A funny thing happens when you try to give away something for free. People decide the price is right and show up in droves.
SharetheTruth.us, a grassroots environmental advocacy site, has recently experienced a version of the fabled tragedy of the commons. It began as a way for people to see the Al Gore film “An Inconvenient Truth” on someone else’s nickel-a place where cinemaphiles so touched by the film’s powerful and important message could spread the word by getting other people to see the film and covering their admission.
Now that “An Inconvenient Truth” is out on DVD, SharetheTruth.us is giving away DVDs-same deal as before, with private donors putting up the money to buy DVDs for other consumers.
Then the Internet started finding out about it in a big way. Web sites like Fat Wallet and Slick Deals, where savvy shoppers find out about freebies, picked up on the deal and ran with it. Perhaps misunderstanding that this was not a giveaway funded by a faceless corporation or a viral marketing buzz wave, but a small Web site financed by private donors, in came the hordes.
Site editor Eric Pan remains curiously upbeat about the situation, refusing to deactivate the option to request a free DVD despite thousands upon thousands of backlogged, unfulfilled orders. “I believe this isn’t a funding problem as much as it’s an awareness problem,” he comments in his blog, discussing the matter with good humor and upbeat charm even in the face of one request every eight seconds.
What we have here is the tragedy of the commons-everyone trying to take advantage of a deal intended for everyone, therefore ruining it for, well, everyone. Pan wanted to spread the word about “An Inconvenient Truth”… well, now it’s spread, but now what? The small grassroots effort was not designed to tackle the big time.
Pan intends to reach out to Paramount Pictures, to Mr. Gore himself and to philanthropic organizations in order to fill the backlog, even in light of the fact that many of his requesters are simply looking to score a free DVD for the sake of doing so. Has the sustainable plan failed? Or was getting the buzz out at the risk of this occurring a necessary (inconvenient?) evil?
The irony, of course, is that this article will only get more people to think, “hey, free DVD,” and rush out to claim theirs. But if there is a message here, it’s to be careful what you offer people; they might want it. Global warming, as “An Inconvenient Truth” points out, is a powerful and frightful force. But few forces are as pervasive as human greed.