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DIY Endeavors in the Internet Economy

(Note — This was originally written in response to an invitation from entrepreneur Jon Froda, and appeared on a now-defunct website of his. It’s included on this blog in chronological context for posterity’s sake. — Matt)

As the founder of a community site for Do-It-Yourself, independent creative people, I’m often in a position to explain the philosophies of the DIY ethic and how it dovetails with the use of the Internet and the new Creative Economy – and that’s rarely easy.

It’s challenging to communicate the paradigm shift necessary to really understand why the DIY ethic is a viable alternative to the mainstream. Indeed, DIY, coupled with an Internet-driven meritocracy, is likely to become a standard in this new century.

Of course, this is what sends record companies and movie studios after peer to peer networks. This is why print journalists fear bloggers. This is why radio seems a tired, aging medium compared to the innovative adolescent energy of podcasting. Traditional media’s fearful anger and condescension – demonstrated through litigation, lobbying, and editorializing — is a manifestation of fear.

So far, DIY — at least in the arts — has been largely associated with punk rock, outsider art, vanity publishing… all endeavors that are viewed as somehow inferior to the products of popular culture. Further, when the outsider is inevitably accepted by the mainstream (changing the process and being changed by it) his former peers distance themselves.

This is both good and bad. Perpetuating the differences between the mainstream and the outsider can enforce the impression one is superior to the other. At the same time, outsiders — the DIY creators — are driven to innovate as the definition of the mainstream evolves.

Now, though, things are changing.

These are the first years of an era when the ubiquity of technology has made it very easy for more people to be Creators than every before. Diminishing costs and the distribution pipe of the Internet have turned hundreds of thousands into publishers, recording artists, film-makers, and visual artists.

When a gifted teen-ager records an album with the same software used to create the latest top forty radio hit, and sells that album directly to people the world over, where’s the need for a recording contract?

When thousands of people all over the world learn of the sexual antics of a world leader through a weblog, who needs the newspaper?

When thousands of people are exposed to music and new ideas in a podcast, what can traditional radio offer?

The marriage of DIY and the Internet relegates the major multimedia powers to the status of option, rather than necessity. The middle-man is now a wallflower at a dance shared by creator and consumer.

At this moment, the dance is still awkward and tentative. Creators aren’t sure what to charge for their art, or even if they should. Consumers are conditioned to believe that anything missing the polished brand of a major media conglomerate isn’t quite worth their attention.

The dancers have to change their steps!

To the creators, I say that you must charge for your work, or at least receive something worthwhile in return. Continue to give your art away, as, for example, so many musicians do with free MP3s on their web sites, and fewer people will believe it’s worth paying for at all. Content providers on the net (why don’t you call yourselves writers?) must take the position they are delivering something of value, and charge accordingly.

To the consumer: encourage the underground… foster new ideas, new experiences. You are the architects of the new mainstream. Be willing, even enthusiastic, to compensate creators for the experiences they provide you, no matter if that experience comes to you on satellite television or on a webcast, in a twenty-screen multiplex or a file sharing network. Art creates emotion – that’s worth something.

Our old ideas of value, commerce, even property, are losing relevance rapidly. We’re entering a new world where the value of art will be directly determined by the person experiencing it. Sturgeon’s Law will fail – ninety percent of everything created will not be crap. Rather, the plethora of creators will provide an unimaginable wealth of choice, and competition will shift from corporate battles to a healthy ecology of micro niches, driving the participants to ever more refined art.

Help create that world. Support an independent artist, or, better yet, defy the idea that you can’t be one yourself.

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