Apr 20, 2011

What Do You Mean It Isn’t Free?

[Part three in a week-long series at GeneaBloggers. My previous post was Careers in Genealogy.]

I'm going to try very hard to keep this post from lapsing into a political rant. This subject is one of my pet peeves, and I could go on for hours, but this isn't a political blog. There are plenty of those already.

I'll start with a simple observation many people don't seem to understand. Nothing tangible is free! If you can taste it, touch it, smell it, or hold it in your hand, somebody had to pay for it. We've all heard the old saw, "there's no such thing as a free lunch," but most of us behave otherwise. I'm as guilty as anyone in this regard. It's only natural for people to take advantage of opportunities where you feel like you're getting something for nothing. Don't believe me? Witness two wedding receptions: one with an open bar, and the other with a cash bar. Need I say more? The difference between them is like night and day.

If people don't have to spend money out of their own pocket, they'll get the biggest, best, and most of everything. That's one of the reasons why our health care system in America is so expensive. When the actual cost of medical care is shielded behind layers of insurance companies and government bureaucracy, people treat health care like an open bar, profligate spending reigns, and we're all the losers for it. We've become something of an entitlement society. People feel they're owed something, for no particular reason. The vast majority of the American populace is largely ignorant about economics, and politicians from every party pander to economic populism. But I think the root cause of the predicament of this topic is a perfect storm of dying business models and spoiled kids (metaphorically speaking, I include lots of adults in that category).

Most traditional media companies, whether publishers, movie studios, record labels, newspapers, TV broadcasters, or even software developers, are trying desperately to cling to their old ways of doing business. Technology is eroding the very foundation their businesses were built upon, and they're stubborn. There are a few bright lights experimenting with new business models who seem to understand the sea-change taking place, but they're exceptional cases. I imagine it must have been similar after Gutenberg invented the printing press. Suddenly, the livelihoods of hundreds of scribes were threatened by the ease with which a printing press could crank out dozens of identical books, at a fraction of the cost.

Add to this mix the unrealistic expectations of young people. That's one of the telltale signs of youth and immaturity. Eventually people grow up, and realize they have to work for a living. But more and more, this attitude remains even in adulthood. It's neatly captured in the chorus from an old Queen song, "I want it all, and I want it now." It also informs their consumption of products from the dinosaur media. Peer-to-peer networking made it easy to share music, software, and movies. Why pay for content when you can get it online for free? Then they rationalize their theft with an internet-era cliche, "information wants to be free." Unfortunately, the media companies overreact, using lawsuits as weapons to delay the inevitable. (But please don't follow their rhetoric and call it piracy. It's common thievery, nothing more. Piracy is what's happening off the coast of Somalia. Those are real pirates, using real guns, taking over ships and a few idiots in private yachts with lots of money but little sense, who think sailing there sounded like a good idea. Now I'm way off-topic...) Another related factor is the current mess of copyright law, but that's the subject for another post. We're in a transitional period right now, where norms and rules haven't yet caught up with the technological means at our disposal. Who knows how it will all sort out, but there are opportunities for the taking if you pay close attention.

This new reality has many consequences specifically for the genealogy community. In today's GeneaBloggers post on the topic, Thomas wrote about the "Freemium Concept," more traditionally known as a loss leader. Companies have been doing this for eons, and they'll continue as long as they can benefit. The standard example of a loss leader is Gillette. They charge very little for the handle of the razor, but the blades cost an arm and a leg. Many desktop genealogical software programs are using this model. You can download a lite version for free, which gets you hooked on using the software. They make their money by enticing people to pay for the full version with more features, or access to genealogical databases.

Some people don't realize all corporate charitable giving is a marketing campaign. Companies are going green for the same reason. If you have the impression a company's "doing the right thing," you're more likely to pay higher prices for identical products you could buy cheaper generic. There are many generous philanthropists, but you have to make money first if you want to give it away. The founder of the Internet Archive, Brewster Kahle, delivered one of the keynotes at RootsTech (you can watch it online, for free, or at least no cost to you). It was a good speech, and he and his organization are truly doing some great work. One of the programs he mentioned gives free books to disadvantaged children, in this country and all over the world. But it's only possible because they're using old books in the public domain (actual cost around $1 per physical book), and the fact Kahle is a dot.com millionaire. He founded one business that AOL bought, and co-founded Alexa, which was bought by Amazon.com.

Genealogists love to complain about Ancestry.com. I'm a regular customer, and overall I'm satisfied. Their subscriptions aren't cheap, and as the largest genealogy company, they've grown to the size which makes it difficult to be responsive to customer feedback. But I'm able to do research in their databases, and easily find many records, which might have taken weeks in the olden days. Even if you're not their customer, it's in your interest they stay in business. There are many free genealogy resources online. Among the foremost is RootsWeb, which is still run by volunteers, but only possible because it's sponsored by Ancestry.com. Just today, DNA Heritage, a British genealogical DNA testing company, announced they're essentially going out of business. Besides the paid services they offered, they also operated a free database for Y-DNA test results, called Ybase. Fortunately, in this case, there's a successful company in the same market who were able to buy them out. But that's not always the case. Sometimes those resources are lost for good.

In any case, those free resources are dependent on volunteers. They may not charge anything for using the fruits of their labor, but the time they spent working on it was valuable nonetheless. I read various genealogy forums, sometimes asking questions, more often answering them nowadays. My level of participation doesn't take a big time commitment, since I don't need to research many of the questions asked by newbies. I've benefited tremendously from the advice of more experienced genealogists in the past, so I'm happy to do the same for others.

Thomas also wrote quite a bit about webinars. I've participated in both free and pay genealogy webinars. Think about how much it would cost if you had to travel somewhere, pay for attending the seminar, plus lodging, food, expenses, etc. Now those webinars look like a pretty good deal. This is an area I think genealogists are on the cutting edge. It's only very recently the technology and infrastructure was in place to make them possible. DearMyrtle wrote a post earlier today about the technology she uses to conduct webinars, and how it can be used to reach an even wider audience. The GeneaWebinars blog consolidates many of the schedules of upcoming webinars, so there's one central place to find more avenues for education and skill-building.

In summary, people need to realize that nothing is truly free. It's only the profit generated by successful companies, and the countless hours put in by numerous volunteers that makes the many free genealogy resources possible. By all means, use the opportunities presented to you wisely, and if you benefit from it, pass it on.


  1. This is the best post I've read on this topic. However, in my eyes, Ancestry.com is a bargain! I research on Ancestry nearly every day, and always find something. My daily cost is less than a cup of coffee. To find this information in the pre-internet days would have cost a small fortune and a lifetime of research. I don't know how anyone can do genealogy in these times without Ancestry.com.

    Your post on this topic will be leading my picks for the best of the genealogy blogs in my Around the Blogosphere post this week.

  2. Courageous posting, Michael. I could not agree more.

  3. @Janis: Who's Michael?

    @Susan: I agree, my Ancestry.com membership's worth every penny. It's something I'll explore further in future posts.

  4. It may not be free in terms of the resources needed, but when there is no price tag what should we call it?

    Not all human endeavors have an associated price reflecting the resources needed to sustain them (let alone a profit). Parenting is one of the most notable examples.

    I think we should be careful about the words and concepts we focus on.

    Just because something is "free" doesn't mean it is somehow flawed. It means it's not part of the market economy. IMO, the primary focus should be on the concept of market place. This is what the genealogy-as-a-business discussion is about, to what degree genealogy activities are part of the market. what is the demand for such activities? how many providers is there room for? can providers support themselves enough so they *can* choose this as their primary income-generating activity? etc, etc.

  5. @Linda: That's why I was careful to specify nothing tangible is free. Love and affection are intangible, but I still believe they're very real (unlike reductionists who consign all thoughts and emotion to mere electrical impulses in our brains).

    I also clearly made the argument that many no-cost resources are valuable. Nowhere did I claim or even imply they're flawed. The point of this post is that people need to realize there are costs involved with creating and maintaining free resources.

  6. Hi,

    You mentioned that young people today have unrealistic expectations, but I feel that this is true even of Baby Boomers, and some people of older generations. Our whole society is suffering from entitlement issues. Everyone (I am of course speaking in very general terms)feels that they should have there way, right away. But the world is not Burger King, and we all need to collectively wake up and put things into proper perspective.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Unrealistic expectations, feelings of entitlement, ignorance about economics, ease of sharing as an excuse for thievery - absolutely all are factors at play here. I keep a nervous eye on things I love, value, and find useful (including various types of genealogy services for (often very reasonable) pay or offered by local institutions such as libraries) since I know that they could disappear any day if too many people want to feed at that "free" trough. Excellent summary and analysis of the issues.

  8. Excellent post! I read Thomas' article and commented there in response to his article and some of the responses. Great expansion on his theme. We all need to think about the true cost of things and the value we associate with them. It really comes down to being educated consumers - with our food, our services, and our government. Thanks.

  9. I need to check out the article that sparked your post. You made some valid points in your article. When my budget is lean for genealogy, I crave free sites. When my budget is fat, I don't mind the fees. What matters more is the value. Just because a genealogical (or other) service is free doesn't make it's value less than a paid site. With a paid venue, I want a lot of value for the price I paid. I like how Susan compared the cost of Ancestry.com to a drink she consumes. I don't drink coffee but I got the idea. However, I also want to compare the the value of Ancestry.com for a year of research at x dollars to that of a month membership. I recently decided that a one month membership where I spent a lot of time on the site was more valuable than a year's membership and checking in when I have time. The law of diminishing return kicked in.

    What's my point? Well, wise consumers need to understand more about value in relation to cost in addition that just because something is 'free' doesn't mean it comes without a price. I hope my comment just added to the dimension of your post.

  10. Here are my thoughts on the whole thing. Very similar to your own. http://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=32409743#allposts