On Thursday and Friday, I posted Part 1 and Part 2 of an interview with Daniel Fox. Fox is the chief executive, vice president, secretary, treasurer, middle manager and principal employee of Skreened, a web site that lets you sell ethical American Apparel t-shirts, raglans, kids’ apparel and even baby onesies — all with your own designs. We have our own small shop on Skreened.com’s beta website — and we’ll roll out a series of bigger web shops when Skreened introduces the new, fully-implemented version of its website early next month.
Here’s Part 3 of my conversation with Daniel Fox, in which we talk about offense, freedom and responsibility in an open market. Daniel was saying…
Daniel Fox: I’m not going to build a business that I’m not completely crazy about doing. The whole idea of the business is based around me knowing who I am and what I am here to do in this world, and that is to support artists and to help them make money off of their expressions. So everything that I do on this site is going to be geared toward people putting themselves out there and getting rewards and feedback for their creations — be that in juice, or music downloads, or t-shirts, or video downloads, or dvd sales.
Whatever it is, it’s about supporting this greater network of people that, say, just got their Mac and just did their first recording of video. It’s about bridging the gap between these big movie studios and music studios and the people that realize they have the power to do it pretty darned well on their own. Skreened is a marketplace and an encourager for the huge gap between people making great stuff and these bloated movie, music and apparel houses dictating what popular mainstream tastes should be.
Jim Cook: I’d like to ask a personal question based on that. You say you feel you were put on this Earth to support artists’ creative expression.
Daniel: That’s part of it.
Jim: OK, that’s part of it. But how do you feel if you’re enabling people to express themselves, and they end up expressing themselves in a way you personally find repugnant? I imagine it’s gotta happen some time.
Daniel: It’s happening right now.
Jim: Is there anything you won’t put on Skreened? There are certain legal issues, but within the realm of the legal is there a limit for you, or do you consider that the responsibility of the artist?
Daniel: That’s a good question. There’s one shop in particular that I’m thinking of, a guy kind of just burst on there and he put up a lot of stuff. A lot of it’s funny. A good bit of it is really offensive to a lot of people. Not to give this guy air time, but there’s one shirt that has got a picture of a Volkswagen bug on it, and it says, “I Can Fit A Hundred Jews in this Car’s Ashtray.” I thought that was possibly the most offensive thing that I’d seen, at least that week, you know? Have you seen that?
Jim: I’ve seen it.
Daniel. Yeah. I have to look at my integrity and how I’m dealing with these people. You can make whatever you want, and I will print it. In some ways I have to take a step back from this and say, “I’m enabling artists.” I’ve been pretty loose about it thus far. I can’t imagine, and I don’t want to imagine, that someone would push me off the edge so I’d have to say, “Please take this down.” Though ultimately I have to reserve that right to keep it a good place to be.
Listen, I want things to be light, I want things to be positive, and encouraging. I want this market to be a good place to be, not an offensive place, not a dark place to be, not a bad place to be. Then, of course, we get into what’s a good place to be, what’s a bad place to be?
Jim: Who gets to decide?
Daniel: Yeah, absolutely! I don’t want to be “The Decider,” he said in quotes!
Ultimately, there are already things on there that are offensive to me. Does that mean I take them down? No, not at this point.
Jim: There’s this question about what happens when free speech crosses commercial speech. You’ve paid for people to come on and use this forum. So it’s paid speech, not free speech. But it’s really hard to censor, because once you start that, it’s hard to decide when to stop.
To get hypothetical, though, what happens when you see a hundred people wearing shirts you printed at a Neo-Nazi rally? How does it make you feel, and then how do you react to that?
Daniel: There’s been one kind of theme that I’ve kind of mulled over for the past six months. I’ve got this friend who pulled something for me from Lao-Tzu: “What You Fight Grows Stronger.” I don’t know whether that’s a true statement, but it seems smart, and I don’t want to pick a fight with anybody. I’m definitely pacifist-leaning, if not a true pacifist.
I’m not going to give it my energy to start censoring. I want to act in a way that’s positive and with integrity and treating people fairly. If somebody wants to take advantage of that, or if they’re acting with their own integrity in putting stuff out there that’s wacky or just plain offensive, well, they’ll get back whatever they put out there. I don’t think it’s my job to censor them, because ultimately I’m just a conduit.
Maybe I’ve contradicted myself in my statement. I don’t know. But the information age has evolved to a point where people are pretty savvy about determining what is coming from what source. Think about it: your blog has comments. When people read your comments, they know it’s not coming from you. It’s coming from a reader who may be mad or drunk or whatever. People can see that when look at Skreened. I don’t run any of those shops. I don’t sponsor the content whatsoever. I hope that people can know that’s separate from what I’m doing; I’m creating a marketplace where people can express themselves. If someone wants to run with that in any direction they want, hopefully people are savvy enough to recognize the expressions are of that person, and not of the marketplace.
Jim: You know, on CafePress just this month…
Daniel: The Muslim incident?
Jim: You’ve heard of that?
Daniel: I’ve heard about something there, yeah.
Jim: They declared they were taking images of Mohammed off, and their stated reason was that they didn’t want to offend anybody who was Muslim. And there were denial of service attacks that were happening at the time of this statement. I don’t know who’s behind that, but I wouldn’t be surprised at that. Irregular Times had hacking threats when it put up Mohammed images, and then we had denial of service attacks.
So let’s say it comes down to a point where you’ve put something offensive up there, Muslim or not, and you’re getting denial of service attacks. You don’t have the corporate resources that an outfit like CafePress has. You’re one guy, and you really can’t do anything to fend off denial of service attacks, except to get another server, and to try to convince someone to give you server space when “oh, by the way,” you’ve had denial of service attacks!
What do you do when something like that happens?
Daniel: I have no idea. I have no idea.
Jim: Let’s say someone wants to put an image of Mohammed on a shirt. Would you let them?
Daniel: Would I take it down? Hell, no!
Jim: OK, then someone writes you next week and says, “No. You will take this image down, or you will suffer the consequences. You’ll be attacked.” What happens now? If you don’t take it down, your whole operation is going to be shut down, and other images will be put in peril; other images will be censored.
Daniel: I’ve been watching this show on Fox called Standoff, which has two hostage negotiators that are in love…
Jim: Oh, that sounds really bad…
Daniel: Yeah, but it’s really good. It kind of makes me think about things in terms of negotiating. There is no “Us and Them” and “Me and You.” If you write me and want me to take something down, and you’re threatening illegal action or harm, the first thing I’m trying to do is to get communication up and open communication lines. It would be like, “Where are you coming from? Can we bring the shop owner and you into these talks and work out something that is win-win-win?,” instead of this fight.
And maybe you can’t do that, I don’t know, I’m no expert on anything, but just my way of approaching it is let’s get together, let’s talk, let’s make this a place where people can win instead of fight.
Look for Part 4 of our conversation tomorrow. We get practical and start talking about plans for the new version of Skreened to be rolled out next month. Daniel also raises connections between his work and … Cambodia? Yes, Cambodia. Read tomorrow to find out how that works.