Remind me what wants to be free

500 Words | Written by Lee Schneider

‘Information wants to be free’ is an iconic phrase attributed to Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Catalogue. Apparently he first spoke the phrase to no less a luminary than Steve Wozinak, the other, nicer Steve behind Apple.

So the phrase has an awesome pedigree. Certainly, information’s desire to be free is a good thing. It encourages openness and transparency, and can even stop politicians from acting like fools because we find out about their foolishness pretty soon. So far, so good. When do things other than information become free? Do we draw a line in pixels somewhere?

Music downloads legal and otherwise have driven the market to the bottom (if you consider .99 the bottom), and digital books have transformed the book market – in a good way if you like the editorial freedom to self-publish and reach a large audience, and in a bad way if you are a publisher who wants to push traditional hardcover books. If you are a newspaper or magazine publisher who is not transforming your business to go online, then you are like the Bruce Willis character in that movie who doesn’t know he’s dead yet.  Somebody should tell you, because we know that movie is not a comedy.

There is a writer who has taken free content to a beautiful extreme. Seth Godin, the world’s most prolific blogger who is good at blogging, has passed the 5,000 post mark.  He writes and edits every word. He posts a blog every day. They range in quality all the way from good to great. This high level of work is amazing, especially considering that he knows writing this way means you don’t have to nail it every time. As he writes in blog 5,000 “I treasure the ability to say, this might not work.'”

Now, there’s a trick to the freeness of his content, in that Seth’s blog has immense value that is not monetary but social. When he writes about something in it, lots of people are reading and pass it on. He makes this point in a beautiful blog called I spread your idea because … It’s a primer on the positive energy generated from online communities.

We all know that free on the Internet takes the juice from the money economy and transfers it into social connection. That’s great if you like social connection and openness and not great if you need to make money at content. Nobody has come up with a great solution yet, but there is progress. The New York Times paywall is a success, and only moderately annoying. The Wall Street Journal’s is completely annoying. People will pay lots of money to see TED speakers in person, then millions more can enjoy those videos for free. One part of the system subsidizes the other. Everyone who puts content online seeks that balance. So keep building out your platform. Learn how to speak to your most appreciative audience. Then one day, I promise, it will all make sense.