Origins of Social Media Chapter 1: Props to DIY

bombadil —  April 28, 2012 — 2 Comments


Thirst for recognition and self-expression has arguably always been present in our societies. What is new, however, is the sense that anyone, really anyone, has the right and the means to put their content out to an audience that goes well beyond their direct peers.

In this exploration of social media origins, I’m digging into Do It Yourself (DIY) cultural production, a practice that came up from the streets to become one of the defining drivers of Web 2.0 as we know it today. Before blogs, vlogs, google sketch and all the other doodads designed to channel our creativity online, people were cutting, pasting and spraypainting their hearts out because, goshdarnit, they too had something to share with the world and no one was going to stop them!

Many good studies of DIY culture exist. Here is a link to one that is well reviewed. To summarize, it is the anti-consumerist extension of Punk culture in the 70s that encouraged people to make their own cultural products, however rough the outcome might be. Punks after all, started bands in garages, made their own fashion accessories and were the first to print and post their own gig posters on city streets. Now consider the examples I present below. I think it can be argued that these DIY offshoots are all root sources of the the structure that drives today’s social web.

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Remember ‘zines’? Those rough and dirty, sometimes beautiful, photocopied collage booklets of image and text, put together by students, punks and poets alike? In the 90’s, output of this medium reached a kind of fever pitch, and this was well before personal blogs had emerged as an option.

What made ‘zines suddenly proliferate? After all, people  had access to paper and scissors for decades before. Why did this low-rent self-publishing take off in the 90s? Well, for one thing, DIY culture had slowly made its way up the ladder from subculture to youth culture. Zine authority Hal Niedzviecki, a fellow Canadian, wrote a compelling analysis of the phenomenon that attributed the zine explosion to a widespread personal quest for fame and recognition and a new sense of cultural entitlement. In other words, more and more youth had decided that, rather than waiting for the entertainment and media industry to give them a break, they were going to seize the means of production and make it happen for themselves.

And what about stencils, tags and the like? Surely some of the better renderings of street art have caught your eye… Back in the 70s and 80s, these forms of expression were still highly marginalized and appreciated only by members of specific subcultures (and not at all by authorities and cultural elites). Well, these art forms have come a long way. Today, as Banksy has shown, it is possible to gain fame and respect for what is still a mostly illegal activity. What’s more, tagging has become regular practice for many teens in hip hop culture, and we’re talking about thousands of suburbanites who grow up learning that creating art is not only for ponces.

I could go on here to explore guerilla knitters and the modern craft movement, the techies and their ‘maker’ movement… Honestly, there are more ways that DIY culture has shaped today’s niches than I can track! What brings it all together, finally, is the rising sense of augmented autonomy and self-empowerment that is transforming larger swaths of society from consumers to consumer/producers.

And now, let’s go back to online culture. What DIY had already spawned offline, this wider craving for self-expression, for a chance at micro-stardom, or simply to fully control and personalize our artistic experience, is this not the force that drives the unbelievable profusion of personal blog posts,  amateur videos and other forms of content that make the social web such a compelling space?

In fact, some of the most vibrant social networks are direct manifestations of DIY activity that have been facilitated and accelerated by technology. Many blogs and vlogs closely follow conventions of the zine format. The Etsy marketplace is DIY craft meeting the online commerce model and likewise, sites such as Threadless, turn a community of amateur t-shirt designers into a thriving business model.

Still, not everyone has dropped the photocopied word for digital. Montreal’s Expozine, a yearly zinemakers’ convention, has grown to massive proportions in the year’s since it’s launch. If you’re in town in the fall, come and check it out. You will blown away by the amount of  titles and activity!

And so, to rest my case, allow me to restate that the Web 2.o was shaped by the cultural forces, namely youth culture, around which it arose. This culture was already thirsty for new forms of expression that would allow individuals to express themselves, quickly and cheaply, to larger audiences, just as they were doing already with DIY media. This strong current, in turn, gave blogs and other personal publishing media the right stuff for quick takeoff.

When you next  hear someone question whether User Generated Content is just a fad, you can shake your head knowingly and say “Dude, look up DIY on the World-Wide-Web!…where have you been the last 30 years?”


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  • lokidesign

    Great post Tom!

    To add to your argument, beyond the DIY drive for self-expression, I think it’s important to also look at the history of underground publishing, and how it created independent communities of interest (be they political, cultural, or informational).  This could be traced back to the Samizdat (anti-state) publishing in Russia at the turn of the last century. These were in essence network based models of exchange.

    Also important to note that one of the first massively popular blogs Boing-boing started out as a zine.

    • TomLiacas

       Hey Kevin, thanks for the additional refs and nuances. You’re right, if we keep digging, social media culture can trace lineage all the way back to all movements giving more power and agency to individuals and, as a result, social movements. That is probably the disturbing truth of the medium for existing powers… let me stop at that for now lest my day job be threatened…