris Anderson wrote Free using the free Google Docs, on the free Linux operating system, and over a free wi-fi connection at a local coffeeshop. I even listened to the unabridged audiobook for free at Anderson's website ( Anderson certainly walks the walk and talks the talk.

Free has now been re-released as a paperback with a new preface by the author. Although it’s been re-subtitled How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing, Free is less a "how-to" business book than it is an economic treatise on the history and psychology of "free.”

Anderson delves into the history of "free" in the modern era, turning back the clock to Jell-O's free cookbooks in the early 20th century. "Give away one thing to sell another," he writes, defining the concept of a "loss-leader." Anderson charts the "radical price" through its evolution to the modern-day digital economy. "Information wants to be free," the saying goes. He uses basic economic theory to show how software, music, and other digital goods have seen their real prices drop to nothing online. When the cost of distribution is "zero,” the price will follow -- whether the sellers of the goods want to see that happen or not.

Free is an important academic work ... with a few caveats.

When Free sticks to the facts, Anderson is at his most convincing. However, when Anderson turns from the history and psychology of "free" to prognosticating about the future of "free," the author loses some of the steam that he built up over preceding chapters.

For instance, when Anderson seeks to debunk several modern myths about "free,” he uses personal anecdotes and assumptions rather than hard data to make his claims: "This (new generation) is a generation that wouldn't think of shoplifting but doesn't think twice about downloading music from file-trading sites." So the problem of shoplifting has been solved? Are there any studies that correlate offline and online criminal behavior? Alas, there are no footnotes to indicate that this is a valid claim to make – in fact, there are no footnotes or endnotes in Free at all.

Internet bandwidth is free ... except when it isn't. "No meter ticks as you use Facebook ... Wikipedia costs you nothing," Anderson writes, arguing that storage space and bandwidth costs are dropping so fast as to be un-metered. Perhaps he needs to speak with cable companies like Comcast, which has capped heavy users' bandwidth at 250 GB per month. Other North American cable companies have instituted even lower monthly limits, claiming that bandwidth is not abundant (as Anderson asserts), but scarce.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.