Wednesday, January 30, 2008

#FREE - The Cost of Attention

Interesting post over at Silicon Alley today that Chris Anderson linked to on his blog.

The gist of Hank William's argument on the Silicon Alley post is that IP is dead or dying. We're all to blame. And we're kidding ourselves if we think this is in some way justified.

He invokes images of greedy masses stealing IP and profiting or sneering at the owners. Music makers, software makers, etc. In fact, he goes so far to say that:

Whether it's software, patents, movies, or music, as a planet, we have decided that things that exist only in the form of atoms, or are not offered as a service, have no value.
Mr Anderson points out in his blog post that 'atoms' (and I think he means bits and bytes here), have value, just not necessarily a monetary one. There is value in attention we give to goods or services that are free. And there are ways to leverage this attention to create value.

Chris Anderson talks in other places about how TV and print have been leveraging attention for years. Free to air TV that is ad supported and cheap newspapers and magazines that have a heavily ad subsidized cover price, are not new business ideas. No doubt new music distribution services will spring up that also try to leverage the massive amount of attention music brings.

The problem with all of this though, is that attention has diminishing returns.

Taken to its fullest extent - the extent to which movies, software, music, etc are all 'attention' subsidized - each additional product, rather than chasing a dollar in a growing world economy, chases 'attention' in a 24 hour day that isn't getting any longer.

It worked for TV and print when information channels were scarce. As they proliferated (with cable, more magazines/newspapers, and finally the Internet), attention got divided and scattered. As a result, these mediums became less valuable.

Surely the drive to monetize attention, for EVERYTHING digital, just results in more of the same - a gradual decline in value. It's not exactly a recipe for growth.

Radiohead revealed a completely different side of this debate with their download experiment (which I have blogged about before). People (most people) were willing to PAY for something they could easily get for free. This proves that, contrary to what Chris Anderson agues, there is indeed an intrinsic monetary value to a digital good with a zero marginal cost. And that the other way to make money from something you 'give away' is to ask people to pay what they think it's worth.

Maybe we can call this the 'Pledge' model? It works for the Metropolitan Museum in NY. It works for countless small shareware vendors. It's not perfect, but having customers name their price might be an the most effective way to value a good that costs nothing to (re)produce.

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