Snarkmarket (along with others) has been talking recently about the economic model implicit in the free release of New Liberal Arts and the deliberately limited revenue realized from its sale. As one of the authors of that book, I was conscious going into the project that I wouldn’t be paid for my contribution, no matter how successful or influential the book might become—and with the release of Chris Anderson’s book “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” this seems like a good time to discuss working for free.
Virginia Postrel’s review of “Free” in the New York Times ends with the following paragraphs:
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” Samuel Johnson said, and that attitude has had a good two-century run. But the Web is full of blockheads, whether they’re rate-busting amateurs or professionals trawling for speaking gigs. All this free stuff raises the real standard of living, by making it ever easier for people to find entertainment, information and communication that pleases them.
Business strategy, however, seeks not only to create but to capture value. Free is about a phenomenon in which almost all the new value goes to consumers, not producers. It is false to assume that no price means no value. But it is equally false to argue that value implies profitability.
This is true as far as it goes, but I think it’s more interesting as a starting point than an ending point. In particular, I feel like it misses the non-monetary value that work produces for those who do it.
Most of us, if we’re fortunate, derive some form of value from the work we do, above and beyond the pay we receive. We enjoy working, or we enjoy the status that results from doing a certain kind of work—being widely recognized as a scholarly authority or having our ideas praised by people we respect and admire. To the extent that this intrinsic value is higher than the monetary value we could receive for doing something else, we will happily work for less or work for free, because the non-economic rewards are so significant.
Now, in the previous economic paradigm, it was possible to do work that you would have done for less or for free and still be paid well for it, because it was too much trouble for your employers/clients to find someone who could do the work as well and for free. But the internet drastically reduces that barrier. Imagine trying to find people to write a computer operating system and all the associated applications without expecting payment before the internet—now look at Linux.
I wonder if we’re heading toward an economy where, to put it bluntly, people don’t get paid for doing fun things. If something is fun—for someone in the world who finds it fun enough to become good at it, and to do it without expecting pay—it will no longer pay.
In this world, people still work for money, maybe 20 hours a week, but they don’t really derive happiness from their jobs (if their job was something that people enjoyed doing, like playing in a symphony or writing poetry, it wouldn’t pay—someone would be doing it for free*). They spend the rest of their time doing things for free, things that produce tremendous creative value for themselves and for others, but form a gift economy outside the normal capitalist economy.
I think most creative, intellectual, and information-oriented pursuits would end up on the free side of that divide—which is not to devalue them at all. Rather, I think that clarity about the kinds of rewards you could expect from each activity could lessen a lot of the anxiety about “how will I make a living as a writer, journalist, playwright, composer?” Maybe you won’t—and that’s okay.
*When I say “free,” I don’t necessarily mean $0.00. You might still earn some token payments for your creative effort, but not enough to contribute in a meaningful way to your income—a few hundred dollars a year, perhaps.