Tara Brabazon: Beware writers bearing promises of a free internet

A new book about what is free on the internet is no anarcho-syndicalist guide to subversion, cautions Tara Brabazon

October 21, 2009

Is it just me, or are pseudo-academic book titles about the digital age starting to sound like song titles from the Pet Shop Boys? Instead of Rent, there is Free. Instead of Digitalism, there is Digimodernism. While PSB have created – for two decades – quirky, witty and disturbing pop culture, journalists are colonising their turf. These new media pop stars lack the Pet Shop Boys’ creativity, credibility and commitment to interesting hats. They have, however, followed their lessons in designing titles.

I have a bookshelf in my office that doubles as a naughty step for two-point-zero tossers. Like preventing the spread of swine flu, it is important that these authors do not contaminate other monographs. To be released from the naughty shelf, these writers must stop watching cat-related videos on YouTube and refreshing Facebook to see updates from people that they do not know. My hope is that Apple develops an app to stop these blokes bragging about their apps.

As the phrase Web 2.0 has moved from technology magazines and blogs and on to breakfast television, the number of wannabe sociologists / psychologists / economists / librarians and information professions has escalated. Demonstrating the enthusiasm of a beagle with a new pair of Dior kitten heels to destroy, these men welcome new software or hardware with the commitment of a religious awakening. Each new platform is a revelation. They take software development seriously and personally.

Chris Anderson’s Free is the new offering from this genre. Fascinatingly, he uses academic language to make his case. Chapter two is titled “Free 101: a short course on a most misunderstood word.” He laments a lack of research in the field.

“Surely economics must have something to say about this, I thought. But I couldn’t find anything. No theories of gratis, or pricing models that went to zero. (In fairness, some do exist, as later research would reveal. But they were mostly obscure academic discussions of ‘two-sided markets’ and, as we’ll see in the economics chapter, nearly forgotten theories of the 19th century.)”

An intriguing use of brackets. And – just asking – are there one or two adjectives in the phrase “obscure academic discussions”?

One other gibe surfaces against scholars. While accessing some behavioural economics, he placed a caveat in the text:

“Note: behavioral economists have limited budgets and limited time, so a lot of their experiments involve a folding table, candy, and random college students. So take the results as directionally interesting rather than rigorously quantitative.”

Pot. Kettle. Black. There is (even) a lack of folding tables in Anderson’s argument. From such a statement, it is important to remember that Random House Business Books publishes Free. This is not an anarcho-syndicalist, bottom-up revolution against evil corporations. It is a “how to” guide in making money from “free” goods and services.

At his best, Anderson describes the forms of free available in the online environment, showing how businesses profit from such models. From the free trial through to advertisement-supported content – and from the gift economy blogosphere through to reputation management podcasts and freemium upselling – this environment has extended the humble “Bogof” into a fully digitised range of commodifying opportunities.

There are occasional moments where Anderson probes the threats of “free”, such as what happens if newspapers continue to close and there is less content for Google to index. Google’s AdSense program is based on matching advertisements to content and will be hampered if the branded sources of quality information are lost. Anderson also dismisses Sheryl Crow’s worries about the loss of income for musicians via file sharing. He states that “file sharing wins her reputational currency. It’s impossible to quantify how much of that will translate to cash through other means, but it’s not zero.” His hippy free(dom) slams into uncomfortable questions about how “content providers” earn a wage. “Reputational currency” is not accepted at Tesco.

Near the end of the book, there is a pivotal discussion about the relationship between price and value. The “catch” of free remains embedded advertising, corporate-imposed restrictions and the upselling to different products. There is also a quiet realisation that if goods are free, consumers use them in excess, often with consequences for the environment. This last point may be the most damaging of all.

The problem is that Anderson is wrong. His “free” is corporatised. The cost of free is permanence, reliability and stability. The old cliché is correct. We get what we pay for: when the price is free, then the “service” can be removed without questions or reprisal.

Certainly, there is a range of free social media. Ning is an effective hub for Community Media projects. I use Facebook’s synchronous chat functions to add “virtual office hours” for students who require more assistance. But this use of free services extends beyond community outreach, collaboration and pastoral care and into sonic media.

I run a series of experiments with sonic platforms for teaching-led research, research dissemination and professional development. For example, I was asked by former students managing text-based disabilities to record some Times Higher Education articles for “readers” to hear. These sonic sessions give screen-locked pieces mobility and a widened audience through sound.

Similarly, after reading learning object theory, I experimented with – and on – my husband Steve Redhead to develop short microinterviews to use in lectures, seminars and online discussions. This sonic content updates readings through current events, but also provides opportunities for students to activate and sharpen auditory literacies.

For academic staff developing new research projects, these “microinterviews” capture ideas at an early stage, facilitating later dissemination for the full article. I also recorded an interview with our Creative Media librarian, Sarah Ison. This informal conversation enabled new students to hear her voice and build productive relationships early in the semester. Another use for such sonic presentations is to record “the student voice” for academic health and progress reports. Instead of teachers speaking on their behalf, student views are heard (more) directly by managers and administrators.

To store these audio files for embedding on the Soundlab of my website, I looked for a cloud or portal. There were a few “free” options available and I chose Nokia’s Ovi Share system. I have no connection with the corporation, but they enabled – via the Chris Anderson model – “free” storage of photographs, video and audio files. This system lasted reasonably well for a year. Students could access the material. Staff could embed the file into their personal websites. Then on 1 October a message appeared from the Orwellian-named “Share Team”. In its Ovi Share Blog, it made the following announcement:

“The clear majority of the content you’ve put on to Ovi Share are photos and videos. Given your clear needs, we’re going to focus exclusively on providing you the best experience for sharing your photos and videos. Getting you there will require we make some trade-offs – we have ended supporting the upload of other content types on Ovi Share. While this affects a small number of you, we know this number is not zero.”

Nokia stopped users from uploading of MP3s and WAV files. This free service was no longer part of their business model. They used the “wisdom of the crowd” justification: most “users” upload photographs and video. The “trade-off” meant that the uploading of MP3s, the file responsible for enlarging the audience and usefulness of the web, would no longer be “free” or possible. This was a “freemium” decision. Even though video files are much larger than their sonic counterparts, mobile phone users take pictures and videos with a Nokia. Therefore, MP3s hold no function in their business model. Free disappeared.

The cliché – you get what you pay for – survives. When Nokia stopped users from uploading MP3 files, I searched for a new service. Anderson’s “free” models were easy to find. While content could be uploaded and stored without cost, blinking banners, feral advertisements and notification of “my earnings” enabled through Google AdSense were the price to be paid. It reached the point where – to avoid bothering listeners with advertisements for slimming aids and impotency medication – I was about to pay for free.

I then remembered a rather special website I had discovered nearly a decade earlier when enrolled in an Internet Studies diploma. With two clicks, I returned to the Internet Archive. Founded in 1996 in San Francisco, the IA is a non-profit organisation with the goal of building a digital library of internet sites. It is committed to free access for academics, researchers and the public. It started as a text-based archive, but moved into audio and moving images, as well as software and educational resources. In its mission statement, it describes its function as “like a paper library”. Aiming to archive born digital content, it maintains a series of projects. Its “Wayback Machine” has collected 150 billion web pages from 1996 to 2009. The IA also generously links to the New Library of Alexandria and thanks the “memory institutions” who work with it.

Its collection not only includes this web archive, but encourages users to upload moving images, text, audio, software and educational materials. Throughout the site, it confirms, “this collection is free and open for everyone to use”. Its goal is “to encourage widespread use of texts in new contexts by people who might not have used them before”. There are quirky specificities, particularly in the audio archive. Once more, the Grateful Dead are represented far more than any chart success would suggest and the scale of alternative news programming is extraordinary. The Deadheads do digital (and free) better than anyone. The open educational resources – while not as expansive as iTunes U – are valuable and easy to embed in study guides.

The IA “has no vested interest in the discoveries of the users of its collection, nor is it a grant-making organisation”. Instead, its goal is to capture born digital data and transform ephemera into artefacts. It argues that part of citizenship is the “right to remember”. While there are a range of internet maps, such as the Atlas of Cyberspaces and The Internet Mapping Project, the care the IA takes in managing multiple copies of data, migration between storage media and the diversity of formats is inspirational. This is Free, with a conscience. My sonic experiments found a new home.

The past two years have cracked the credibility of the market more than any scholarly hammer. Our task is to monitor a group of writers who are peddling a vitriolic version of right-wing libertarianism. Their arguments are simple and seductive: keep “the state” out of our lives. The market is a benevolent force. Capitalism guarantees the rights of citizenship. Such statements are verified because corporations provide services free. To thank them for their generosity, we have only to watch advertisements, manage flashing banners and delete hard-selling emails.

The Internet Archive is unmentioned by Chris Anderson and with good reason. It is really free. It is not a building block to freemium. It is not interested in reputation management. It respects intellectual property rights and copyright. It is generous, collaborative and committed to preservation. While Google may be the metaphor of our times, the Internet Archive remains our conscience.

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