schussman.com logo

DIY DOA?

Via tina at the pub is a link to some thoughts about the commodification of do-it-yourself. Anne Galloway is wary of “commodifying the hacker or DIY ethic” through projects like Microsoft’s Visual Studio express. Anne cites Flickr and Dodgeball as essentially do-it-yourself projects that have become part of much larger, centralized entitites and suggests that these kinds of movements change the relationships that (users|hackers|customers) have. I agree with this, and think that the growth of blogging and blog providers may be an even stronger representation of this change. Still, while I agree with Anne in principle that centralizing and commodifying the hacker ethic may have significant downsides, I’m not sure I buy the idea that, for example, building furniture from Ready-Made somehow represents the other, truer side of DIY. Given the proliferation of Home Depot, Lowe’s, “prosumer” cameras, serious leisure, and the gigantic scrapbooking business, it’s hard to imagine DIY not already commodified.

So I think it’s important to articulate some of the consequences of building giant consumer- or user-oriented businesses. One important distinction seems to be in the area of ownership: I may buy lumber, stain, and nails from Home Depot, but Home Depot doesn’t own the bench that I build with it. As online tools like Flickr grow larger, this may not always be the case—Flickr currently claims no rights to photos uploaded to the site, and I imagine they would encounter stout resistance if they attempted to do so, but they nonetheless retain the right to change their terms of service at any time. Meanwhile, over at Type Pad:

Six Apart does not claim ownership of the Content you upload, place or post through this Site or the Services. By uploading, placing or posting Content through this Site or the Services, you grant Six Apart a world-wide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, modify, adapt and publish the Content solely for the purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting such Content on Six Apart’s Internet properties.

While you own all the text and photos on your Typepad-hosted blog, and Six Apart explicitly holds you responsible for that content, Six Apart reserves the right to use all of your material. I don’t think this kind of clause is a necessary consequence of the growth of DIY service providers, but I think it illustrates the kind of change in relationship with which Anne is concerned. In the world of open source software, the GPL might alleviate some of these pressures: Don’t like the terms of service of your provider? Take their software and build your own platform—that’s doing it yourself, sort of. But here we still have trouble: None of Flickr, Movabletype, or Backpack are open source.

This kind of ownership relationship strikes me as fundamental to offline as well as online DIY, so this returns me to thinking about the bench: Can I build a bench with plans from Ready-Made, make a few modifications, re-draw the plans with my hackish improvements, and then sell them? So many of the consequences of commodification depend not simply upon the relationship between entities and their sizes, but on licensing and terms of service. Size and centralization are likely to correspond with increasingly tight restrictions on use and ownership, but not absolutely necessarily. Despite restrictions, an awful lot of cool things have been done with, for example, the APIs for Google, Amazon, and other services (for example, the guys at O’Reilly recently posted a neat combination of the Amazon API and new Backpack API).

Somewhere here is the potential to generate some criteria by which we we might further evaluate all of this: We could track levels of user autonomy, ownership, and innovation, and consider whether some amount of innovation and creative use is enough to override concerns about privacy or ownership—I don’t know if it is, but it seems to approach a systematization of the results of commodification of DIY.