If you create knowledge, do it for free

Posted on Monday November 02, 2020
Category: Society
Tags: opinion

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Walled gardens and pretty flowers

I suppose I have been one of these numerous people to sport a Medium blog back in the day. I am not too proud about it since I am an avid consumer of blog posts and subject to more and more of Medium’s limitations. You surely have seen those too, around the corner of a React post or a rant about some hyped technology. I am here talking about pay-to-read and other fantasies.

Frankly, I am not pleased to see writers publish insightful content on that platform for it to be soft-blocked without their consent. This prevents the open sharing of knowledge which was the author’s intention all along! And this does not concern Medium exclusively but also, and this is more critical, research websites. The most advanced contents, raw information, frustratingly locked away behind paywalls.

I understand that hosting such contents come at a price. Realistically, hosting text and images and serving them never comes for cheap. But if you want to make content sustainable, even when you cannot contribute or maintain often, then you should prioritize a low-maintenance, low-hassle and low-cost solution. An extra benefit for free architectures is that your content can theoretically stay online until one provider in the chain decides to change its free terms.

The law of low

We humans love to create, not to maintain. Maintaining is considered a chore, creating is a creative and stimulating task. We also like to focus on the task at hand and lose a minimal amount of time on subtleties. And, if possible, we wish that this comes at an acceptable price because sharing time and money is not possible for everyone. By the way, I would like to really thank the people who contribute to online encyclopedias and documentations, be it financially or by providing more content or translations. You are our collective heroes!

So yes, if you wish for your knowledge to be durable and have impact, it must stay online for as long as possible and for that, choosing free -as in “free meal”- solutions is your best bet. But then, if you must jump through several hoops to start contributing or keep your old server alive every now and then, you might abandon on the way, which is why this task must remain seamless and as accessible as possible.

We have seen many efforts on that front. Some websites allow near-instant edition of their contents, others just require you to edit Markdown content on an online interface of their code versioning service. You may also be working on your own piece of software and choosing to play with documentation inferred from your code and comments and automatically published or you are like me and you have a website that is statically generated and hosted for the low price of free1.

Why is free or cheap a good solution? Because it makes you think about the underlying infrastructure and processes. Serving minimalistic content makes it less expensive when egress costs are still prohibitive. Free solutions exist, even though they are indeed backed by megacorps. Oh well… you cannot win them all.

How to start

Contributing to a project or a cause is fantastic and you should be proud of yourself! If you have located THE project you wish to send your contributions to then read about their contribution guidelines and get started as soon as you can. You will never regret this! If there are no guidelines then send a message to their contributors. They will probably appreciate some helping hands. And if you wish to guest post in a blog then do contact blog authors. You could share your ideas on established channels! And of course, let us not forget about Wikipedia. No need to provide a link as this website is universally known for its global impact on humanity.

Then you could be like me; you could do your own thing. I chose to purchase a domain for several years, subdividing it and using a static website generator along with a CDN and a FaaS2 for interactive contents. The domain is actually bad practice since it will not last forever. I will need to pay for it every now and then, otherwise my contents become inaccessible, even though they are still hosted somewhere. At least, most of them are open source.

So then, choosing a third-party platform for your own content is a good thing if:

Some advice

Please choose formats and technologies that are standards, semantic, easy to read even if not parsed. Writing Pug templates or HTML/CSS/JS is cool and allows you to reach higher editorial quality but Markdown or even plain text may sometimes be just enough to communicate your ideas.

Post regularly and avoid being ambitious. Even better; allow yourself to make mistakes. You are sharing knowledge, bits that may help people in the long run. Who cares if a parenthesis is missing in your Scheme implementation of the Fibonacci sequence? Who cares if some words are not correctly spelled if the idea is still perfectly understandable? Hassle-free also means not having to spend every waking hour proof-reading your posts and instead concentrating on the exploration of new subjects for tomorrow.

Finally, an ego lesson: do not expect anything in return. It is far more gratifying to receive praise than to ask for it. Regularly pouring hours into a complete collection of written works is not for everyone. Some projects may welcome you onboard to shape their future, others may hire you or invite you to special events. You may also receive recommendations! There is a bit of survivor bias here but in every case, you will leave a mark and that is always a net gain for Humanity.

Footnotes

  1. Free, at least at the time of writing. 

  2. FaaS is the acronym for “Function as a Service”. Basically a very lightweight compute layer for which you do not have to manage physical infrastructure, OS or runtimes. 

Developed with ❤

Vincenzo Scalzi