I knew my last post would be deeply unpopular in some quarters (though, to be fair, it also had strident support, and not just from people in creative professions). I got a lot of irate tweets, and lost followers. I'll live. The piece's potential unpopularity was kind of why I posted it, rather than getting it out of my system and leaving the file safely on my hard disk.

I didn't do it to be provocative, but to be honest.

It's extremely easy - especially in popularity contests and profile-conscious opportunities like Twitter - to always play to the crowd, stay safe, not antagonise the demographic. Pretending you always agree with the unconsidered zeitgeist is easy. But kind of empty, surely? If you're going to say stuff, then mean it. Otherwise remaining silent is a more honourable course - except, of course, for the fact it may be taken as tacit approval of what everyone else is saying, however dim that may be. It's a minefield. So I posted, and now some people evidently think I'm a stooge of Old Business and the Federal Government, and an active supporter of the worst forms of Censorship (It's not entirely clear to me how cracking down on theft counts as "censorship", but that's because I'm a stooge of the etc, etc).

For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not for SOPA, okay? I'm simply disenchanted with some of the reasons people have for opposing it. If you've read the bill (including the revisions) and have strong arguments and/or reasons for opposing it, you have my respect. If not... I'm just saying think about it first. Don't just press ME TOO. And while I'm on the subject, if you're so in favour of WikiPedia, you might want to donate something toward it, eh? See the button at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page. Even "free" things cost somebody something, somewhere. Their time, their effort, their love. They give. You can too.

Anyway. Allied to all this, it's struck me this afternoon how the Internet is changing the meaning of a couple of words - and how these speak to this overall debate.

1. "Contains" As in "This software may contain profanity, adult themes, violence, nudity, etc". Seen most often with browsers, Craigslist apps, and anything that accesses the Internet.

But the thing is... the software doesn't contain these things, really. If the web browser had drop-down menus featuring swear words, or popped up a dialog box every ten minutes showing a picture of people shagging, then it would "contain" these things. But it doesn't. It merely provides a window onto a world in which these things pre-exist. It's interesting that the software is being held to account here - like blaming a sheet of glass for standing between you and an atrocity. It may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but to me this usage covertly implies it's not the web or its users which should be held responsible for the content of the Internet or the the way people use it. The Internet's in the clear - perfect and true and blameless. So are the internauts. It's the naughty software that does the wrong.

I'm really not sure this is true, and I think it's indicative of the way the Internet and some of its users hold themselves unaccountable for both their content and their actions.

2. "Free" This word now apparently means 'it is possible to acquire this good or service without paying for it'. Here's an example, just in this morning:

http://blog.karachicorner.com/2012/01/35-high-quality-free-fonts/

It's a useful blog and you see this kind of thing all over the web (and I picked up the link via the venerable www.iconfactory.com), but to me it neatly encapsulates a key schism in the way people respond to the availability of resources on the Internet. A number of the faces featured in this list (and others of its kind) are available from www.losttype.com, an excellent site where designers showcase interesting new work for sale on a pay-what-you-like basis. And there's the thing. Some users will immediately interpret this as: "Cool - free fonts". Others will equally unthinkingly say: "Wow - nice typeface. A lot of work went into that. I'll donate ten bucks in recognition of the person's time and creativity, and in the hope they'll make more."

(And yes I know some people have more ready cash than others - but don't claim to be "poor" if you've got a broadband connection and a computer to download stuff onto. That's a vicious mis-use of the word "poor" in a world where millions of children don't have anything to eat.)

I guess probably neither approach to pay-what-you-want is right or wrong. They're just different. A lot of people do what they do ultimately out of love, and that's the way it should be: but when there's rent to be paid and food to be bought, nothing says 'love' like a little cash. Anyone who finds this observation distasteful has never tried to make a living via their creativity alone. I'm not dumping on the referring site, note - there's a strong chance that by steering surfers to Lost Type, they'll provoke at least a proportion of visitors to donate, which is the basis on which the designers put their work up there, after all; and many people - including myself - are happy for some free stuff to float around the web as a goodwill gesture, marketing tool, or just out of an open heart. I'm merely saying it's interesting how the word is now being used, and how it perhaps speaks to some of the debate on SOPA.

So - what do you think? Does Safari "contain" profanity? Are the fonts I'm talking about actually "free"? Am I really a stooge for the dark, censoring elite of the New World Order - and if so, why haven't they bloody well paid me yet?*

*Caution: sentence contains profanity.

13 Comments