Digital Potlatch – The case for giving it away for free

These days you can find information on just about anything for free. Home Depot gives away lots of how-to’s on their YouTube Channel. You can download books from Seth Godin and Chris Anderson at no charge. There are blogs, wiki’s, and specialty websites on just about everything imaginable. At no other point in history have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge, so much expertise, so much content. And it’s free.

Seems kind of counter-intuitive from a capitalist perspective. Why would you give something of value away when you could charge for it? What’s the value in that?

The art of giving away actually isn’t all that new of a concept. The indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest practiced potlatch, the redistribution and reciprocity of wealth, long before the digital age. In potlatch the one who dies with the least toys wins; status is raised by who gives away the most resources, not who accumulates the most. This ritual practice ensured that the basic needs of the entire group were met, and established and strengthened bonds between its members. By giving away freely to the people surrounding him, the host of the potlatch invested in his own long-term success through the recipients’ continued support.

Today’s “digital potlatch” works in much the same way, but with information being distributed instead of food and household goods. Those that have the knowledge give it away freely to those around them, which helps the recipients achieve success in some way. The recipients in turn become avid supporters of the knowledge giver, spreading the word about the good stuff the giver has to offer.

By giving away a portion of what you have to offer, you not only help others achieve success but invest in your own success as well. Seth Godin understood this when he gave away Ideavirus – he knew that circulating it free on the internet would get him more eyeballs much quicker than a book sitting on a shelf in the local bookstore (if the local bookstore was interested in carrying it at all), as well as the goodwill generated by “good stuff for free”. He now has an extremely loyal worldwide following that will support his ideas, buy his books, and probably put him up for the night if he asked them to.

Participate in the “digital potlatch” and share what you know. Redistribute the wealth. Be reciprocal. By sharing all this information we better ourselves as a group, and become more interconnected in the process. Isn’t that the real win?


Photo credit: Denise Carbonell 

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