There seems to be a bit of confusion lately about the Maker Movement. As with reporting on any popular phenomena (like pop stars or smart phones), once there’s been coverage of the next big thing, the media inevitably moves on to covering how the next big thing is already doomed to die. And even while our own Maker Faire Bay Area recently enjoyed yet another blockbuster year, and crowdfunded endeavors by aspiring innovators continue to break records, we start to see headlines like this:
To be fair, the piece doesn’t make any predictions of doom-and-gloom. Rather, it contrasts the perceived popularity of the Maker Movement right now with the fact that one company, Sparkfun, which makes and sells breakout boards and electronic kits, saw only 9% growth last year after previous years of significant double-digit growth. I’d suggest that it’s unreasonable to try to find a trend in one data point from one still robustly-healthy company (let’s not fall into the trap of assuming anomalous short-term growth is realistically sustainable – I’m looking at you, Apple stock speculators) in one still wide-open and still-growing product category (1 million Raspberry Pis sold, Arduino kits showing up in RadioShack stores around the country, and other companies in the space – like Adafruit Industries – tripling year-over-year). And then it ends with this: “The big question is whether DIY becomes next decade’s yoga or instead is more like home brewing.”
Huh? What do individual pastimes like yoga and homebrewing have to with a movement?
And hence, the confusion, and the need to clear a few things up.
First, what do we mean by the DIY and Maker Movements? We think of movements as the organized action of a group of people following a common ideological or cultural path. The DIY and Maker Movements certainly fit that description. They are filled with people who want to figure out how to make or do stuff on their own, rather than purchasing pre-packaged goods or services. Are the two movements different things? I don’t think so. I think they’re two circles on a Venn diagram that overlap almost completely. Perhaps there’s a bit more art and design in the Maker Movement circle (what we might call the “Burning Man Influence”), and a bit more changing-your-car’s-oil-in-the-driveway in the DIY circle, but otherwise the passions for creating, building, and sharing are the same. The funny thing is that people have been doing this forever, but now it’s a movement. Why is that?
The answer is simple: the Internet. As the Internet has become more and more deeply embedded in our society, the ability for people with specific hobbies to connect with others who share their passions for DIY electronics, or felting Doctor Who characters, or building fire-breathing sculptures, has become easier and easier. Passionate makers find other passionate makers, they share, collaborate, create, and thrive. They come together in online and realspace communities, and big events, and show off what they’re doing. They realize there are enough people like them or enough people who like what they’re doing that perhaps they can build a small business around it, and they run crowdfunding campaigns. They succeed, and provide a model for the next maker to try something else. They show each other a path to tread.
This is about passionate hobbyists and artists, grass-roots innovators and what we used to call “mom and pop” businesses, all following a path of learning, creation, and sharing. Together they’re a movement. And a movement is not a fad.
Therein perhaps lies the problem with the GigaOm article. It confuses what it sees as a fad – the current heat around DIY electronics platforms like Arduino and Raspberry Pi – with the Maker Movement overall. Certainly, the DIY electronics fad could hit a plateau, but there is currently no evidence this is anywhere in the offing. Each generation of these products makes the barriers to entry lower and lower. The community of shared knowledge and tutoring only grows, allowing more people into the fold, even while the tools become more sophisticated and allow people to do more. The current generation of products may mature, but there’s still huge room for innovation and finding new fans and new markets in the space. There is a path.
But, to reiterate, DIY electronic platforms like Arduino and Raspberry Pi are not the Maker Movement. They’re a small (but passionate) subset of it, yes, but not the whole, just as yoga is not all exercise. They are however the perfect example of hobbies that followed a path into ongoing popularity not unlike what many Maker hobbies have done. Our own Dale Dougherty recently described how the growth of the popularity of marathoning has followed a typically Maker path: as more people interested in the activity found each other, the more outlets for participation grew; the community was open and inclusive; people were happy to share knowledge and help each other improve. There are thousands of hobbies that fit under the Maker umbrella, and each one is a potential yoga, a potential marathon, if they follow the Maker path, join the Maker Movement.
There will always be fads, some of which are hot for a while, and then die; some of which grow, and then find an ongoing maturity; and some of which take hold and become rooted in our culture. But the Maker Movement has arisen to give voice and encouragement to all of them; to give their participants a sense of belonging to a larger spirit of building and sharing the things they’re passionate about, and expressing themselves through the things they create.
That’s not a fad that will fade away; that’s a path for a fulfilling life.