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At Maker Faire New York, the DIY movement pushes into the mainstream

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Around 70,000 people headed to New York Maker Faire this weekend, up from 50,000 last year. They were there to see speeches on seven stages and 650 makers with projects ranging from a robotic arm that pours coffee, to a megaphone affixed with guitar pedals, to all the 3D-printed iPhone cases you could ever ask for. About 47 percent of them were estimated to be first-time attendees. Somewhere between the rocket-building how-to station and the Diet Coke and Mentos stage, a little girl was overheard saying, “Daddy, daddy, what should I make now?”

It’s impossible to deny that DIY is in. Every part of the “maker movement,” a big-tent phenomenon that covers everything from homemade jewelry to homemade drones, is booming. Maker Faire has followed the TED franchise model, and now has five “featured faires” that draw a combined audience of 80,000 and 86 additional “mini-Maker Faires” that pull in another 200,000. Make magazine, produced by the same company that puts on Maker Faire, is up to 125,000 subscribers and growing by 20 percent a year.

Outside of the Make Media empire, there’s been an explosion of crowdfunded maker projects on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. On the other end of the business spectrum, MakerBot, one of the best-known companies in the maker movement, was just bought by a public company for $604 million. TechShop, a maker coworking space that started in San Francisco in 2006, posted 798 percent revenue growth in the last three years and was just named to Inc.’s list of fastest-growing private companies. “We’re just riding the wave,” CEO Mark Hatch says. “We’re responding to the demand.”

Maker culture is about empowerment

It makes sense that making is trendy right now. Maker culture is about empowerment: makers value skill over money, building over buying, creation over consumption. The maker movement covers bicycles that generate electricity, art projects that light up when you press a button, and the enormous genre of how-to videos on YouTube. It’s in line with the eco-friendly and buy local movements, the back-to-artisanal aesthetic, and the geek worship that are also part of the post-aught zeitgeist.

But while makers may be going mainstream, the mainstream isn’t going into making.

Despite documented commercial success and seemingly nonstop praise from the press, actual participation in the maker movement remains somewhat niche. The people walking the massive grounds taken over by the Faire at the New York Hall of Science were mostly kids, parents, and the geeky early adopter slice of the population that prefers soldering to shopping. The recently acquired MakerBot is the best-known seller of DIY 3D printers in the world. And yet, just 23,000 people own MakerBots.

A Google Trends chart shows nothing for the term “maker movement” until July 2011, when the number of Google searches and news headlines started zigzagging upward.

“I think things are still in the bubbling-up stage,” MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis says of the maker movement. Hatch, CEO of TechShop, feels the same way: “We’re nowhere near mainstream.”

“We’re nowhere near mainstream.”

At least, not yet. There’s a big push around getting maker tools into classrooms, which advocates say will instill a love of making at a young age. The movement continues to get media attention and Make Media, the company behind Maker Faire and Make magazine that really united the disparate factions of DIYsters, continues to grow larger and more sophisticated. Some factions within the maker movement are also having their own moments, including 3D printing, hackerspaces, homemade drones, and farming and food-related projects, which lend further momentum to the broader phenomenon.

The movement’s champions take all this to mean that maker culture is taking over. Luminaries like Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired who now runs a DIY drone company, maintain that making your own stuff will soon be as common as buying it. “Bill Gates famously said the internet was a fad,” says Hatch. "I’m sure people think this is a fad. The internet took a while, but it’s mainstream. This will be too.”

At the same time, you get the sense that what’s happening in the maker movement isn’t really new., an open source community for farmers, is new. Steve Spence’s Arduino-powered smart garden that monitors things like soil temperature and water pH is new. But farmers have been building intricate irrigation systems since the beginning of time. Dale Dougherty, publisher of Make magazine, is the one who gave the movement its name in 2005. “I recall at the time thinking, this is a tradition, not a trend,” he says.

Photos by Dante D'Orazio.

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