Think Like a Dandelion: advice for understanding reproductive strategies in the Internet era

My latest column in Locus Magazine, "Think Like a Dandelion," came out of a talk I had with Neil Gaiman about the bio-economics of giving stuff away for free. Mammals worry about what happens to each and every one of their offspring, but dandelions only care that every crack in every sidewalk has dandelions growing out of it. The former is a good strategy for situations in which reproduction is expensive, but the latter works best when reproduction is practically free -- as on the Internet.

1. Your work needs to be easily copied, to anywhere whence it might find its way into the right hands. That means that the nimble text-file, HTML file, and PDF (the preferred triumvirate of formats) should be distributed without formality – no logins, no e-mail address collections, and with a license that allows your fans to reproduce the work on their own in order to share it with more potential fans. Remember, copying is a cost-center – insisting that all copies must be downloaded from your site and only your site is insisting that you – and only you – will bear the cost of making those copies. Sure, having a single, central repository for your works makes it easier to count copies and figure out where they're going, but remember: dandelions don't keep track of their seeds. Once you get past the vanity of knowing exactly how many copies have been made, and find the zen of knowing that the copying will take care of itself, you'll attain dandelionesque contentment.

2. Once your work gets into the right hands, there needs to be an easy way to consummate the relationship. A friend who runs a small press recently wrote to me to ask if I thought he should release his next book as a Creative Commons free download in advance of the publication, in order to drum up some publicity before the book went on sale.

I explained that I thought this would be a really bad idea. Internet users have short attention spans. The moment of consummation – the moment when a reader discovers your book online, starts to read it, and thinks, huh, I should buy a copy of this book – is very brief. That's because "I should buy a copy of this book" is inevitably followed by, "Woah, a youtube of a man putting a lemon in his nose!" and the moment, as they say, is gone.



  1. Cory, is there any merit to the idea of doing a ‘serial’ release? That is, you release a chapter a week on your blog, and time it so the book is coming out halfway through or at some suitably suspenseful point. That way, readers can opt to buy the book right away and not have to wait, or they can wait a bit if they want to read it, but not badly enough to pay.

  2. Having tried to dig up some dandelions recently, I assumed ‘think like a dandelion’ meant ‘hang on to your position as hard as you can’.

    The article puts me in mind of the reproductive strategy of some fish- they just spray out millions of eggs and sperm, and hope that some get fertilised and survive.

    So I guess ‘fuck like a fish’ would have been my suggestion.

    Is “internet users have short attention spans” not rather patronising?

  3. Is “internet users have short attention spans” not rather patronising?

    No, I don’t think —

    Wait, what?

  4. I have nothing against dandelions. I actually like them in their various forms. But a fair portion of people think of them as annoying weeds that infiltrate their landscape and challenge their efforts to keep up with the Joneses, and their kids learn to kick them with disdain, snapping their heads off with glee while the decapitated stalk bleeds its white blood. The common weed repellents have pictures of dandelions on them.

    Being like a weed with self-promotion turns a person into a marketer or advertising rep, and anyone who meets one of those creatures would put one off that particular meat for good, religiously, if one has any sort of decency. Unless you’re already indoctrinated, of course, in which case it’s okay, I guess. Takes all kinds.

    Internet ADD is no excuse. Quality and innovative resourcefulness, however, are are always interesting options. Let’s never put our work and creativity on the level of weeds.

  5. @Starcadia: Right on! You’ve articulated some of what I’ve been pondering re Open Source/CC models and even blogs generally… in terms of the required personalities/organizational behavior for effectiveness, and the trade-offs involved if you’re playing in a small pond with potential competitors with unequal market access. I grok the benefits of growing the market and contributing (I helped coin the BMUG motto “We’re in the business of giving away information” nearly a quarter century ago), but I frequently find myself re-assessing the opportunity costs of giving things away, in terms of the number of people who start to filter out my contributions vs. the gain of those who discover them.

  6. Weeds are only defined from one’s perspective. Dandelions also make exceptional salads and wines, after all, and children view them with a kind of joy, I think, rather than disdain. Since Cory’s fundamental point is that we need to change our perspective and recognize the very real benefits of something that has been misjudged, I think the Dandelion analogy is quite fitting.

  7. Hurrah for dandelions!

    I wanted to take a break yesterday, and bask in the sun and listen to the birds and glory in the springtime wonderfulness. But just as I was heading outside, a truck pulled up to a neighbor’s house and spent the next forty minutes spraying god only knows what horrible stuff all over their lawn. At the very least, it smelled like evil chemical ass. So much for sitting outside.

    I’d like to put a lemon, or a grapefruit up my neighbor’s… nevermind…

    The first thing that pops into my mind for reproductive metaphors is not dandies, but squids. Squids vs. sharks!

    Squids reach sexual maturity fast fast fast. Then they reproduce like nobody’s bidness. Then they die. Lots lots lots, fast fast fast. Sharks mature slowly, don’t have so many young. Both approaches work just fine, at least they did until we entered the picture. Sharks and squids are old codes both. The shark meme has persisted for a long time. It looks, however, like it is one of the many that won’t survive the latest curveball the universe has thrown its way; H. sapiens. Such is life, such is evolution. The squids have a better chance of surviving our hijinks, because they’re rolling the dice so much more than the sharks. Still, it might not be fast enough. I’m putting my money on the ooze.

    Code or story, the meme’s the thing. The tasty tentacled calamari, the cheery yellow blossom, the dog-eared trade paperback, these are only the shells.

  8. Dandelions are harmful to a lawn. Just like any other weed, they exist and suck up the nutrients that are there for the lawn and the flowers. And then they take over the lawn.

    Hitler’s Philosophies looked good to a lot of people. But then he started to take over and soon, he was a multitude of white puffy dandelions spreading his seeds of hate with every child who walks by and can’t resist picking and blowing the seeds off. And soon you have a lawn full of hate.

    Did I just call dandelions Hitler? Indeed I did.

    Indeed I did.

  9. I am in an industry that is eating itself from the inside out.

    It started as a group of people putting thoughts together freely online to figure out ways to accomplish a task. As it grew, it was appropriated and made popular into something the masses could consume.

    There arose superstars who, through marketing, claimed to posses the magical keys. Due to its very nature that the information wants to be free, even those magical keys were laid bare for what they are: good–maybe even great–but certainly not magical or unheard-of.

    And now, everyone has seen everything. There are few hidden treasures to behold. The information is there for anyone to see. The services are available, but are certainly struggling compared to what it once was.

    Those who throw up “barriers” to information products, those who sell rather than give their products away, at least benefit from the (admittedly) powerful notion that if it costs this much, then it must be worth more than the product that’s free.

    I give my product away for free. And the biggest question in my mind remains that perhaps I could be making a lot more from my work–I’m just too much of a pussy to charge for it. I am a philanthropist or an internet fame junky or a dandelion–but I’m not making any money. So I’m certainly not a businessman.

  10. Doctorow has tons of fans and his books are in every bookstore. Sure, people will buy more of his physical books because they download them first, but at least they can buy his books in EVERY bookstore.

  11. Gonna chime in with another shocked “no one likes dandelions?” statement.

    Dandelions are harmful to a lawn.

    Meh, fuck a lawn. I prefer dandelions :)

    And: #3

    So I guess ‘fuck like a fish’ would have been my suggestion.

    I imagine “think like a fish fucks” is closer to it..

  12. Pipenta, you said it far more eloquently than my blunt-weapon-brain would allow.


  13. Ecologists and evolutionary biologists have a term for this idea: r/K selection (see ). Basically, r-selected species, like dandelions, have low investment in thier offspring and thus flourish in rapidly changing environments. K-selected species, like humans and elephants, invest a large amount in fewer offspring and tend to do well in mature, crowded environments. In contrast to what you say in your article, not all mammals are K-selected species. Rats are a great example of r-selected mammals and have been very successful in a wide range of enviroments.

    To get back to your metaphor, is the book publishing world a rapidly changing enviroment or a mature, crowded environment? I think books, per se, are a crowded environment, but the Internet is rapidly changing, so we have a convergence effect here.

  14. This is a brilliant analogy – one that I intend to expose to my architect friends. Please Cory – make sure to post a link to your followup on payments.

  15. Great post, but I can’t parse this sentence:

    “After all, the majority of links between blogs have been made to or from blogs with four or fewer inbound links in total — that means that the Internet has figured out a cost-effective means of helping audiences of three people discover the writers they should be reading.”

    Cory or someone else who’s smarter than me – please tell me what this means?

  16. That is a clunky-ass sentence.
    I think it means that of all blog links created, most links are made between blogs with few (less than four) participants. Few people are linking to these small blogs, but they are linking to each other.

  17. yeah what’s the all the dandelion hate?

    especially when lawns are generally harmful to the environment, and wasteful! Unnaturally homogenous growth that usually require lots of chemicals to maintain.. Lawns are also killing off much of the coastal areas since their shallow roots allow sandy soil to wash away (and take all their nasty fertilizers with them into the ocean). Dandelions manage to live without poisoning the world around them, that’s not such a bad thing..

    Dandelions are pretty, nutritious, hardy, and adaptable. They are a great example of playing to natural strengths rather than enforcing a rigid vision on the world and expending enormous energy in order to try to maintain that rigidity.

    in other words, nice analogy!

  18. loveable_rogue, that was the best goodwin I’ve read. Oh, and lawns only exist to suck up water.

  19. I think this a great idea Cory but your commentary about dandelions is incorrect. Plants do show the same care for offspring that animals, for instance, do; we just aren’t used to the patterns or pace with which they do it. I know it is common to see plants with mammalian influenced eyes but it tends to distort how the natural world is perceived. (Or as Jagadis Bose the nobel prize winning plant researcher commented: “Just because they don’t possess a central ganglion is no reason to assume they aren’t sentient.”)
    I, in my book Lost Language of Plants, and a number of other writers, have detailed plant caring in depth. But you are correct in that dandelions are generous in the giveaway. Plants do tend to be a lot more generous than mammals.

  20. Love this:
    The net is an unending NOW of moments and distractions and wonderments and puzzlements and rages.

    And this is so true:
    Asking someone riding its currents to undertake some kind of complex dance before she can hand you her money is a losing proposition.

    I notice this a lot when I go to a website in order to make a donation. If they let me use Paypal I can click right thru and they get my money. If they’re going to make me dig thru my purse to find my credit card and fill out a form, well, it’s too much trouble and they don’t get my money. Get with it, people!

  21. sheesh – why are people so quick to polarize? I love dandelions, lawns are stupid and vice-versa. Dandelions make me smile with their lil yellow heads that bravely pop up wherever they land, but a whole yard full of them in full blown white-head mode looks trashy. I would rather lay on nice green grass than weedy bare ground. There are ways to control weed growth naturally, as I’ve been finding out. It takes longer and it isn’t perfect, but it’s better than a lawn full of weeds.

    seriously – ya can like both if ya wanna.

  22. ya can like both if ya wanna

    You must live somewhere with average rainfall greater than our 5.8 inches per year. Lawns are rapidly becoming illegal in the Western US.

  23. Well – off the top of my ecologist head – the problem with an r-strategy from the viewpoint of an author is that an r-strategy is a strategy that only allows persistence in a habitat when resources are abundant, and the risk of lose of the adult (author) is great. Under these conditions a strategy of producing many offspring of low resource investment allows persistence of THE DNA of the parent (ie brain child in this case), albeit not the parent itself. When resources are sparse or competition present an r-strategy is not optimal.

    In this context this would mean an environment where the amount of previous pay is high and the likelihood of getting rejected or whacked is high, and many distinct written products can be whipped out quickly and cheaply. Under this scenario a small number of the great many released books are likely to sell, but the author is probably already dead/broke. Think Van Gogh, and he used a more moderate strategy than pure r-selection.

    I would bet most authors are not in this situation, but instead in the opposite scenario, where the availability of resources (previous pay) is low, the cost to produce the first unique unit is fairly moderate to high (assuming time=money, even if cloned copies are cheap after the fact), and the likelihood of rejection also moderate to high.

    Under these conditions a stress-tolerant scenario is required for persistence (ie a cactus, not a dandelion). IE those authors whose books are nurtured and released when most likely to lead to future profit will lead to survival, whereas those following a dandelion strategy will expend all their resources and still get out-competed by the stress-tolerant organisms.

    There is another alternative that works too – complementary strategies that span the r-K spectrum as long as there is positive feedback between groups of authors, some who can write quickly and some who write slowly. In the author analogy this would be like a writers guild that shares publishing costs.

    Anyone want to work up the game theory equations…

  24. seriously, can someone please tell me the link to the youtube video of the guy putting a lemon up his nose?! i mean c’mon! i’ve searched the web for all of 5 minutes and i still have not found it. eh. whatever, i’m off to look at something else on the web.

  25. Antonious, I think you mean SOUTHwestern US.

    I’m in a mid-east coast US state with riparian laws and I have a fine lawn that commits none of the crimes y’all are going on about. I like my lawn. Admittedly I like the woods even better.

    Over the last couple of weeks I have sproinked two trashcans full of dandelions with my forked steel sproinker. I eat the flowers that have grown in the shade while I’m at it – dandelions grown in full sun are foul-tasting.

    By august I’ll have a few dozen dandelions, and next spring I’ll sproink out another couple of trashcans full. The ones that have sprouted in the shade will be tender and delicious….


  26. stephenbuhner I love the idea that “plants show the same care for offspring that animals do.” Can somebody make an animation video of this and put it on youtube?

  27. living in the west, I’m a fan of xeriscaped laws, unless I need some place to run around. It’s harder than you might think to run through waist-high grass.

  28. I hadn’t considered that, Antinous, and you’re right I’ve never lived in a dry climate. But I could tell you a little somethin’ about humidity now.

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