This Shit Ain’t Free

Xiaochang Li, a researcher at MIT’s Convergence Culture Consortium, rightly wants to define what “free” means in our digitally-driven culture.

In 2008, editor Chris Anderson proclaimed “free” to be “the future of business” (Anderson 2008) on the web. But the word “free” means to be exempt from something, so in calling these things free, we need to be able to answer the implicit questions of what, exactly, are they free from?
…something that is totally free — something given completely exempt of both cost and social obligation — is extremely undesirable in the context of any economy because it precisely does not enable any form of exchange, monetary or otherwise. A totally free gift — a true give away — is a unidirectional, one-time action, in which nothing is returned.

Her point is this shit ain’t free. What you’re reading right now on this site or via your RSS reader isn’t free. Sure, we provide the content for no monetary cost to you, but there is an exchange.
Here are some of the things you give back to AdPulp: advice, tips, new ideas, creative samples, monetizable eyeballs and the willingness to tell a friend and/or colleague about us. On exceptionally good days, you also invite us to parties, provide advance copies of books, press passes to events and conferences, media partnerships, guest posts, exclusive interviews, paid ad placement, freelance and consulting work.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Three cheers for Xiaochang Li! I’ve been waiting for people to call out Anderson’s “free” nonsense for a while now (just wait, tho, as the destined-to-be-a-bestseller book is on its way).
    “Free” on the Internet means the cost (and revenue) have been shifted…to someone else, somewhere else, and some other time. The basic function of online experience is an exchange or transaction, just as you rightly point out, and its valued…just not always so clearly.
    “Free” promises to be a long-tail idea that’ll take just as long to die out as the, er, long-tail idea…

  2. Jonathan,
    I also think the release if Anderson’s new book is terribly timed. The very idea of things being “free” right now is kind of reprehensible—people who provide value to others clearly need to be paid IN CASH.
    I guess when you can afford it, free is fine, but what about when you can’t?

  3. funny, i have been commenting on blogs for almost five years and on the internet for well over 10, probably closer to fifteen years. I don’t remember getting paid for anything. Heck, i even asked for some of my writing back and I couldn’t even get that back.
    I have become homeless, uninsured, and some psychologists could make a case for this thing having a hand in my divorce and family falling apart. Though, i don’t blame the internet or blogs or advertising for that.
    I take personal responsibilty for such.
    I wonder if anyone here has taken or used and one of my writings, and i know most of them have just been blatheringss, right, for free.
    If so, could i have the satisfaction of knowing that at least.