When I first began creating websites over 10 years ago, finding free resources for web design was very difficult.
The digital resources I was looking for included stuff like vector icon packs, stock photos, fonts, themes and any bit of code I could sink my teeth into. I scoured the web endlessly, usually to no avail. So, when I finally found a quality resource, I was super thankful. I appreciated the free work of others, and it led me to share my own.
Back When Free Was Appreciated
In 2009, I released the free Structure Theme. At the time, folks were chomping at the bit for free WordPress themes. I quietly released the theme on my blog, and within days it was discovered. It went viral. There were hundreds of thousands of downloads.
People appreciated the theme, and they told me. I started to see my design when randomly browsing the web. It felt good to provide something that was so useful to others. The positive response motivated me. In fact, it helped launch Organic Themes.
Free Ain’t Easy Anymore
That wasn’t terribly long ago. However, the landscape of “free” has changed. Now, it’s difficult to give something away — even if it’s a great product.
For instance, I rebuilt the Structure Theme from scratch over a year ago. I drastically improved the design and integrated all the latest WordPress functionality. It was months worth of work. I was proud of the product, and excited to release it. I submitted the theme to the official WordPress directory. After 6 months waiting for the review, it was finally accepted.
At last, it was time to tell the world! I blasted a newsletter out to over 50,000 subscribers announcing the new theme. I shared it among our social media followers. I informed popular blogs. The Structure Theme was back, and better than ever! Surely, this new and improved free product would be as popular as the original, right?
Wrong. Way wrong.
Even with an enormously larger reach, the response paled in comparison. Still, the theme has only 400+ active users. That’s less than any of our other free themes. What really chaps my ass is that I know it’s a great product! I can’t even give it away, give it away now.
Now, Free Is Expected
Free digital goods are no longer appreciated, they are expected.
It’s not just WordPress themes and my little corner of the digital world. It’s apps, games, music, fonts, photos, content… Free isn’t good enough, but it’s not bad enough to pay for the premium version. Am I the only designer, developer or artist that has experienced this zeitgeist? When did our society become so entitled to the free work of others?
We gave away the farm, and conditioned the online world to expect free digital resources. It’s too late to bottle these goods back up and slap a price tag on them. Even if I could, I wouldn’t. I like free stuff too. However, the result has been a shift in attitudes. Users demand time and support for free products. It’s often a struggle to get a positive review. In fact, I’ve received angry feedback from people that expect more from a free product — even outrage at the mention of paying for support or a premium version. Some days, it’s discouraging.
We’re Trying To Help, Mostly
The goal is to help our fellow designers, developers, artists and small business owners. If we all contribute a little of our talents, we make work easier on all of us. We collaboratively advance the progression of technology. That’s the spirit of open source. It’s not entirely selfless. If creators get recognition in the process, it’s a well deserved side effect. The side effect fuels the motivation.
This isn’t a woe-is-me post. I’m not crying myself to sleep because nobody appreciates my free stuff anymore. It’s an observation. A paradigm shift in the expectations of others has taken place on the web. The result is a growing sense of entitlement.
On The Up Side
Free resources today are phenomenal. The quality of free stock photos from Unsplash blows away most paid stock photography. Icons from free sources like Font Awesome, Icomoon or Icon Monstr are amazing. Google Fonts delivers tons of quality web fonts for free. The WordPress theme and plugin directories are teeming with thousands of great digital products. WordPress itself is entirely free software that I have built a career upon. We freely consume the work of others on Spotify and YouTube. When was the last time you busted out the Encyclopedia Britannica thanks to Wikipedia? The web is a better place because of the enormous catalog of amazing free resources, but has it made the people better?
Let’s Show A Little Love
I’m guilty of taking advantage of free products and resources without showing a little love. It’s important to remember that living, breathing people spend their time and talents creating this free stuff — much of which is extremely useful. I’m going to take my own advice, and show appreciation more often.
Let’s turn this train around, and share the free stuff that has made our work and lives a little easier. Consider upgrading to a premium version, paying for support, or leaving a positive review for the amazing free products you’re using. Appreciation, respect and humanity are desperately needed in the digital world.
So thanks to the thousands of designers, developers, writers, artists and businesses that have made my life better with your free resources. I appreciate it, greatly.