The value of free

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

There is much to be learned about the incident of Dave Winer shutting down the free weblogs on this weekend; much beyond the obvious of always having a backdoor for your weblog. The real heart of the matter has to do with free, and the value we place on things that are ‘free’.

It wasn’t long before folks started rolling out the fact that people were hosted for free, and therefore haven’t a right to complain once the ‘free’ ride was over.

Doc Searls writes:

Thousands of us got a free ride from Dave, and Userland, over the past five years. What we got was far more than we didn’t pay for. For many of us (certainly for me), the benefits have been incalculable.

Let’s keep that in mind as those of us involved try to make this transition over the next few weeks

Archipelago responds with:

How about the folks bellyachin’ that Docs’ site is still running. Sheesh. I understand how annoyed folks are locked away from their writing and cats… but I also know that a lot of folks were happy to not pay, and not worry, and feel free to complain now that gravy train is over. If you’ve ever hosted sites and had folks who are getting free service call to yell at you at some ungodly hour on weekend that the site is down (regardless of the actual condition of the site) then you can feel some of the pain on the other side. And if you never have, and just annoyed that you can’t get to your stuff, where was you’re backup? Where’s your responsibility?

Om Malik writes about the ease in which to export from Movable Type or Blogger compared to other tools, and problems he had this weekend:

In comparison, switching from Manilla, or Word Press is painful and hard for those who are not blogsavants. (You can export the database or import using a RSS feed, but that is tough for people who just want to write.) I tried to move hosts this weekend and man it was a problem. Had Matt not helped me out, I would have never been able to do it. I guess, that is the penalty of free.

Anyway, this rant has become too long – I am going to say this, sometimes free is not good, and can be a bit of a pain. users are finding out.

The same Matt offered to help with redirection , which is generous, and ‘free’. But as I wrote in David Weinberger’s comments, if the resources to run redirection in Matt’s space are trivial, wouldn’t they also be trivial in

Frank Paynter has been collecting links and had an interesting take on the sudden revelation that this was all about Dave’s health:

The part about “Dave can’t program because it’s a health risk” troubles me… does this mean Dave can’t think because it’s a health risk? Or Dave can’t use the keyboard because his fingers might fall off? What is it about Dave’s style of coding that’s unhealthy I wonder?

Nothing to do with ‘free’, but I was curious about this myself. Personally I find coding to be unhealthy for me because I can’t hike and code at the same time, and therefore gain weight because I’m sitting on my butt and someday I’m going to fall over dead because I provide helpful, and free, tips for all of you…and it will be all your fault. You free weblogging scum, you.

Now, where was I?

Jeneane, well, now that lady is on a mission, providing good commentary, pointers to new webloggers homes, and demonstrating that she’s the fastest damn typist by immediately transcribing Winer’s audioblog to text.

(I’ve been chatting with Jeneane in emails about the demographics of those rallying around in support of Dave Winer, and those criticizing him. Interesting patterns developing – where’s the social software folks?)

Ralph has my favorite quote from this whole mess:

So now 3000+ webloggers have been summarily evicted with no notice. Dave has perfectly reasonable excuses for his actions. But he has no excuse for the lack of action that led to this. And UserLand really screwed up as a company by surreptitiously abandoning a huge user base to the fortunes of one person with a bum ticker. I guess when you play with a cactus, you’re bound to get pricked.

I guess when you play with a cactus, you’re bound to get pricked.

Most of these discussions are strongly reminiscent of the same discussions when Movable Type went from free software to having a fairly hefty licensing fee – and without warning. There were those who were unhappy, and were vocal about it. And then there were those pointing fingers at the rest of us and calling us cheap bastards.

What we’re finding in weblogging is there is no such thing as free forever. The medium has grown up; it no longer has the feeling of being something self-contained and measured and people who were doing ‘free’ earlier are bailing from doing ‘free’ forever.

There’s nothing wrong with not doing the free thing. However, there’s also nothing wrong with the people who accepted the free thing, freely given. No one begged to be allowed to use Movable Type, it was provided for download; no one whined to be allowed to weblog on–they were invited to participate. Each person who accepted these free things also gave something back in return: whether it was bodies when webloggers were few, or grateful acknowledgement when webloggers were many. Though those who have benefited from these free services in the past should be grateful, they don’t deserve to be called ‘cheap’ or cut loose without warning. Free does not equate to no value.

I wonder how far this loss of weblogging ‘free’ will go? To weblog reading? We don’t charge people to read our weblogs, but does that make our readers cheap, and valueless? I don’t believe so, though I haven’t always acted so.

I believe we should value those who have so many weblogs to choose from now, but still take the time to read what we write. It’s true that we should write for ourselves, but that doesn’t make the value of what our readers contribute to this whole experience any less. I hope that none of us–no matter how erudite or eloquent, no matter how popular or successful–forget the value of our readers, as this medium continues to grow in respectability if not size.

All the more so because being able to read weblogs seems to be the last ‘free’ in weblogging.

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