For artists, writers, and other creative types, few things mean as much as a blank white page. Its emptiness serves as a frightening reminder that you have yet to create anything of value. Its indifference is something that even gifted geniuses like Roger Ebert had to learn to cope with.
But Zach Verdin, the CEO and cofounder of NewHive, views the blank page more optimistically. He sees it as an open-ended symbol of creative possibilities–a Pegasus flying out of the clouds on a sunbeam. A blank canvas is something that should be treasured, he argues, particularly in a relentless online stream of instant reblogs, retweets, and share buttons.
“Look, I love Twitter,” says Verdin, a former urban designer with shaggy hair, unflinching eye contact, and a laid-back California vibe. “But Twitter for me is, like, random quick thoughts on the subway, or when I’m hanging out with friends and want to do a quick post.” In his estimation, NewHive is designed for exactly the opposite. “NewHive for us was this blank white screen. It was this moment for pause in this constant stream of information and self-expression.”
Officially launched in February, NewHive is a bit tricky to explain, mostly because it openly defies all the conventions of the social web. For starters it’s browser-first, not mobile. And unlike Ello, which picks and chooses familiar elements from Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter and artfully decoupages them together into a sad art-school thesis, NewHive is oddly original. It places enormous value on creating content that is hard-to-categorize because it itself is hard to categorize.
If you had to, though, you might describe NewHive as a publishing platform/social network that allows anyone to create standalone web pages using simple drag-and-drop tools–animated text, music, GIFs, YouTubes, and most other embeddable media are all fair game. It’s Geocities remade for a generation weaned on Tumblr buttons.
When you first visit the site, you’ll notice that the lo-fi Lisa Frank aesthetic of its welcome page mirrors the nascent Internet of the mid ‘90s. It’s a bit like YTMND but on a cocktail of acid and steroids. Though that description is not that far off the mark, it does seem to make Verdin bristle a bit. “I think a lot of the initial response to NewHive is, ‘Oh, this is an evolved You’re The Man Now, Dog,’” he says, referring to the GIF-heavy website that was emblematic of a pre-Facebook Internet. “And this isn’t a dig, but when you start to unpack it a bit, the feedback that we’re getting is NewHive is not just a toy.”
The concept behind NewHive was hatched six years ago by cofounders Verdin, Cara Bucciferro, Abram Clark, and Andrew Sorkin, who is no longer with the company. It wasn’t until 2012, however, when the Oakland-based crew raised slightly less than $100,000 from friends and family to build out their idea of an egalitarian, easy-to-use web platform for artsy types.
Once you get past the initial sensory overload and dig a bit deeper (or maybe actually make one yourself), you begin to realize how flexible and powerful NewHive is as a tool for creating online media: blog posts, zines, photo essays, movies, mini 16-bit RPGs–you name it. Visual artists, particularly from the more clusterfucky corners of the Weird Internet like Molly Soda and Labanna Babalon, are among NewHive’s earliest adopters, and therefore its most visible talents.
But users are taking to NewHive for other reasons too. Some are exciting, like Pitchfork-endorsed industrial noise artist EMA, who uses NewHive to host audio-visual mixtapes and interactive zines for her fans. On the other end of the spectrum, college professors like Patrick Farrell at the UC Davis linguistics department are using NewHive as a serious education tool in the classroom, in much the same way one of your old instructors might have used PowerPoint, or even Blackboard to aggregate coursework.
Although the company won’t disclose exact user numbers, Verdin says it has grown steadily by approximately 15% every month since launching last winter. From the outside, it is difficult assess how big NewHive is–though it does seem to have an enduring presence on Twitter. “For people who use NewHive a lot, it’s replacing tools they used,” says Verdin, “things they’d use Adobe for. It’s replacing DreamWeaver for a lot of our users.”
When the social network Ello launched a few weeks ago, part of the appeal was a dodgy promise to never sell your user data or pester you with ads. NewHive was erected on similar principles around user privacy. According to Verdin, NewHive is very much anti advertising, at least in the traditional sense.
“We want the people who use NewHive to own their data,” Verdin wrote on one of his many NewHive pages a few weeks ago. “Instead of selling their information, we choose, instead, to make money through the tools we’ve built and what people choose to do with them. We believe in the power of our tools, as well as the artists we invest in–and that they make things that people will want to buy. That is how we plan to make money.”
Getting creatives what they deserve for their work is one of the big, lingering questions that every technology and media company is currently grappling with. Doing so without the soft cushion of banner advertising around content is a tall task for anyone. When pressed, Verdin was careful to not pin NewHive to any one specific business model. Yet he was cheerfully optimistic that he and his team could experiment their way to a solution. “Coming up with a way for people who support artists and support makers to pay these people directly is, like, a worthwhile cause,” he says. “It just boils down to: Can you create a portal through which someone who’s a fan of somebody else can pay them directly in exchange for something?”
Indeed, some NewHive users are already finding ways to make money off their work. Some are building Hives on custom domains and selling the URLs as one would sell a print or photograph. Another possible revenue stream is licensing the platform itself: NewHive is currently working with academics and professors at UC Berkeley to incorporate its publishing technology into a new infrastructure for online courses. It is set to be revealed in 2015.
While monetizing NewHive will be one of its big challenges, the one major advantage the platform has going for it is it caters specifically to the needs and wants of a generation of makers who think outside of the box–teens and twentysomethings who see no problems with commercializing their online presence. Today’s artists are more Warhol than Darger; they wanted credit, and they want to get paid. “This is the first-generation of Internet artists trying to make money off their work,” says Verdin. “If you’re a multimedia artist and you’re making money on the Internet, everything goes.”
This anything goes, why-the-hell-not mentality is part of what gives NewHive its bizarre charm, as well as its momentum. Users are openly encouraged to remix one another’s work, to add to it, to share it, and to express themselves as weirdly or traditionally as they’re comfortable with. From the outside, it seems many of NewHives most ardent disciples are doing exactly that. “For us, it’s been about building the most flexible and powerful publishing platform, and we get out of the way,” says Verdin. “For us, it’s all about the blank white screen.”