Last Monday saw the opening of a new Threadless brick-and-mortar store in Chicago (link via Tcritic). In case you’re not familiar with Threadless, this is notable because it used to be an online-only venture, a sort of odd union between traditional consumer capitalism and brand-spanking-new Web 2.0 collaboration. The site was founded on the premise of having users submit designs and vote on which designs they like and would buy, though recent years have seen it introduce special lines of shirts not voted on by the audience.
Threadless isn’t a geek apparel site per se, but it’s certainly got some geeks on staff and in the audience; see Nerds Unite, Fractions Speak Louder Than Nerds, Nerd Berd, the recently sold out Nerds 22 Ever, plus some assorted gaming shirts, among other miscellaneous geekery. Threadless tees also appear to be the chosen casual attire of many convention-goers at PAX, Comic Con, and South by Southwest, whether overtly nerd-themed or not. Moreover, Threadless has spawned a host of imitators, including Splitreason.com, featuring “gear for geeks and gamers.” Sounds like your typical geeky tee site along the lines of ThinkGeek and J!NX, but this one’s based user submissions and voting. (J!NX also welcomes users to submit designs, but it’s not their primary business model.)
I often wonder about the ethics of this model of user-submitted design and goods. Of course, I’m not the only one to wonder about the ethics of Web 2.0â€”see what Larry Lessig has to say on the matter, suggesting that there’s a distinction between sites that promote “true sharing” and “fake sharing.” Sites that rely on user-generated content for material goods, however, may need to be considered somewhat separately from those that produce content that’s more easily shareable.
Plus, despite Larry’s distinction between two basic models, it probably stands to reason that two sites could share the same model and each address the same ethical issue differently. Threadless, for example, now offers winning designers real money rather than the store credit it used to offer, which is a definite step up. (The store credit may have made the whole endeavor seem more community-oriented if it weren’t for the fact that Threadless was making money off people who had nothing to do with design submission and review.) Splitreason offers a flat rate of $250 per shirt and claims complete ownership of the shirt, which any experienced designer will tell you is basically a scam.
I’m still working through my thoughts on this issue for a paper I intend to write shortly; it’s on how the Web 2.0 mentality complicates the graphic design community’s standard approach to design contests and spec work (i.e., that these things are deeply evil). For now, though, enjoy the geeky shirt links, and feel free to chime in on the whole model of apparel design as a contest.