Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How the Web Changed Knitting (and knitting changed the world)

The explosive growth of the crafting community in the last half-decade has reshaped the public face of leisure time and creativity. Suddenly it is impossible to be unaware that millions of people are making -- and inventing, and designing, and customizing -- their own clothes, art, computers, clocks, bags, jewelry, books, food, vehicles, and anything else you can think of.

My own participation in the knitting community leads me to think about how Web 2.0 has catalyzed this revolution, and then provided a platform from which the revolution changes the physical world. Consider:
  • The predominant way knitting information was distributed pre-2000 was through books and magazines -- traditional print media. Magazines could be bought on newsstands, purchased at LYSes (local yarn stores), or received via subscription. Books were heavily dependent on knitting magazines, in which they are advertised and reviewed, and with which they often shared a publisher. The only way to measure the size of the knitting community was through sales of these physical objects.

  • Online knitting "magazines" started to appear in the early 2000's. These sites solicited design submissions from the general public, and published them for free (supported by advertising). These sources of free patterns, presented with editorial and quality control, quickly became overwhelmingly popular among a young, "wired" group of knitters that had not been previously recognized as a large segment of the knitting population.

  • At the same time, internet knitting businesses came into existence, selling yarn, supplies, designs, and traditional knitting media. Some of these businesses were internet extensions of brick-and-mortar shops and LYSes; but a new breed of internet-only, mail-order-only knitting businesses emerged in the early 2000s. All these businesses formed a natural pool of advertisers for the online knitting magazines.

  • The availability of designs and supplies online freed knitters from their LYSes and other b&m craft stores in their local areas. This made it possible for more people in more places to become knitters -- all the materials could be mail-ordered or accessed online. The online businesses grew and offered larger selections. Two of the largest internet-only businesses started their own yarn labels, offering highly affordable yarn in a range of popular natural fibers and weights. LYSes with online stores made it possible for any buyer to get high-quality brand name yarns. Getting knitting supplies online increasingly involved no compromise in terms of availability, selection, quality, or price. In fact, the range of materials available from online businesses quickly exceeded that in even the most well-stocked b&m outlet.

  • Online knitting communities began as Usenet groups and listservs, evolved into bulletin boards, and then into forums and boards conceived as adjuncts to the online magazines and stores. These communities not only allowed knitters to share information and built brand loyalty, but they also made the scale of the on- and offline knitting community visible in a staggering way., the first custom-built knitting online community, signed up 100,000 subscribers in its first eight months, and continues to attract 500 new members a day while still in its beta period. Its elegant design and integration of community tools with personal organization and social networking functions attracted the notice of web design and usability writers, and its sheer scale earned mention in the mainstream media's "hey, what's with all the knitters all of a sudden?" stories.

  • One result of this web-catalyzed growth is that new knitters and previously-offline knitters are more quickly and thoroughly integrated into the knitting community than had ever been possible before. Help, suggestions, advice, and inspiration is available 24 hours a day. The eternal question "what do I knit next?" now has a universe of answers only limited by one's remaining lifespan, and any conceivable material is available to order online. It seems logical to conclude that more people are being motivated to try knitting because of this visibility and availability, and that a smaller percentage of those novices end up being unable to sustain their interest because of lack of support, paucity of supply, or lack of information. In other words, the Web 2.0 platform for the community means that the community grows in a more rapid and sustainable fashion.

  • Another, perhaps less intuitive result is that traditional media are made more viable, not less, by this online growth. Patterns in magazines and books are now "advertised" by being included in the online pattern library of Ravelry; those who are attracted to them seek out the magazine or book that includes them. Every new print-media release generates online discussion that exposes more community members to the ink-on-paper content. Designers and books have fan groups and knit-alongs devoted to them. And of course, magazines and books are advertised directly by their publishers on these websites, sold through online knitting businesses, and reviewed by podcasters and bloggers. The penetration of traditional media into the much larger and much more diverse knitting community that has been revealed and nurtured by Web 2.0 applications is far more thorough than could have been achieved previously.

  • And finally, the boomerang effect of all this online activity is the creation of real objects: knitted items from scarves to sweaters to DNA models to laptop covers. Fifteen years ago, most would have considered handmade objects to be endangered artifacts in an increasingly digital world. Instead, there are more of these handcrafted items in the world today than there would have been without the internet, and likely many more per capita than there were in any pre-internet boom period -- I'd estimate by a factor of ten to fifty or more. Of course real people have employment with real money in online-dependent businesses that make and ship real products, and real books have been written and bought and read because the internet made some knitbloggers stars, and so on in all the usual ways that the online world catalyzes real-world activity. But this is an example of Web 2.0 unleashing the power of the individual to create and therefore modify his particular environment. In larger terms, the proliferation of creative examples means that "designer" and "inventor" are no longer labels reserved for the few -- everyone can be a "maker." This movement has empowered thousands upon thousands to create and invent, then to share their knowledge with others which in turn sets off a new round of creation and invention. Informal social pressure creates a kind of healthy online competition to present and photograph one's work beautifully, and to document the process of making thoroughly and helpfully. This builds and enriches the resources to which the community can refer for help or inspiration.

  • As a result, the world at large becomes newly aware that the "good old days" of craft, creativity, care, and the handmade are far from gone (as anti-digital forces used to take pleasure in lamenting). In fact, they are experiencing a renaissance and robust growth such as never has been seen before -- a proliferation of expertise, skill, and creativity that would never have been possible before the Internet.

  • The one question mark in this story of mutual advancement and rising-tide-lifting-all-boats is the fate of the LYS. When supplies are available more readily and more cheaply and in greater variety online, what chance do these small businesses have? Many have prospered by offering their wares for sale online. Many have rethought their business model, offering a bookstore/coffeehouse atmosphere for socializing and classes for person-to-person learning. Many emphasize the personal touch -- expertise, advice, and services not available through an internet business. These are all strategies that have helped some categories of b&m retail survive and even thrive in the internet age. It remains to be seen whether the business model of the local yarn store will be viable longterm in the new environment. One positive sign is that the informal word-of-mouth network that has always been the best (and cheapest) form of advertising for retailers works better than ever now over the internet; knitbloggers frequently extol the LYSes they patronize or visit on their travels, spreading the word about the business and even creating "destinations" out of some famous LYses.
Knitting is better, healthier, more diverse, and more sustainable into the future because of the Internet. The same could be said for crochet, woodworking, gardening, sewing ... a universe of the handmade. I doubt anyone could have foreseen the rich symbiosis that has developed between the impulse to make physical objects and participation in virtual worlds. But what a wonderful -- and hopeful, and fruitful -- surprise.

1 comment:

the secret knitter said...

Since knitting is tactile, I think the LYS isn't as doomed as, say, the independent record store. It's nice to be able to order anything online, but being able to see and feel the yarn matters too. Still, I'm guessing that profit margins are tight for brick and mortar shops.

You touch upon the virtual communities, but it shouldn't be overlooked that knitting on the web also brings people together in real life. There's a social element to it, even if the craft seems like something solitary.