This panel at SXSW Interactive on 14th March 2006 could equally have been called DIY Machines, and there was a fair share of crafting on the menu too.
The session blurb went some way to encompassing this broad canvas: ‘New technology allows consumers to play an active role in producing media and objects. How does this not-so-subtle change impact the final product?’
To give you an idea of the sheer range of the conference, in the same time slot the following other sessions were also happening, three of which I also wanted to go to: ‘RSS: Not Just For Blogs Anymore’, ‘Secret Sex Lives Of Video Games’, ‘Open Source Management: Walking The Walk’, ‘Dogma Free Design’, ‘The Orthley Children and Their Computer’, and ‘Democratization Of The Moving Image’
Cameron Shaw – Product Manager, AOL
Limor Fried – ladyaya.net and iBeam Fellowship in Open Source Electronics
Nathalie Zee – Avantmedia.com and Craft Editor for Make magazine
Phillip Torrone – Editor, Make magazine
Christian Crumlish – extractable.com and author of ‘The Power Of Many’
Chair: John Lepowsky – Digital Convergence Initiative
We’re now living in a remix culture, John Lepowsky stated in his opening remarks, where production and access to production is now a much easier process. Instead of the powers that be and corporations broadcasting to us, the internet and other many-to-many networks are changing that.
A caveat to this is that there’s always going to be a relatively small percentage producing with 1-10% participating in creating content.
[I think this oft quoted forecast, which I’ve heard before from Yahoo’s Bradley Horowitz among others is always predicated on the PC/Web paradigm and ignores the role of mobile in accelerating and mainstreaming production and sharing of content. In a few years the mobile will be the dominant tool for this, and unlike PC usage, is ubiquitous].
Accessible technology frees the impulse to create
The rest are lurkers, Lepowsky continued, but the possibility of creation is there for those who want to do it, technology now frees the impulse [exactly – to the power of ten on mobile!]
Limor Freid explained how she and her associates came up with the idea of making their own keyboards on an open source platform. They built 100 and sold them all – calling them the xoxbox. What’s more, 50% of people who bought one built their keyboard out of more than 500 components, plus they fed back!
Mod culture and the community network effect
One of the strengths of this process is that if you break it, it doesn’t matter because they already broke it in order to make it in the first place. Modifications and personalisation allow you to commune with the machine. Someone even documented the whole project on a wiki.
Some people started to make really cool music with the keyboards (www.pinkofperfection.com). Such activity was like someone doing your own press release for you.
As for why people contribute, Freid reasoned that the value lies in the fact that I hacked something up because it was missing. It’s also about ego – I wanted to show off my skills and get positive feedback; it’s fun, like playing with a toy, allowing experimentation and creativity; finally, it incites contribution. Make it possible, she exhorted other open source community managers and facilitators, be humble to your community, be respectful, be thankful, be supportive and mingle with the natives.
AOL’s paradigm shift
Cameron Shaw acknowledged that AOL has been synonymous with the walled garden, and they had a lot of success with that with their premium users, but it’s not the right place to be anymore.
Now they’re actively encouraging mashups and remixing of user-generated content. They’re opening up the AIM platform though the AIM API. There are 63 million active AIM users who can now avail of file-sharing, voice, buddy lists and RSS so that people can create their own content and environments.
They’re introducing an open API for MapQuest and are also building a page publisher, ie. page layout and profiles that you can plug in modules and feeds to, for example the Flickr widget, eBay rating, Amazon wishlist. All in all it’s a pretty scary thing to do, Shaw observed, especially in terms of premium-level content, from mashups of The Sopranos through to remixing the Superbowl.
Risks of the open web
It’s also risky in terms of safety, especially with the current MySpace panic over predators, Shaw added. Moreover, how much responsibility should they take for copyright violation of content hosted on their servers?
The same goes for quality testing – it’s not guaranteed. While developers are used to things being broken, how do ordinary folks cope with the new, extended “hinternet”? [note: this link is to a PDF file].
Upsides of open source product development
Throughout the session a little robot had been trundling about the isle floor, sometimes making its way underneath the seats and nudging people’s legs and luggage on the floor. Philip Torrone introduced it as the Rumba robot, which had come fresh from the Rumba cockfighting session operated via Bluetooth at eTech (O’Reilly Emerging Technology conference) in San Diego the previous week.
It’s an example of what happens if you can turn your customers into your product team. Sony do the opposite, Torrone noted, and they’ve just announced they’re getting rid of their robot division. Likewise with the PSP – it crashes when you try to do new stuff and you have to pay to download more firmware.
Make magazine focuses on what ordinary people are doing, for example they covered a guy who wanted an alarm clock that makes bacon, so he built it himself. Make *is* a crafts magazine, he stressed, as crafts are activities that involve making things by hand.
The grassroots crafts renaissance
Nathalie Zee, Make’s crafts editor, said there has been a renaissance in crafting – knitting, needlework, etcetera. She got into it during the dotcom crash because it was nice to do something with your hands.
Top craft blogs she namechecked were WhipUp, Not Martha, and Thrift Craft. In terms of internet pastimes and topics, blogging and modifying your clothing are both big, and the impulse is to remix it, rip it up and express your creativity. You can even sell it, like on Etsy.com and Craftster.org where you can find knitted robots, knitted cellphone holders, toys, laptop bags, and even Pacman cross-stitch accessories.
Artistry and increasing the use-value of objects
Pink of Perception is the Martha Stewart of the indie generation, claimed Zee. She also flagged up Diana Ang, the person behind Project Runway, who created a vacuum dress that got on the cover of ID magazine. Making mathematical knits is another sub-set of this trend.
It’s all about creating community and merging technology, crafts and sciences, said Zee. With ThingLinks, HobbyPrincess.com and Zengstrom, she observed, the common factor is that their work revolves around the Long Tail of fashion and craft.
There’s a sense of going back to handicraft work and the artistry of our generation is in modifying stuff, Zee reckoned. For people to be able continue buying stuff, they want to be able to do more stuff with the things they purchase.
Open source portals and business models
The question was raised as to whether AOL are putting people in place to respond to the feedback they get on the open AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) and Mapquest SDI’s. Cameron Shaw explained that internally all their developers have exposed all their work and their blogs. They are trying to embrace the open source community and feedback will be considered and incorporated.
Someone else asked if you can build a business out of this? Limor Fried stressed that people were willing to pay for stuff, eve if it’s open source. It made more sense to her to cerate open source hardware than open source software.
From open source hardware to social hardware…
What about social hardware, someone else piped up. Torrone was first to respond, citing their creation of the Make Pet. Based on how many people are talking to you on MySpace or about you on Technorati, the pet gets more active and even reproduces. Nintendo DS with wifi is another case in point, as you can play other people near you.
The toy industry is good for social hardware. In Second Life a lot of people make money out of things created just for the virtual world – one woman made $150,000 from her Second Life products. Finally, Torrone announced that Make are also making Pacman carpets!
Fried stressed that she’s not the first to clone in the keyboard sector. Moog was the first to clone in this domain. It’s mostly legal to reverse-engineer hardware as there is usually no copyright. With the session out of time the last namecheck of the DIY media phenomenon went to eyespot, an online video remixing community.
[Note: I checked out the WhipUp blog and discovered one of the best ever straplines – “handicraft in a hectic world” – superb!]
My other SXSW Interactive 2006 session reports:
What’s In A Title?
Beyond Folksonomies – Knitting Tag Clouds For Grandma
Book Digitisation & The Revenge Of The Librarians
James Surowiecki on The Wisdom Of Crowds
Running Your New Media Business
SXSW notes: The Perfect Pitch
What People Are Really Doing On The Web
Commons Based Business Models
Danah Boyd – Current TV interview
See all SXSW Interactive 2006 daytime panels here:
See the SXSW Interactive 2007 website