‹ View all briefings
August 23, 2020

The Age of the Remix

Modern work tools like Notion, Airtable, and Coda are "remix machines," positioning traditional information in new configurations. I propose three areas for new founders to target.

Photo by

Bob Dylan was a thief.

At least, that’s how the argument goes. In 1963, the Minnesota native released his second album. Whereas Dylan’s self-titled first work had flopped, selling a mere 5,000 copies and prompting management at Columbia Records to consider dropping him, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was a smash. Not only did it sell 10,000 copies a month out of the gate, it propelled Dylan to sudden fame. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates would later describe his startling baritone as “if sandpaper could sing.” Nearly overnight, the man born Robert Zimmerman was heralded the “voice of a generation.”

There was just one problem. Much of his work was stolen.

“Masters of War?” The melody had been snatched from the music of Jean Ritchie.

“With God on Our Side?” Half-borrowed from Dominic Behan.

The iconic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright?” Lyrics lifted from a Paul Clayton ballad.

Perhaps stolen is the wrong term, though many used it to describe Dylan’s liberal appropriations. After all, didn’t Dylan add his own inimitable twist to each version, bringing something to life that no else had, that no one else could? He had done more than steal. Dylan had borrowed, then transformed. Copied then remade. In short, he had remixed.

This isn’t to denigrate the masterpieces of a genius, but to recognize what it means to be creative. What it means to be a maker of things. In the short documentary series, “Everything is a Remix” (of which this article is a remix; meta) filmmaker Kirby Ferguson argues that what we call “creativity” is really the output of three distinct actions: copying, transforming, and combining. The world of art, music, film — the sum of the world’s creativity, in truth — relies on this process, whether the outcome is a Michael Bay movie or a Kazuo Ishiguro novel. Jean Luc-Godard, the French auteur, was supposed to have noted, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

Technology is no exception. In one of his episodes, Ferguson outlines the way in which the Apple Macintosh borrowed from Xerox’s Alto, cribbing the latter’s graphical interface and mouse design. Apple also modified it, bringing a PC to the masses at a fraction of the price, and adding intuitive features like the “Trash Can” and double-click. It was, inevitably, a remix.

For a more modern example, we need only turn to tech’s biggest story from the past week or so. Fortnite is a quintessential remix. As a matter of fact, it’s a remix of a remix of a remix that eviscerated a trillion-dollar company with a remix (of a remix). It is a Matryoshka doll of remixes. Observe a few moments from the game's history.

  1. In 2011, a team at Epic, inspired by the success of “building” games like Minecraft and Terraria, set out to start a new genre. They hoped to combine the world-creation of those games with Epic's own shooter sensibilities — a remix.
  2. In 2017, Fortnite releases “Save the World,” an RPG game. It sells solidly if unspectacularly. Observing the success of PUBG — a battle royale game inspired by a mod of a mod — Epic refactors their new property, borrowing the format. Two months later, they release “Fortnite: Battle Royale.” Out of the gate, it electrifies.
  3. In 2020, Fortnite invites players to bypass Apple and Google’s in-app payment systems. When Apple retaliates, Epic sues and releases a video. The film, entitled “Nineteen Eight Fortnite,” riffs on Apple’s famous “1984” commercial, which took inspiration from George Orwell’s novel. (The Orwell estate ended up suing Apple and creative agency Chiat/Day for borrowing too liberally).

We could keep going, of course. Within each decision, every artistic choice or question of gameplay, refactorings lurk. Creativity is rarely, if ever, a bolt from the blue — it’s more a case of turtles, all the way down, a fractal chain of inspiration.

Over the past few years, products have emerged that understand this fundamental truth, grasping that work and creation are matters of remixing. Below, we dig into three categories of contemporary "remix machines" and explore opportunities.

Remixing work tools

Fire up the synth and lay down a bassline: it’s time to remix Microsoft Office. Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are all being modded to increase productivity and unlock new functionality. Many remix features from across the suite to create a sort of super-tool, though they often maintain the UI of their dominant inspiration.

Word

Recently, we've seen the humble word processor get refactored. Tools have emerged that make it easier to splice additional functionality into the writing process, build off other users' work, or draw on one's own ideas. In each case, the result is a type of remixing.

Notion is the pre-eminent example of the first class of Word remixers, designed to incorporate wide functionality. With a simple tap of the “/” key, a dropdown of options emerge. In seconds, users can add a calendar, spreadsheet, Kanban board, or InVision file to their document, turning it into something beyond a Word file. It is a piece of software with the range of Swedish House Mafia, a grabber of samples, remixer of components. Coda offers a similar promise, though perhaps borrows from Excel more liberally.

Others take a different tack while drawing from the same source material. Almanac, recipient of a $9M seed round, focuses on a different use case: remixing others' work. Documents are made open-source, expressly setting them up for forking and reconfiguration. Users can find a cold-email template, or remote management playbook in minutes, modding it to fit their specifications. The user, inevitably, creates something new, but explicitly draws on one or more sources of inspiration.

Roam, the note-taking tool, is an example of the final type of Word remixer. The company narrows the focus of Almanac but retains the same impetus. Rather than remixing others, taking a template and changing it to suit individual needs, Roam is about remixing oneself. Users pull previous thinking into their current flow with a range of shortcuts and backlinks. Once again, work product (in this case, prior notes) is componentized, then built upon.

Powerpoint

Polished tools have emerged in the last couple of years, seeking to unseat Powerpoint. Unlike with Word, there do not seem to be distinct approaches among insurgents. All lean into templatization and serve a wider range of media types.

Projector and Pitch are direct Powerpoint replacements that allow for remixing. Templates are available to simplify creation, and new features make it straightforward to construct graphs and diagrams without leaving the tool. They are quietly evolutionary, improving on usability, rather than revolutionary.

Further afield, Kapwing and Canva fulfill part of Powerpoint’s purpose — making content worth showing — but also go beyond the incumbent. Both have embraced different types of media, particularly content made for social channels. They've built specific tooling to match. Sure, you could create a meme to get the guys at HQ guffawing with Microsoft's Old Faithful, but it’s much easier to do so in Kapwing. The result is Powerpoint, remixed for millennials and Gen Z.

Excel

For all its foibles and inaccessibility, Excel remains beloved by many. To win share, remixers seem to have taken three different approaches. Some have leaned into database features, others look to bring financial modeling to life, and others still have sought to simply sit on top of the platform, adding features for power users.

Airtable is the canonical Excel-meets-database tool. The startup has managed to win users with an intuitive interface and powerful feature set. Coda, as mentioned above, crosses categories but delivers on a similar promise. Clay alights on Excel and Airtable before spinning off in the direction of Zapier.

While Airtable is a substitute for Excel in many ways, it is not built for financial modeling. Insurgents have emerged to tackle this use case. Causal provides financial templates that are easier to construct and are interactive. Rather than spending hours building your next model from scratch, you could start with one of the company's prompts, enter a few assumptions, and end up with an information-rich graph. Runway, a tool from the Long Term Stock Exchange, provides a similar, though more narrowly focused offering.

Finally, companies like Spreadsheet.com, Cube, Layer seek to remix the Green Machine with a lighter touch. Spreadsheet.com ingests information from Excel and Google Sheets, offering additional project management and collaboration. Cube and Layer sit on top of these traditional tools, automating repetitive tasks.

Remixing code

Financial analysts, consultants, and other non-technical workers are not the only ones whose tools are being remixed. Increasingly, we’re seeing software modify and supercharge the work of developers. These products simplify the creation of both internal and external software products.

Internal

Retool is a particularly linear example. Whereas in the past, a dev team might have spent days or weeks home-growing internal tooling for a set of bespoke use-cases, they can now turn to Retool. In a fraction of the time, they can piece together an internal dashboard complete with forms, tables, maps, and wizards. In that respect, Retool is remixing open-source components, custom code, and drag-and-drop builders. Internal, a competitor, serves the same use-case.

External

Webflow and other “no-code” web builders like Bubble and Wix, take a similar approach, though they focus on the external. Existing components can be leveraged to build more quickly, while tailored functionality allows for the creation of “software” with either little additional code or a few mouse clicks. Clutch is a particularly robust example in this space, boasting a “component marketplace,” including registration modals, date pickers, and more. Companies like Draftbit, Glide, and Thunkable serve the mobile app market to the same effect.

Just as in the traditional work tool space, software development is being remixed with the help of new tools.

Remixing opportunities

Not all remixes are created equally. Would the Macintosh have attained the same success had it sought inspiration from the mouse-less TRS-80? Would Fornite have become a cultural phenomenon by pilfering from one of 2017’s other mega-hits, Clash of Clans?

While there is an infinite number of directions this conversation could take, there are three areas I think are ripe for remixing.

Converging feedback and production

By bringing work tools into the cloud, real-time communication and collaboration became possible. You don't have to send redlined Word documents back and forth; you can comment and amend all in the same Google Doc. You don't have to save marked-up versions of a design file; you can work as a team in Figma. The fundamental value in these products is in compressing the distance between work and feedback. While this playbook has added immense value to many, it’s not a feature that’s distributed across functions.

Recently, I’ve seen challengers attempt to bring this tooling to different work products. Jam allows teams to comment directly on their website, making it easier for stakeholders to share feedback without necessitating screenshots, Slack messages, or a sloppy Google document. Bubbles takes a broader approach, allowing users to mark up “anything on their screen,” meaning communication can take place across the web.

Gitduck compresses the distance between output and collaboration in a different way. A remix of Zoom, Google Docs, and Sublime, Gitduck lets developers jump into a video call in which code is shared. Pair programming is made simpler, among other tasks.

It’s easy to envision the many ways this remix opportunity might play out, serving different disciplines, or taking on an altered form. Could we see a version of Bubbles that remixes data science tooling? Will there be a Jam for writers? I love the idea of readers suggesting copy edits, ad infinitum, turning everything into a living document.

Perhaps we will see something else, something grander, a commenting function writ-large embedded across browsers and apps. Rap Genius once sought to fulfill Marc Andreessen's dream of an "annotated web." Their success has been narrow. Could someone step in, focusing on team communication and feedback?

Extending “teams”

Implicitly, I believe that we are all part of many “teams.” We may not conceive of them that way, but there are groups of people with whom we align ourselves, whom we feel motivated to help by a tangible or intangible incentive. That might be something as literal as money — employees are certainly part of a “team” — or as abstract as being liked.

Though it is not something I often think of, I am probably on dozens of teams. I have friends starting companies I want to help, colleagues working on new projects, and any number of loose ties pursuing dreams of their own. And yet, beyond the occasional call or text, some small action, it remains difficult to contribute.

What if we could better align the mass of people on our respective teams? Give them a clearer direction of how to help?

Wikipedia, open-source software communities, and crypto projects exemplify the power of a motivated community. By providing guidelines, setting constraints and controls, and offering incentives, entirely decentralized groups construct works of nuance and complexity.

How can this be harnessed for the average organization or even individual? What would a framework look like?

Last week, after sharing the announcement that I was going full-time on The Generalist, I was grateful to hear from many readers and friends offering to help. I know I could use it, and yet I don’t know how to begin. What would it mean to “open-source” The Generalist, allowing motivated parties to pull down tasks as you would from Asana? How could that be done while ensuring quality was unwavering?

As the saying goes, “None of us is as smart as all of us.” We need tools that help remix the strength of extended communities with individual goals.

Storytelling across media types

Humans are compelled towards narratives. Though technology has minted plenty of native mediums — short video and short text, for example — it feels as if we’ve only scratched the surface of what might be possible. That feels particularly true when viewed through the lens of remixing.

What would it mean to strip a podcast down to a component, then use it in an article? What about an Instagram story? A tweet? A statistic? A game?

In the future, perhaps I will be able to write a newsletter that elegantly forks, depending on your interests, or changes as you read and interact with it. Another edition might embed audio in certain portions — by hovering over a word, you could hear an aside in my voice.

Maybe we will have podcasts that borrow from games. I imagine a choose-your-own-adventure, released every week, navigated by voice.

The technology for this and more is available, but current tooling is insufficient. For all of the social networks available, storytellers need more “remix machines.”

Thirty-eight years later, and Bob Dylan was still at it. When he released an album in 2001, accusations of appropriation rose again. In the song “Floater,” Dylan sings, “My old man, he’s like some feudal lord.” That line bore more than a passing resemblance to one from a book, released a decade earlier. In Confessions of a Yakuza, a character remarked, “My old man would sit there like a feudal lord.”

Dylan knew what he was doing, of course. This was a man who had borrowed his own name, after all, choosing the moniker ‘Dylan’ in reference to the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. In a nod to the cynics, he titled the album, Love and Theft. As we look ahead at the next era of building, tools that aspire to ubiquity would do well to take Dylan’s view of things. To create, you must first copy. To be original, you must first be reductive. And to devise something genuinely novel, you must remix.