Most of us take the web and websites for granted: we rarely think about the costs associated with setting up, running, and updating servers, or ensuring that the pages we visit will work reliably and safely. These are costly operations and the more users a web service has the higher the costs. It’s fairly safe to assume that if Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit charged users even a fraction of their costs they would have been unable to become the giants they are. Unlike in the real world, we have come to expect information and services on the Internet to be free. For most for-profit businesses this leaves little alternatives for profit outside of advertising. I don’t want to comment on the ethics, legality or impact on privacy and society that such advertising has. We know it’s pervasive and with the marriage of ever-improving algorithms and more time spent online, it will probably continue to become even more so. But advertising is one of only three ways (that I can think of) to make money on the Internet. The second is, of course, selling something whether it be e-commerce or a SAAS or anything else that individuals and companies are willing to pay for. The last way is the traditional non-profit model, however, it no longer powers charities and churches. It’s proven to be the most lucrative and the most viable.
Think about the last time Wikipedia adorned their header with a fundraising banner. If you’re anything like me you’ve probably closed that modal about a dozen times over the years without thinking twice. Yet, I use Wikipedia almost daily and have for years and they have never served me an ad or enforced a pricey subscription fee. We all use Wikipedia, don’t even try and deny it. What about Khan Academy? What about other non-profits that you may not think of? The Apache Foundation? Linux? Mozilla?
For at least 10 years I’ve used an FTP client called Cyberduck to maintain my website, every time you exit the application it asks for a one-time donation. I must have closed it hundreds of times without ever giving. About two years ago I bit the bullet and actually donated about $50 to Cyberduck, as a student it felt like a lot but I wanted to give back to a program that had given me so much. However great the sacrifice of $50 felt at the time, considering how long I’d been using the software it equated to a subscription fee of $5 a year! Not such a big sacrifice when you put it that way especially considering David V. Kocher and Yves Langisch probably spend more than 10 minutes a year maintaining Cyberduck.
This innovative model extends beyond just services and software products it is also applied to the content. More and more I’m seeing YouTube channels featuring a link to their Patreon accounts and why not? Making videos takes time and resources and making really good videos takes more time and more resources. If you really a channel’s content and are a regular viewer consider giving the creators a bit of compensation especially if they’re not big enough yet to be making a lot of money as YouTube partners.
I’m not saying that advertising is wrong or a bad model only that there are alternatives. One alternative is funded by your generosity, without which the lake of alternatives grows ever and ever drier. So this week give a few dollars to a non-profit website or service you use regularly and make it a monthly habit.
Good artist copy, great artists steal.
This is an oft-quoted saying, perhaps originally coined by Pablo Picasso but it’s hard to say since I’m willing to bet he stole it. But it’s not just a humorous saying, what Picasso was getting at is deadly serious. (In this post I’m going to talk a lot about art specifically but these principles can be applied broadly to any field where you create something, baking, software engineering, or laying bricks).
Within each of us, I think there is an inherent drive to create something new, to do things that no one has done before, or to take something that exists and twist it into something that did not exist before and is arguably better. This is not only the basis for creative expression but all progression generally. So, naturally, when seeking to exercise whatever creative instincts we have been gifted with we generally want to create something new, original and wholly our own. Today, I’d like to make a slight argument against this; this week take a work you admire and copy it 100%.
Seriously, lift someone else’s art, music or design this week. I’m not saying you should sell it, distribute it, or claim it as your own, that’s highly unethical. But I am saying that you should copy someone else’s work for your own personal education. You can burn if afterwards if you wish because the value of this exercise is in the creation process, not the final product.
I think it would be difficult to become a great artist in a vacuum, there is just too much to discover without help, I’m confident that any living artist would not be remotely as good as they are without generations of influences behind them. But studying the masters of art will only get you so far. From an artistic perspective, there is no substitute for putting pencil to paper and copying someone you admire. You will learn things that you could not have otherwise known from even the motion of your hand as you sketch.
Your results won’t be of much value to the world, selling them or passing them off as your own would be plagiarism. Even your most of your friends will look at your masterpiece and say, “Hey cool, but I like Turner’s better”. But that’s not the point. You’re not making this for the world. If you’re serious about your craft and you actually want to progress rather than remain stagnant it’s worth putting in a few hours a month to copy a work you like and in the process you may even teach yourself (without an expensive online class) some of the very techniques that the master originally used in creating the work.
Copying something will help you to familiarise yourself with the conventions of a genre. For example, I’ve long been fascinated by the advertising of the 1920s and 1930s. For example, the beautiful Grand Prix posters created by French illustrator Robert Falcucci. As much as I love this style, I couldn’t possibly create an ad like this, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Largely, because I just don’t know the conventions of the era. These designers, illustrators, and printers were constrained by numerous factors, from the medium they used, to the cost of the commission; even what society considered to be an “acceptable ad” was a constraint. I have no idea about any of those things but by attempting to recreate my favourite ads from the time I have learned to see the world a little bit more like those who were originally creating these beautiful ads. By so doing I have in a small way become like those designers and am now slightly more capable something original in that same style.
So if you admire something but it boggles your mind, spend some time this week copying it. You won’t realise it at first but next time you sit down to create an original work you may well have, inadvertently, “stolen” a little of a great artist’s technique.
Below is my attempt at Robert Falcucci’s masterpiece as viewed by an iPhone.
The original Falcucci poster was taken from Benjamin’s Flickr account and is under Creative Commons Licence.