The Culture of Free and Why it Needs to Change
I have to get something off my chest. I’m going to try not to sound too ranty, and I really do want to know what you think (especially if you don’t agree).
We live in a culture of Free. Free is not bad. But, in order for social business to be successful, many attitudes are going to need to change.
What I love most about new media is that the barrier to entry is extremely low. Anyone with an Internet connection, a keyboard and an idea is welcome to the party. Anyone can create, share and be brilliant, in their own way. What people build out here has enriched my life and continues to blow my mind on a daily basis. I love that I have access to all of this brilliance for free. I absorb it like a sponge, and share it like it’s candy. You should be doing the same. After all, it’s free.
It’s wonderful that all of this amazing content is free, but we’re starting to develop some bad habits. Unfortunately, our beautiful Culture of Free has started to become an Expectation of Free. And that’s a problem. A big problem.
There’s life beyond free. Every morning, I grab a cup of coffee, and dive head first into my Google Reader (or in my case, Feedly, which, if you’re not using yet, you really should be). Inside this space, I’m blessed with the most incredible content from some of the smartest people I know. I get to read, watch, listen and learn new ideas, concepts, and wisdom, all for free. More than that, I get to freely share it with my friends. I can’t say enough good things about it.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing sense of entitlement in some camps, that those who share for free, should continue to do so in all aspects of their work. I see evidence of this on a daily basis, and it’s alarming.
I write this blog for free. I contribute to other blogs for free. I tweet for free. I share stuff on Facebook for free too. I do it because I enjoy sharing what’s in my brain, and because some of you seem to enjoy receiving it. The thing is, even though no money is changing hands, each day when you come to my content, you’re performing a transaction with me. I’m delivering content. You are using it. For some reason, what I’m providing is worth something to you. In this case, it’s your time. And that’s totally fine. We are both getting something out of our transaction with each other.
Where the line begins to blur is when I move over into the world of the “not free”. You see, all of this is my job. This blog, my other online presences, my company, my teaching, my consulting work, my speaking engagements…they all take work. I tend to not make a distinction between what I get paid to do and what I don’t. I think many of us who work in this business (for money) do much the same.
What I’m observing is, somewhat with myself and more often with other people who do the same things I do, that lots of people are misunderstanding where the boundary of free vs. not free is. And I totally get why it’s confusing. We’re pushing all this free content out. Then suddenly, when we start asking for money, people start to wonder what we’re doing differently to no longer be just giving it away. They scrutinize our motives, and dig harder to find the value.
I have cats to feed. So where is the line? Well, that’s even more tricky. It’s different for everyone. Some people have massive volumes of traffic to their blogs and Twitter and subsequently to their email inboxes. I’m not really one of those people. I get plenty of requests, but certainly not to the scale of some people I know. Scalability aside, it’s important to understand personally where the line between free and paid is. I have absolutely no issue with responding to questions on Twitter, comments on my blog, the occasional email, or even going for a quick coffee and chat (which I love to do). I love people, and it makes me happy when I can provide a bit of info that is helpful. But for me, free ends once a certain amount of my time is being used. If someone is asking for a significant amount of my time, whether it’s through back and forth emails, incessant Direct Messages on Twitter, or coffee after coffee pick-your-brain sessions with no real goal in sight, then things start to change. (I have, by the way, had all of these things happen at one time or another, as I’m sure many of you have.) At that point, it has to become more than just a transaction of time. After all, I have cats to feed. So please, please PLEASE…don’t be taken aback when I let you know politely that in order for us to continue our transaction, you’ll need to pay me. Remember, this is my job.
But…(and there’s always a but), there are exceptions to this, as with everything. There are certain times when the transaction of free stands. These are my personal reasons (yours, and others’, may be different):
1) You’re one of my students. As your teacher, it’s my responsibility to be there to help you learn. So ask away. Invite me for coffee. Find me on Skype. But if you’re not my student? Please don’t ask me to record my lectures and make them available to you online for free. My students pay their own hard earned money to be in that classroom. Many of them sacrifice a lot to be there. They are paying for the content, so it’s not fair if you ask to have it for free.
2) You’re involved in doing good work that I believe in. I am honoured that I get asked to speak at events. I get to share things, improve my public speaking skills, and meet some great new people. I often get to talk about causes I’m involved with, like 12for12k. I get to share with young people, businesswomen, and amazing non-profits. This work I often do for free, because I believe in what these folks are doing, and if I can in any small way make a contribution that’s valuable, then I’m thrilled to help. But I have a line there too. This one’s always case by case basis.
It’s a whole new world. Free is what makes the Internet go round, that’s a fact. But there are lots and lots of people who are working very hard to make a living out here. If you’re here, you’re likely one of them (unless you’re my Mom – she’s retired). No other industry that I can think of has ever offered so much tremendous value for free. And the beauty is, if you want to stay in the free space, you have every right to do so. But, there’s a certain point when your needs and goals may require your transaction with the businesspeople out here to become about more than just that free time and information. Either way, it’s totally okay. But do know that the culture of free is transforming. And also know that it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s only going to enhance everyone’s experience in the end, as far as I can tell, because we’re attaching a new type of value to what people know and do well out here.
I look forward to hearing what you have to say.