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Information Wants To Be Free

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According to Wikipedia, "information wants to be free" is an expression that has come to be the unofficial motto of the free content movement. The expression is first recorded as pronounced by Stewart Brand at the first Hackers' Conference in 1984, in the following context: 'On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.'"

When Shawn Fanning was a teenager at Northwestern, he was obviously on the side of the free-content movement when he invented the peer-to-peer file sharing program Napster, which allowed people, mostly computer-savvy young people, to either share or pirate music - depending on your point of view. If you were a free-content person, you shared files. If you were a content-valuable person, such as the rock band Metallica or the rapper Dr. Dre - both of whom sued Napster for enabling people to get their copyrighted songs without paying for them - you felt the songs were pirated.

Are you a content-free or content valuable person? Chances are you're conflicted. You might like the free content on NYTimes.com and HuffingtonPost.com, but you might pay for the content on WSJ.com. On the one hand, you might look the other way when your kids pirate songs; but on the other hand, you might pay for songs on iTunes because you're against pirating on moral grounds.

However, the quality of either free or paid-for content for the vast majority of people is not determined by the price of its acquisition by a publisher. The fact that a publisher pays an author a $5 million advance doesn't make a book better, a $180 million film is not automatically better than one that cost $5 million to make, and the quality or value of a blog post or a newspaper column is not determined by how much the publisher paid the writer.

In fact, I would argue that not only does information want to be free but also that content is often better when it is free - free not only to readers but also free to publishers.

The free distribution of and access to content enabled by the Internet has created a new medium, a new journalism, for readers that is much more of a two-way conversation than the old one-way model of print and broadcast. On websites that allow comments, the comments are often more relevant and better informed than the original blog or column, but, more important, comments allow readers to express their opinions and become part of a public dialogue. We all learn from each other, or as Satchel Paige said, "All of us are smarter than any one of us."

Content that is free to publishers, such as the blogs on the Huffington Post, allow writers to express themselves freely without an eye cocked to a gate-keeping owner, editor, or advertiser. It's pure, heartfelt opinion, and, more important, if it isn't reasonably well written and well argued, it won't get posted, which is a strong quality-control mechanism.

Content providers that have regularly scheduled, salaried columnists and pundits typically publish their content regardless of its quality. Bill O'Reilly has a regularly scheduled show and FOX News runs his program no matter what he rants about. The New York Times has hired William Kristol to write a column on Mondays, so it runs his column regardless of whether it's well written, makes sense, or has typos or factual errors in it (see Kristol's horribly written, typo-polluted column this past Monday). It reminds me of many tenured professors at universities who teach boring, irrelevant courses that are scheduled only because the schools have to have something for these dinosaurs to do.

The Huffington Post's free model is working - its growth has been extraordinary and it now has, according to some reliable Internet audience measurement firms, as many readers as the AP website and is approaching the audience of the Washington Post's website. Readers get access to thoughtful, well-written blogs by Senator Ted Kennedy, former senator Gary Hart, Nora Ehpron, Alex Baldwin, Tom Hayden, Charlie Rose, Marty Kaplan, and Terence Smith, to name only a few blog writers who are not writing for money. They are writing to get their opinions, their causes, their passions distributed, and the beneficiaries are the readers who can join in the conversation, and, thus, both reader and writer can be informed.

I made the above argument to a friend of mine who said that, "Well, when the Huffington Post starts making money, the bloggers will want to get paid, they won't write free." I disagree. Smart, committed people want their voices heard and smart, committed readers want to know what these people have to say. Free information is good, and free both ways is better.