RogerBW's Blog

Does Free Content Drive Out Good? 28 May 2015

Gresham's Law famously states that "bad money drives out good": if there are two currencies available, people will tend to hoard the one they trust and spend the one they don't. I think there's a different but allied process going on with items that are "good enough" driving out of the market ones that are good.

And by "items" or "content" I mean almost anything which has some level of fungibility, such that to at least some people you can replace any item in this category with any other and be just as happy about it. If you are an entirely undiscriminating eater, a meal at McDonald's and a meal at the Savoy Grill are each just "a meal", so there's no reason to pay more for the better one. Where opinions differ, things can get interesting.

When most shoes were hand-made, one could get them in a range of qualities: the price of the good ones would subsidise a certain amount of work on the cheaper ones by the same people. Now that shoes are mostly machine-made (or at least constructed in a sweat-shop in some foreign hellhole where the workers don't need to be paid what to us is a living wage), hand-made shoes only exist at the ultra-expensive level; the moderately good shoe, the one that's better than the cheap mass-produced stuff but not the acme of perfection, is more expensive and not obviously better enough to be worth the premium, so doesn't get bought, and so is no longer made.

If you're wondering what film to see at the local megaplex this weekend, and you're relatively easily satisfied by mainstream fare, you don't need carefully-written informed criticism: you may instead be satisfied with a quick summary telling you roughly what each one is about, with some synthetic enthusiasm. So film criticism is only read by people genuinely interested in film rather than by everybody who wants to see something; it dies, and you never hear about the other films out there.

If you have some vague feeling that you ought to know what's going on in the world but don't really care enough to do much about it, any news website is as good as any other. You can read one or two stories and get distracted. You certainly don't need to pay for a newspaper. So newspapers are only read by the few people who want lots of detail about a wide range of stories, and newspapers die. It's interesting that television didn't do this; television is so obviously hyper-summarised that it's clearly not a substitute for the real thing, and once one's bought the thing it can stay on as a background flicker. Newspapers were mostly summarised too; just ask anyone who's been involved in events that got into the paper how accurate the reporting was. But at least with a web site or a newspaper you can have the illusion of finding out more about the things that interest you.

If you want to read books about sexy vampires but aren't terribly discerning about literary quality, all those cheap and free self-published novels on Kindle are just as good a way to feed the urge as any other. (Especially since these days books from real publishers are barely edited anyway.) So commercial Twilight imitators die. (I didn't say this was all bad.)

Once Microsoft Works came free with Windows, only the people who really needed a powerful spreadsheet bought Lotus 1-2-3.

If you are an employer, you may feel that a particular job needs only a certain level of skill, and in at least some management methodologies you can have no concept of the job being done better than that: either it's good enough, or it's not, and anything more than good enough is a waste. So you will try to hire the just barely good enough, and then be very surprised when the customers are unhappy with your product or service (because something always goes wrong and it's never quite as good as was promised).

I don't have a cure for this, but I think it's worth keeping a look out for it and being aware when it happens. Is it perhaps a spin-off of people finding the world too complicated and trying to reduce it to simple decisions (never mind thinking about film, just tell me what to watch)?


  1. Posted by Nicola Zealey at 09:42am on 31 May 2015

    Very true about free content driving out good. I was saying something very similar to this to Steve about the BBC. The reason why the Conservatives hate the Beeb and want to "reform" it, is it provides a high quality news service which is well admired around the world. In turn this leads to a raising of standards of other British TV news services (such as Channel 4). The Beeb is expensive to run but quality costs. American has lots of "free" TV news services - like Fox news - but I prefer to keep the Beeb going.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:40pm on 31 May 2015

    I think that's a much simpler case: the party in power always hates the BBC because it goes to some trouble to call them to account, much like Private Eye. All politicians who seem likely to be in a position to do anything about the BBC get given huge amounts of money by the Murdoch organisation (entirely legally, I'm not saying anything libellous here) and some of them fall for whatever line they're fed.

  3. Posted by Chris Bell at 09:21pm on 31 May 2015

    The Labour Party did their best to emasculate the BBC when they were in power, certainly. I notice too that people on the website I frequent always say that the BBC is biased against whichever political "side" they take themselves, just as "The Archers" is either feminist or makes females look like silly little fluffy creatures who need strong masculine protection, depending on which side of that debate people are on.

    suspect that one notices more that which is not in keeping with ones own beliefs. It jars, whereas something one agrees with simply passes as being "sensible".

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:44am on 04 June 2015

    My dad and I recently watched a documentary about why Churchill lost the 1945 general election. My dad thought it was traitorously left wing and was a shameful slur on Churchill's character. I thought it was too generous towards him and tried to reduce some of his character flaws (though it did at least raise them). From a purely objective point of view we can't both be right. My dad ended up ranting about left wing BBC bias, I thought it was all a bit pro Churchill and anti Labour.

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