The maker makes: on design, community, and personal empowerment

THE FIRST THING I got about the web was its ability to empower the maker. The year was 1995, and I was tinkering at my first website. The medium was raw and ugly, like a forceps baby; yet even in its blind, howling state, it made me a writer, a designer, and a publisher — ambitions which had eluded me during more than a decade of underachieving desert wanderings.

I say “it made me” but I made it, too. You get the power by using it. Nobody confers it on you.

I also got that the power was not for me alone: it was conferred in equal measure on everyone with whom I worked, although not everyone would have the time or desire to use the power fully.

The luckiest makers

Empowerment and desire. It takes extraordinary commitment, luck, and talent to become a maker in, say, music or film, because the production and distribution costs and risks in these fields almost always demand rich outside investors and tightly controlling corporate structures. (Film has held up better than music under these conditions.)

Music and film fill my life, and, from afar, I love many artists involved in these enterprises. But they are mostly closed to you and me, where the web is wide open, and always has been. We all know gifted, hard working musicians who deserve wide acclaim but do not receive it, even after decades of toil. The web is far kinder to makers.

To care is to share

Not only does the web make publishers of those willing to put in the work, it also makes most of us free sharers of our hard-won trade, craft, and business secrets. The minute we grab hold of a new angle on design, interaction, code, or content, we share it with a friend — or with friends we haven’t met yet. This sharing started in news groups and message boards, and flowered on what came to be called blogs, but it can also slip the bounds of its containing medium, empowering makers to create books, meet-ups, magazines, conferences, products, you name it. It is tough to break into traditional book publishing the normal way but comparatively easy to do it from the web, provided you have put in the early work of community building.

The beauty is that the community building doesn’t feel like work; it feels like goofing off with your friends (because, mostly, it is). You don’t have to turn your readers into customers. Indeed, if you feel like you’re turning your readers into customers, you’re doing it wrong.

If you see a chance, take it

The corollary to all this empowerment is that it’s up to each of us to do something positive with it. I sometimes become impatient when members of our community spend their energy publicly lamenting that a website about cats isn’t about dogs. Their energy would be so much better spent starting bow-wow.com. The feeling that something is missing from a beloved online resource (or conference, or product) can be a wonderful motivator to start your own. I created A List Apart because I felt that webmonkey.com wasn’t enough about design and highfive.com was too much about it. If this porridge is too hot and that porridge is too cold, I better make some fresh, eh?

I apologize if I sometimes seem snippy with whiners. My goal is never to make anyone feel bad, especially not anyone in this community. My message to my peers since the days of “Ask Dr Web” has always been: “you can do this! Go do it.” That is still what I say to you all.

18 thoughts on “The maker makes: on design, community, and personal empowerment

  1. You have hit a sweet spot with those that have a passion for the web, I mean, I have never cared about what I do more than I do now. But this is only because there is an interchange in enthusiasm that flows through our veins when a community shares the discovery of something inspirational.

    There are so many ways individuals can contribute now than ever before and it is making a big difference. “Caring is sharing”, there is something quite John Lennon about that.

  2. Funny, I wasn’t sure that anyone would ever formulate exactly why I make websites, but here it is. Starting in 2003 when CMSs were being born and open source was a political ideal (as I remember) was also as exciting as this, but with a taller ceiling supported by a not-entirely-visible establishment.

  3. Well-put, and very timely—working on a labor-of-love, nothing-else-fits project at this very moment. It’s under wraps right now, which kills me, because despite being made “for me”, it’s the prospect of sharing it with the world that keeps me invested; pushing me on to the next steps…

    I will note though, that as someone who moonlights as an indie filmmaker, the barriers to film are coming down—in fact, they already are down if hopefuls are willing to divorce themselves from the notion that they need to be in or imitating Hollywood in order to “make it”. It’s still very expensive compared to Web publishing (though I suppose that’s almost everything at this point), but considering that making a movie for anything less than a million dollars was laudable only a couple of decades ago, when films of comparable quality can be achieved today for as little as $10,000, it’s much, much, more feasible, and the Web is largely responsible for that. Which is why I’m excited to have a hand in both industries.

    Keep making, my brothers and sisters…

  4. I will note though, that as someone who moonlights as an indie filmmaker, the barriers to film are coming down—in fact, they already are down if hopefuls are willing to divorce themselves from the notion that they need to be in or imitating Hollywood in order to “make it”. It’s still very expensive compared to Web publishing (though I suppose that’s almost everything at this point), but considering that making a movie for anything less than a million dollars was laudable only a couple of decades ago, when films of comparable quality can be achieved today for as little as $10,000, it’s much, much, more feasible, and the Web is largely responsible for that. Which is why I’m excited to have a hand in both industries.

    I’m glad you said that.

    Music and film are both coming down in price, thanks partly to highly capable yet affordable digital tools.

    It’s great that you function in both worlds. Keep rocking, and thanks for sharing!

  5. Hear. Hear. Louis C.K. just made a million dollars after producing his own video, editing it himself on his MacBook, and selling it WITHOUT protections like DRM:

    https://buy.louisck.net/news

    I believe this is strong evidence of how the web enables people to “make,” as you put it.

    I’ve been working on the web for nearly 15 years and one of the first things that attracted me to the medium was how it leveled the field of publishing. I was in print design and couldn’t believe how expensive it was to produce quality pieces. It was clear only those with the fattest wallets could produce high-end materials. But the web changed that, enabling anyone and everyone to publish just like big boys.

    Go, web.

  6. Good words, and great values Jeffrey.

    However, I’m also slightly disappointed too that you feel the community still needs reminding of sentiments originally thought of sixteen years ago. Were your good words and meanings lost along the way, has the community become that poor at doing things well?

  7. Nice article :) I’ve been doing that a little more myself recently and have been surprised at how things can happen that I didn’t think were possible. An article for 24 Ways; because I asked Drew if he’d be interested in one. An automated solution to serving re-scaled images in responsive designs; because I was frustrated with existing solutions. A small speaking gig in the new year; because I said yes instead of no.

    Life in general is often what you make it. You just have to remember to make it.

  8. However, I’m also slightly disappointed too that you feel the community still needs reminding of sentiments originally thought of sixteen years ago. Were your good words and meanings lost along the way, has the community become that poor at doing things well?

    Matt Robin: On the contrary, the spirit of “making stuff” is everywhere these days. But not everybody shares it. There are still people who take an unhelpfully critical view of the blogosphere instead of realizing that they’re part of it, and that vacancy they feel may be a gift, nudging them to share their passions and knowledge with the rest of us. :)

  9. Hear, hear! Thanks for the reminder about the blast from the past, “Ask Dr Web.” I loved (and love) how the lengths of your navigation labels ebbed and flowed pleasingly. :)

    Also really happy to read Hugh Guiney’s comment on film becoming more accessible, as that’s been an aspiration of mine. As web delivery of video evolves, opportunities should only get better.

    Maybe one key to happiness (and surely there are many) is to approach whatever work we do in our chosen medium(s) as art. As artists, we need no validation other than the joy of creating, and maybe just enough sustenance to be able to continue. Public recognition, publishing- or movie contracts, acceptance into some “community,” and world domination may be “nice to haves” but are not necessary to be perfectly empowered in, and competent at our crafts.

  10. Maybe one key to happiness (and surely there are many) is to approach whatever work we do in our chosen medium(s) as art. As artists, we need no validation other than the joy of creating, and maybe just enough sustenance to be able to continue.

    Trace Meek:

    By George, I think you’re on to something.

    If you’re running a startup with employees on a payroll, then you need to have a money plan.

    But if you’re creating for the joy of creating, you can just keep going. That’s what I did with zeldman.com back in the days when it was as much an entertainment site as a blog, and it’s what I did with A List Apart for over a decade before we finally figured out a way to bring in some revenue and pay a staff that didn’t conflict with our mission or our aesthetics. (I speak, of course, of The Deck.)

    I remember watching indie content sites fall by the wayside in the 1990s and again in the mid-2000s because the creators had gotten themselves in thrall to a moneyed interest, and I remember thinking, F U, quitters, I’m a keep goin’. And I did.

    And so can all of us.

  11. Great post Mr. Zeldman. My whole process changed when I read your Designing with Web Standards book and I have been very interested in your writing ever since. I have been tracking available domain names that relate to my local community and based upon this inspiring post I will forge ahead to develop it. As we get further into 2012, I think we will see location based websites developed on a more frequent basis. Thanks for your insight!

    David Martin

  12. That’s gold Jerry! GOLD! ~ Seinfeld

    I hope this doesn’t get too sentimental but your book was the catalyst that set me on this path of designing for the web. I had high aspirations for sure but then I saw the work you were producing and the amazing designs of Jason Santa Maria and thought, am I really cut out for this line of work? Am I really dedicated to this craft of making online experiences more enjoyable.

    So I took a break from the whole web thing and went back to my roots of tech and system support. It’s sometimes hard to see when your head is so far up in a dark place.

    But I’m back in the running, or journey as it is. 2011 was a little rough but 3 companies later I’ve found my place. It’s a website with a higher purpose (no don’t laugh), it’s a social website focused on helping people live healthier lives. It’s probably the most fulfilling role I’ve ever had in my career and with my first child on the way it’s that much more poignant.

    This article reminded me of a recent epiphany. After 10+ years of striving to produce award winning designs or working on high profile websites, I really just needed to make one person’s experience on a website a little easier. The biggest compliment I can receive is a person continually coming back to a site I helped build and enjoying their experience a little more then the last. It might sound small, but when that one person turns into many, things start to come into focus…

    So thank you for your book, your words, and all that you do for the community.
    May 2012 be an exciting year for us all.

  13. My message to my peers since the days of “Ask Dr Web” has always been: “you can do this! Go do it.” That is still what I say to you all – Thanks Jeffrey for always being an encouragement to us ALL – the seasoned pro’s as well as mere mortals like me, just starting out. My 2012 wishes come for the web community come from author Neil Gaiman.

    I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

    Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

    So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

    Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

    Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

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