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Maker Faire Founder Dale Dougherty On The Past, Present, And Online Future Of The Maker Movement

What started a decade ago as an influential magazine–and became a beloved global series of events–is about to become a new social network.

Maker Faire Founder Dale Dougherty On The Past, Present, And Online Future Of The Maker Movement
[Photo: Flickr user Mitch Altman]

“More than mere consumers of technology, we are makers, adapting technology to our needs and integrating it into our lives. Some of us are born makers and others, like me, become makers almost without realizing it.”

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With those words, technology writer Dale Dougherty opened his column in the premiere issue of Make magazine, dated February 2005. As its contents indicated, the new publication was aimed at the sort of hands-on technologists who might hitch a disposable Kodak film camera to a kite. Or crack open an iPAQ PDA to replace its battery. Or whip up a hydra-headed networking cable with five connectors on one end.

Maker Media founder Dale Dougherty at the company’s San Francisco test lab

In his column, Dougherty was articulating his publication’s mission, as the editor of every new magazine does. But it turned out that he was also coining a term—maker—and creating a manifesto for a movement that has evolved in ways that nobody could have guessed with any precision. In the April/May 2015 issue of Make, for instance, that ethos is reflected in stories on 3-D-printing a quadcopter, cloning a fig, and constructing a Raspberry Pi-powered spy camera small enough for your cat to wear.

In short, Dougherty’s 2005 vision proved to be, well, visionary. It now encompasses an array of thriving hobbies, platforms, educational efforts, and businesses, from Raspberry Pi to MakerBots to Arduino microcontrollers and beyond. People who have never seen a copy of Make, including millions of kids, are pursuing activities imbued by its spirit.

That wasn’t exactly Dougherty’s plan. “I had this sense that doing things physically was going to be interesting,” he concedes. But he’s also quick to point out that there were makers long before he named and championed them, pointing to institutions such as Popular Science magazine (established in 1872) as evidence.

Emily Coker of the Make staff shows off an LED-enhanced bracelet project she’s working on.

Still, without Dougherty’s rallying cry, there might not have been any obvious overarching notion linking topics as disparate as robotics, 3-D photography, and leathercraft. Make, he says, “took a lot of things that would otherwise be separate, and said they belong together.”

As the idea took off, it quickly burst off the pages of the magazine. The first Maker Faire—a gathering of makers young and old—took place in the San Francisco Bay Area in April 2006. Hundreds of such events have since taken place all over the world; a million people are expected to attend them in 2015.

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Now Dougherty and his team at Maker Media are getting ready to launch MakerSpace, a new website that’s yet another manifestation of the idea Dougherty first spelled out in the first issue of Make. I took the 10th anniversary of Make and the announcement of MakerSpace as an opportunity to reflect on the maker movement’s past, present, and future with Dougherty and Gregg Brockway, who cofounded travel sites Hotwire and TripIt before joining Maker Media as CEO in October of last year.

“Martha Stewart For Geeks”

For its first eight years, Make was part of O’Reilly, the venerable tech media company. Dougherty, a longtime collaborator of founder Tim O’Reilly, had a pretty dazzling track record for identifying and helping to popularize the next big thing: In pre-Make days, he started the first commercial website and gave a name to the phenomenon that became universally known as “Web 2.0.”

With that background, you might have expected Dougherty to launch Make as a website. Instead, he wanted it to be physical. “The magazine as a tangible object kind of expressed what making was about,” he says.

The magazine started as a proposal Dougherty made during a cab ride in Portland, Oregon, for a magazine he pitched as “Martha Stewart for geeks.” “Tim was just indulgent, you might say,” Dougherty recalls. “He said, ‘Go ahead, try it.’ I was able to do it as an experiment. We’d never done a magazine. We just dove in.”

At a time when tech magazines were collapsing in droves, Make debuted with an issue that was as much book as magazine: 200 meaty pages, few ads, and a $15 cover price. “I didn’t think there were any advertisers, really, when we started, so we had to use that model,” Dougherty explains.

Make‘s debut issue, February 2005

Though the term maker would come to exude positive vibes–it conveys a sense of curiosity, adventure, and intellectual engagement far beyond anything you get from, say, playing Flappy Bird–Dougherty coined it because he needed an intentionally vague way to describe his new publication’s customers. “We’re not going to call them readers or users, but makers,” he says, recalling his thought process. “It was just a fairly neutral term that could mean lots of things. I still like it for that purpose.”

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Soon, he found that makers were everywhere. “When I began telling people about it, they began telling me what they did. Or they’d say, ‘This is what my brother does.'”

As Dougherty found that there were makers everywhere, he began formulating plans for the Maker Faire. “I was meeting really interesting [makers] who I would not otherwise meet,” Dougherty recalls. “I thought other people would enjoy meeting them.”

Twenty-two thousand people showed up for the first Maker Faire, which took place at a fairgrounds in the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo in 2006. A year later, there were two Faires attended by 66,000 folks. By 2014, there were 135 Faires around the world, attracting a total of 781,000 makers. The three biggest shows–the Bay Area, New York, and Rome–hosted 280,000 attendees total in 2014. But these days, anyone can apply for a license to organize a local Mini Maker Faire. And from Edinburgh to Jerusalem to Bogotá , people everywhere are.

Bruce Shapiro’s programmable Etch-a-Sketch at the first Maker Faire in 2006Photo: Flickr user Ian R

“We wanted it to be fun, interactive, and surprising to people,” says Dougherty of the original Maker Faire concept, which its website calls “part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new.” “But the core of it was to look a maker in the eye and ask, ‘What is this?'” Nine years later, that’s still what the Faires are about.

One of the most striking things about Maker Faires is that they attract attendees of all ages and serve as a bonding experience for parents and children. “From the beginning, we were pretty intentional about it being family-oriented,” Dougherty says. “I didn’t want to just have a geek convention. That’s why we called it a Faire.”

New Digs, New Dreams

By 2013, when O’Reilly spun it off into an independent company called Maker Media, Dougherty’s concept had blossomed into a business that included Make magazine and dozens of Make how-to books; the Maker Faires and a business-to-business event called MakerCon; Maker Camp, an educational program operated in partnership with Google; and Maker Shed, an e-commerce site that sells everything from $10 hovercraft kits to $2,500 3-D printers. Operations continued at O’Reilly’s Sonoma County campus until February of this year, when Dougherty and company made a 50-mile southward trek over the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco.

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The new business operations are in Levi’s Plaza, but the company’s showplace is Maker Media Labs, located in the exhibition center of the Palace of Fine Arts, a San Francisco landmark built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (and as an unofficial celebration of the city’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake). In recent decades, it’s been occupied by the Exploratorium–a museum, now relocated to a historic pier, that itself embodies a let’s-try-it approach to science and technology. Looking more like a workshop than an editorial office, the space is crammed with gadgetry such as 3-D printers, computer-controlled routers, and sewing machines. It also has room for public events such as MakerCon, which will be held immediately before the next Bay Area Maker Faire in May.

Make lab manager Marty Marfin with a vintage piece of maker gear

Anyone who’s attended the bursting-at-the-seams flagship Bay Area Maker Faire in recent years can attest to the fact that even the largest-scale real-world event can’t cover the movement in its entirety. In fact, many people who apply to have their projects featured at a Faire must be turned down simply for lack of space.

And exhilarating though a Maker Faire can be, it’s a fleeting experience. “There is this really passionate, powerful community surrounding the business,” says Maker Media CEO Gregg Brockway. “You see it most tangibly at Maker Faire, where you have all these different communities coming together. For most people, that’s a one- to two-day thing every year, and then they go away and we don’t really talk to them until the next Maker Faire.”

At work in Maker Media Labs

That’s where MakerSpace comes in. The most ambitious web-based manifestation of Dougherty’s maker vision so far, it’s a social network designed to let makers share their projects with words, images, and videos. Other members can browse projects, find ones that spark their creativity, and comment on them.

MakerSpace has been operating in a quiet, private beta with a small number of users. The company plans to expand it gradually, in part by letting in Maker Faire attendees. The site will open up to the general public when it’s ready, and will be free. “Our mission is to inspire and develop more makers,” says Brockway. And the more makers there are, the more people there are who might subscribe to Make, buy a Make book, attend a Maker Faire, or purchase equipment from Maker Shed.

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With Brockway as Maker Media’s CEO, Dougherty serves as executive chairman, a gig that gives him leeway to continue spreading the word about the maker community and thinking about its future, as he’s done for a decade. A month before we chatted, he’d attended a Maker Faire in Cairo, the first one held in an Arabic-speaking country.

“Things are kind of complex,” he tells me by way of explaining what motivates him. “We can either ignore them or engage with them and make them work for us.” When the magazine was new, he says, some people told him that the concept might not supply an adequate number of projects to keep the publication in business. A decade later, it’s clear that it’s a never-ending mission—and that makers will continue to make technology work in delightfully unpredictable ways.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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