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“If almost-as-good is free or nearly free, what is the market value of slightly-better?”

Six years ago Friday, I launched BloodhoundBlog with the words cited in the headline:

In a subsistence culture, the work of the mind is precious and literally unsupportable. We are by now so rich that millions of people can create intellectual resources that they give away, in turn to be remarketed by others. This may or may not work in the long run for companies tapping into and amplifying open-source-like works of the mind. Consider that aggregator software levels the playing field for small players. The interesting thing is what it will do to companies whose entire business model is based on scarcity and hoarding. If almost-as-good is free or nearly free, what is the market value of slightly-better?

I’ve hit that theme again and again over the years: How much future is there in a job that millions of very smart people are willing to do for free?

Stewart Brand said “information wants to be free”. This has intellectual property implications far beyond ordinary information. But with respect to that ordinary information — news, opinion, fiction, poetry, almost all music, etc. — the war is over. Hoarding lost. The challenge amidst this vast abundance is not getting people to pay for your information — but simply getting them to pay attention to it.

The daily newspaper has no hope whatever of nicking me for fifty cents. The question that will decide if there is even to be a newspaper is, can they hold onto my eyes for as long as fifty seconds? And will someone pay for those eyes in the random hope of piercing my vast indifference to advertising?

It comes down to career advice, I think, for the newspaperati and for all of us: How much future is there in a job that millions of very smart people are willing to do for free? Maybe not the same work, but so close that any differences become academic. And: If you’re committed to sharing information even in a marketplace where ordinary information is so abundant as to be without monetary value, what are you going to do to make a living?

At Forbes magazine, Susannah Breslin offers advice on why you should not be a writer. Her arguments seem a little defensive to me, but it’s hard to fault her for that: She’s getting paid to write — for now — but getting paid to create ordinary information seems like a diminishing return to me. Here’s why: The quantity of ordinary information available to you is ludicrously infinite. The quantity of time you have available for that information is tragically finite. You can’t begin to make a dent in all the stuff that is available to you for free. Why would you pay for more?

That’s a question that elicits a dinosaur’s roar from paleo-journalist Leonard Pitts:

The function served by daily newspaper journalism is critical to the very maintenance of democracy.

That reads to me like the the opening argument in a plea for tax-payer subsidies. Good luck with that…

The death of pay-for-play in the lesser arts results from the massive horizontalization of art. If I used to read the newspaper at lunch but now I catch up with my Facebook friends, why am I still subscribing to the newspaper? Reading is reading, and reading about people I like is more fun that getting heartburn over the antics of Obama or Romney. Mindshare is finite and the content competing for it is infinite. What is the market value of a commodity available in infinite quantities? Zero. Don’t like that? Dang…

Salon magazine wonders, “What happens if no one pays for music?” The answer? The band plays on. What currency actually motivates artists? Attention. They want to get paid, but they need to be noticed. If the artists who want to get paid more than they want to be noticed go get other jobs… no one will notice. The working conditions at the Malaysian shoe factory are terrible, but the line outside the personnel office is two miles long. Meanwhile, for consumers, crap art is crap art, and free crap art is the richest kind. How do we know all this is so? Because the crap artists who used to get paid by standing athwart the chokepoint now sing lyrics written for them by Leonard Pitts: “The function served by forgettable-music-for-pay is critical to the very maintenance of democracy.” Yeah. Good luck with that, too…

This is all very funny to me, because it is obvious to each one of as consumers, and, simultaneously, completely opaque to us as producers: We want everything we can get for free, but we want to be paid for everything we have for sale. Here’s the way the world really works: You own your property to the exact extent you can defend it. This has always been the case, it’s just more obvious as the marginal value of commodity goods plummets and the marginal cost of defending them soars. Rock stars want for you to subsidize the expense of defending their essentially worthless property. Journalists go them one better, appealing for coerced hand-outs in exchange for their worthless prose. Neither of these irrational arguments is likely to hold up for long. How many taxpayer-funded ceremonial blacksmiths do you have in your town?

Here’s the funniest bit of all, though: Academics want to know who is going to pay them for regurgitating the same swill over and over again, when a much better teacher can do the job once, perfectly, and teach a billion students effectively for free:

Inevitably, as colleges struggle with competition, they will be torn between using their credentialing authority to better sell their own courses rather and allowing students to choose the courses offering them the best value. Will they uphold the public trust that is manifest in degree-granting authority—or use credentialing to pursue profit-maximizing strategies?

If you have any doubts about the answer to that question, take it up with Leonard Pitts — or your favorite ex-rock star.

Again: If almost-as-good is free or nearly free, what is the market value of slightly-better?

Not much. And if you think that’s a bad thing, you just might be a dinosaur…

 
(Cross-posted from SelfAdoration.com.)

Related posts:
  • People power…
  • Disintermediation where? Oh, yeah . . .
  • What does “information wants to be free” really mean? It doesn’t matter how long you spent making that mudpie, it’s worth nothing to me.

  • 8 comments

    8 Comments so far

    1. Scott Gaertner June 24th, 2012 11:24 am

      Fantastic stuff Greg. Honestly, this gives great context to one of the largest ongoing issues I confront. That context gives a better perception to create solutions. Well done stud. Thank you.

    2. Mark Madsen June 24th, 2012 11:45 am

      >>The challenge amidst this vast abundance is not getting people to pay for your information — but simply getting them to pay attention to it.<<

      Very true, and will become even more challenging for real estate and mortgage bloggers over time.

      I believe this boils down to understanding who your specific target audience is, and then delivering content online that is easy to consume in a manner that addresses their immediate needs.

      For example: http://www.lynda.com/ – Well produced tutorials that save time. I can either spend all day searching through blogs and forums for answers, or I can invest in a quick tutorial to learn something technical that will save me time.

      As it relates to real estate buyers, sellers and mortgage borrowers – I am still not convinced that people care to learn about their options so that they can make their "own" educated decision. In my experience, people want to find an industry professional that they can trust to help them make "informed" decisions based on their unique goals, needs, scenario..

      So in this case, when comparing the value of content that is good vs slightly better, I believe that well-written and informative content that builds trust and authority is significantly more valuable to a real estate professional who's revenue model is based on converting targeted traffic into transactions.

      However, there are many other ways that an online publisher can establish trust and authority without having to invest the the time to produce better content. There are several online lead gen companies in our space that wrap crap content around a professionally designed contact form.

      So in this instance, your argument of "not much" has already been proven.

      Just for fun, take this discussion to another level and consider that there are some publishers who are working on automated ways to publish detailed unique content that produced by an algorithm faster and better than a human can write.

      http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2012/04/can-an-algorithm-write-a-better-news-story-than-a-human-reporter/all/

      I see http://ascende.me/ willing that batter in the near future, with a win-win for both consumers and real estate professionals.

    3. Joe Strummer June 24th, 2012 4:13 pm

      Salon magazine wonders, “What happens if no one pays for music?” The answer? The band plays on. What currency actually motivates artists? Attention.

      How do these people think people got paid for music before the advent of the LP (or before that, the wax cylinder)? They played the music live – they played other peoples’ music live. These people act as if the period between, say, 1910 and 2000, was the way things always was, where large companies could use the power of government to prevent copying (in their language, IP theft)… Nonsense.

      The reason I can’t watch whatever I want at home is not because we lack the technology. It’s because we’re trapped in a 20th century mindset where copying “intellectual property” is considered theft. And the laws that accompany that. And the moneyed interests that lobby for more protections, a la the Sonny Bono Act.

      But you make good points, Greg.

    4. Greg Swann June 26th, 2012 11:08 am

      > this gives great context to one of the largest ongoing issues I confront.

      I’d love to hear what the issue is.

    5. Greg Swann June 26th, 2012 11:21 am

      > I believe that well-written and informative content that builds trust and authority is significantly more valuable to a real estate professional who’s revenue model is based on converting targeted traffic into transactions.

      I agree with this.

      > There are several online lead gen companies in our space that wrap crap content around a professionally designed contact form.

      That seems like a diminishing return to me. It may generate contacts, but only of the lowest-common-denominator kind. Contact information is extraordinary information — normally unobtainable except from the prime source — and the person thinking about offerring it up should be choosy about whom he shares it with.

      Here’s a headline for a postcard pitch into a $500K+ neighborhood:

      “Thinking about selling your home? I’ll pay you $100 to talk to me first.”

      If buyers and sellers understood their bargaining power, the real estate game would change overnight.

      > Just for fun, take this discussion to another level and consider that there are some publishers who are working on automated ways to publish detailed unique content that produced by an algorithm faster and better than a human can write.

      That’s just fun. I’ve done database publishing in various forms all my life — generating human-readable content from stored data. This is what WordPress is doing, too, of course, and what a robust IDX/VOW site is doing. This is appropriate work for the human mind, building better levers. Anything that can be done by software and hardware should be. Human beings should be building better software and hardware.

    6. Greg Swann June 26th, 2012 11:35 am

      > These people act as if the period between, say, 1910 and 2000, was the way things always was, where large companies could use the power of government to prevent copying (in their language, IP theft)… Nonsense.

      I love it.

      Wait until competition for the dinosaur-ish iTunes gets us to a demand-based pricing model for digital music. My expectation is that the long-tail will start at $.05 or less — and sales volume will soar.

    7. John June 27th, 2012 7:21 pm

      I think what we’re seeing here – in media, education, and many service industries – is actually even more disruptive than that.

      If I look at “education” as a value stream map (link to wikipedia included for explanatory purposes, treating a school as a business, you see a series of activities:

      1. Acquire Student
      2. Deliver Education
      3. Bestow Credential
      4. Help Student Get Higher Paying Job
      5. Ask for Alumni Donations

      Thanks to technology (taped lectures, remote learning software, google & online resources for self study), a student can acquire the similar knowledge on their own. Heck, college is an endless party for a large segment of the students right now, particularly outside the top 50 schools. Minimal real value added by this step.

      So what remains? A credentialing machine, supported by a marketing and fundraising apparatus. Which (quietly) serves the interests of some invisible hands – notably a) employment screening without an IQ test and b) upper class desires to control who gets the “gateway” jobs that will create the next generation of the elite.

      If I announce I want to hire a class of investment banking analysts or strategy consultants and will give an IQ test, I will be sued by legions of lawyers about discriminating against protected classes. If I note “Top 20 MBA required” on the job specification, I can select from a prescreened pool of people that will meet the intellectual credentials with some additional screening for social class and cultural indoctrination. And will be almost totally safe from critique.

      Technology change is “outing” this process. The real need the universities serve is unchanged; it is just significantly more obvious (since a viable alternative now exists via online and self study options). As such, expect it to be buried and reborn in the years ahead.

      With regards to news / content generation, it has been about attention (eyeballs => advertising) for many years. What we’re seeing is a different set of people have taken control over the eyeballs (hello Google…). Generating content is relatively easy… marketing and promoting it is the hard part…and always was…

    8. [...] The trouble with that observation is that “far more” is still almost nothing, quite a bit less than fifteen cents an hour for the work I’ve put in, not even counting work done in past years. I have the best laugh at my own expense, of course, since I have known for decades that writing for money is a dead letter. [...]