Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Do-It-Yourself, “Take Power Back”

If you haven’t realized that we are moving towards a do-it-yourself (DIY) culture, wake up. Step outside and you will know what I am talking about. Within a few blocks from our homes, many of us are likely to run into the gigantic warehouse that America knows well, The Home Depot. Ikea may not be far away either. The purchase of a toolbox or a build-it-yourself bookshelf makes us part of a community of people who believe in self-sufficiency, and personal empowerment. Also, around your neighborhood, you will probably encounter a group of teenage boys equipped with video cameras, listening to punk rock on their iPods, shooting footage of their friends performing tricks on their skateboards. This raw, amateur footage will be edited, and uploaded on YouTube using a high-speed broadband connection and a Macbook Pro. By creating such content and distributing it free of cost, this group of dedicated teens has contributed to a movement of do-it-yourselfers who believe in an open, decentralized economy marked by a collaborative work ethic. These media savvy folks seek to break down the barriers created by centralized hierarchical organizations of professionals and creative labor in order to create an inviting economy of socially, and politically active citizens who are both producers and consumers of content. But despite the growing popularity of this DIY culture, there remains a strong presence and widespread viewer-ship of traditional media in societies today. DIY and traditional media function simultaneously, overlapping in some ways, and diverging in others. This paper presents a comparison between these two phenomenons, thus illuminating the ways in which this coexistence plays out in modern societies.

For decades, creation of content exclusively by professionals had dominated the media market. Now, however, recently conceived, flourishing new business models that use the DIY ideology cannot go unnoticed. The growth of broadband, and the cost of hardware, which is reaching critical price, has allowed more people to produce their own content. It has enabled people to serve as givers and takers, consumers and producers of content in a heavily networked global system. Online retail outlets like eBay, Amazon and Craigslist have given amateurs the ability to become entrepreneurs sitting at home. As explained by Danial Roth in his article The Amazing Rise of the Do-It-Yourself Economy, “do-it-yourselfers aren't deluding themselves with oversized visions of what they might achieve. Instead, they're simply finding a way--in this mass-produced, Wal-Mart world--to take power back, prove that they can make the products that they want to consume, have fun doing so, and, just maybe, and make a few dollars.” Online communities and DIY channels have made user generated content more accessible and have provided a platform for anyone to showcase his/her work and deal directly with prospective buyers of the product, thereby eliminating retailer profits, allowing the artist or content creator to maximize profits.
Despite the open source, user generated structure of virtual worlds like Second Life, a certain set of rules, checks and balances are provided by the creators, Linden Labs, to prevent the economic system in Second Life from collapsing. Although virtual economic models are becoming increasingly secure and popular, there are still many loopholes that allow hackers, cyber criminals and disloyal participants to abuse the system and weaken the community. Most commonly the decentralized nature of this model allows false users to create malicious content and get away with it without being subjected to any code of law. Such incidents often discourage participation as members loose their faith in the system. Thus it is necessary that traditional media models and walled communities exist in order to monitor distribution and ensure that the consumer is getting what he/she paid for. Similarly, systems like Craigslist can easily be misused, weakening the foundations of the DIY economy and emphasizing the need for traditional media conglomerates.
The DIY phenomenon is also being extensively used for social and cultural interactions. People in different corners of the world are using chat-rooms, blogs and social networks like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube to share thoughts and their responses to material disseminated by traditional media. Unlike traditional newspapers and journals that rely on scholars and professional journalists, DIY culture allows for a more diverse, global perspective on issues and current affairs. There are open discussion forums, comments and ratings that allow for more active participation and indulgence on the part of the reader. While blogs and social networks give people freedom to express their views and ideas, with this freedom must also come responsibility. The DIY culture assumes that every individual who contributes to it will do so responsibly and with good intentions. However, we have seen that this is not the case. For example, pornographic and explicit material has been promoted on Second Life while Facebook and YouTube have time and again been misused to disseminate rumors and false propaganda. Professional journalists worry about the credibility of material being posted on blogs and online journals. People too, are aware of this kind of misuse, and therefore continue to trust the word of trained, professional sources within the traditional media as their main source of information.
Democratic societies are supposed to be “for the people, by the people.” DIY’s carry us one step closer to bringing this phrase to life. The sheer power of do-it-yourselfers to organize and mobilize the masses in novel ways keeps governments and corporations on their toes. For example, in the recent Pakistani elections, videos of rigging by a certain political party as well as blogs about people’s voting experiences were online within 48 hours after ballots were cast. In countries where the media is independent, it has become extremely difficult for politicians to hide their dealings. Between traditional media and DIY’s almost everything is out in the open sooner or later.
Also, for the first time in history, American political candidates have used DIY applications to mobilize people in their election campaigns. Each political candidate for example, has created his/her own YouTube community through which speeches are delivered on specific issues. DIY culture is now allowing politicians a simple, effective channel to communicate with a mass audience and maintain a close connection with citizens and supporters.
The limits of DIY culture as a political, socio-cultural and economic tool, however, are still unclear. Although user-created content and opportunities to share it continue to increase in the DIY world, it is unlikely that this new culture will completely replace traditional media in the near future. Instead, we seem to be moving towards a culture where professionals and amateurs compliment each other in a positive way. Old school professionals and creative labor are beginning to embrace the shift and traditional media conglomerates are modifying their structures to function in a more open source economy. It remains to be seen how the boundaries between these two phenomenon are blurred, and where lines are drawn in the coming years.

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