Monday, May 23, 2011

In the crowd

So much ink has been spilled about how the internet affects us.  Y'all know how I feel -- I think the opportunities afforded by online connection far outweigh the problems or potential losses involved.  One area that is not sufficiently appreciated, in my view, is the creation of crowds.

I think people understand (although may not bring to consciousness often enough) that the internet overcomes isolation and helps people find support groups.  Where you live, there might be no one else with your particular problem -- or no one willing to talk about it.  Online, you can find hundreds -- or hundreds of thousands.  Knowing you are not alone is one of the most powerful steps toward dealing in a healthy way with your challenges, whatever they may be.

But just as important, affecting just many people, is another crowd-creating phenomenon -- that of inspiration and empowerment.  I've written before about the experience of going online and finding that the activity you want to learn isn't beyond your abilities, because you can find example after example of people doing it -- people just like you.

That experience lasts well beyond the novice stage, the hurdle of learning and becoming proficient at your chosen activity.  It remains startling to me, many years on, just how big that crowd can be.  Today is Sew, Mama, Sew's Giveaway Day, a blogosphere-wide holiday for handcrafters.  Hundreds of blogs all over the world are participating; the link above is only one of three master lists of giveaways.  That may not sound impressive until you realize that almost every one of those sites are focused on providing resources for others to participate in the craft.  They host tutorials, provide patterns, and demonstrate the possibilities of the activity.  For every site in the list, there are dozens -- hundreds -- sometimes thousands of followers making things of their own.

And lest you forget that, sometimes those followers appear in a crowd, all together, all at once, their work providing vivid proof that the world is full of more people making and creating and forging their own creative, beautiful environments than you usually let yourself imagine.  Flickr pools collecting multiple versions of a certain design, or all the things people have made out of a certain material, or variations on a motif theme.  Hundreds.  Thousands.  Just in this little corner of all the things you could make, or all the materials you could use.

The internet has this power to aggregate.  And the potential of aggregation is its forceful demonstration of what is possible.  I can no longer pretend that everyone thinks this is hard, that everyone has trouble doing it, that it is a lost art.  In fact, I'm actively annoyed now when people talk to me about my knitting and imply that no one does this anymore.  Open your eyes! I want to say.  There are millions of people knitting, there are thousands of people making and selling yarn and designing patterns.  How can you miss this?  How has it not crossed your consciousness?  Are you blind?

I want to say to them: Look, I am here to prove to you that you could do this, if you chose.  But you could tell yourself, I suppose, that I'm specially talented -- different from you.  If so, please have a look at the hundreds of thousands like me who not only do this but go to the trouble of posting on the internet what they have done.  Imagine that for each of them there are a handful or a roomful or a town-full of people doing it who do not bother to post about it on the internet -- the invisible fellow travelers.  Now do you see that you have no excuse?

Go and look.  Then do.  You may become an exception in your workplace, in your neighborhood, in your suburb.  But you are not an endangered species in the world.  You are part of a massive movement.  People fear that the message of the internet is observe, comment, be above it all, be a parasite.  I disagree.  Open the right door -- the right million doors -- and the message is: Do.  As we are doing.

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