When To Give Up Free

Photo Credit: Puzzledmonkey

When I first began dabbling in blogging, obesity I had a free account on Blogger. It was all there really was at the time. Typepad was brand new and no one I knew knew anything about it, pharm and WordPress was for self-hosted geeks who knew what they were doing. So when I wanted to learn about HTML/CSS, sale I began editing a Doug Bowman template on my blogspot.com blog.

As I learned about photography and shared photos with my family of my daughter and my new life in Indiana, I signed up for a free account on Flickr. I loved that I could quickly and easily get photos online and even post directly to my blog from within Flickr. I also loved that I could do just about anything I wanted to online and not pay for any of it.

As I started a freelance web design business and began getting a few clients, I recommended these free services to them as well, because I thought, why pay for something if you don’t have to?

The People Behind the Free Stuff

But then I started getting to know my peers in the web design and development arena. I socialized with them, pre-Twitter. That means by reading their blogs, commenting, visiting forums, and emailing now and then. As I read their blogs about code, about design, copyright, professionalism, etc. I became convicted in the face of their sweat and tears. All the late nights they talked about, about how many months and even years it took them to complete a viable web app, I felt weird using their service for free.

But that’s how the Internet works, right? People make stuff all the time and put it out there for free. They wouldn’t do it if they couldn’t afford to. Right? And aren’t they getting something in return anyway, lots of publicity, testers, new clients? That’s not doing something for nothing. Right? Right?

As I continued to justify this to myself, it occurred to me one day while working on a client’s website in a free coding app, that I had reached a point in which I was directly profiting from this free service. I felt dirty. So I looked up the website of this app and found a paid license, which incidentally gave me several new features I didn’t have access to with the free version. I felt good again.


About that same time I had a client who was writing (editing, rather) a series of books full of “chicken soup” type stories from Christians. Being a Christian myself, I thought the work she was doing was great and I wanted to help her with the new promotional website she asked me to build for her. I was jazzed for her until she came to me midway through the job and asked if I wouldn’t mind donating my services to the project. Jaw, meet floor.

We had already agreed on the scope of work and cost, and I was in the middle of coding previously approved comps when her solicitation came through my inbox. Aghast, but still committed to following through, I told her I would overlook the request and continue as agreed. A little later on, she said her publicist insisted her photo be more prominent on the page, ideally every page. I think this was the straw that broke this camel’s back.

What so turned me off here was that all of the content I was putting on this website was about God-loving people doing good and seeing good done, and often asking nothing in return. And yet on every page, it did ask for a return. It asked for $24.95 for a copy of each book for sale on the site. It asked for money for donations too, and for several other products for sale. It asked for money to pay for this woman to come and speak to you. This wasn’t a non-profit charitable organization, but a fully profiting business, and this business was now asking me not ask for money in return for my own services.

But wait. Isn’t this what I was doing, charging people for my design services while asking Blogger, Flickr, et al. not to charge me for theirs? I was a black kettle there for awhile.

If You’re Not Paying For It, Someone Else Is

Now I’ve moved away from web design over the last couple of years in pursuit of a childhood dream of owning my own shop. I sell handmade goods and curated goods from all over the country, to stores all over the world. It’s great. But it’s a business. It’s not a recreational personal thing and it’s not a charity; it’s a profiting business.

There are many other people I’ve met with similar dreams and businesses. The majority of these people appear to have started out much the same as I did, with Blogger, Typepad or another free blogging service to get them on their feet. A few here and there have moved to Squarespace and other more robust paid services, or have hired designers and developers to help them get set up with a self-hosted solution, but a huge number of independent sellers are still mooching, for lack of a better word. They’re profiting from the work of others without a return for their consumption.

As recently as last week, I was approached by a craft-related conference, running a “website” on Blogger. This for-profit organization was soliciting donations from my shop to include in their goodie bags to conference guests. Ordinarily I’m not against donating product for select events now and then, but as soon as I saw their website, I lost respect for what they were doing. To their credit, it appeared that they had hired a designer to give them something more than a template, but they might have had that donated as well. It’s hard to know. It’s easier to tell with those who clearly have put a lot of time, effort–and yes, money–into their event, such as SXSW for example.

This is in no way meant to pass judgment on anyone, but knowing as many designers and developers as I have come to know over the years (about half my twitter followers fit the bill), my heart breaks a little when I hear someone say “oh, just do such and such, it’s free.” I know as well as my friends do, it’s not really free. Every service, every piece of software, that you’re benefiting from cost SOMEONE something.

I don’t use Blogger anymore, though I’ll probably always have a Flickr account. But I switched to a paid account years ago. Every service I use, from Blinksale for invoices, to Mad Mimi for email newsletters, eChristian for my web hosting, Big Cartel for my store, even Paypal, charges a fee for their services, which I’m more than happy to pay. For what they’re giving me in return, I often feel like I should be paying more, and I’m grateful to these service providers for their help. Without them, I wouldn’t be successful as I have been.

When You’re Paid, Opt To Pay

When given the option for a free account these days, I stop and think about what it is I intend to do with the service. If it’s for business, I sign up for the paid account that fits and write it off as a business expense. If it’s for my own personal use and I don’t want any fancy features, I don’t mind using the free account. In fact, my personal blog, nataliejost.com, is run by the free service Tumblr (though I did pay for a better template). And sometimes, even for business, I’ll use the free account for a few days when testing a new service, just to make sure it will suit my needs. But as soon as it does, I flip the switch.

Again, not judging, just seeking to shed some light on this topic and hoping you’ll consider paying for (or donating to) individuals and companies who work so hard to give you these great tools, including indirectly helpful services like web magazines. ;)

Incentive To Switch To Paid Accounts

A few vendors have generously offered you a discount on services if you choose to switch to paid services.

eChristian Web Hosting – 20% off through 4/30/11 with code JOST

Mad Mimi is offering 1000 contacts free for your first month. You just need to write them and tell them you saw this article on Web Style and they’ll fix it up for you. You have 2 weeks from the date of this post. They also offer a discount to non-profit groups, so get in touch with them if you have that need.

Becoming an Author in the iPad Era

Photo Credit: Jeremy Keith

If you’re like most folks, buy information pills at one time or another, decease you’ve thought about taking that one great idea, hunkering down in front of the typewriter or word processor and just letting the words flow till they all come together to form The Great Novel. Many have actually done so, launching themselves head first, typing out the first few sentences of their masterpiece. But if you’re like most, you probably gave up after less than a page, never mind finishing one chapter. And from there, the numbers thin out to just the very few who somehow plug away till their book is done.

If you managed to finish the first draft of your very first novel, congratulations. It’s not easy. But you like it. You think it’s good. Real good. Now you want to share it with the world.

The world of book publishing has changed. A lot. For a budding new writer, now may be the best time ever to stand shoulder to shoulder with the big players.

Consumption versus Creation
Technology has accelerated people’s ability to consume endless amounts of information and media. There is an abundance of choice today previously unknown in human history. The industrial revolution created an almost limitless supply of physical goods that consumers could buy and enhance their lives. Now with the information revolution, media content has exponentially grown to the point where no one person could ever conceivably watch, listen, read or experience everything they find enticing.

Oh. But there is a downside.

With all this consumption, individuals could miss out on the other opportunities afforded by today’s technology: content creation.

Okay. So maybe you can’t sing or play an instrument. And for most, making a movie or a television show is out of the question.

But we all have one skill that we can leverage into content: language. As long as you can string a sentence together, you can write a book. All it takes is a good idea, a computer with writing software and patience to see it through. And a good book can propel a person from obscurity to fame and fortune.

Well, okay. Rarely. But you just know it’ll be you this time, right? Right on.

Electronic Distribution
The publishing industry is a big machine with a chain made up of authors (the folks who write the books), agents (the folks who match up authors with publishing houses), publishers (the folks who print, package, market and ship the books), retailers (the folks who sell the books) and consumers (the folks who buy and read the books). Like baseball, music labels and movie studios, publishers found that they could make oodles of cash by taking raw talent and turning it into gold. And by getting as much strict control on as many links in the chain as they can, they can make sure they maximize their profits. In the good ol’ days, you needed their big machine to do all things required to print and distribute a book. They liked it this way. It’s understandable.

Now it’s different.

There’s the internet. There are e-books. There are e-readers. There’s EPUB. There are short-run book manufacturers like Blurb and Lulu who can make one book at a time that looks as professional as anything at your local bookstore. There are turnkey solutions like iUniverse. There’s the Kindle. And then there’s the iPad and iBooks. And even more to come.

You don’t have to go through the machine anymore.

Media Lessons Learned
The music industry failed to embrace digital technology from the outset and they’re paying the price. By its nature, music is a low commitment medium. It takes about four minutes to consume one distinct unit. CD players and radios are cheap. It can just hover there in the background while you mow the lawn or drive your car. The file sizes are small (thanks, MP3), so pirating piles of songs is like using up a wad of napkins at Mickey D’s that you don’t really need, but like to have around, just in case. Plus the quality can be middling for most people’s tastes. Not a good medium to stake your financial future on.

Then there’s movies and television. Bigger commitment. You need to be sitting still for between 30 and 180 minutes to consume one distinct unit. Television sets, video players and trips to the theater cost more. The file sizes are much bigger, so that stems piracy. Somewhat. They’re looking at the music industry and thinking, ‘maybe we should be a little more open to digital technology’. It’s helping. A little. But their industry isn’t been on the verge of tanking like music has. Yet.

Now, publishing. Books? Huge commitment. You really need to have your nose in front of that page. Hours, days, even weeks to consume one unit. Photocopy a book? Who has the time? If there’s no PDF floating around, who would bother ripping it off? People have a much more visceral relationship with books. Almost a sensual one. And the publishing industry, thanks to Apple and Amazon, have decided to embrace digital technology.

There’s an opportunity there.

The Writing Process
So. You want to be a fiction writer? Fire up the ol’ Word or OpenOffice and just start typing away, right? Well, that’s probably not the best way to go about it.

Introduce yourself to the concept of non-linear writing.

Word processors by the nature of their architecture presume you will begin your document in the upper lefthand corner, work your way to the right, make a carriage return and drop a line and so on till your manuscript is done.

There’s a better way.

What if you want to start a third of the way in? Then maybe write a scene near the end. Or maybe you have an idea for a prologue before the first chapter.

In the olden days, there were these small pieces of cardboard called index cards. You could write a story idea on one and just lay it out on a corkboard or table. Then you could just play with these discrete ideas and reorder them till you fleshed out your narrative.

For Mac users, there’s Scrivener. For Windows folks, PageFour and others. They will free you from the bonds of linear thinking and make your writing project that much more pleasant. If not for Scrivener, I would have never been able to finish the first draft of my first real novel.

For years, I took stab after stab at writing a book. Never could do it. I always ran out of steam very early on. A non-linear text editor like Scrivener really changed everything for me. Like the first time I put together an Ikea bookcase with a cordless drill instead of breaking my wrist with a screwdriver, doing a major project was something to look forward to, not dread like some awful chore.

Good tools make a difference.

In the process of writing my book, there were some valuable lessons I learned that every newbie writer ought to know. There are many others, but these are all pretty basic.

Show. Don’t tell. In other words, describe the scene using the senses. Don’t just report what’s happened.

Remember the rule of three acts: establish your lead character, make him or her in face ever-mounting conflicts, end off with a huge climax.

Read good authors. Learn from them.

Raise the stakes. Constantly. Keep the action juiced up with a few breathers here and there for some balance.

Finish every scene with a sentence that has an emotional touchstone or a springboard to propel the reader onward.

You can’t completely avoid using adjectives and adverbs, but use descriptive, illustrative images instead when you can.

Keep the final manuscript to between 80,000 and 120,000 words. 100,000 is the sweet spot to aim for.

Hire an editor. If you can’t, be brutal with yourself, even if it is your baby and lop off excess limbs to make it better.

Use a dictionary, thesaurus and spell checker. Watch the grammar.

Keep the drama high and the peril ominous. But don’t be preachy or melodramatic.

Avoid clichés.

Trim the dialog. Keep it punchy, quick and understated.

Expect criticism.

The first draft will be garbage. Period. Don’t worry and don’t self-edit till it’s finished. Once the first draft’s out the door, you can brutalize it all you want. Whatever you do, don’t stop in the middle and nitpick.

Wikipedia is your buddy. Hang out.

Don’t frontload your story. Let it stretch out naturally. Don’t give it all away in the first chapter. Feed the reader by the morsel.

Enjoy every minute.

The Urge to Write
They say do it for love. Not for money. That’s good advice for anything worth spending your time on. For writing, the motive should be for the pure pleasure of telling a story.

As a web designer, there is a great satisfaction in the process of starting with nothing and then creating something beautiful and functional that all the world can experience. That’s the great thing about the web. Anyone anywhere can see what we’ve made.

Creativity is what satisfies the ongoing personal struggle we all deal with when trying to decipher the hidden meaning of our existence. It is in making something beautiful out of our pure imagination that gives us as designers, programmers and authors a real sense of purpose that is tangible. In a sense, we all are storytellers in our own right.

The art of writing fiction gives everyone an opportunity to explore the sheerest heights and depths of human emotion and experience, pitting characters who represent us in the most extreme situations, putting to the test our values, aspirations and our weaknesses and sharing them with others in insightful and entertaining ways. Everyone should, at least once in their lives, write a long form story, if only for the experience.

And there’s no better time than right now.

The Comfort of Spammers

Photo Credit: Stacie Brew

As part of our Women in Technology (WIT) group at Yahoo!, heart we invited a group of sixth graders last winter to our Burbank campus to learn about technology and the different roles that women have here.  Our goal was to expose them to technology and hope they would leave unafraid of entering a male-dominated field.

During one of the sessions, I taught the girls basic HTML, CSS, and some JavaScript. What impressed me most was their determination to understand and absorb everything. There was no, “I don’t think I can do this” and no, “I think this is hard” (even when looking at and using complex JavaScript libraries).  Instead, there was amazement of how much they could do with a few lines of text on a computer screen.  At the end of the session, a few of them started to grasp the window of possibilities and begin asking how to do more complex interactions.

These girls, most of them with very little exposure to computers in their day-to-day lives, were daring, brave, and eager to try new things. Programming did not daunt them at all. Self-doubt wasn’t an issue.

The WIT group holds leadership and career discussions among ourselves in order to provide support and networking opportunities. Self-doubt is a big theme that comes up in these discussions. I have heard so many women say, “I could never do what you do”, “I want to learn, but I am scared to try programming”.   I, too, have similar feelings when trying new things.

What causes these insecurities?  How did they come about? Are we really incapable of doing what I could teach eleven and twelve year olds to do in an hour? Is it a generational difference?  I think most of us feel men and women are equally adept at executing their tasks at work. So if these doubts are truly only in our heads, what put them there?  Passing comments by our mothers, fathers, and brothers?  The tendency for computer games to be boy focused? Is it cultural, where we were inundated with a stereotype of  what a cool girl is and not exposed to technology at an early age?

Do men have the same issues in significant numbers or are they shielded from this internal torment by social constructs?

I hope the sixth graders we taught that day remember the excitement they felt when writing a piece of code and visually seeing its effects on their browsers. I hope at least some of them decide to come into technology and that they don’t have to experience the self-doubts and fears that some of us face today.
Email, plague
blogs, herpes
social media, podcasts, print-on-demand, etc. Thanks to Internet, never have so many people been able to make their thoughts available to such a large number of listeners. But isn’t it that much painful when this potential audience of billions fails to connect with your message, leaving you feeling foolish and ignored?

Are you despairing to see your Twitter followers stuck at a ridiculously low number? Who will post a comment on your latest blog post, proving that you touched someone and brought value to the world? Who will write you an email and bring words of comfort in times of hardship?

Know my lonely friend that when all else fails, spam is always there for you. The obsession with money-making schemes of this nice-looking twitter follower with an unpronounceable name may seem suspicious, but she’s also your long-awaited 50th follower and it would be a shame to block such a sexy avatar from your list. Maybe she’ll even notice the wry comment you just posted about the Flash vs HTML5 controversy? She may even chuckle at your “bon mot” as she builds her vast pyramidal empire…

You may wonder why concerned people feel the need to send you kindly email messages about how herbal remedies can help you make your partner so much happier. Thankfully, an unexpected love letter from a lonesome Russian lady soon restores your feelings of adequacy by her earnest request for companionship. Sure, her spelling can be very approximate, but love may be just around the corner! If only you could send some money to resolve those pesky visa issues…

You may wonder why bother posting to your website, exposing the beauty and degradation of humanity in 500 words installments, when your comments section lay bare, exposing the indifference of the world for, apparently, no-one to see. Thank you, mister Chinese World of Warcraft gold farmer, for keeping my forum alive with dreams of massive virtual wealth and power, bringing with you a taste of the Orient with your exotic typography.

The futuristic vision of alienated and forlorn people being comforted by robotic custodians is now a reality. Thank you, mister spambot, for keeping me company in cyberspace with your eternal vigilance. Your bountiful email and forum messages keep letting me know that something, somewhere, knows I exist and wants to connect!