On Simulated Freedom

MCMWednesday, July 1, 2009

All non-physical goods are going to be free, whether you like it or not.

Giving things away is a fundamental requirement of business in this day and age, just like Power Point decks and Twittering in meetings (don't try and deny it). Things are free for a variety of reasons that you could argue about till the cows come home, but still not disprove. This isn't about that. This is about how you make something free.

Mark Cuban pointed out an astonishingly smart distinction: there is a difference between "free content" and "freely-distributed content". In the one case, you don't charge anything for the product, so people can access your stuff without a credit card glued to the back of their hand. In the other, you're packaging that content in such a way that they can trade the product all over the internet, completely outside your control. Like creative herpes. Except not so negative. Or not necessarily. Let's just move on.

Web culture has tended to bind these two concepts together, but I suspect they're becoming unglued. Much like me.

Here's the thing: if people can't find your content, it doesn't exist. If you are invisible to Google, you are only theoretically good at what you do. If someone is researching a subject that you excel at, and they don't find you, they'll go to your competitor. It doesn't matter how amazing you are, you egotistical fiend. It's the way the world works. It's not malicious, it's just how it is. The only real way to make your content visible to searches is to make it free. The more of a pay wall you erect around your content, the less visible it is, and the more audience members you're shunning. Shunning customers is high on the list of Stupid Business Decisions. Second only to suing them.

So this is where distribution comes in.

Just because your content is free, it doesn't mean your audience needs the ability to take it with them. I can go to the bookstore downtown and read a book without paying, so long as I read it there. If I try to leave without paying, two large burly men with blue shirts and dragon tattoos will accost me. This is an excellent example of distribution control. Also, unresolved psychological trauma. We'll focus on the former.

While it is ideal that your potential audience realize that you are, in fact, da bomb, you likewise want them to stick around to continually stroke your ego beyond that first encounter. Moreover, if they tell their friends about how great you are, you want these new disciples audience members to bask in your glory. If they aren't forced to visit your site, their basking potential is greatly reduced. The less basking, the less inclined they will be to donate their liver to you when the time comes. Obviously, it is essential they not leave.

Still, if you put too many constraints on your content, it stops being free, and is unable to market itself through its inherent genius. People want to be able to disseminate content on their own, and any steps you take to prevent this will work against you. But since providing free distribution is equally dangerous, what you need to focus on is simulated freedom. Online, you already know it as Twitter-friendly URLs, or embedded players, or "widgets" for blogs. In the real world, it is known as the United Kingdom.

Simulated freedom gives your audience the sensation of being able to freely trade your content, while still tethering all future eyeballs to your site. It lets your content travel the tubes in any direction it can, without sacrificing your brand identity, your page views, or your potential income stream. In actual freedom, you would never be able to append a new product offer to an already-distributed file. In simulated freedom, you can adapt your past successes to help promote your future ones, because you still control the access point.

Luckily, simulated freedom is already well-established across the internet, so it won't offend anyone if you implement it too. It's a gentle compromise between creator and audience: you can do whatever you like with this, but please do using my tools. 99% of your visitors won't think twice about it. And for the last 1%, you can hire some burly men with the dragon tattoos.

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