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…
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…
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…
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?