In the last few weeks, we’ve watched as openDemocracy races to secure a make-or-break last £50k of donations from its community of readers and supporters. Some of us have made donations, many have tweeted and helped spread the message, and everybody in that community has been worried, almost incredulous that openDemocracy might really not survive. I began my journey into the world of publishing ideas online with openDemocracy when I was barely 20, onto a very different Internet than exists today.
One of the things about that internet that has persisted however, is the immense vulnerability of those who believe it is important not to demand money in exchange for what they publish online, as though it were a bunch of bananas in the fruit market. This way of distributing ideas is often referred to as “free content,” and in my own experiences of digital entrepreneurship it can indeed be precarious.
Yet the term has come to symbolise an entire industry with its own cultures and cynicism. Although there may still be lessons openDemocracy needs to learn from this industry, in this case I found myself annoyed by the idea that anybody might characterise openDemocracy or its present circumstances simply as a possible casualty of the “free content” model.
In the context of online media, “free” and “content” are both words that need to be heavily problematised. “Free” is already subject to the ambiguity from which we suffer, in English, between the sense of “free as in free beer” and “free as in liberty.” This dual meaning, and in this formulation especially, is old hat to many familiar with the difficulties of digital ownership, for whom it can be a crucial distinction.
But even before you get to that, the word “free” smacks of advertising campaigns that seek to exploit a greedy, something-for-nothing expectation that we are apparently supposed to wholeheartedly embrace.
The concept of “content” commoditises and unifies our ideas, our work, emphasising its status as a product that can and should be quantified and contained, rather than the actual implications of what it asks us to think about. The “content,” here in the form of an article, is not really contained, but a container itself, of valuable insight, learning, or any number of elements that while they may not set us “free,” genuinely make it easier to hope for a better world.
openDemocracy is unprecedented. It couldn’t be further in my mind from an association with “free content” and its challenges. If it survives, it’ll be because we believed in it enough to see the extraordinary and unquantifiable value it holds. It’s too soon to know, but there’s only one thing you can do to be a part of that belief. Build the world you want to live in, and donate if you haven’t already.