15 December 2007

Craft 2.0

The collision between the seemingly separate worlds of Web 2.0 and craft is described in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine written by Rob Walker.

The article begins by describing the Handmade Consortium an online project that seeks to get consumers to pledge to 'buy handmade'. It's a consortium that interestingly includes key movers in the DIY movement, and the American Crafts Council. It has a page of online resources for the Handmade Movement that includes my own (now largely dormant) Hand Made Theory blog.

Walker explains how the rise of the DIY/Crafter movement has been intimately linked to Web 2.0. For example, the new Craft magazine which addresses the needs of "the new craft movement" was initiated by O'Reilly Media which itself has been behind all the analysis (and indeed the hype) that has led to the idea of Web 2.0.

The article argues that the new handmade movement is an explicitly ideological movement that has profound implications for consumerism, and seeks to develop sustainable economies based on craft production. More than once the piece draws parallels with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the examples cited demonstrate how a Web 2.0 enabled craft movement enables makers to overcome the Morris Dilemma. No "pandering to the swinish luxury of the rich" here - the hand felted ipod cocoons are very reasonably priced.

Much of Walker's attention is given to Etsy - essentially an online craft fair - - which provides makers with their own branded online stores. Brooklyn-based Etsy indicates something of the size and significance of the new handmade movement. It comprises a community of 70,000 people, with a $4.3 million turnover in November 2007 alone. OK, let's put this into perspective. According to the latest research the entire craft sector in Scotland accounts for an annual turnover of at least 95 million pounds. The probable annual turnover of Etsy is around 25% of this figure, and projections indicate that turnover is on a steep upward trajectory. The new craft movement is thus significant in economic terms alone.

To quote from Walker's article:

"The luck or genius of (Etsy) is that Kalin and the other founders encountered in the D.I.Y./craft scene something that was already social, community-minded, supportive and aggressively using the Web.... Kalin is nothing if not grandiose about what he thinks Etsy can accomplish. For example, he knows that individual crafters face a problem of scale: there is only so much one person can produce. (Hence the Industrial Revolution.) So he mentions creating “co-production” sites across the country, where groups of crafters would band together in a co-op-style model, ideally occupying space in distressed areas and offering training to people who want to learn handcrafting skills. Handmade isn’t a fad, he told me, it’s a resurgence, one that is of a piece with the booming interest in organic food. In 25 years, he said, Etsy would be both worldwide and personal, a global-local marketplace, a Web version of the Athenian agora.... Etsy could “disturb” the way people see the world, rethinking what makes their possessions important or trivial, leading us to re-evaluate the way we consume."

Craft 2.0 is the true inheritor of the Morris legacy. Unlike the professionalised 'art school' educated craft makers it has an ideological position which, while largely ill-defined and diverse, represents a constructive reaction to the inequities and politics of the market economy. It is clearly using the market economy as a means of developing sustainable livelihoods, but is bringing economic and cultural innovation to it. Above all it is dealing with the politics of work and consumption in ways that the professionalised sector cannot.