So what is this "Quest For Paid Work"?

I’ve been doing a series of interviews for Edgerydersa joint project of the Council of Europe and the European Commission, led by the Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division at the Council of Europe. I’ve been investigating how people make a living on the edge, or if they do at all – very pertinent (and personal). Here’s what I was working on:

How can people make a living on the edge as technologies change quicker than regulations and new business models disrupt old standards? While young (and not so young) people are defining a new society through their networked interactions and processes, often the obstacles to their ability to make a living are bureaucratic or outdated ways of doing.

The Edgeryders platform is organised through a series of “campaigns”  linked to specific areas of the work of the Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division. These campaigns are made up of “mission reports” written by members of the community which are then studied by ethnographers working on the project. The Quest For Paid Work is part of the Making A Living campaign which examines issues around employment.

My brief was to identify people who have experience in the area and share their stories with the wider community, looking for common methodologies, tools and tactics. The people spoke for themselves in the videos and I did summaries of the interviews in language appropriate to the members of the community who mostly have English as a second or third tongue. The videos were not meant to be professional quality but rather quick & dirty, using the resources and bandwidth available, to capture the reality of how technology is used (and sometimes fails). All the videos are in this playlist below and you can read all of my posts here.

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More Male! ((Making a) Living on the Edge)

I’m enjoying talking to people about how they (try to) make a living creatively. Recently I talked to Susanne Stauch, a product designer & goldsmith who has a diploma in collaborative product design and has studied mass customisation & open source. I’m working with her and Nadia on something called Cookies’n’Code which is all about “hacking” your life – more on this to follow, so watch this space…

The always inspiring Jon Bounds needs no introduction to anyone who’s been around cataspanglish – my chat with him for the series enabled us to get down and dirty in depth about what he’s been up to for the last few years and talk Conversational Psychogeography, Networks, Strong vs Weak Ties, creativity & cash.

Here’s the video of Susa and part 1 of 4 with Jon. To see the whole kit and caboodle head over to Susa on (Making a) Living on the Edge and Jon on (Making a) Living on the Edge

THE QUEST FOR PAID WORK: (MAKING A) LIVING ON THE EDGE: JON BOUNDS

Another Edgeryders post:

Jon Bounds is without doubt one of the most creative people I have ever met. Any conversation with him throws up more concepts than you could work through in a lifetime and I’m lucky to have participated in his pantomimes performed on Twitter and sat alongside him as he’s carried out real time sentiment analysis for Civico, a company that is largely based around another of his ideas. He’s bloody hilarious too 😉

I talked to him about the issues of making a living from his own work in this skype conversation.

Jon has been working, doing anything that anyone will pay him for on the internet for about 5 or 6 years. He did a computer science degree, but decided that he didn’t like computers in the time just pre-internet – internet was on campus only as research tool and he was not taught anything about it. He became unemployed, played in bands and then did a government funded journalism course and tried writing for a living, discovered that he could do it but didn’t have the discipline to fill x number of pages a day. After that he did freelance work and worked in bars before being lucky to fall into a job with a local technical publisher right at the start of the internet boom, doing a lot of internet books. He explains that he had a lot of freedom and time to explore internet technologies, research as opposed to just messing around on the internet, at the time when internet was reaching normal people.

Birmingham: It’s Not Shit

The “famous” thing Jon did which propelled him into working and doing internet stuff for a living, as opposed to as a sideline, was a website about Birmingham with “an amusing and probably rude or offensive name which got a bit of attention. It’s called Birmingham: It’s Not Shit and is still going, coming up to 10 years as a local website and blog”. The main reason behind it was not, as he often explains, that Birmingham was getting a raw deal from the national media, but that the national media could not be very grown up when talking about things – when September 11th happened, the media on the internet died, the BBC website went down, online newspapers went down so the only place online he could have a discussion was on Popbitch.com, a celebrity gossip site, and there people could have a sensible discussion with facts and be darkly humorous and not fall into shock! horror! or default positions. That made him wonder if media could be adult, independent and without a default position. When he was made redundant he had the time to set up B:iNS and although he had done many jobs on the internet, he had nothing to show anybody, so if he wanted to get a job doing internet stuff, it was a good excuse to do something. Because of the name and stance, it got well covered which wouldn’t have happened without the shock and outrage of the local mainstream media. However he didn’t get any direct work from that straight away.

Jon fell into a technical job at a new BBC broadcast centre which opened in Birmingham, something he feels which wouldn’t of happened without the blogging. It meant he could avoid the normal route into that type of job. He “learnt loads there, mainly about how the media works and made a lot of good contacts but 4 or 5 years later the government cuts brought it to an end”. He could have tried to to get other jobs but is not really qualified to do anything, although he has done lots of stuff but has no qualifications which lead directly into a job and his computer science degree is obsolete. He hoped people would pay him for doing internet things and was lucky to get a couple of Arts Council contracts to work on the network side of things straight away, again due to the experience built up doing his own things. “… 6 years ago people knew social networks existed but nothing about them, so anyone with experience of them and who could talk coherently in a meeting could find work”, he says.

He did that for 2 or 3 years, without having to look for work, when only a few people were doing it. Sometimes there was too much and he turned down some lucrative contracts which in retrospect he feels he should have taken. He was enjoying exploring the space, it was a new space, and he knew enough technically and journalistically to “do some weird things, spending maybe 2 or 3 days a week working and the rest of the time taking what people were putting online and cutting and analysing that in different ways to see things which couldn’t have been analysed before”.

Being independent

Jon was calling it “Conversational Psychogeography” but that’s now been formalised into what is called Sentiment Analysis and large media organisations will now sell it to you – and he considers it an example of how this kind of thing works:  “If you want to be independent and find work and still have a bit of free time, you’ve got to stay right on the edge of what is happening with technology – the bits that are not yet viable for the big organisations to explore, because everything I’ve done over the past 6 or 7 years has been caught up, commodified. You get forced from two ends of the spectrum – the large media organisations, the web design and development companies and the PR companies push downwards into this space because they think they understand this; there’s also a groundswell of people who really don’t know what they’re doing at all, but they’ve heard about it and they set up small companies in local areas….and I can’t compete with that, I don’t have the morals to allow me to knock those (websites etc) out so quickly, I can’t compete with the pitching and process driven things that a large agency can, so anybody independent gets squeezed out of that and has to move on to another kind of centre and some people are doing that through their own ways… forming companies that can compete or drifting to education….or finding niches – the weird generalists are getting squeezed out.”

Things have been very difficult the last year or more and it’s been hard for him to find enough work to survive on. He claims that he’s not very good at networking in a money sense and feels that many things that he and his contemporaries came up with have not just been co-opted, but stolen by companies and organisations with no recompense. “We have a culture of getting ideas out there…all those things we worked on dissipated and diluted by, capitalism, essentially.” That becomes disheartening so made a decision that he no longer cares, that the battle for this social technology revolution has been lost. Since then he has split professional and personal interests a lot more and will do uninteresting things for money, but the interesting stuff he does now has almost no commercial potential, moving back into the esoteric arty world of literature or publishing.

Consequently he doesn’t expect to make money from writing/publishing. He and a partner are writing a book on the English seaside and needed to travel around the coast of England and Wales, but couldn’t afford to, so crowdfunded it and raised just enough to cover costs. That would’ve been impossible without their knowledge of networks and the media coverage they got comes from knowledge of how media works. He is worried that lots of people think that funding in the age of austerity is going to come from individuals, because that is finite both in money and trust. Projects that get funded are usually from people with demonstrable experience and networks. The ability for people to live from their artistic or research practice is being really squeezed and although he and his contemporaries had the the possibility to do that for 5 or 6 years, he doesn’t think people in the future will have that.

How do thinkers get space to think?

“How do (the brightest) thinkers get space to think without the commercial pressures?”, Jon asks. Historically it has only has been for academics but that’s only one type of thinking and there is huge pressure in academia to produce tangible monetary results. If you look for advice from any government agency, the advice is always how to bend your will to where the money is coming from, how to expand, create growth.

He created a social enterprise 4 years ago to use social media professionals and train them to train young people rather than teaching teachers a syllabus because, “this moves so fast that you can’t teach it unless you are doing it”. The interest was always there, but never the money. The enterprise has been shuttered and there are now other people selling that model now but they are not social media people, but have spotted a gap in the training market.

He considers that a big network is needed to enable support to have creative space. Some people in the UK & US have chosen to live on as little as possible to have that space, as artists always have. The problem he sees then is the disconnect between them and those their ideas might affect – if it’s all outsider, how does it influence the inside, the “normal” people? The danger is again: ideas splitting off from commerce, splitting off from reality, he considers there are huge problems with that.

A good example of a network supporting creative work is that of Birmingham industrialists called the Lunar Society who gave a monthly stipend to Joseph Priestley. He isolated oxygen among other things. Jon wonders if there is an internet or crowdfunding model for “mini-Priestleys”.  He would love the idea of a trickle down capitalism rewarding people that have ideas but that doesn’t exist, so he asks is there a kind of trickle up internet socialism? Perhaps, for a few people, but how many people could that sustain?

It’s the Network

Jon claims that for any freelancer it’s who you know that is really important and it’s a cliché because it’s completely true and in his opinion if you are artistically or morally driven, your network needs to larger still as the possibilities are reduced. The network is also important to him as it’s part of what he’s interested in. He feels that It’s necessary not just to have a network but to understand how networks function, especially if you need funding or social capital. Things can travel incredibly quickly through weak tie networks but it’s the strong tie networks which actually help you. “The network is essentially all we’ve got”, he says.

I asked Jon about the recent internet legislation battles. He considers that every piece of legislation which controls the free network is worrying – it is the free exchange of ideas that help it, and the idea that you don’t need to ask to do something with those ideas. While these pieces of legislation are often well intentioned, there’s a knock on effect that people sometimes don’t realise. He doesn’t disagree with copyright per se, but thinks anything that is heavy handed and can shut down a network will be abused by large corporations and large organisations. He is particularly interested in fair parody legislation especially with reference to politics.

He has got networks from prior work but the more artistic networks have come first through the internet, but then offline meeting with those people  A lot of the network is from around Birmingham which he says seems incongruous with the idea of the global village and interconnected networks – but it is from building trust offline. There was a time just pre-recession where there were a lot of spaces where you could organise things for free – it’s not the cost as much as the risk, if you’re organising something with people you don’t really know who is going to take the risk of hiring a venue or finding sponsors, selling tickets and collecting money? Easily accessible third spaces were incredibly important and Jon genuinely believes that meeting physically strengthens ties.

THE QUEST FOR PAID WORK: (MAKING A) LIVING ON THE EDGE: SUSANNE STAUCH

I wanted to see how somebody who creates physical things can make a living on the edge so I spoke to Susanne Stauch, a product designer & goldsmith.

Susanne is selling her skills by the hour for jewellery or designs, trying to sell her own work in galleries and starting to use online platforms although she says that she needs to improve in that area.

She has been trying to survive this way for a couple of years now after finishing university in 2008 and small jobs come in – selling her own work is quite difficult – so Susanne is usually happy when she has something to do for others.

Although she has a website, Susanne considers the big thing is to be more interactive, have an online store for products and she’s investigating things such as twitter. She hasn’t considered the web as a place to buy jewellery but thinks it works – she thought people needed to touch and wear jewellery before spending – but that’s referring to expensive jewellery, which is what she learned to do – now she is switching to more affordable pieces.

The website isn’t an online shop, at the moment it’s only possible to order or contact by email, so it’s more of an online portfolio. She hasn’t connected the two worlds so far: Susanne uses internet but hasn’t sold via it although it seems to work on platforms such as etsy and is now looking at http://monoqi.com which does auctions of pieces by designers, which she considers to be “a nice approach as people like stuff which has been pre-selected…  and they start to research you if they like you.”

Her diploma is in collaborative product design and she has studied mass customisation & open source. The question, she feels, is how to remain designers but share knowledge and designs? Uploading designs to be remixed is a strong opportunity and is the idea behind an event she is planning with Cookies’n’Code, called Create Your Own Future which wants to “bring together people from all kinds of backgrounds… to share skills, knowledge, ideas and needs and try to think about solutions and approaches of how we can live differently in the future and of how we can have more of this collaborative thought instead of competition.”

I asked her about an event in Berlin called makerplatz and she explained that the idea was that people could come and build their own things in a day with people who have planned & prepared it, so they get guidance through the process but they put things together themselves. It’s not something everybody wants to do everyday with all things but it’s a growing desire, to have another relationship with the objects they are surrounded by, in her opinion.

Create Your Own Future will be an ongoing thing – so many things happen on the web and people don’t really meet in the physical world so the idea is to bring them, with their ideas, to one place in the physical world so they can start to work and build and create things and from that, to build a community and a platform that can be working on the internet but new gatherings can be organised.

Making your own unique pieces is nice, Susanne feels, but she doesn’t need to do it and is much more interested in enabling people to discover their own creativity and possibilities, getting away from the “I can’t do this” and “I’m no good at this” into “let’s try it because it’s fun!” She continues, “we can build everything by ourselves and everyone can learn basically anything, probably not rocket science or medicine, within in a day but there are a lot of things that, if there’s the proper guidance and it’s prepared, people can really have a lot of fun and learn something and feel proud of themselves – the future role of a designer will shift from the taste giving specialist for an object, to much more design a process in which things can happen.”

 

(Full disclosure: Cookies’n’Code is a loose network of creative people in which I am now collaborating)
 

(Making a) Living on the Edge

So, been quite a while since posting here, that’s what moving to a new city/country will do to you…

Right now I’m doing a gig for Edgeryders which is a joint project of the Council of Europe and the European Commission, led by the Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division at the Council of Europe. I’m investigating how people make a living on the edge, or if they do at all – very pertinent (and personal). Here’s what I’m working on:

How can people make a living on the edge as technologies change quicker than regulations and new business models disrupt old standards? While young (and not so young) people are defining a new society through their networked interactions and processes, often the obstacles to their ability to make a living are bureaucratic or outdated ways of doing.

I started off by interviewing Pete Ashton, somebody who who has been creating his own way of making a living for some time now, making it up as he goes along, and along the way coming up with Created in Birmingham and Social Media Surgeries among many other things.

Here’s the first video – head over to Edgeryders for the rest and to read an exhaustive write-up of our conversation. Pete blogged about the experience here.

In other news, I’m moving lots of our other sites to different servers, so you may not find some stuff where it should be here for a while…

Introducing (Making a) Living on the Edge

Post written for the Edgeryders blog to introduce (Making a) Living on the Edge:

How can people make a living on the edge as technologies change quicker than regulations and new business models disrupt old standards? While young (and not so young) people are defining a new society through their networked interactions and processes, often the obstacles to their ability to make a living are bureaucratic or outdated ways of doing.

However, those that are making a living are finding innovative ways to harness their networks and skills and are creating new methodologies, often unknowingly. The sharing of these experiences can contribute enormously to a knowledge base. of use to individuals as well as institutions and policy makers.

We want to aggregate and distribute these stories and create a repository of useful, practical information which can be updated in real time. Through the Edgeryders site and social media channels, we aim to bring together many initiatives and experiences from within their own networks, to discuss and synthesise them on the platform, giving them a wider distribution.

In this way we can amplify the conversation, reaching all stakeholders and bringing the real and practical experience of those living on the edge into sharp focus.

The first story is up on Edgeryders, where Pete Ashton explains his experiences through a video – and we want to hear your experiences too: through videos or blog posts tagged #maledge . The format does not have to be the same as the Pete interview i.e can be shorter/without text etc

THE QUEST FOR PAID WORK: (MAKING A) LIVING ON THE EDGE

First of a new series of “interviews” I’m doing for Edgeryders

(a rare smile from Pete Ashton, photo by Katchooo)

So how are people making a living on the edge? I wanted to find out so to begin I asked Birmingham, UK based Pete Ashton to tell me about his experiences.

 

Pete hasn’t had what many would consider a “real full-time” job since 2003 and since 2007 he has made a living based around his online activities. 

He has a lack of formal education, describing himself as not academically proficient, and drifted into various jobs but when seeing his future as a retail manager he quit work and began exploring ways of doing something more fulfilling. A period of volunteering on an organic farm as part of the WWOOF (Working Weekends on Organic Farms) programme taught him how to live frugally and he began began doing temporary jobs to pay the rent while spending the rest of his time doing what Pete calls “stuff”.

This stuff was mainly doing fanzines, blogging and taking photos and through this he began to blog more about the city and participate in flickr groups, participating in days taking photos around Birmingham. The city blogging led to him meeting Stef Lewandowski and together they began the Created in Birmingham blog. The blog was about awareness boosting initially, but finally became about providing a grassroots style media outlet – with a subtext of DIY media. Pete ran it for a year, joint-winning the Guardian Media award for best blog in 2008.

 

Full-time blogger

The success of Created in Birmingham meant that Pete began to get paid 500 pounds a month, meaning he could stop doing temporary work and could do full time blogging. This then led to consultancy gigs in 2007 where he was paid to talk about blogging and run training workshops, something he still finds surprising. The main takeaway of the workshops was that social media relies on the personality of the people using it.

Since then he has been living off his own work, doing it or talking about it, and even has the choice of turning down work, enjoying it more than anything he has ever done for money before. “It would be difficult to return now to regular work”, he says. 

I asked him where his ideas come from and what made some successful:

“if you don’t have enough ideas you’re doing something wrong, if you have to protect your ideas you’re doing something wrong. It is not the idea that is valuable but doing it”. He throws out ideas because if he can’t do something with it, wants to see someone do something with it and considers that shared ideas are more valuable and Intellectual Property is not valuable.

We talked about how the Social Media Surgery, recent winner of the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award, came about. Pete was getting lots of questions about social media so he decided to sit in a cafe and people could come and ask him there, like a doctor’s surgery. If people came along it was fine, and if they didn’t he would get on with work. Pete did the surgery for about 3 or 4 months and then Nick Booth took the idea and turned it into global movement. He is happy to take credit for the idea and beginning it, but gives Nick the credit for where Social Media Surgery is now. For Pete the Surgery idea came from a real need, blogging is a necessity for him, enabling him to work through ideas and problems, almost like therapy.

His personal situation helps in trying out ideas, he has no dependants and because of his system of 3 months money in the bank or 1 big job per month to cover costs, he doesn’t have to worry too much if ideas turn into work. Ideas establish him as someone interesting and worth working with, he does “crazy” ideas for fun but they lead to paid work like making websites or consultancy, which is not always particularly interesting but pays the bills.

Tools & books

As far as tools go he mainly uses the Internet, to connect with people, share ideas around and share other people’s ideas.

Pete considers his most valuable tool is his ability to write – he is self taught after failing in school and has handwriting issues, but computers saved him in that respect. He developed his writing through fanzines and writing for pleasure, developing a unique style. “Internet tools are trucks to deliver content, blogs are so easy to set up that having a blog is meaningless and having a blog with great content is the hard part, that’s hard and takes time so experience is important.

Being an early adopter = more practice, not better but you’ve had longer to figure out how to do it.”

I asked him why he is now experimenting with books:

Form is interesting, blogs are restrictive for what he wants to write, you can throw stuff at a blog & narrative evolves. Book publishing is going through an epic change similar to magazines & newspapers and he is interested in the effect of tablets/kindle’s – technology creating ways around the bottlenecks of the publishing world. Now people are selling large quantities of genre work very cheaply and he sees it as similar to the origin of the paperback in the 20th century. It’s no longer necessary to sell huge quantities to break even, micro-audiences mean it’s possible to have a relationship with your readers, which is the way Pete has made a living, having a relationship with an audience and then someone from audience employs him, for him any new development that allows that scale is interesting & books are reaching that now

He says that blogging was great in the beginning but it was just tech nerds, it became really interesting when ordinary people began to blog about their daily lives, an unmediated voice not able to happen before. It was not possible for someone like Pete to communicate globally before, but it is scaleable now to write books for 50 readers although the general mindset is still that it is not worthwhile unless it’s for huge numbers of readers.           

Pete’s Brand

Pete has the same self-employment category as consultant as when he was a cash in hand gardener in the past. He will investigate whatever the next buzz term is as it’s always interesting when something is given a phrase, name – he didn’t want to be known as blogging consultant as all bubbles burst, so best thing to be he thinks is to be Pete, the Pete brand, “This is Pete & this is what he does” which is hard but not important that everybody understands that, just that sufficient people understand it to make it sustainable.

We talked about the nature of On/Offline projects in relation to the Created in Birmingham shop. This was a pop-u
p shop in the Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham which “became ridiculously busy, got a lot of attention and made a lot of money for the artists”. In Pete’s opinion the nice thing about doing stuff online is if you fail, you can just switch it off, but when you do things offline you have “things”: infrastructure, furniture, shutting things down, payments, electricity bills, it stops being fun. People tend to think “it worked online so we can do it offline” but it’s quite a leap from chatting on twitter to going out and committing to something, there’s a lot of similarities and Pete says that he doesn’t believe that offline relationships are more important than online relationships, but they are different, different barriers to entry, different filters. There’s  “lots of euphoria about meeting wonderful people on twitter, we can do it, but when you take that offline, to do something, you realise that takes hours in the day, it takes time, it takes commitment and everybody thinking along the same lines”.

We moved on to the effects of Internet legislation on his life and ability to make a living. Pete says that he’s very aware of legislation to “control” the Internet but also that a lot of the large cloud services such as youTube, tumblr fly in the face of the DIY publishing thing Pete is interested in.He thinks that at some point legislation will probably break the Internet and maybe the Internet will fix itself or maybe it won’t, maybe we are in a golden age which will never be repeated. But he’s reasonably confident that, “the genie is out of the bottle that even if the Internet is shut down or crippled, some new technology will help people communicate and share stuff because that’s the inherent need.” 

Where’s Pete heading?

Dabbling in art, and doing a photography school which has been publicised just by word of mouth and is doing well. He’s guided by what he’s interested in and what people will pay for and feels lucky, “there is no right way, so I’m a guide – a lot of what I do is interpreting what people want and need.”

His network was built up by accident with people who can help to turn ideas into revenue generating things, it’s partly a personal marketing/branding thing and he’s not a big fan of that but aware of the importance of it. “It’s about taking control and responsibility for your activities and presence and not complaining that the system doesn’t let you do that – forget the system, I’ll make my own way. Thankfully I’ve been born in a situation and a country where I can do these things – and after 35 years flailing aimlessly like somebody who doesn’t really know where they fit and what they are doing, I’ve finally landed on my feet.”