From product to process

by Mark on May 28, 2009

Recuerdos_Alberto Cerriteño_Flickr

Cheap tools and online interaction have flipped how things get made. Instead of launching a book or film and hoping it finds an audience, artists can now find an audience and collaborate their way to a product. Is that good?

Here’s something the Internet has taught us about media: failure is cheap. With abundant and inexpensive tools to make, distribute, and market news, books, movies, or music, the cost to succeed is nearly zero.

Here’s something else we’ve learned: when the cost to succeed is nearly zero, just about anyone can compete with just about anyone else. That’s why Aston Kutcher can take on CNN or a small studio in Yugoslavia can compete with Pixar. When everything is flat, the risk of falling over is nil.

While removing the barriers to the means of production has the obvious effect of making everyone a producer, what has been less obvious is how the relationship between the producer and consumer of media has changed.

Media used to be made at what could be described as the “front end” of the process. I produce a song or book and release it to the market where it is consumed and talked about.

A product leads to a conversation…

Product > conversation

But now that my cost of experimentation is zilch—and networks enable me to be in constant communication with people who share my interests—the diagram can just as easily be flipped and start at the “back end.” I can talk about and share my ideas with you, and once we have a collective vision of the “thing,” I can produce it (to then have you consume it).

A conversation leads to a product…

Conversation > product

Furthermore, if the thing I produce (or we produce) is dispensable (like songs or stories), you might consume more of it and the process can stop being linear altogether…

The fun never ends!

Changing how we create

This change in how—and when—media is produced and consumed is the essence of “product to process,” an idea that emphasizes less static production and more iteration among the participants. Product-to-process suggests that we’ve shifted from a monologue to a dialogue and part of what constitutes “the product” is sharing the actual making of it.

Fans of comedian Ze Frank immediately understand this concept. Frank’s success is based on the constant negotiation among him and his fans/followers/friends about what kind of comedy should be produced: when, where, how, and for what reason.

Writer Christian Lander stumbled onto “product to process” as he blogged about Stuff White People Like. His posts drew so much attention (an average entry generated more than 600 comments) that he was a) able to source new topics from his fans and b) use his posts, traffic, and fans to negotiate a “traditional” publishing deal. Process first, product second.

Visual artist Koldo Barroso sees the shift. A children’s book writer and illustrator, Barroso has begun a collaborative storytelling process (a phrase we particularly like) on his blog, creating the story and pictures with input from, and in tandem with, his fans. The end result will be a picture book that isn’t “inspired” by Barroso’s fans as much as it “includes” his fans, an accomplishment that simply wasn’t possible before networks and the evaporation of interaction costs.

Changing how we consume

As new tools continue to improve the fidelity of our interaction and the quality of our output, not only will the process continue to morph, but also how we consume things. When you participate in inspiring or creating a product, what exactly are you buying? And for the people who “orchestrate” the making of something, what exactly are they selling?

For Heather Armstrong, the über mommy blogger known simply as Dooce, the explicit answer to “what are you selling?” is: advertising (to her sponsors) and books (to her readers). But the implicit answer is different. Because she’s involved in a regular communion with her fans (many of whom inspire her postings and responses), what Armstrong truly offers is community; what her fans consume is interaction.

Then there’s JibJab, the jocular eCard purveyor from LA. For years, what you bought from JibJab was clear: clever cards with zesty animations. They produce, you consume. But recently they added technology that allows people to personalize animations with their faces. Buyers now pay a premium to insert themselves into the action and, essentially, “finish” the product. Years ago, a greeting card that was “unfinished” would have been returned. Today, we pay extra for it.

Finally, a more intricate pattern of consumption is Threadless, the peer-produced t-shirt manufacturer from Chicago. What do fans of Threadless buy? Most obviously, tshirts. But tshirts are really just the currency of the Threadless marketplace. What people really buy is tastemaking—the opportunity, through voting, to decide what cultural epitaphs are enshrined on people’s bodies for a season. Threadless is this generation’s MTV, only their videos are experienced one frame at a time and must be rinsed in cold water lest they run.

Not answers, but questions

For artists, the shift from product to process (and back again) is both mesmerizing and bewildering. Creatively, this new model can feel just as limiting as it does liberating. What happens to artistic vision? To surprise? To auterism? And commercially, things quickly become byzantine. What happens to my publishing deal if I pre-release my stories online? Who’s my publisher, anyway? Should I produce a limited edition book through Blurb and a mass-released version through Chronicle Books? Or the other way around?

There’s no easy answer to any of these questions. Really, like the switch from product to process, we need a switch from question/answer to answer/question. The answer is: things have changed. The real struggle now is asking the right questions.

Here are a few starters: Why are you important to people? Why are they important to you? And what can you do to make that importance more obvious?

Illustration: Recuerdos by Alberto Cerriteño, used via CC

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }


Bonnie Adamson 05.28.09 at 12:07 pm

Process-driven production isn’t a new idea: it’s the direct outgrowth of the kind of market research first enshrined in the 1950s–the pace and the reach of the feedback is what’s turned process inside out. It’s “give them what they want” played out in real time.

The consequence is rampant imitation (which, not so incidentally, fuels the idea of community). I’m not sure if mass participation is the best way to foster true innovation.


Andy McNally 05.28.09 at 12:19 pm

I really see infinite opportunities for artists of all types. Maybe, it is just my overactive imagination inventing new possibilities, but with the cheap cost of social media and new print on demand services, artists have opportunities that I only dreamed of, even just 5 years ago. My audience is incredibly small, and mostly made up of friends, but to think that I can publish my own children’s book or have people wear my designs was something I used to only daydream about. The ability to have a conversation and interact with people who like what you do, and then collaborate with them is magical. As I begin work on my first children’s book, I can’t explain how excited I get about the future and the new process of being able to publish to even just a small audience. This article just fueled the creative fire inside my head even more. Thanks for a thoughtful article, and the future artistic collaborations on Storybird.


Mark 05.28.09 at 1:41 pm

@bonnie: I admire your mojo and agree with you that platforms, as an act of aggregating the good and the bad, tend to show us a lot of bad. If Warren Buffet was right about the “innovators, then imitators, then idiots” sequence, platforms like Flickr and YouTube tend to amplify that. But it’s a different issue in the context of artists and their fans, no? Unlike the groupthink of corporate market research, this is a creator’s ability to jam with people who like what they do and find new ways to experiment, get inspired, and make things that resonate.

Certainly, that’s one thing I draw from @andy’s comments: the opportunity to iterate and experiment with even a tiny circle of followers to arrive at the form factor/product that inspires them all. Will it be innovative? Historically, that would be a market research question: is this innovative enough to sell xx units? But now it’s a personal and intimate question. And, in some respects, by freeing an artist from mass-market considerations, it sets the most fertile ground for something surprising and fresh.


_dger_ 05.28.09 at 2:00 pm

An excellent post.

Consider comics – a huge area that has seen incredible changes because of the network effect and the ability to reach fans directly. Chris Butcher ( | @comics212dotnet) (and I’m going from memory here, so I may be glomming a few of his posts together) wrote a great post about artists he knows that have side-stepped the distribution monopoly of diamond to GREATER success than they likely would have achieved using the traditional model of distribution, swallowed up in a catalog of super heroes, franchises, licensed properties, and soft porn (hard porn is another catalog).

These artists that succeeded through digital distribution that also had published works were excluded from participating in free comic book day. That meant that THOUSANDS of fans of their comics would NOT be enticed to visit comics retail outlets and discover NEW comics to buy. The old system shuts out the very audiences they claim they want as they protect their empire.

YouTube now has original content posted by film makers and students to showcase their talents. @indywoodfilms is publicly seeking funding on Twitter, offering the network not just the chance to contribute with their money, but if you’re in the UK, you can become one of the zombies in their film and contribute with your BODY – even though what I think anyone is really contributing (as with the cases above) is their passion…and there’s really nothing greater to share.

Just 2 cents of a comment, I suppose.


Adam Endicott 05.28.09 at 2:20 pm

This is not a fully baked thought, but I’m intrigued by an apparent paradox here. As production and publication becomes cheaper, shouldn’t there be less need for, as Bonnie calls it, market research? When I think of the “giving the people what they want” style of media production, I think of the summer blockbuster movie season, with its endless regurgitation of the same old ideas and characters, shutting out anything new because the stakes are so high that nobody will take a risk. But this is the result of dramatically increasing production costs. On the web, shouldn’t we see more of the surprising, the unexpected, the totally new? And in fact, that is what we see. Sure, it’s occasionally drowned out by the echo chamber, but I’m constantly surprised and delighted by the things I find online.

I think the real value here is not, “listen to what people are saying and make what they say they want”, but rather the simple idea that it is now possible for artists to find people who enjoy their work, and for everyone to find art that they enjoy, even if it’s made by an unknown person working in their basement in Prague. The neat thing is that once the two sides find each other, both of their lives are enriched.


Andy McNally 05.28.09 at 3:27 pm

I’m really enjoying reading everyone’s comments and insights. Adam put it much better than I was able to express:

“the simple idea that it is now possible for artists to find people who enjoy their work, and for everyone to find art that they enjoy, even if it’s made by an unknown person working in their basement in Prague. The neat thing is that once the two sides find each other, both of their lives are enriched.”

I could not agree more. My art does not really change, because of my interaction with people on my blog , Facebook, or Twitter, but it is certainly more rewarding. The possibility for an audience is so much greater now. Hopefully they enjoy my art, and and I always enjoy making it. The miraculous thing now is the possibility to monetize your passion, and make a living from it. Making a living from doing what you love is, as Joseph Campbell put it, “following your bliss.”


Troy Gilbert 05.28.09 at 4:09 pm

What @_dger_ mentions with @indywoodfilms is more of a gimmick in my opinion — just a distributed form of putting the financier’s girlfriend in the starring role.

Adam actually nails it: “both of their lives are enriched.” That’s the real difference between today’s emerging models and the focus groups of yesteryear. I don’t believe most marketeers were enriched by the consumers they polled, nor were the product designers who implemented the suggestions or optimized the products to exploit their foibles. That relationship was more parasitic; today’s can be more symbiotic.

Creation is a hugely rewarding act. At the most elevated end of the spectrum we have mothers who literally give someone life. At the other we have the absolute delight a child experiences when they knock over a glass of milk. Whether it’s a life or a mess, making something is a basic human need. Today’s ecosystem of accessible production, trivial distribution and ubiquitous interaction makes it possible for the broadest spectrum of people to make the broadest spectrum of products.


Koldo Barroso 05.28.09 at 4:35 pm

This is a really useful and interesting post. To me, the point is that Internet is a wonderful tool to talk to my audience face to face, to know better how can I make their lifes better instead of sit on a chair waiting for them to come and keep thinking what a genious artist I am.

I started my career in the late 80′s so this is a blessing to me and I love to take part of this experiment of communication with my fans. It makes no sense to disregard the potential of the new communications and social media when you can really make this world a more friendly and warmer place!

Thank you SO much for the mention ;-)


Amy Pritchard 05.28.09 at 4:42 pm

I’ll jump in anectodally, I have no analysis. OK, maybe I have some.

I got the idea for our company and then inserted ourselves into Newt Gingrich’s appearance in Second Life. Who knew that celebrity avatars needed bodyguard avatars? Now they do. :)

Essentially this is the time honored tradition of working for free and making yourself indispensable. Start a blog, then run with the book. Volunteer, then get the job. Do your boss’s work, then get the promotion.

Be the friend, then get the girl.

I have a t-shirt that a great friend gave me that says “DO EPIC SH*T”. I have always figured the fans, following, money, job, girl, boy, house, dream would follow that second. In this day, with the world at our feet (with the cooperation of our internet service provider), somehow it is easier to convince people that what we are doing is truly epic. Not that crocheting masterful wool sweaters in Northern Ireland and selling them to villagers is any less awesome. But crocheting masterful wool sweaters online and selling them to millions, well that lands you on Oprah.

Really, isn’t that it?


Sara B. 05.28.09 at 8:19 pm

Great posts and comments , as usual Storybird.

I think one of the biggest changes that has taken place is that the artist themselves (personality, opinion, thoughts about life) have become much more transparent and a part of the product and conversation that they share with their audience. The more the audience “connects” with the artist, their story and their process, the more attractive and interesting their product becomes and the web simply enables this. This isn’t necessarily a new concept (branding theory) but now we’re creating direct connections (and conversations) to people instead of product. This offers up new possibilities for artists and maybe even challenges too (for the traditional artist recluse) as what you say about yourself and your work can be evaluated as much as your product. In fact, what you say can sometimes even become more important (a product in itself). Do dry and boring blogs get as much attention as ones that are witty, thoughtful and entertaining? In that case, your work better be good enough to stand on it’s own.. :)

It reminds me of the time before the interweb, when I would be much more inclined to purchase artwork if I met the artist and got a chance to hear the story behind it.


guinevere de la mare 05.28.09 at 8:34 pm

Fantastic post, and great, thoughtful comments to boot. I have to stop and remind myself how remarkable it is that we have the luxury to debate these questions of community, innovation, self-publishing vs mass-market, etc, when the technology to create all of this was not even available or scalable only a few years ago. It’s pretty amazing where we’ve arrived in such a short time.

But before we get too starry-eyed over this brave new world of production possibilities, it’s worth considering what makes something truly meaningful to someone. You can throw as much content and product out into the world as you want, but unless it resonates with someone at a deeper level, and serves some purpose or need for that individual, it’s just a mountain of junk that becomes overwhelming and ignored as it grows. Consider Etsy—amazing success story, but the sheer volume of products on that site would be impossible to navigate without the filters and showcases curated by the editors.

Community is irreplaceable as a sounding board for the voice of the people, but the role of the curator has also become more valuable than ever. The more we can facilitate dialogue between consumers and producers, the more we can create what really matters.


kaye 05.28.09 at 11:28 pm

I think of this like a self-perpetuating long-tail. I find an artist that suits me and my interests pretty well, I then interact with the artist and he/she modifies what they do to suit my interests. This (in theory) narrows what that artist does, and I travel ‘down’ the long-tail down to a more refined group of people with likes and dislikes even closer to mine. Maybe at some point, it’s just between me and the artist — and that’s just fine if, as Adam puts it “both of [our] lives are enriched.”

However, it might not get to that 1-1 point, because the other side of course, is that while I *think* I know what I want, I like to be surprised and delighted by new things as well, so there is this wonderful give and take where I influence the artist, but the artist also influences me by opening up new areas of interest and engagement and I travel ‘up’ the long tail as my interests broaden.

So… “What happens to artistic vision? To surprise? To auterism?” I think it’s all still there, it just depends on which way, on any given day, I feel like traveling on the long-tail.


Juan Gonzalez 05.29.09 at 10:48 am

Is it possible that too much attention at what your fans want will kill your creative soul? Wouldn’t that turn every artist into a paid contractor and every fan into a patron? And if you never create a failure (because of the constant chattering with your audience), how will you distinguish the truly sublime? I read this thread with the same skepticism that I read about “social media”.

However, I’m far more interested in the by-products of the artists becoming so widely distributed that their art fuses with everyday language, allowing common people to express themselves with a symbolic language not too different from the fables of ancient mythology. A Esperanto for the conversations that matter; a better construct for memes to spread. That should be the legacy of technology becoming accessible to everyone: its by-products should also be pervasive, free, reusable, remixed. Would that be acceptable to you as an artist?


Jared Matthew Kessler 05.29.09 at 11:01 am

Some really great thoughts there.

As an extension to that, people that don’t create the NEED first will have a hard time succeeding. As you said, failure is cheap BUT it can be expensive without people NEEDING what you have. The trick then, is to find out what they “need” (not what we want to give or sell them – that we think is brilliant).

A brilliant idea to me never means anything, unless something THINKS it is a “brilliant” idea for them (from a business perspective). As creative people we must understand this. Once I did, I had my most profitable year (ONLY because I make things based on the needs of others, not my own). I know it’s REALLY hard for artists to do because we love to create, but as I look back at the few hundred cd’s I have sitting in a box from 1997, I REALLY appreciate the importance of this.



_dger_ 05.29.09 at 8:57 pm

In terms of community influence on artistry, I don’t think any artist owes anyone anything, really. I recall Harlan Ellison speaking on Prisoners of Gravity many moons ago about a woman that harassed him on the way to the bathroom, insisting that he owed her an autograph for buying his book. To which he replied, and I’m paraphrasing horribly, I’m sure, “Lady, you know what you get when you pay $4.50 for a book? A BOOK!”



Mark 05.29.09 at 9:37 pm

Historically, not all artists shared the same type of interaction with their fans. Comedians and musicians, for instance, create their act for a live audience and get immediate feedback that helps them modulate or edit their performance. But up until recently, authors and visual artists were more “back stage” and only met their fans at book signings or gallery events. Now that they have the option to interact with them before, during, and after their work, they have new types of decisions to make, most notably “what am I comfortable with?”

For some, interaction is now a primary, driving ingredient of their work. It’s still “artistry,” but it’s artistry through the coordination of things and people. For others, fan interaction may simply be a way to get perspective before plunging back into the creative process. And for others still, fans are to be engaged only at specific times and with limited intent.

None of these choices are good or bad. Networks are just new tools to be used as an artist sees fit. And like many tools, their usage shifts over time as an artist explores their relationship with the world.


Justine Purcell 05.29.09 at 11:45 pm

Such brilliant and inspiring ideas above! I’m late on this, but I’ve been thinking about it all day… and wondering….

If social collaborators are potential ‘buyers’, and are somewhat representative of the demand, the supplier/artist/creator can probably assume that this sea of collaborators (demand) is as infinite as the sea of ideas (product). Not that every product will be a success, but the audience is as fluid and malleable as the art. Just as we can reinvent the product a hundred times, now we can reinvent the audience a hundred times, too. It’s infinite.

This is reassuring to me as a writer… with an unpublished novel. A few years ago, the timing for market-entry would have been hugely important – my book would be introduced to the world at point A and deemed big success or big flop by point B. There was very little that could be done “post” the point B milestone.

But now – I’m contemplating multiple launches (all free, of course), approaches, and even demographics. My work might click at any one of an infinite number of points in time or ‘place.’ Many junctures. Many opportunities. What used to be elusive (is there a market for my work? Who knows!) is starting to seem like something tangible and reactive – not quite transparent, but definitely within reach. It’s making me think that for good content/art, there is… an infinite supply of demand! Fluid and responsive and ultimately…pretty human.

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