Service-Agnostic Environments

I know the title of this post sounds like absolute corporate hokum, but I tried tweeting these thoughts ages ago and then realized it was really more of a discussion for long-form writing and so I started a Patreon post and then forgot about it and now it’s many, many months later and I’m blogging again so here I am putting it in a blog post.

Last summer Wendell and I ended up talking about “service-agnostic environments” for online community-building, and the question of generating adjacent, overlapping communities centered around particular groups of creators.

The whole practice of being an Online Creator (i.e. A Charming, Hyper-Available, Vulnerable Internet Personality, or CHAV-IP, as I have just decided to call it) feels centered around siphoning people into these isolated social buckets where you can make demands on their time and attention and finances. But this doesn’t make for a sustainable and interconnected ecosystem. An audience member can only be a part of so many tiny silos before it becomes overwhelming.

For example: there are a lot of people who probably follow both my work and Shing’s work, but each of us also have readers uniquely drawn to our particular brand of BS (boat stuff and Bunyan statues, probably). We have both built followings on public social platforms and in more private, paid spaces like Patreon and Discord.

What would it look like to have a combined location where our overlapping readers could talk to each other?

My general obsession recently (and I know I’m not alone in this) has been more about getting audience members to connect with one another rather than singularly with me. I want people who enjoy my work to see themselves as part of an ecosystem—to cross-pollinate and experiment and build and play.

I brushed up against this when Shing invited me to begin playing in the Mercantile Gnome Universe (MGU?) they’ve built over the past handful of years. I became a representative of the Boat Gnome and started offering to trade pins with people through the mail. The game revealed a lot of crossover between our audiences, but it also encouraged more of my people to learn about Shing and vice versa. If I had been supporting a creator who did something similar, I think I would’ve found the experience exciting. It feels more like a treasure hunt and less like product placement. An invitation written in code, delivered with a wink and a tip of the hat.

It makes me think of Robin’s Republic of Newsletters—a section of his newsletter that used to keep up with other interesting and adjacent written projects as if they were physical outposts in a shared landscape. It’s webrings and blogrolls, cross-links and quotations. Everyone loves to feel the thrill of discovery, but it’s sweeter when the core of that experience is someone you trust taking your hand and saying “Wow, look.”

What is the landscape of affinity for my work? Who are the creators I find myself sharing fans with? Which subjects do we mutually gravitate towards? Where are we different? How is a creative community like a map? 

I have very few answers and a lot of questions.

Introducing the Boat Gnome Mercantile Trading Program

If you follow me elsewhere on the web, you’ve probably seen an uptick in posts about something called the Boat Gnome Mercantile Trading Program. Maybe it makes sense, maybe it doesn’t, so here’s a big ol’ post with some background about this zany undertaking and how you can play along.

If you just can’t wait to exchange goods with the Boat Gnome (even if you are, perhaps, a little unclear about what that entails), the Trade-by-Mail Program is already open to Patrons at any pledge level. You can find all the instructions for sending trades through the mail by becoming a Patron and visiting this post

The Boat Gnome’s desired items for the 2019-2020 Trading Season are as follows:

  • An interesting shell (level of interest is in the eye of the beholder)
  • A piece of seaglass (bonus points for unusual colors)
  • A transcription of your favorite nautical poem (typed or hand-written, as preferred)
  • A knot (tied in a piece of string, twine, rope, etc and labelled by name)

Okay, let’s back up and talk about Shing Yin Khor.

Shing, a nonbinary person in a bright red hat sits underneath a pepper tree. They have a spread of crates in front of them.
Here is Shing mysteriously showing up in the driveway of my childhood home in California.

Shing is an unstoppable, mischievous force for good in the world. Aside from creating immersive installation art and fabulous comics and unconventional fundraising initiatives and co-facilitating life-changing retreats, they also run something called the Space Gnome Mercantile Trading Program

The story goes like this: there is a gnome—a Space Gnome—who runs a trading outpost in outer space. She releases a list of desirable items prior to sending one of her representatives to conventions around the country. The desirable items are often simple. A nice rock. A cutting from a succulent. A poem. A story. 

Traders may present the representative with one of these objects and receive, in exchange, a limited edition enamel pin.

A set of postcards with enamel pins depicting a space gnome.
Some of Shing’s stunning Space Gnome pins.

Once a participant has made a trade and received a pin they become a Trusted Trader, and can return to the representative at future events (wearing their pin) and receive additional, special items. Shing also runs a trade-by-mail program exclusively for their Patreon supporters (DID I MENTION YOU CAN SUPPORT SHING ON PATREON?) in case folks can’t make it out to conventions.

I love this project. It’s subversive and human and playful and kind. So when Shing and I were on a ferry coming back from the Wayward Retreat this summer, I screwed up my courage and said:

“Do you think there might be other gnomes? I mean, hypothetically, what if there was also, say…a Boat Gnome?”

I felt self-conscious even asking. Why can’t I come up with my own ideas? Isn’t this plagiarism? But the beauty of this project lies in the fact that it’s not commercial in the slightest. Nobody’s making a profit. It’s a sandbox—a container for play, and as if to prove it Shing immediately shot up off the bench and shouted “YES!!!”

One month later they showed up in the front yard of childhood home in California (long story) and officially inducted me into the Association of Gnomes—a process I can’t recount here, so you’ll just have to flip through this Instagram Story really quick to experience it.

A pointy blue felt hat with a variety of nautical items attached to it.
My extremely good Boat Gnome Hat. Yes, you may be jealous.

Armed with my gnome hat, I started drafting ideas. Since Shing had already come up with a format for the pins and cards, I decided to keep things simple and just riff on the existing material.

A drawing of a cute gnome wearing the pointy felt hat from earlier.

So here’s our Boat Gnome. (Perhaps suspiciously like a smaller version of me, but WHO’S KEEPING SCORE.) I translated this small friend onto a postcard that would mimic Shing’s space-themed offering with a load of nautical motifs.

Step-by-step sketches of the postcard design from earlier.
I snapped a photo of this rough sketch with my iPad, then used Clip Studio to refine the art, ink, and color it! Printing by the trusty folks at Moo.com

And then came the PINS, which I wanted to match to Shing’s design so that enterprising traders could line them up in a handsome row on a lapel.

Step-by-step drawings of the boat gnome pin.
Here’s the design process!
The finished boat gnome enamel pin.
Aaand here’s the finished pin!

Once I had all my elements assembled, it was time to number all the backing cards and start assembling pins. The final result looks amazing.

The completed Boat Gnome Mercantile pin set.

The great thing about doing a project that won’t make me any money is that a lot of the perfectionism that usually dogs my steps during production is just…gone. Who cares if this isn’t utterly perfect? It’s a game. People are going to play.

I’ve spent a little over $500 assembling the materials for this project, which would’ve felt impossible three years ago. But I’m finally at a place in my career where not every expense has to turn a profit. There’s so much heart-felt fun to be had exchanging gifts with strangers and friends. And because of the support I receive on Patreon, I can do these kinds of projects. It’s such a wonderful privilege. I’ve already completed over 40 trades with people from all over the country, and the offerings are universally stellar.

So thanks. I can’t wait to trade with you all.

<3

Lucy

(Boat Gnome Representative)