Since the tail end of 2006, steampunk has gone from almost invisible, to having a hit count greater goth, scifi, and even greater than the Texas Rangers (until they made the World Series). That first spike that you see near the beginning of October in 2009 is a big turning point for the genre. That spike is when Wired ran story about Cherie Priest's Boneshaker in their Geek Dad column.
Etsy lists over 97k results for steampunk. Ebay returns over 25k results. Google brings up over 7 million, 128k of them being shopping results, and another 16.5 million pictures. Steampunk conventions are popping up all across the country (and world) and their attendance is skyrocketing.
By this point, you're probably wondering what my point is.
Steampunk is about to go big time. I predict that within the next two years, steampunk will be come bigger than any of us ever expected. With this, comes a whole number of fantastic things. Supplies for projects will become plentiful. Steampunk will become less costume and more outfit. Steampunk communities and gatherings will spread from major cities into the medium and small towns across the country (and world).
However, with this massive growth comes risk. Does anybody remember the goths? I do. The goth scene started out small and underground, just like steampunk. However, as the popularity of computers and the internet rose, so did the popularity of the goth scene, exponentially.
The philosopher Lao Tzu was the first to say "The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long." This is the fate that came to goth. Since 2004 (as early as Google Trends has data), search results for "goth" has been cut in half. Goth hit the mainstream, went viral, and burned out quickly. What happened?
As the goth culture grew in popularity, more and more merchants and vendors began to produce products to feed society's growing hunger. These products came out quickly, too quickly. They were rushed to market without much thought or care. They were made cheaply, and the cheapened the culture. Companies thought "If we make it black and put a scary font and a bat on it, we can sell it to the goths". Hell, the goth culture became so prevalent that you could find stuff that tried to pass as goth in Walmart. Hell, you could even find this guy in Walmart:
By learning from the mistakes that were made with the growth of goth's popularity, the steampunk community can make a concentrated effort to negate the Walmart effect.
Already, we have the first stage of the Walmart effect, people marketing products as steampunk that have absolutely nothing to do with the culture. Regretsy has an entire category dedicated to things that are Not Remotely Steampunk. Already, there are steampunk craft books that teach jewelry makers that anything is steampunk if you put a gear on it and some little brass bits. Hell, there's already an item at ((shudders)) Hot Topic that's tagged as being steampunk.
There is a cure for this. The cure is promotion from within. As members of the steampunk community, we cannot allow the media to come to us, to decide who to promote for themselves. Instead, we must bring ourselves to the media. We must actively promote those within the community who provide the best example of who we are and what we're about. We must shove ourselves down the media's throat before they shove something that vaguely resembles us down the throat of society. We must be active in social media and conventional media. We must make a grass roots effort to promote those people and products that we love.
A perfect example of this type of promotion is Off the Beaten Path. At almost a year old, the store has already had a signing with Cherie Priest, been voted Best Overlooked Local Story by the readers of Detroit's Metro Times, and most recently, today's article in the Detroit News.
There are three reasons that Off the Beaten Path has gotten enough publicity to stay solvent and to even grow in the middle of one of the worst economies in the country. First, Off the Beaten Path is a great store. The owner Sal has done a great job of creating an environment that is inviting and comfortable. It stays on theme without intimidating customers who aren't familiar with steampunk. The second major factor is Sal's marketing prowess. A small independent bookstore cannot survive without getting customers in the door. How does Sal do it? By doing more than just sell books, she gets people into the store every night. There is food and beverages from the cafe, wares from several talented artisans, and special events nearly every night. She has drumming lessons, belly dancing lessons, a game night, a stitch and bitch night, musical performances, and once a month or so packs the house for karaoke. That's right, karaoke...in a bookstore...a steampunk bookstore. What's wonderful about this event is that the crowd is of a common mindset, they're pretty much all geeks and nerds. Nobody is too self conscious to sing, and you're more likely than not to hear both a group sing along and a Jonathan Coulton song in the same night. Lastly, and this is where we all come in, is that the customers of Off the Beaten Path are fiercely loyal. Sal is the Captain of the ship and her customers are her crew. We help keep the ship running, and in return, we get everything we could ever want out of the store. We get a place to visit and meet new people, purchase books and wares that you just won't find in a chain store, and we get to be a part of something special.
Steampunk is a culture that still small enough to be a community. The great thing about a community is that it's easy to get behind another community member and help lift them up. If we all do this, we all promote the people, products, and places that we love, we can dodge the Walmart effect. We may still burn brightly and burn out quickly, but if nothing else, we'll at least do it our way. After all, that's what being a steampunk is all about. We do things our way.
Who are the people, places, and products in the steampunk community that you feel are overlooked? Who do you think deserves promotion to the masses?