Do it yourself, or DIY, has been part of the American cultural landscape since the 1950s. Based on an individualistic concept with its roots in the very pragmatic (and no doubt ancient) “I can do this myself and save some money” approach, applied initially to home improvement projects, the term rapidly expanded into other domains.
In the 60s and 70s, “DIY” became increasingly self-expressive, embodying a declaration of cultural independence. A few examples among many include making one’s own definitive statement in the worlds of fashion or music, which blended and collided, sparking further surges of creativity. With the advent of the Internet and web-based technologies, both flavors of DIY (the pragmatic as well as the expressive) have grown exponentially.
The long ascent from print to WWW
When “DIY” finally reached the world of publishing technology, it was actually the natural culmination of a very long trend. For centuries prior, document and image publishing had long been experiencing a steady but gradual rise towards enabling the creativity and independence central to the DIY spirit. A technological watershed moment came with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440. This rather simple device revolutionized content distribution, by liberating the printed word from the hand-written norms of the Middle Ages, via the first machine-driven mass distribution model for ideas and images that the world had ever seen.
Nonetheless, for centuries it remained nearly impossible for an average person to publish on their own, at least without the benefit of substantial wealth or personal influence. Self-publishing gradually became easier during the industrial revolution of the 19th century, although it remained tied to a highly centralized distribution model based on type, ink and paper.
“DIY” finally truly applied to publishing in the 1980s, when the hardware (Macintosh personal computer and the Apple Laser Writer printer) met the software (Adobe PostScript and Aldus PageMaker): this combination empowered very small organizations, even individuals, to produce output of quality comparable to that previously reserved for traditional, large-scale commercial printers.
And the nail in the coffin of centralized content was driven home by the World Wide Web. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee of CERN proposed an infrastructure that has since made DIY content creation an everyday reality for millions. In his original paper, you’ll read how he envisioned every individual becoming their own publisher, and contributing to a shared, global and ever-expanding network of information.
For the time, this was a radical concept, and at first the web grew in familiar patterns, largely following the distribution methodologies universally familiar at the time. This meant imitating, often unconsciously, centralized models such as television stations, publishing houses, and newspapers. Unsurprisingly, many early web sites were effectively online brochures or catalogs, in similar fashion to the 3 main TV channels delivering one-way content. It took time for this new medium to live up to Berners-Lee’s pioneering vision, empowering individuals as never before. Things did evolve, though, and rapidly: the term “Blogging” was coined in 1997, and social media’s reach grew dramatically during the early 2000s.
Today, every possible form of DIY content is omnipresent and ubiquitous. YouTube is a prime example, where there are not only millions of videos on home improvement and every other conceivable task or creative outlet available, but this medium’s extremely powerful self-expression is now open to anyone with a modern smartphone and an Internet connection.
This new wave of content creators are commonly reaching audiences larger than those once enjoyed exclusively by television networks, while traditional newspapers and magazines struggle for relevance in a transformed and globalized creative landscape. Perhaps the playing field has been more than leveled, as popular Tik Tok personalities seem to easily grab the spotlight in a way that would make a media executive green with envy.
As we embraced this new reality during the past decade, DIY content surged into dominance along the way, and it is rather unlikely that humanity will look back with anything more than a fond nostalgia, when remembering those now-distant days of strict content centralization.
See DIY in the context of online editing in our webinar “Four Trends in 2021 for Editing Creative Online.”
“DIY or Die” logo used by permission of Jonee Earthquake Band.