NewHive: A "Blank Canvas" for the Super-Feed

Screenshot of booty by ana carrete from NewHive.

NewHive is a new service for creative expression online. Founded by Zach Verdin, Cara Buccifero, Andrew Sorkin (who later left the company), and Abram Clark in Seattle, the company launched in private beta in November 2011 with the public launch in 2012. The website describes itself as a "blank canvas" for expression on the web, offering users a drag-and-drop interface to construct anything they like, within the confines of a browser. 

This year has seen certain communities gravitate towards the site, with the new issue of poetry journal Pop Serial being built entirely on NewHive, and a visual mixtape featuring original tracks from a number of musicians launching in September. I'm interested in NewHive, and I like a lot of things that are made on it. I'm particularly interested in the alt lit community's attraction to it, perhaps because it is a convenient platform for people working with text to explore their practice in increasingly visual or hybrid ways. At the same time, I'm skeptical of its claim to be a "blank canvas," which obfuscates the aesthetic and political assumptions that it—that any cultural interface—reproduces.

To think about this further, I reached out to one of the company's founders, Zach Verdin, and a number of the artists who use it. The exchanges are reproduced in full below. The artists discuss NewHive in highly pragmatic terms, as a tool that fits seamlessly into an everyday creative practice, allowing them to create stuff easily and beyond the scope of other existing platforms. Verdin also cites the simplicity of NewHive, but frames it in much loftier terms. He and his co-founders refer to self-expression as a "universal truth," alongside food, water, and shelter. When, in our conversation, Verdin described the website as "magic," it was in keeping with the idealistic language that often surrounds tech startups, but it was also hard not to think of it as sleight-of-hand, coming as it does from a founder who stands to profit greatly if the site continues to succeed.

One reason to think it might do so is the way in which newhives can be conveniently inserted into the feeds of other sites such as Facebook. The site's aim for its content (which it used to refer to as "expressions" and is now calling "newhives") to be as conveniently redistributable as YouTube can be seen as one of its central aesthetic impositions or constraints. Still, I feel excited that, even as our web habits are increasingly dominated by endless scrolling, there is a new social platform online that isn't Tumblr or Twitter and that explicitly encourages weirdness.  I look forward to seeing more diverse types of multimedia practices popping up all over the super-feed. 

Zach Verdin, CEO NewHive

Why did you decide to start NewHive?

NewHive started as a conversation about how we wanted to interact with each other online, and has gone through various transformations since. When the first version of NewHive was built, we were living very simply on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle. We wanted a reflection of that experience in a digital space. Our focus was on the "four universal truths" as we saw them--food, water, shelter, and self-expression. We sought to provide people with a blank canvas, space for self-expression, and a network of allies. We also talked a lot about the democratization of media, before it was a buzzword, and our intention became to effectively create culture. What we found was that a whole new type of art has emerged on NewHive. In the past year we've become especially committed to fostering these new multi-media art forms by recognizing, supporting, and promoting emerging and established artists whose work we find pushes the edge, and excites us.

Do you see yourselves as a community or a tool?

NewHive is a multimedia publishing platform with a very powerful user interface for creating web pages and Network. Some of the manifestations we've seen are for Art with a capital "A", art with a lowercase "a", poetics, academia, music, social commentary, gallery shows, diaries, and embedding newhives into websites that have limitations on their own visual capabilities, or would require a large of amount of technical expertise. In the coming months our homepage is going to become a curatorial destination, with new projects featured regularly, and we also want people to take their newhive's into other realms—both URL and IRL—and create their own communities.

Does NewHive have a "world" it exists in, such as the art world or the tech world? Or would it rather challenge these types of distinctions?

It is the people that use NewHive who challenge these distinctions. They are the ones who are taking their newhives into new realms, and creating new realms. We're just providing them with the space and the tools.

Do you have people who use NewHive who are not artists? If so, what kind of function does the website serve for them?

Yes, a lot of people use it for play and experimentation. Newhives have functioned as visual diaries and written diaries. There have been essays, music videos, a songbook, collages, a compilation of physics information. There are also a number of universities that use it for class projects.

I'm intrigued that you mentioned (in conversation with me) that you thought of yourselves as a "YouTube for webpages". Could you talk about that? Would you ever imagine NewHive existing on the same scale as YouTube?

Yes, that's true in terms of the ability to put newhives into different places online. We have a similar embed capability to YouTube, in that newhives are transportable. Providing this kind of interoperability is core to our ethos.

I think the real question is whether multimedia art will impact culture like music and film have. My sense is that it will. We're at a moment where tools for artistic expression are becoming more accessible and people are seeking out this content on a massive scale. NewHive is leading a movement which focuses on ease of use for everyone - from classically trained artists to tumblr kids. Allowing people to share video content regardless of technical expertise is what YouTube accomplished, and NewHive does the same for webpages.

HTML/CSS on the web is already quite democratic - you can, for the most part, look at source code, copy, paste, steal, rework. Is NewHive, as a drag and drop builder, further democratising this process, or enclosing it? Or are those the wrong terms with which to think about what you guys are doing?

There are obviously lots of hardcore coders online who enjoy writing HTML, and for those people we're working on a code editor. For those who aren't code junkies, one good way to teach people to code is to view it through the lens of art. Also, to make it playful. By allowing people to communicate visually, we open the web up for people who can envision what they want a page to look like, but have felt limited by a terminal. Some of those same people are now adding custom CSS and JS libraries to their newhives, which is exciting.

Might we think of newhives as commodities or products? Or not?

NewHive is a new way to communicate. We believe there is magic when pure expression finds an inspired audience, and that creative expression, technology, and Capitalism don't have to be mutually exclusive. In many ways an artist today is put in the position of being a digital strategist and a business person. We'd like to allow each artists to control how their art is accessed and priced. First and foremost though, we'd like to think of NewHive as a form of magic. 

Stephen Michael McDowell, writer

Why have you gravitated towards NewHive as a platform for expression?

once i was introduced to newhive & realized its capabilities i felt somehow both in-awe & nostalgic. when i talk abt it to ppl who havent heard of it i refer to it as 'what i thought the internet was going to be when i 1st heard abt it in the 90s, before realizing that learning html & css were prerequisites to doing anything fun'. i feel like its the obvious choice for anyone doing creative work. the website seems as obvious & essential to me as an artist now as adobe suite & i imagine that future iterations of newhive may render some adobe programs ridiculous & archaic.

Do you see your work on NewHive as an extension of your writing, or as a wholly different process or medium altogether?

around the same time i was introduced to newhive i was hearing increasingly more abt the philosophical concept of the "holon" & was introduced to thinkers like terence mckenna who was convinced the universe is "fractal". since then ive begun viewing all of my work as extensions of everything i do. i think newhive is a catalyzing agent for ppl w internet access to learn to draw less distinctions between different media. part of what ideas like hip hop, 'alt lit', & net art have cultivated the past decade is that everyone is a curator of their own personal space. inventing & discerning between processes / media is something systemically oppressive systems do to control markets & the process is no longer necessary for those slightly more self-aware of these forces. newhive enables me to view my work as art, literature, & performance simultaneously, which is something i relish.

How much is the community an important part of NewHive?

i think on any platform or in any space where ideas are shared the community aspect is essential. bc newhive is currently primarily a place for personal expression i feel like feedback & validation from other members of the community is valuable but not entirely necessary. like any other social platform whether it be tumblr, facebook, twitter, et al, 'likes' & shares are a fun way to acknowledge affecting content & initiate dialogue on other social media more prone to discourse. many of my irl & facebook friends also have newhive accts & seeing what theyve been making has become part of my daily routine. im always excited by what ppl like catch business, penny goring, ana carrete & blare are doing. i expect that newhive plans to expand the sharing / commenting capabilities of the platform in the near future, but as an extension of already extant social media newhive is, in my view, the ideal place to explore ideas & sharing in ways the minimally customizable popular social websites cannot

Do you think you'd be able to make the stuff you're making on NewHive on any other programme or website?

sure, but not until id have already heard of / seen work on newhive. is a similar platform ive been familiar w for abt the same amnt of time, but that platforms users near-ubiquitous focus on net art, collage & monetization seem almost classist / alienating to me. newhive seems more versatile & doesnt seem to 'push' any element of the interface more than another, its equal parts blogging, collage / drawing software, dynamic music-sharing space, & programming playground. most popular websites make what ppl now do on newhive seem impractical, dysfunctional, & incomprehensible, but bc of its similarities to old myspace, ytmnd, & other web 1.0 media, ive grown to feel this lvl of freedom seems to be what most literate internet users crave. facebook & tumblr continually disallow personalization as their templates evolve to present themselves as more accessible to growing audiences. i think a space where 'anything goes' is a long-awaited reprise to what made me excited abt the internet in the late 90s. newhive is currently—& i hope will continue to be—a space where ppl have to define for themselves what 'expression' means, which seems 'fresh' & almost uncanny amidst the growing predictability of mass-market platforms. also, bc of newhives drag-&-drop user interface i think it cld 'revolutionize' how ppl think of the idea of 'web design', which is a reputation no other website i can think of seems vaguely interested in cultivating 

Molly Soda, artist

Molly Soda, Up in the Clouds.


In what ways do you find NewHive a useful tool for your art?

NewHive pushes my work further... i've always liked making websites that exist as pieces and are perhaps less functional than say, a portfolio website... the interface makes it easier for me to seamlessly and quickly produce that sort of content, which makes me want to create more pieces in that style.

Do you think it can push you towards making new types of art, like hybrid things that wouldn't have been possible otherwise?

 totally, it's all about access to tools that once seemed too complicated or daunting. you don't have to be a coding wizard to understand how to make interesting content.

Do you find NewHive more useful as a technology, or as a way of connecting you with new people, and your art with a new audience? Or is it more of an existing audience that is able to see a more expanded art practice?

it's a bit of everything. newhive has sort of helped me create larger and more interesting bodies of work (on nearly a weekly basis) for my audience to see, which is pretty cool.

Do you use the site to avoid coding, or to have greater accessibility to coding/different types of code?

at first i was avoiding coding, i get frustrated really easily, but i've actually been learning how to code by testing things on newhive and it sort of has helped me learn how to do things i once thought were too complicated. i still want to throw my computer against a wall all of the time though ;)

Do you find NewHive nostalgic or progressive?

a little bit of both. it's like... future angelfire/geocities? 

Penny Goring, artist

What attracts you to making stuff on NewHive?

i can make stuff i can't do anywhere else unless i write code.

Text seems an important part of your NewHive compositions, and is an aspect of them i really love. Is this something that you feel has been accentuated by NewHive, or is this an interest in your digital image making more generally?

oh cool, thanks. yea, i been using words n language across all mediums since... forever. (in sketch books, collage, paintings, etc. and more recently in image macros and gifs, now on NewHive too, i stick words everywhere - words as objects, i'm arranging them.)

the first thing i made on NewHive was 'EVERYWHERE CLOUD', a collection of 35 click-thru pages based around 1 poem. 

I'm really into some of the text and image hybrids I've seen on NewHive, and was wondering if you saw this as an important part of the site also.

image/text mix = image macros, has been going on in alt lit for ages = a bunch of poets putting words on pics = poems, and now, on NewHive, they can be ultramacros.

Do you think of NewHive more like a community or like a tool?

NewHive is a tool. the community can also be used as a tool: useful for audience/validation, flow of ideas, taking the pulse.

How important is the remixing aspect of NewHive to you, in making it unique as a website or appealing as a user experience?

i use the remix feature to pinch other people's code and make my own stuff with it, i don't wanna get bogged down with the details of coding, i just wanna use it in a happenstance way, remixin feels naughty, it's fast, and it's casual.