The week of September 7, 2014

The Internet’s DIY oasis is a mirage

By Chris Osterndorf

For the not-so-handy, the culinarily inept, the overextended, under-experienced but still curious masses out there, never fear—the Internet is here to help you. The solution: Do it yourself.

If you’re unfamiliar with with the concept of DIY (the online abbreviation for the aforementioned sentiment), the only logical explanation is that you’ve abandoned the Internet entirely. In addition to the popular DIY Network, DIY sections are huge on Reddit, BuzzFeed, and most famously, the photo-sharing site Pinterest. The cousin of DIY is the idea of life hacks, which are essentially less crafty ways to up your efficiency while saving time and money. This topic, too, has become an Internet phenomenon.

As of late though, the DIY fad has become so pervasive that it’s starting to wear a bit thin. DIY projects and life hacks can be great, but only when they actually work, which is far from all the time. And then there’s their sneakily time-consuming nature, which chips away at the foundation they were built upon to begin with. There’s no doubt that the DIY oasis of the Internet is grand, but when you look closer, it becomes apparent that much of it is also a mirage.

By now, the meaning and implications of DIY have become vast and complex. Doing it yourself is no longer just about turning ordinary items into decorations or transforming your household appliances. Last year, ABC ran a report on “The World of DIY Prosthetics.” And as far back as 2010, the term DIY was ingrained enough in the culture that the New York Times published a piece by Nicholas Kristoff on what essentially amounts to a grassroots kind of do-it-yourself activism.

There’s always something that you could be doing better or faster.

In the article, Kristoff focuses specifically on Elizabeth Scharpf, a Harvard Business School student who discovered that women in developing nations were missing work and school because they didn’t have adequate access to feminine hygiene products. Scharpf decided to do something about it herself.

“Scharpf joined a revolution, so far unnamed because it is just beginning. It’s all about what might be called Do-It-Yourself Foreign Aid, because it starts with the proposition that it’s not only presidents and United Nations officials who chip away at global challenges,” Kristoff wrote. “Passionate individuals with great ideas can do the same, especially in the age of the Internet and social media.” Kristoff goes on to state that the best part of this Web-based humanitarianism is the way it spreads, noting other individuals who have done it themselves, the way Sharp did. “Fortunately,” he wrote, “one factor buttressing D.I.Y. foreign aid is that altruism is contagious.”

Efforts like Scharpf’s are undeniably noble and take the whole notion of what DIY can be with the power of the Internet at hand to new and exciting levels. That said, most Web-based discussions of DIY continue to be about finding ways to make everyday life easier.

And this is also where the innate problems arise, because in their relatability, DIY and life hack links are clickbait of the of the most potent kind. The system that they operate within is like most any other highly functioning system: It’s about making money. Obviously, for those who have found fulfillment through the world of DIY and life hacks, this isn’t an issue. But it’s important to be aware that in the end, this system doesn’t operate based on improving your life—it operates based on keeping you coming back for more. Because there’s always something that you could be doing better or faster.

The DIY oasis of the Internet is grand, but when you look closer, it becomes apparent that much of it is also a mirage.

The irony in this is the same irony that permeates all that is related to modern technology: the easier everything is supposed to get, the more complicated everything actually becomes. Slate’s Evgeny Moroz analyzed this very paradox in 2013.

“Coined by the technology journalist Danny O’Brien in 2004, the term life hack quickly became staple of techspeak. … The original thinking behind ‘lifehacking’ was intriguing. Why not use technology to get things done more effectively and have more time for oneself… In practice, of course, things are more complicated. As ‘lifehacking’ becomes an industry with its own blogs and book-length guides, a good chunk of the freed-up time often goes to fix, upgrade, or replace the very tools and programs that make lifehacking possible. Is there anything more self-defeating than using technology to free up your time—so that you can learn how to do an even better job at it?”

It shouldn’t come as a shock that by now, some people are starting to get fed up with the growing obsession with DIY and life hacks. The amount of failed and all-around pointless endeavours that this trend has spawned have become their own form of online entertainment as of late. Internet mini-tycoon John Green gave voice to the frustration therein when he did a segment on his Mental Floss YouTube show that debunked 30 popular life hacks. (He has since done a sequel.)

Others are just exhausted by the whole brand that this movement has implemented. After BuzzFeed took a trip to Pinterest’s perfectly DIY-polished offices last week, Jezebel’s Kelly Faircloth penned a “regularly scheduled reminder that you should not feel obligated to commit D.I.Y.”

Expressing dismay at the widespread permeation of the DIY ethos, Faircloth declared: “I know many people love D.I.Y. and very much enjoy it as a leisure activity! But just looking at that wall o’ supplies makes my palms sweat thinking about trying to mesh with the corporate culture of Pinterest. … Every time I pull so much as instant biscuits out of the oven I’m marginally amazed at myself for pulling it off. The only D.I.Y. I’m interested in would be Outlander knitwear and even then I’m just going to hire my vastly more talented cousin to make anything I truly must have. D.I.Y. is for the birds.”

Earlier this year, Nikil Saval at the Pacific Standard looked at the Internet’s desire to discover quick solutions and easy upgrades from a more insidious angle. For Saval, DIY is not merely annoying or time-wasting—it’s counterproductive and harmful for any thinking person.

We all got along fine before life hacks lists and Pinterest boards.

“The life-hacking industry has created pseudo-intellectuals who sell useless advice about how to arrange your pantry or devise a better storage system for winter clothes (plus, someone has to program those self-monitoring apps),” Saval wrote. “But mostly life-hacking threatens to turn every aspect of life into a task to be managed. It enlarges the amount of work to be done, in a way that—typical, maybe, of today’s economy—creates virtually no jobs, except pointless ones.”

Saval’s take here is severe and mildly reactionary, but he does manage to plug into the primary limitations of DIY and life hacks.

DIY and life hacks are extended solutions to simple tasks. In essence, they provide detailed procedures where you once would have trusted yourself to figure it out. This is best encapsulated in this GIF, demonstrating a fancy way to fold a shirt, versus this GIF, making fun of the previous one.

DIY is a fun distraction, no question about it. And opposed to most time-wasters, it’s possible that looking at DIY tips can lead to something productive. But you don’t need to be connected to the grid to be handy. We all got along fine before life hacks lists and Pinterest boards. And while those things are a fine source of enjoyment once in awhile, you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re not into them. The point of the DIY craze is to improve your life, not to become a lifestyle in and of itself.

So even if you’re not tying your shoes right, don’t sweat it. Learning the correct method wouldn’t hurt, but you’ve got by this long without it, haven’t you?

Illustration by Max Fleishman