These days the most creative minds in America don't gather in smoky cafes or moody underground galleries, but rather intersect, create and share within a subterranean lattice-work of online blogs, vlogs, studios and shops. Today a thriving network of professional and semi-professional writers, photographers, artisans, designers and DIY filmmakers ply their talents through thousands of often interconnected sites that are pushing the vanguard in art, fashion and prose -- and their influence is rapidly moving mainstream.
Nowhere is the scope of this creative scene better realized than at the annual blogger gathering known as the Altitude Design Summit -- or, Alt -- a kind of Sundance meets Burning Man for the online art and design community (minus the paparazzi and psychedelics).
Being held this week in Salt Lake City, the third annual event is an eclectic mix of inspirational speakers, collaborative sessions and seminars -- an unapologetic blend of artsy kumbaya and practical business grit that has made it a sellout three years running (tickets are getting as hard to come by as TED seats.). Breakout sessions range from 'how to build your personal brand' and 'how to quit your day job' to decidedly less sexy topics including 'tax and legal issues for bloggers,' something of increasing importance as the lines between sharing your life online and earning a living continue to blur.
Conference founders Gabrielle Blair, Kate Schoening, and Sara Urquhart describe the event as "clever and smart and beautiful and kind. It's like a weekend getaway with your best friend: well-deserved, rejuvenating, overdue and comfortable." Don't let the gal-pal tone belie the serious intent of the conference.
The event brings out some of the biggest names in lifestyle blogging, including Heather Armstrong of Dooce and Grace Bonney of Design Sponge, but has made its name as a showcase for emerging talent. Small shop owners and successful bloggers like Melissa McArdle of Reverie-Daydream and Michelle Le Blanc of Pretty Mommy personify the Alt gestalt by selling handmade, artisanal items through their own online boutiques. Whether you are a newbie or an old pro, the environment is supportive and encouraging; more about camaraderie and esprit de corps then competition (the message is clear: this new lifestyle community is no place for mean girls).
All change comes from the edge, and big corporate sponsors are smart to keep an eye open for the latest movements. Blog-powered stylists, designers and event planners are relentlessly reshaping everything from store design to food trends to wedding aesthetics. Proof of Alt's growing mainstream appeal can be seen in the numerous corporate sponsors, including HP, HGTV and Kleenex who have aligned themselves with this four-day festival.
And for good reason: the Alt Summit has captured the zeitgeist of these shape-shifting times. The Internet is an ideal, easy to access platform for emerging artists and craftspeople -- a tough job market has turned more of us into bootstrap entrepreneurs. In a global economy gone mad, Alt speaks squarely to the new aesthetic of 'small economics.' Like the buy local movement and the shift to authentic goods, there is great consumer appeal for buying from transparent and trusted sources. The hundreds of small artisans and shop owners gathering at Alt reflect a major new trend in the retail market.
But to be sure, Alt doesn't take itself too seriously -- the best part of the four days well may be the social events and cleverly-designed sponsor parties -- not to mention the swoon-worthy goodie bags and fashionable swag. For those of us attending, what to wear is as important as whom to hear speak, and that keeps the atmosphere celebratory and fun -- something we can all use more of these days. For my part, I can be spotted wearing the white tulle tutu to Thursday night's Winter Wonderland party.
Estelle Hayes is a writer and artist living in Northern California and blogs at underapinkmoon.com