I started blogging in 2006 and Typepad was my platform of choice.
Typepad was great and, just as Mena Trott describes, I felt incredibly empowered. I had a white canvas where I could share thoughts with a very responsive community of people who enjoyed engaging in endless debates over matters that might have seemed mundane to the uninitiated, but were unquestionably the centre of our world. The kind of ingenuity that fed the blog generation.
Then, after three years of relentless writing, I grew tired of checking the size of the pictures and tweaking HTML code (very little tweaks, to be honest) to have exactly the type of formatting I wanted. Also, free platforms were becoming better and better, and I felt silly paying for something thousands of other people were getting for free.
I Googled around a bit, and found Posterous. Posterous was very much in line with a new generation of blogs – like Tumblr, for example.
Again, thanks to Posterous, I fell in love with blogging. Firstly, it was very simple to subscribe: one login, one password, and that was it. Secondly it was very simple to craft: not only it was a designing matter of three or four minutes (it took me a couple of hours to figure out how to put up and running my first Typepad) but it was just as easy to post. You could actually send a mail and the system would upload it automatically, exactly as you sent it. And, lastly it was completely free, whereas I had to pay a certain amount for Typepad if I wanted the design of the blog to be as customisable as I wanted it.
Then, in a classic dot-com acquisition, Posterous was sold to Twitter. And a couple of months ago I receive an email saying very kindly that as of April 30th, 2013, Posterous would be discontinued, and I was gently invited to find another place for my rants. I moaned a bit, then sucked it up, since I was no Oprah risking her daily contact with millions of fans.
I started looking around for alternatives and found out two things: first of all, on most of the blogging platforms, what I needed required a fee. I checked Blogger, Wordpress, Tumblr and Squarespace. I also needed to re-learn little bits and pieces of crafting and programming. Gosh, what a terrible perspective for a lazy person who grew up in the "no-skills-needed-dot-com" era. So I went back to Typepad.
But two thoughts went through my head.
The first is our perception of all free things on the Internet. Daily usage of online platforms becomes as much a whole part of our life as gas, or electricity. And lucky us most of these platforms are free. What we don't realize is that, unlike public utilities, most of these platforms are products, and they're governed by profit.
Whether Google should be considered as a public utility is part of a big debate, that started with the decision to discontinue Reader (the debate was sparked by BBC). For sure Posterous wasn't. But we need to start thinking about these platforms more like physical objects. When a product doesn't generate enough profit, or requires too much maintenance, it's discontinued. This is what happened to Google Reader, and most likely to Posterous.
Second thought is how skills are relevant. My quest for simplification was rooted in the fact that I didn't want to stop blogging but I wanted to stop fidgeting with small bits of code to make the HTML look as good as I wanted. These skills were minimal, but they were necessary for what I needed to do. Had my project required even more technical flexibility, I could have upgraded my package and then be able to do anything I wanted.
Instead of developing my skills - or at least keep them at the same level - I became lazy (I often do) and chose what was apparently the simplest solution. But in doing so I stored all my production on a free platform, meaning tied to different revenue streams.
That's the paradox of gratuitous services: they need to be relatively simple to be free, so they can be used by as many people as possible. More instruments means not only more skills on your side, but also more work in keeping the platform alive and relevant to people with more developed needs: hence the necessity of asking for a subscription.
Sure, it is true what Chris Anderson wrote in his 2008 piece on Wired: "The rise of "freeconomics" is being driven by the underlying technologies that power the Web. Just as Moore's law dictates that a unit of processing power halves in price every 18 months, the price of bandwidth and storage is dropping even faster."
Yet what the Freeconomics doctrine doesn't take into account enough, in my opinion, it's that the technological growth decreases the costs but develops more evolved needs. And these needs require investments to maintain product relevancy.
Obviously our choice of paying or not is determined by how serious the content we are producing is: free is awesome for a Kitten blog, but if you are looking to share intellectual property with like-minded people to reach some kind of growth objectives, free might be a liability. That’s the paradox of gratuity, to me: free isn’t a solution for professional use.
The Ideas Economy has turned a lot of us into writers, thinkers, part-time philosophers with no technical skills to call on in times of need. That's why free doesn't work for us: we need people to craft the platforms and the tools we can use to bring to life and share our ideas.
What we are really paying for is not the space we occupy on a platform's server or the bandwidth we use. We are financing their R&D, effectively buying shares of their future. And possibly, a solid home for our intellectual production.
(this post was writted for TEDxBologna)