Ruby Chen

Winner of the Taipei Literature Award, China Times Literary Award, Lin Rong-san Literature Award and Liang Shih-chiu Literature Award. Ruby likes poetry and essays, photography and drawing; Loves discovering the old and the new, warm humour, and finding truth in the absurd; hopes to play a role in Lou Ye’s films, and writes lyrics for singers she loves.

Placing a cosmic order

08 2015 | Issue 8

Ever since internet access became an indispensable part of modern life, the internet literally turns into the greatest “wishing pond” history has ever seen. If anyone wants to “place an order to the Universe” (a mantra made popular by The Secret, a bestselling guide to spiritual growth), perhaps the faster way is to get online.

We’ve all heard stories about how those with unrecognised talent wallow in a sea of misery as they encounter nothing but rejection—such as that of John Kennedy Toole, who was given the brush-off by one publisher after another in his life. Unable to get any of his books published, Toole lost his life to depression, denying him the chance to see his book, A Confederacy of Dunces, win the Pulitzer Prize. The novel went on to become a wildly popular best-seller and a cult classic.

If Toole were a netizen today, he could have his life rewritten just by sitting at the computer and posting his work onto the Amazon e-bookstore, just like the way Hugh Howey did with Wool —who was in charge of publishing his own book. As an e-book, Wool sold so well that it attracted the attention of traditional publishers who solicited a book deal with Howey.

Of course, frustrating cases of unrealised talent won’t just disappear overnight. However, the internet has now at least opened up windows of opportunities for aspiring artists. Rather than waiting for luck to come knocking on their doors, they can take the initiative to get what they want. As crowdfunding platforms, blogging and content-sharing websites help artists maintain a high degree of independence, artists can avoid gatekeeping from senior management while reaching out to the audience or customers directly and gauging their popularity based on the number of likes and how many books they sell.

Founded in 2000 in the United States, Threadless was among the first wave of e-commerce companies that struck gold via crowdfunding. Its operating model essentially works like this: users can submit T-shirt designs anytime online for Threadless members to review and give feedback of what they like or dislike. Every week Threadless selects the top-scoring or the most controversial designs and put them up for sale, sharing the profits with the designers. While only a limited number of each design is made, sold-out designs will be reprinted if enough people request a reprint.

Using these websites as a marketing platform, designers can provide their creative ideas first-hand while customers can take charge of the decision-making process. How fashionable is fashionable? In the brave new world of the Internet, matters like this are no longer just settled by a small group of people.

E-stores similar to Threadless are all the rage and they have found collaborating designers among the likes of you and me. Society6 features home décor products designed by netizens, including carpets, pillows, and shower curtains. From a consumer’s perspective, these artworks might be amateurish, but they come across as relatively rare with a more personalised character, which makes wearing the same outfit as someone else unlikely. Moreover, they are not like the mass-produced products from major brands, which tend to be superficial without giving consumers a sense of participation.

The late spring of 2015 saw the IPO debut of Etsy, the world’s largest peer-to-peer e-commerce website focused on handmade or vintage items (must be at least 20 years old). It took Etsy only ten years to develop from a startup to a publicly traded company used by buyers and sellers from all over the world. Etsy owes its popularity to not just a highly personalised search template and constantly innovative features, but also perhaps to its unique business approach that took the direction of fulfilling new expectations in the post-industrial era—production and consumption patterns driven by a deeper sense of humanity and participation.

Individualism might have its limits, but we in the 21th century have witnessed how the Internet can effectively fit into one’s ideology to galvanise a sweeping, massive social movement and a cultural phenomenon from the bottom up. This is a force to be reckoned with.