Cup of MOCCA

Two weeks ago I stopped by the Museum of Comic and Creative Arts (MOCCA) show in SoHo, primarily on a tip from R.Stevens' blog that discusses the robot romance, creative Internet uses and T-shirt monetization of his Diesel Sweeties comic strip. MOCCA is a great show because it provides an instantaneous view of several hundred comic micro-brands, some in their infancy, some entirely self-published. Nearly all of them are available in some kind of online form, but at MOCCA you could pick up comic books, posters, t-shirts and talk to the artists. And yes, R.Stevens is as goofy in person as you'd expect, taking time away from a bowl of hot truck fries (french fries that you get from a street vendor) to shake hands and autograph some of the first Diesel Sweeties comic books. Stevens is making money from his comics through merchandising, creating brand leverage through whatever six-panel enclosed memes strike a chord with his readers. More on that shortly.

At the other end of the spectrum was Miriam and Jobnik, a chronicle of her tours of duty in the Israeli army. Her comics are a melange of blogging and political art. I ended up adding a lot of bookmarks once I got home, and thought there must be more efficient ways of making forward network references than SMSing a URL to your home email address or picking up physical bookmarks imprinted with online comic bookmarks.

Leaving the show, I was reminded of a line from Jo Walton's dystopian novel Farthing, in which the protagonist operates a micro-lending bank for minorities: All economies are built from the bottom up, not the top down. MOCCA isn't about Adam Smith's invisible hand and the Wealth of Nations; it was about hands making visible the future of the starving artists economy.

This has everything to do with Starbucks and pirates, trust me.

Fast-forward to this past week, when a trip to the eastern shore of Maryland included a tour of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. Being both a persistent wise guy and officially on vacation, I had to wear my R.Stevens pirate flag shirt on the tour, completing my hat trick of t-shirt statements (pixelated Canadian flag to Toronto, electric sheep shirt to educational conference). Our tour guide was only slightly less bemused than when I asked if the crypt under the USNA chapel contains the remains of John Paul Jones the Revolutionary War naval officer or the late Led Zeppelin bass player (the dolphin motif answered that one).

In an effort to escape short-lived rainstorms, we ducked into a Starbucks carefully hidden in the basement of building more than 200 years older than the brand it housed. There was only minor signage on the building, and the store didn't fit the mold of the typical Starbucks in terms of lighting, ceiling height, furniture and staff creativity. These custom-color cups were displayed around the cash register and behind the barista's station; color commentary on an otherwise uniform brand image. I was fascinated by them, and according to the staff on duty, I'm not the first (I never am). But they've been asked, in direct terms, by the Starbucks management chain to stop doing these mashups. Forget selling them, they were seen as brand detractors. All this conveyed while I was wearing evidence to the contrary, proving the value of microbrands that can be interpreted any number of local ways.

Companies that don't allow aspects of their brands to be mashed up, used as buttons, or otherwise spread through people networks miss the kind of bottom-up community building that's driving what Yochai Benkler captures in The Wealth of Networks.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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