In many of the recent discussions concerning starting/expanding/changing a Makerspace, there has been a common theme that has made me very excited. The idea being shared is that what really keeps a space going, what brings more people in, and what keeps people coming back, is the community. This makes me excited because for a long time this was not apparent. For a long time, the idea was that you could fill a place with technology and that people would immediately start hacking away. I think that many people assumed that once they came up with the right policies and made sure that a few people knew what they were doing, that people would start bringing in their projects and start hanging out.
The dream for me was that I could come in at any point in the day and be inspired to do something great, whether it was because I had access to a machine that I would never have dreamed of owning, or that I could find someone working on a project that was way more advanced and exciting than anything than I could have come up with on my own. I think that this dream is still what drives many of us involved in this movement to continue working on the amazing spaces that we have imagined.
What people are thinking of when they imagine an environment like this, is one that has a very healthy social dimension. Users in this environment are comfortable with the other people there. They are familiar with the tools and the safety procedures. They know where to find things and who to ask if they need help. This is the kind of environment that everyone would agree is where someone could sit down and hash out a really great project.
What is sometimes hard to see, is all of the barriers that a person might face going from their first time visiting, to becoming a part of the community of makers. The barrier that I first experienced was social anxiety. For a lot of people, joining a new group can be difficult and those first interactions can be the most difficult. It took me several months of attending weekly hack-nights to feel even remotely comfortable. When I did feel comfortable, I was better positioned to engage with other users by learning together and collaborating on projects. While I was faced with the barrier of social anxiety, there are many other barriers that people face. Many people might have trouble relating to the existing group because their race/gender/sexuality is not represented.
In my experience in both of the maker groups that I have been a part of, I have seen some really great ways to address these barriers. Sometimes it can be as simple as a quick introduction, where a visitor is introduced to regular users and then given a rundown of what equipment is available and what is required before use. The key is getting a user comfortable with both people and equipment. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable, then they can easily choose somewhere else they would rather hang out.
A quick introduction is nice, but the thing that has been the most successful in my eyes has been the 3D printing workshops that myself and other staff give at the MakerLab at Albertsons Library. Over the course of an hour, a new user is introduced to an active part of the space. In telling them about how to use the printers, and more importantly how the printers are being used by other makers, I can get someone comfortable with the idea of coming in and getting an idea out of their head. Also with this amount of time I can identify and address any barriers that this person might face.
Looking past introductions, I think where the bulk of improvement can be made is in the ongoing events like training workshops and regular meetings. While some people are perfectly content with sitting down and hacking their way through a project, I find that most people need to have something more tangible to get them acquainted with the people and projects before they can feel like their ideas belong. What these ongoing events do is create an entry point into the current flow of activities. Whether someone has been hanging out for over a year or whether they are brand new, It really takes a regular event to get them reconnected and ready to get making things.
The reality of most Makerspaces is that you can have it full of technology, but if there is no community then nothing will happen. If I wanted you to gain anything from this post it would be that although having great technology is important, it is more important to create social constructs that develop your social dimension. Having a solid introduction is obviously a great start, but investing the time to develop workshops and events will create that environment that we all had in mind when we first thought of a Makerspace.