What Will People Do For Free?

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Barron YoungSmith remarks on the fact that Craigslist actively avoids making a profit:

As Paul Starr has explained, newspapers only flourished during the past few centuries because they functioned as intermediaries between readers and advertisers — fundamentally, they survived because they were institutions that stood between people.

Now, along comes Craigslist, which sees cutting these sorts of intermediaries out of the equation as a form of public service. It considers that mission so important that it is willing to forego huge potential profits and compete against classified pages everywhere while charging virtually nothing for what it offers. In that kind of environment, it’s pretty ludicrous to think that newspapers could survive.

Probably so.  Especially since Craigslist works better than newspaper classified advertising.  I’ve got some old darkroom equipment that’s been sitting in my garage for ages, and if I had to go through the hassle of taking out a newspaper classified ad to sell it, it would still be there.  But last night at about 6 pm I suddenly decided to advertise it on Craigslist.  Two hours later I got a response from a guy in Long Beach.  This morning he came by, took a look at the whole setup, and hauled everything off.  I’m a few dollars richer, he’s excited at the prospect of setting up a darkroom, and the whole transaction took less than 24 hours.  Amazing.

(Also amazing: using a darkroom must be like riding a bicycle.  You remember how to do it forever.  It’s been 20 years since I used this stuff, but as I was showing him how to operate everything and what all the various parts were for, I realized I hadn’t forgotten a thing.  I could have set up the entire kit, mixed up the chemicals, and been back in business in an hour.  I can’t really think of anything else from so far in my past that I can say that about.)

Anyway: Ten years ago, I remember ruminating over the open source movement and wondering what its limits were.  What kind of stuff would people do for free, and what kind of stuff wouldn’t they?  Since open source software is mostly produced by obsessive nerds, the obvious answer is that they’ll work for free on the kind of things that obsessive nerds themselves like to use: operating systems, editors, compilers, etc.  Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have, say, the firmware for controlling GM’s assembly line robots.  Nobody in their right mind would do that for free.

But where’s the line?  The interesting answer is: if it’s the kind of thing that one person (or a small set of people) can do, then it’s wherever one competent person draws it.  I’d guess that very few people feel that classified advertising (!) is so important to a vibrant society that they want to dedicate their lives to making it available for free, but it turned out that it didn’t take very many people.  Just one guy named Craig.

So now I think about this stuff a little differently.  Sure, some things are just more fun than others, and thus more likely to attract people to do them for free.  But just as important is: how many people does it take?  Once something gets to the point where it only takes a person or three to do it, then there’s a pretty good chance that someone, somewhere will start offering it for free.  Even if it’s something that most sane people think is boring as hell, there’s almost bound to be at least one person who’s obsessed by it.  Like classified advertising.

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