The rise of Maker Culture and the leadership role of O'Reilly

Inspired by my previous blog about the Lastwear open clothing company, I decided it is again time to take the pulse on how open source is spreading outside of the software world. The last time I did this was in 2008, where I concluded:

The Open Design movement (apart perhaps, from the Open Hardware part) is still very much in its infancy. [...] If we compare with early Open Source development, I'm missing strong and well known leaders, I miss something like a "distribution" where I could easily find and use "products" of Open Design, etc... Perhaps one reason is that you can obviously design anything openly and therefore those who share open designs for clothing would be different than those that design solar cells and agricultural tools for 3rd world countries, so it is actually not one community and one leader we are looking for here.

In 2008 I did ask around some friends active in Open Design circles to get the pulse on what was happening. Samuel Rose did propose that a certain Make magazine was becoming a hub for the Open Design movement. I looked at the website and wasn't impressed. A magazine about hobby crafts... not really comparable to Linux. Indeed I didn't even mention it in my 2008 outlook.

It turns out I was wrong! I didn't realize that Make Magazine is published by O'Reilly, co-inventor and popularizer of the term open source itself. I can now clearly see a movement, with a leader providing a focal point and direction, and indeed the term Maker Culture gets used more and more for what was previously known as Open Design. So here's what it's all about.

The Make enterprise is run by Dale Dougherty, a long time "right hand man" to Tim O'Reilly. He is a co-founder of O'Reilly Media, known as inventor of the term Web2.0 and many other things of O'Reilly fame, such as launching the first commercial website in the world. Apparently the pitch to start the Make magazine and related activities was: "I believe there is an opportunity for something like Martha Stewart for geeks".

It makes you smile a little, but it's an appropriate way of describing what Make and Maker Culture is about. Programming is not primarily about software licenses, similarly Maker Culture is not about the "Openness" of the design rather than just enjoying the ability to create things with your own hands, and share that with the world. I have a similar observation about Creative Commons vs Youtube, which I will share in my next blog post.

In what could become a "Wikipedia of Maker projects", there is also the wiki, where anyone can share blueprints and advice on how to create delicious barbeques, robots or invisible ink. Here I cannot resist to also give a recommendation: I notice the projects are all licensed as Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. This isn't a big deal, as the license is only for copying the text and pictures of the instructions, it has no effect on whatever it is you are building (unlike software). The NonCommercial restriction is not something found in open source licenses and while I understand its role in the spectrum of Creative Commons licenses, it would be nice if there at least was an option to use the Creative Commons variants without the NonCommercial option. For that matter, I'm not even sure if itself qualifies as a non-commercial site!

Taking a page out of what O'Reilly has done with many open source communities, there are "conferences", known as Maker Faires. And get this, reportedly the Detroit 2010 Maker Faire had 20 000 attendees! This is about 10 times more than what you see at O'Reillys open source or web related conferences. Of course, the hobbyists and families coming to a Maker Faire don't pay the 4 digit entrance fee of IT conferences, but even so, it is obvious that the target audience to tap into in Maker Culture must be more than an order of magnitude larger. For instance, I'm really excited to follow Dale's Twitter feed to learn what Maker Culture can do in Africa or China!

O'Reilly has done financially well in serving as a catalyst and even a leader of many open source communities and just open source in general - one can only wish them well now that they are on a mission to bring the same joy of sharing to the masses. May O'Reilly live long and prosper.

If you're interested to learn more about Make magazine and the rise of Maker Culture, I recommend the following links. Especially the video interview with Dale Dougherty is worth watching for soundbytes such as:

[On safety and educating children, they ask] How does a rocket work? And we throw a textbook at them. It's just not the same thing. [ actually building one.]

Dale also speaks about their engagement with Ford (headquartered in Detroit) and how Ford is also starting to see... as a technology platform. There might be an app store for your car...

Press Here TV interview with Dale Dougherty and Make: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Make magazine, Make blogs and Make Projects wiki.

Maker Faire and the most recent Maker Faire Detroit 2010. Blog coverage by BoingBoing and WEC Institute.

And last but not least: Dale Dougherty's Twitter feed.

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