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July 7, 2009

Some thoughts on “free”

Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail and editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine) has just published Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The book is available (not free) in all the usual outlets, but you can also read it on scribd. For free.

Reviews, so far, are mixed. Malcolm Gladwell, writing in the New Yorker, didn’t like it. The New York Times, not so much a fan. And there was an ugly little kerfluffle about attribution (or lack thereof) of content sourced from Wikipedia. Emma Duncan, writing for the Guardian, liked it.

This book is important because Anderson is attempting to define a taxonomy of different types of “free.” Business and organizations face the difficult challenge of figuring out what should and should not be free. To give you a tiny, itty-bitty example, Scriptorium offers a series of white papers, technical references, and books. What’s the difference between a white paper and a technical reference? The white papers are free, the tech references are not. Costs range from $10 to $200. But how do we decide whether a document should be free or not? We are still trying to figure out the right answer. As Anderson points out, the incremental cost of producing additional e-books (after the first one) is zero. Should all digital content be free? We have chosen, for the most part, to charge for books and for the more technical documents. White papers, which typically provide an overview of a technology or methodology, are generally free. We feel that this is a fair representation of our actual development costs.

Meanwhile, our friendly neighborhood technical communication organization is trying to figure out some similar issues. Currently, the STC web site has public content (free) and members-only content (not free).

The major argument I’m hearing from STC leadership for locking down content is basically that otherwise, people will be able to use the content without paying for it. In other words, the value of the STC membership is that it gives you access to members-only content. This logic would make some amount of sense if STC held a monopoly on content related to technical communication. It does not.

So, what happens when you lock down content and hide it from non-members? You lose the opportunity to participate in the community. You lose the opportunity to have non-members read your content, decide you are useful, and join the Society. You lose the opportunity for inbound links.

Similar logic applies to forums, wikis, and online communities. Members and non-members should be able to participate. Perhaps members get special badges in their profiles to indicate membership, but communities derive value from participation, and open access means more participation.

If can be transformed into a vital hub for the technical communication community, the organization itself will do fine. In a moment of apparent insanity, I have offered to help with this effort. If you’d like to join me, contact me in the comments below, via Twitter (@sarahokeefe), on the STC Ideas forum (, or via whatever avenue makes the most sense to you. (Email and phone contact information are in the main part of our web site.)