remixing (mini-📝 16/100)

I’ve been pretty obsessed with the idea of “remixing” lately. I had mentioned the term briefly in my last essay, but it deserves a lot more excavation to get at the essence of the idea.

I’m not sure where I first encountered this idea. According to my Roam, the first mention of the word is from early December in reference to a hackathon idea to enable easier remixing of pieces of Coda. However, the word must have started to surface on Twitter some time before that. Over time, whether it has actually risen in usage or I’ve just noticed / interacted with the usage more, I’ve seen a steady increase in the popularization of this term, especially in reference to creative work.

From Wikipedia:

A remix is a piece of media which has been altered or contorted from its original state by adding, removing, and changing pieces of the item. A song, piece of artwork, books, video, poem, or photograph can all be remixes. The only characteristic of a remix is that it appropriates and changes other materials to create something new.

Originating from when recorded sound was invented and music became a common-place household item, listeners had the ability to rearrange their listening experience (although it was much harder back then). Over the years, remixing became easier and easier from cutting and scratching records, used to introduce extra beats, to DJ software that allows fine-grained manipulation of sounds and even the introduction of synthetic sounds. This started off in music but has gradually pervaded to other creative works like show parodies, fan fiction, wiki-like communities, and open-source software.

Remix culture, a culture that embraces the spirit of remixing, was just an idea that intellectuals talked about before, and now it’s steadily pervaded into all aspects of society and is becoming a staple of mainstream culture. In the software world, companies formed around open-source projects and products released under open-source licenses are becoming more and more common, with MongoDb, HashiCorp, Docker, along with newcomers like Brave and Apollo. Most recently in pop culture, Tik Tok championed this with their concept of Duets, which allows users to “build off” an existing video by overlaying their own side-by-side with the original. This is an interesting, new take on remix culture that enables vibe remixing, where you take a vibe, created from a piece of content, and put your own spin on it.

There has always been an inherent tension between remix culture and the capitalist, hyper-success culture that pervades our society. We’re taught to aim for the top, settle for nothing less, and to become ruthless is getting what we want if we want to win the zero-sum games to climb the corporate ladder. This mindset is amplified by our focus on individual success. We want to become like Bill Gates or Barack Obama, not contribute to advancing software or work on keeping our government running. In our culture, the appearance of success is more important than the actual contribution we commit. And if we want to become like Bill Gates, we need to come up with a groundbreaking, original, and exciting idea and make it ours, locked away behind several patents and thick layers of U.S. copyright law.[1] We love the idea of original ideas, but the truth is no idea is truly original. All ideas are derivative from what we’ve seen and used and felt.

In this sort of environment, how do we create an economical incentive for people to be open and embrace a remix culture? In the companies that have been founded on open source foundations, there’s a now-standard playbook for creating a profitable business under this path: leverage the open-source community for contributions while offering premium services, security, and ease of access as revenue drivers.

Remixing and community are closely tied together. How do we meld these two seamlessly to enable communities of creators who are encouraged to riff off each others’ ideas to bring a hazy vision to life? I don’t have time to dig into this now but might explore in a future essay.

Even though there are companies built on this open source foundation, our current software overwhelmingly offers very limited capabilities for remixing. In most software, you’re typically able to specify some set of preferences around the look of the app and the data that you want to find. You might see this manifest in a dark mode, custom avatars, pinning, rearranging, or saving content on the side of visual and feel-like customizations. On the data side, you might see tags and filters and sorts, maybe even a search that combines those together. However, in the end, there’s an external person deciding the experience for you and dictating how you’re able to interact with the app and what levers you have access to manipulate. Someone else is controlling your capability to act and create. In contrast, in creation tools, a primary principle is prioritizing the users’ capabilities and content, and the challenge in designing and crafting the platform is to provide the most basic, flexible, composable building blocks to allow user creativity to flourish. But what if this wasn’t just limited to the few creation tools we have?

Is there a future where everything becomes remixable? A world where the software we consume everyday is also available for us to change at will to fit our needs? Where our products are malleable pieces of software which we can peek at the circuitry or shape to our preferences?

It’s not clear that’s the future we’re headed in given the current landscape, but I’m hopeful for where else we can provide remixing as a first class capability in the tools that we use, whether digital or physical.

I was inspired to write about this because I recently helped launch Custom Templates for Coda, our first class capability for remixing Coda content and sharing it with your team and broader community. If you’re interested in what that involved, you can read the full details here. It covers the thinking that went behind the feature as well as the technical details involved in bringing it to life.

[1]:  It’s interesting that China doesn’t have any of these things but still has huge companies.

This is the 16th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.