the making of makers

As the geeks are gathered in Portland for XOXO, it’s time for me to update and complete a draft I nearly but never finished, like far too many things these days.

I was privileged to attend last year. It was joyous, inspiring, unabashedly positive and deeply humane: a testament to the love and hard work put in by Andy Baio and Andy McMillan in its creation. It celebrated the creativity and dedication of its speakers, and served as a glorious advertisement for Portland’s idiosyncratic urban vision. It connected and reconnected me with people who have been touchstones throughout my (long) time messing around with the web, educated me with every impromptu conversation, and mainlined hope and wonder and energy and engagement. A glow emanated across the web from everyone who attended, and the after-party discussions focused around two questions: ‘what’s next?’ and ‘how can I contribute to it?’ — not because there’s a pot of gold to be found, but because those contributions will build better things for everyone.[1]

And yet, I worry. I worry about scaling and access in this bright new domain, and the need to avoid unwittingly repeating the mistakes of the past. But in the spirit of XOXO, I’m convinced those worries can be acknowledged and overcome by creating new structures to address them.

Meet the new middlemen, not the same as the old middlemen

The timing of XOXO alongside the launch of the new iPhone, both this year and last, is a curious coincidence. (While high-end smartphones are clearly not uncommon things, their density at the picnic tables outside the YU Contemporary, in the shadow of the food carts, is something to behold.) We use technology that represents triumphs of global supply-chain management and economies of scale, while talking about models of production and trade that would be familiar to Adam Smith. That’s hardly new: the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century never resolved the tension between the factory and the workshop either.

So it’s not really a paradox when the tools of mass communication and mass production are enlisted in support of small-scale creative work, any more than it was for Morris’s hand-printed books to be sent around the world on railways and steam ships. As John Hegley noted, if you have 5,000 fans prepared to pay you a tenner a year, that’s a living, and the confluence of social media and online payment into crowdfunding makes it possible to cultivate a market or audience that’s small and intimate, yet globally dispersed. In similar terms, we’re indebted to mass production moving the tools of rapid prototyping beyond the corporate R&D lab, so that 3D printing is now feasible on a workshop scale.

That’s a disintermediation… of sorts. In place of the old distribution and management structures, we’re seeing a new set of intermediaries eager to connect creative producers with the growing market for their work. For the moment, that intermediary space remains a somewhat narrow one, carrying huge amounts of responsibility, and the decisions made in these early years will define what follows. No pressure there, then. What makes these new intermediaries especially powerful is that they speak with distinctive voices: the most engaging platforms have personalities, the most engaging personalities have platforms.

But that’s not a bad thing: total disintermediation carries with it the risk of disempowerment; complete independence can bring isolation. It only becomes problematic if the new intermediaries are driven to consolidate their status, or when the accumulative power of platforms threatens their cultivation of the particular, but we’re far from that point. (What would a Kickstarter to make new Kickstarters look like?)

Making things is hard; making makers is even harder

It’s a mistake to judge Kickstarter by focusing on high-profile projects that disappoint or fail to deliver, no less so than the current lazy habit of ’21 People On Twitter Who Said Something Stupid About X’. (A million-dollar project is an edge case to begin with, and if it becomes a model for crowdfunding, you can declare that model is broken.) It’s also a distraction to rake over whether becoming a ‘backer’ is investment, pre-payment, a kind of patronage or donation, or something else entirely. Subscription schemes have always had messy, multiplicitous motivations, going back to the days of Pope’s Homer: many of the Persons of Quality who coughed up two guineas in hand and a guinea a year were more interested in having a pretty set of quartos and their name in the credits than reading the translation. Nevertheless, subscription income helped create the first generation of truly professional writers. [2]

What matters more is how the process of funding extends into that of delivery.

There’s now a well-established vocabulary and choreography to crowdfunding: not just the ubiquitous project video, but the structuring of targets, the scaling of rewards, the ‘and there’s more…’ of stretch goals. There is ample guidance on how to offset the capriciousness of time-limited appeals to the crowd, and to shape and promote a campaign so that it attracts attention from people whose amplifying influence will propel you to your total. Again, that’s not a surprise: like grant writing, online fundraising is a single, self-contained field, while projects themselves cover a vast range of disciplines and capabilities.

Once the money’s in the bank, though, there’s still a tendency to clam up, talk opaquely about the supply chain, elide the challenges of fulfilling orders, or say anything that potentially frights backers. Even among projects that deliver, fallibility is taboo, and that makes the delivery process brittle, prone to break rather than bend. Although you’ll find ‘lessons learned’ articles in various places, there’s still no real place within Kickstarter itself for project creators to offer debriefings, share battle stories and show off their scars, or seek help when things get tough.

And yet, at XOXO, the most compelling talks are the ones that retrospectively confront that fallibility, just as engineering blogs like Etsy’s Code As Craft show the value of lifting the curtain to describe scaling challenges and breakages and resolution. This isn’t magic: it’s a narrative of hard work, gradual improvement, unforeseen setbacks and improvised solutions. In short, it involves people.

That’s where the downside of disintermediation kicks in: if we see each project as intensely individuated, then the impulse is to think that its challenges are unique and have little to contribute to a wider body of collective knowledge; when those projects are delivered, it’s understandable that their creators want to move on. But that runs the risk of repeatedly confronting the same problems — that plastic is a category, not a substance; that delivering 10,000 things is not the same as dealing with 100 — instead of being able to build on past experience to confront new ones.

Instead, we should see each project as a component of a wider enterprise: the establishment of an industrious, creative community with complementary skills and expertise.

Translating the language of trade: devops for the physical world

Wandering through downtown SE Portland in the hours before breakfast, I noticed how much of the space between the river and the railway line still belongs to the skilled trades, like so many working cities: builders’ merchants, die-cutters, injection-moulders, blade-sharpeners, widget-vendors. Housed in nondescript buildings with short aisles, long counters and deep warehouses, these are the places that you visit only if you know exactly what you need, or have sufficient fluency to ask questions without sounding like an numpty. Having grown up around tradespeople, I can manage the basics, but it’s still intimidating to engage with an environment that runs on specificity and expertise, which is why Home Depot and its peers turn a profit.

The shift from bits to atoms is tricky, not just because it requires adapting design concepts to the physical world, but because it entails learning another language, or finding a translator you can trust. Without that capability, projects too easily run into trouble at the factory gate.

Increased access to 3D printing makes a difference here, but it’s still confined to a limited range of materials. Meanwhile, there’s a good chance that a local fabricator has the capacity to provide guidance on materials, produce prototypes, or even do short production runs, if only you knew they existed and had the ability to articulate your needs in the language of their trade. The obvious inspiration here should be Newspaper Club, which both exposed the capability of large presses to carry out small-run orders, and has served as the best possible gatekeeper for those who wish to take advantage of it.

What’s needed, then, is an ongoing conversation between designers and manufacturers that builds into a public repository of knowledge and experience: a Yelp for the supply chain, a StackExchange for materials science. Where is the nearest CNC workshop? Who can I talk to about polycarbonate tensile strength or bookbinding techniques or studio space? Call it a 21st century guild system; draw from existing Maker communities; reach out to the other side of the tracks.

That’s a platform I want to build.

A very bourgeois revolution

That’s a phrase that I scribbled into my notebook last September: it wasn’t meant pejoratively then, and shouldn’t be taken that way now. Bourgeois revolutions generate much smaller body counts, leave fewer piles of rubble, have fewer unintended consequences: they challenge a moribund set of rulers and the institutions that sustain their power, rather than seeking to remake society from top to bottom. However, with that constraint comes vulnerability against pushback and co-optation and simply becoming, over time, the things you wanted rid of. They’re fragile things that require vigilance to survive.

XOXO provides a tonic against complacency, a reminder that creative independence thrives through collaboration and collective support. Since the technology doesn’t yet exist to replicate the Andys, it’s up to those who attend to perpetuate that spirit.


[1] My intention was always to sit it out this year, so that others more deserving of the experience could feel the love. More to the point, I need to get my arse in gear to justify my presence.

[2] Did that model revolutionise publishing? Not really: within a generation, booksellers and authors were fighting over perpetual copyright. But it showed how an writer of prodigious talent with a marginal social position and a canny business sense could escape the twin scourges of capricious patrons and profiteering publishers and end up in a nice Twickenham villa.

the threshold of connectedness

A much less feisty discussion on Twitter with Mr Coates about the terminological turf-wars surrounding the ‘internet of things’ or ‘networked objects’ (Tom’s got a presentation brewing; it’ll be good) got me thinking about the minimum requirement for an object to be considered ‘connected’, and whether that threshold would be defined by hardware or by function.

I think the answer might be found in a conversation from 1997 between Michael Sippey and Carl Steadman: it needs to know the right time.

work and non work

Matt Webb’s musings on the sale of Instagram, invoking the labour theory of value and comparing modern social networking sites to company towns, prompted a bit of a spat on Twitter last week between yours truly and Tom Coates, someone for whom I have a huge amount of respect. (Phil Gyford added his own thoughts afterwards, which are definitely worth a read before you go on.)

Specifically, Tom objected to my suggestion, drawing from Matt’s argument, that the activities of soc-net users were already being viewed explicitly in terms of their monetary value, and that it was only a matter of time before the users themselves start asserting some kind of claim. His tweets, collated:

How on earth do you ‘earn’ money by talking to friends or sharing photos. You don’t.

A company that creates a space or an environment or takes on risk does, and it gives you stuff in return.

So the people using these services get nothing out of them? They need to socialize for a cash share of a company?

Do we expect a proportion of our TV company’s revenue? Are we ‘workers’ when we watch TV?

Now, I’m not a subscriber to the labour theory of value, but I do believe in what you might call the ‘value theory of value’. There’s clearly a billion dollars of value somewhere in Instagram: specifically, a billion dollars of value to Mark Zuckerberg, which admittedly exists on a scale all of its own. From there, the obvious follow-up is ‘what does Mark Zuckerberg value?’, and we can make a pretty decent guess based on how Facebook operates. When your business model is based upon swaddling and commodifying the sharing of personal information and social interaction, I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that the participants may start to wonder what they’re worth.

But I’ll turn to Tom’s questions in reverse order. Stripped down to the basics (that’s to say, free-to-air networks as opposed to subscription services) the transactional model of commercial television works something like this: a television network pays for programming with the intention of generating a particular audience, the promise of which it uses in turn to sell advertisers the right to interrupt; the audience, in turn, accepts this right to be interrupted as the cost of watching, or pays for services and technology that reduce or remove those interruptions, or treats them as a cue to put the kettle on.

I don’t think that model applies to social networks at all. Television audiences are mostly non-participatory, unless you extend the definition to include ‘viewing time’, which seems so broad as to be meaningless.

However, within that wider framework, there are specific programming models that seem more relevant. Take, for instance, the You’ve Been Framed / AFV format: global in reach, hugely successful, a big broad family-friendly slapstick-loving demographic for advertisers, and most importantly, really bloody cheap to make. Got a video of a bridesmaid falling face-first into a cake, or a cat singing along to opera? Send it our way, and if we show it you get paid. If it’s especially funny, we invite you to come and watch, churn up additional time making fun out of you, and you might get even more money in return. Don’t think too hard about how your half-minute clip or two-minute audience segment costs us what we’d pay for half a second of CSI: My Arse.

These programmes wouldn’t exist without enthusiastic participation from their audience, but they thrive on the asymmetry of corporate and personal finance: paying ten grand to the best video of the week is cheap for the producers, but it’s a lot of money to the parents of little Jimmy who got filmed making a funny face.

It’s this disparity, assisted by cheap video technology that further lowers the barriers to participation, that underpins the rise of reality television over the past couple of decades. It even extends beyond the standard network broadcast model: a more distasteful example would be the Girls Gone Wild series, as documented by Ariel Levy for Slate, which offers t-shirts, baseball caps and large quantities of alcohol in exchange for filmed nudity and a scrawled signature on a release form, all presumably at a cost much lower than that demanded by industry professionals. This, of course, is much easier to dismiss as ugly exploitation, given the question of informed consent when hammered on margaritas.[1]

In short, television and video already compensate audiences when they become contributors, thanks to the comparative bargain that producers get from converting them into the source of programme content. Social platforms, for the most part, strike an even better deal, thanks to the transactional relationship established in the terms of service that you skipped over when you signed up.

Which leads us to objection two: aren’t users of a service compensated by what they get out of it, making it a fair deal? Again, up to a point, but the perception of fairness is shaped by preconceptions and expectations about the ongoing relationship between a service and its users, all the more so when the users are actively providing shared content.

Consider CDDB. It’s something I’ve cited more than once, because I think it sets an interesting precedent. Although created in the early days of the web, it acquired new value with the emergence of the MP3 format in the mid-90s, because it offered an elegant tool for digitising one’s music collection built upon collaborative effort. While CDs contained no metadata on the disks themselves, CDDB used the track information to generate a (nearly) unique signature that could then be submitted to an online database; if the signature already existed, the database would confirm the title and artist, then fetch the appropriate track data; if a match couldn’t be found, you’d be invited to fill out that data yourself and submit it to the database for others to benefit.

This was the era of Slashdot and Winamp and fly-by-night FTP ratio sites, when a large section of web users blended their growing interest in open source development with an awareness that higher bandwidth and efficient file compression made storing and sharing music libraries as feasible as downloading the latest Linux kernel. CDDB’s server software was GPL-licenced; its signature-generating code was freeware; its database could be freely mirrored (and for a while, was declared to be under the GPL as well); and the developers of players, rippers and encoders rapidly incorporated its features into their software, automating the process of querying the database and simplifying the submission of new entries.

In 1998, the maintainers of the original codebase and master database incorporated the service, then sold it for an undisclosed sum to a relatively obscure consumer electronics company called Escient. The immediate reaction was mixed: goodwill for the project’s founders, some concern for its long-term fate under new ownership, a certain amount of disquiet that the freely-provided content accumulated over five years obviously counted as much in the acquisition as the backend that made those contributions possible.[2]

Within a year, the licence for accessing CDDB was drastically revised in ways regarded as an attempt to monopolise the market; by 2000, the service, spun off and renamed Gracenote, shifted to a new, proprietary format and began demanding licencing fees from developers, sending patent violation warnings and filing lawsuits. The heavy-handedness of this approach (for instance, demanding the display of the CDDB logo during lookups, which was unfeasible for console-based players) spurred on the creation of alternatives that would avoid the same fate. Gracenote is now owned by Sony, and provides (under licence) the track-identification capabilities of iTunes and other major music players; FreeDB maintains the old, GPL-licenced format; another alternative evolved into MusicBrainz, which uses a different approach to identify tracks, and operates through a non-profit entity committed to free, unrestricted access.

For the most part, the people who primed CDDB’s database and adopted its open-sourced features were comfortable with the project’s founders benefitting financially, given that they were the ones who’d sustained the core service as it scaled dramatically. They certainly didn’t think of themselves as ‘workers’ entitled to a share of the spoils, but neither was it recreational: they were volunteers, small-scale collaborators in a mutually-beneficial project. What chafed in the aftermath was the sense that the founders’ reward was being clawed back through rent-seeking and increasingly restrictive conditions on developers, which by extension affected users — in essence, biting the hand that fattened you for market. Volunteered effort approaches the condition of work when it becomes a means by which others profit from it, but what truly changes the characterisation of those contributions in retrospect, whether it’s from typing up your music collection in the small hours or baring your breasts at a party during spring break, is being made to feel like a sucker.

The comparison to Instagram isn’t straightforward, for reasons that Phil outlines in his post, but there are ties that bind. The decade-long evolution of social networking has embellished the dynamics of contribution, so that value adheres not just in the accumulation of content, but in the direct mapping of content to users, and the presence of user content as a catalyst of user presence. That’s a high-falutin’ way of saying that social networks aim to create non-replicable spaces: you go to CDDB because that’s where the track listings are, but you go to Facebook or Instagram because that’s where you’ve put yourself.

In that context, to objection three: that companies who invest financially in the creation and maintenance of collaborative online spaces, on account of taking on risk, earn the rights to the financial spoils, while users engaging in social activity in those spaces earn… the right to toast those companies’ success and keep using them. Now, I count many smart, bloody hard-working people in the social startup world as my friends, Tom included; the more richly rewarded they are, the better for everyone. Give them your money. All that said, I’m uncomfortable with that kind of forthrightness, and with attempts like that of Derek Powazek to cast it as a distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’. To call user activity ‘work’ may be a stretch; to call it ‘play’ feels like a dodge, even if it’s not meant that way.[3] It’s a troubling polarisation, with the potential to lock down the conversation about the tangible and intangible value of social networks. Call it participation, call it contribution: what makes these kinds of user activity tricky is that they’re neither work nor play, and admitting that in no way delegitimises the talent and gumption of the startups that facilitate them.

And so, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, to South Park and Environs.[4] Simply by virtue of its acquisition, Instagram has become a commoditised space, cumulatively worth 0.01 Facebooks on the ‘what Mark Zuckerberg values’ scale. What distinguishes Instagram from Hipstamatic and Camera+ on that scale (discussed by Gruber over the past fortnight) is its concentration of presence in a networked space that is explicitly public by default, a de facto broadcast platform, although one obfuscated by the lack of an official web interface. Flickr offers an archive of photographs; Instagram serves as a repository of presence.[5]

We understand the transactional model of paid or premium services; we’re still coming to terms with the transactional model of ‘free’, particularly in social networking; we know that our contributions bring value to those services even as we draw value from them, but have no way to quantify whether we’re being (or about to be) suckered; all we know for sure is the amount paid to acquire the collective rights.

When we contribute to social networks, we do so under terms that are both like and unlike those of employment: under those terms, it’s ultimately not the pay (or lack thereof) that matters: it’s the conditions.

[1] Then again, Boobstagram.
[2] Amazon acquired IMDB around the same time; from memory, it didn’t generate as much fuss, because the maintainers had spent a decade keeping it going, but perhaps it should have. (Update 22/04: Lee Maguire suggests, via email, that the muted reaction extended primarily from IMDB’s non-commercial licencing and open interfaces to the database, which makes sense to me.)
[3] A trickiness that Derek knows well, given the initial reaction to Pixish.
[4] Thus.
[5] Although thinking about it, I’m reminded of the very earliest Flash-based incarnation of Flickr, which suggests an interesting reversal from the web of 2004-5.