Attribution malfunction

Ideas available. Some assembly required.

I’ve been re-reading Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book, Being Digital (and wishing I’d used his predictions to invest what little money I had that year).  Interestingly, his persuasive arguments for avatars, agents, intermediaries and trusted (digital) friends got me thinking once more about the recently beleaguered Chris Anderson.

In case you’ve been away from the keyboard for a month, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, author of The Long Tail, was roundly criticized in the blogosphere when word got out that portions of his latest book, Free, had been lifted from a variety of sources, including Wikipedia.

With support from his publisher, Anderson claimed that attributions for the cribbed content were lost in the final edit, leaving the reader to think whatever readers think when they read something that a writer didn’t really write and also didn’t footnote or attribute.

Twitter makes for good headline copy.  When this story broke, I described Anderson’s explanation as an “attribution malfunction”, of the sort Janet Jackson might encounter.  I went on to say that for Hyperion, Anderson is the publishing equivalent of AIG: Too big to fail.

Re-reading Negroponte, though, leads me to see Chris Anderson in a different, and not entirely new, light.  In an earlier time, Anderson could have been P.T. Barnum, with Wired as his three-ring circus (On your right: The Long Tail! In the center ring: Crowdsourcing! And coming into the arena on your left: Free!)

Barnum didn’t create the acts he presented; he assembled and sold them.  If you were ambitious, and you didn’t value your time very highly, you could have sought out the trapeze artists, the lion tamers and the bearded lady on your own.  But for most people, it was worth the price of admission to get all of this under one roof.  People knew what P.T. Barnum did, and it had value for them.

By way of comparison, in print, particularly in books, we’ve come to value scholarship, research, the original.  Books require time to plan, write, edit and read, a commitment that effectively ups the ante and leaves us implicitly thinking a book like Free should also be New.

Now, I don’t buy the idea that the attributions were clunky and there was a miscommunication.  It seems more likely that the attributions made the penultimate draft of the book look like it was cut and pasted from a lot of different, generally public-domain sources.  And that’s a tough thing to put a major publicity campaign behind.

But I don’t really think it matters what happened before publication.  It was what happened after that effectively pushed Chris Anderson off the rails.

When the story about cribbing Wikipedia broke, Anderson could have described reality:

“I am your agent.  My idea is not new, but I’ve done a good job of pulling together the examples that I think help tell the story.  The thinking is not that deep, but it’s not supposed to be.  I didn’t do anything approaching original research.  I never intended to.”

“What I did do is save you time.  This is what the new economy will value: time, convenience, trusted direction.  In its niche, that’s what Free provides.  Don’t judge it on how original it is; judge it on how effectively it delivers value for you.  That’s what you are paying me to do for you.”

Of course, that’s not what he said.

The book is out, the controversy has died down, and Anderson has even made it as far as The Colbert Report without being grilled about the attribution malfunction.  But the real legacy of Free might be seen only years from now, when books in any form are made up almost entirely of ideas you could have found elsewhere.  Perhaps by accident, Hyperion has demonstrated that surfing the attention economy isn’t that hard.  Ideas are freely available, with some assembly required.

Posted by David Marlin
Aug 07, 2009  at  12:38 PM

Wow - Great post Brian!  Real interesting way of looking at it.

It’s a specific example of the signal-to-noise ratio problem that editorializing and branding can address.

As an ancillary, I can’t wait to watch how the News Corp’s recent decision to charge for content plays out.

Posted by Brian F OLeary
Aug 07, 2009  at  02:52 PM

Thanks.  In a response to a comment someone made in e-mail, I wrote in part that:

... “in thinking about both the criticisms of “Free” and Anderson’s reactions to those criticisms, it felt as if the book may appear in hindsight as the inflection point after which we began to take ‘solutions provider’ as one of the valid options for original work.  As one can probably tell from my post, I am not sure quite how I feel about that.”

I understand and value brand, but I’m not sure I want (most?  all?) books to become exercises in favorably managing the signal-to-noise ratio.  I’d imagine that Anderson is fine with it, something that makes me wonder (out loud) why he gave the explanation he did.

Posted by Dave Ross
Sep 01, 2009  at  07:00 AM

I wonder how this would work out as an excuse in a university graduate term paper?  The three ring circus would likely be his three advisors showing him the door at his defense.

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