FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The DIY Generation

Trendwatching.com identifies the rise of "Generation C" -- not an age demographic, but a mindset of creative people who take advantage of new technical tools to create and publicize their own content.

We know about bloggers and tools such as Flickr that allow people to share photos online. But Trendwatching notes a whole collection of tech resources that break down the barriers between creative people and potential audiences:

  • Xingtone.com, allowing people to compose and even sell their own ringtones.

  • Self-publisher Lulu.com, which allows authors to publish their works in book form "on-demand" as they are ordered (meaning no upfront printing costs).

  • RedPaper, where authors can sell their articles (and may be a model for for-profit blogging).

  • Online travelogue TrekShare.

  • Apple's GarageBand, where musicians can record and upload their music to be downloaded through iTunes.

  • Hostbaby, where independent musicians can create their own websites that include audio streaming and concert calendars.

Presuming such services catch on (and there's no reason to believe they won't), they could redefine not only the way content is produced, but how it is accessed. Traditionally, content aggregators (publishers, broadcasters, record companies, movie studios) have served as gatekeepers between content producers and audiences. Because they bear the substantial upfront costs of reproducing and marketing content, aggregators must be selective in choosing the content creators they worked with. Economics demand that aggregators work only with the top-selling authors, artists, bands and filmmakers. In the case of broadcasting, limited bandwidth dictates that the aggregator be highly selective (a broadcaster can only broadcast one program at a time, and there are only so many time slots in a day).

Now, however, we are seeing a convergence of technologies that make Generation C possible:

  • The Internet, which allows anyone so motivated to publish and access content to or from nearly anywhere in the world (eliminating the need for distributors and brick-and-mortar retailers). The Net also offers unlimited "broadcasting" bandwidth; you can download as many songs, digital books and movies as you want, and access them at your convenience.

  • Inexpensive tools that make writing and recording easy for the non-expert. You might not have to be an engineer or designer, though you still need to be a good musician or writer to create something worthwhile (eliminating the need for technical expertise).

  • Dynamic pricing models, which allow content creators to charge and audiences to pay a fair price for the content they want (eliminating the need for traditional marketing).

  • "Just in time" manufacturing, enabling the economical creation of very small quantities of a piece of content (eliminating the need for mass manufacturing and warehousing). In the case of purely digital content, even this is not necessary.

With these trends firmly in place, middlemen are cut out, and it becomes economically feasible to pursue niche audiences. This in turn fuels a cycle of encouraging content creators whose visions and creations may not appeal to a mass audience, but who have something worthwhile to say nonetheless.

The downside to this trend (for some, at least), is the potential end to big payouts to the top few creatives. Intstead of a few authors, bands and actors making millions while upstarts struggle for recognition, more people can make a respectable (yet maybe not exorbitant) income from their work. This is proving to be the biggest disruption of all, as many people derive their paychecks from the big earnings of the top creatives, and they understandably don't want to see their livelihoods dry up.

However, Generation C still needs the support of those who can help them reach their audiences. Considering that, those who are part of the traditional distribution network have an opportunity to reinvent themselves, developing ways to streamline the links between content creators and audiences.

UPDATE: WorldChanging, which has cited this post, makes an important point about DIY culture: It empowers creative people all over the world, in developed and developing countries alike. With technology so inexpensive and so far-reaching, even those with modest means and in remote locations can participate.