The Economy and Community of Free
Is there a value to giving away some of your knowledge for free? That has been an active discussion on the Make And Meaning blog since late December, when Paul Overton -- who blogs as DudeCraft -- wrote Free -- A Case Study. Are there benefits for creatives in giving away a pattern, a technique, a design, or a concept? A benefit that in the long run will be far more beneficial to the community and the individual than holding these ideas back until an opportunity arises to make money from then?
Overton believes there is. To support his stance, he wrote a quick case study about a printing technique he was developing. After he posted his first attempts at the printing process on his blog, several of his readers requested a tutorial. Overton writes:
At this point, things could have gone one of two ways. I could have said: "I'm sorry, but I'm planning to include this project in a craft book that I'm writing so I can not share the process with you at this time, but if you give me your email address, I'd be happy to send you a link in the future as to where you might be able to purchase my book."
Or I could have said: "Sure, I'll get it done this weekend and let you
know when it's up." I chose the latter.
Over that weekend, he turned out a video demonstrating his technique, posted it to his blog, and let those who were interested know. The video was picked up and shared through a number of blogs (including CRAFT), his blog viewership grew (earning him money through page views), and he received compliments, photographs and stories about how others were using his tutorial to make gifts.
There are different kinds of currency. I may have lost a few dollars by not charging for this project, or not. Who knows? What I do know, is that I gained valuable information, trust, a small bit of notoriety, some revenue, some new readers, and a good feeling ... all because I spent a day recording a video and then gave it away instead of playing keep away with it.
Before continuing this idea, let's define several terms. The item given away is referred to as either a "bit" or an "atom." A bit is a piece of information: a skill described, a process detailed. An atom is a tangible good: a product sample. Within the crafting community, the most frequent type of shared information is a bit -- the tutorial. It takes just a little additional time to share the steps you take to create something. Entire websites, such as Instructables and the community at Thread Bangers, exist simply for this reason.
Atoms are trickier to determine and to distribute. These items can involve significant expenditure of time and raw materials; distributing the items adds a level of complexity and expense. Marie the Bee saw this challenge several years ago, when she developed The Sampler, which became a great distribution system for atoms by crafters.
The Sampler, however, is a marketing effort -- and as Diane Gilleland, also of Make And Meaning, argues, Free (as she and Overton define it, which I'll capitalize for clarity) is not primarily about marketing. Free is community building; it is given without expectation. Gilliland says:
In the creative community, because information is abundantly shared, we all learn more. We grow in skill, yes, but we also grow in interconnection to each other. Because of Free, we know more about each other, and this knowledge helps us to respect and help each other -– despite geography or personal differences.
That interconnection has way more value (and future potential) than mere money transactions. In the podcast, in fact, we talk about the idea of there being different kinds of currencies in the online community. Web traffic is a currency. Goodwill is a currency. Connection is a currency.
Another way of explaining the currency involved in the sharing of bits -- and the power and motion created by this sharing -- is with a Seth Godin quote that Overton shared during a LiveBlog discussion of the concept of Free:
When done properly, gifts work like nothing else. A gift gladly accepted changes everything. The imbalance creates motion, motion that pushes us to a new equilibrium, motion that creates connection. The key is that the gift must be freely and gladly accepted. Sending someone a gift over the transom isn't a gift, it's marketing. Gifts have to be truly given, not given in anticipation of a repayment. True gifts are part of being in a community (willingly paying taxes for a school you will never again send your grown kids to) and part of being an artist (because the giving motivates you to do ever better work). Plus, giving a gift feels good.
So the idea of Free reflects an attitude of both the giver and the recipient. If I give you a gift you do not value, the gift dies -- worse, it can sit like an elephant in the room, potentially poisoning any future chance of building a connection. However, when I offer a gift that is accepted and welcome, then positive emotions occur. It's almost like alchemy -- a subtle change takes place that changes us both.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may notice that I try to remind people to drink water throughout the day; it's a simple two-sentence message offered freely to the world. If you choose to act upon this reminder -- stepping away from your work long enough to fill up a glass -- then a gift has been freely offered and accepted. When you notice later in the afternoon that your 3 p.m. energy has changed, you remember my suggestion and immediately the connection between us changes. This in its simplest form is an example of Free.
BUT, I hear you thinking, there is this constant murmur about this Free thing leading to economic opportunities. So far, there has been a lot of energy and movement, but SHOW ME THE MONEY!
Kim Werker addressed this point in her post That Woo Woo Money Thing:
The money doesn't really just materialize, though. There's one thing you have to do to get the money: Seize (the right) opportunities when they come around. You don't need to have an air-tight business model if you don't want one. Free involves deliberately winging it. With a good emphasis on the deliberate AND on being comfortable winging it.
Werker then goes on to offer her own professional evolution as a prime example of seizing opportunities. Her blog lead to other writing opportunities, to a full-time job. Now she's back to doing the Free stuff. Her closing thoughts are an encouraging and reasonable recommendation for those of us making our way in completely unorthodox ways:
So don't be frustrated when we advocates of Free tell you not to worry about the money. Of course you're worried about the money. Don't quit your day job, okay? But as you continue on your path of Free, keep your eyes peeled for those shiny opportunities, and when the right ones come along work very hard to get them, and insist on getting paid well.