2014-01-22

Co.Labs

How Arduino Is Becoming The World's Social Network For Hackers And Makers

How the microcontroller platform's project database is becoming more social like Pinterest.



No central website exists where makers--the folks in the DIY tech community--can gather around and show off what they've built. As the model stands right now, makers show off their projects on Instructables, link their code to GitHub, then blog about it on WordPress. In most cases when a maker posts a tutorial for a project that goes viral and brings big bucks of revenue to the distributors of the components, he will never see a penny. Without a platform to hang out on and share stories, or a reward system for sharing great ideas, people don’t have much incentive to build beyond their own curiosity.

Arduino is to makers what Hobby Lobby is to arts and crafts--the main supplier for the components and little hardware boards used for inventive DIYs. But what if they could be more? What if in addition to being a one-stop shop for tech components they could also be a community more like Pinterest?

Over the span of three months, 42 million visits to the Arduino website came from recurring users--the die-hard makers. Arduino interpreted that figure as an opportunity to morph its site into the ultimate maker’s clubhouse. Now, after hundreds of commits to their website, Arduino.cc is a social experience. The new model even allows for translation of tutorials into other languages.

“That was really important since the communications in Arduino are spread out across the globe,” says creative director Giorgio Olivero. When I was building my own project using the Arduino Yun, I learned a little Japanese and German in order to understand tutorials from two makers on the other side of the puddle. Makers are everywhere. Here’s how cofounder Massimo Banzi and Olivero are trying to bring them together.

Little Changes, Big Stakes

Olivero and Banzi understood that beyond just making Arduino profiles more “social,” the big change would come from a reward system. Now, a maker can make a percentage of the sales their tutorial generates. This will attract users to post their content online versus other sites like Instructables because tutorials posted on Arduino measure the click-through purchases and reward the original curators. This is even a plus for people just making the tutorials, because before this users needed to click around before they found the hardware and other materials for a specific DIY.

The incentive model hopes to create pay for makers of stellar tutorials. “If their tutorials bring sales to the store, we need to provide some reward to whoever wrote that tutorial. In a way we’re trying to create this loop where people create beautiful projects, put them online as tutorials, and publish the code. In exchange we can help them promote their tutorials through the blog, and in a way, these tutorials become things people actually use,” says Banzi.

Among other changes, the rise of the new Wi-Fi-powered Arduinos, such as the Linux based Yun, spurred the demand for a unified coding editor online. Since these boards are connected to the Internet, it’s much easier to update the code without having to dig them up and plug them into your computer for an upgrade. With the unified coding editor Arduino plans to launch, you can just type up the code, from your phone or your tablet, save it, and run it on the board. No need to go digging the devices out of tubes in your kitchen or irrigation systems.

Much like YouTube videos and tweets, Arduino added the option of making code embeddable. “The tutorial system becomes key to the whole thing because people are inventing ideas and walking others through them, and embedding allows you to explain it in a place easily,” says Banzi.

Open Source And The Economy Of A BLT Sandwich

All of these changes are mainly trying to crack the mystery of “GitHub orphans” and why some projects take off and others don’t. Often there are bits of code on GitHub, or sites like such, which start out as open source projects but get forgotten along the way because no one ever contributes code. Banzi believes communities are the driver for contribution in the maker community and attributes this reason for rethinking the website in the first place. “What you find is that if you can create a community around an open source project then it becomes really alive because everyone starts to contribute. If you don’t have an ecosystem, the platform won’t be successful,” says Banzi. “If you start charging for everything, everything dies very quickly."

Banzi also ended up making a notable analogy in his attempt to explain why open source works. “There are millions of sandwich places around the world, the recipe for sandwiches is open. Nobody can patent the recipe for a BLTs but yet there’s like a million restaurants doing BLTs. Everyday each one of them is adding a little source, each one is improving the recipe with technique, but effectively what goes inside the sandwich is out there and open and people still make money,” says Banzi.

“The fact that knowledge on how to build something is out there doesn’t mean that it stops people from creating products. I think it enables people to share the efforts that are needed to get the certain type of product or project started. Each person adds what some people call the secret source. You can take open source knowledge and add your own secret source. Or you can sell it or sell services around that product,” says Banzi.

The Ecosystem Of Success: Fast Positive Reinforcement

As far as long-term goals go, Arduino is also looking to leverage the way it attracts beginners. “If users don’t get some kind of positive reinforcement in a short amount of time, they start to think that they’re stupid and that this is not for them. So they quit. They give up,” says Banzi. “Getting people to have a small victory very quickly is key to build up their confidence to go forward.”

“It’s about sharing something understood and enjoyed by people who are in the same level as users. In open source projects, people are not putting so much effort in trying to coddle their average user. Those are both the short-term and long-term goals for Arduino,” says Olivero.

This philosophy has led Arduino to become the obvious go-to choice for any beginner that wants to start a DIY tech project. Their libraries and code resources on how to program an Arduino are the largest in the electronic spectrum. “We want to create a platform that’s going to take this and multiply the efficiency, and multiply the value that people get by being part of that community," says Banzi.

[Image: Flickr user Chris Potter]






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3 Comments

  • Well you address the problem in the first paragraph. People will insist on using 3rd party platforms to publish their inventions. Not something I have ever done myself, reason, obvious, why let others benefit. I always publish on my own website. The reward system still sound like 3rd parties are gaining more than the creator.

    Talking of handing over power to 3rd parties, why do fastcolabs need my Twitter password and access to my direct messages? I grant for this post only then delete! Please remove my details from your records.