The week of September 7, 2014

The democracy of the online DIY tutorial

By Marianne Kirby

My friends call me crafty. They mean I like to make things, that I have hobbies they think of as weird, and that I’m the go-to for facepainting at kids’ parties and short-notice makeup ideas when we’re all going out. But I think of it all under a different category: DIY.

When my refrigerator is leaking or I need my nails to look like ice cream cones, I am the kind of person who figures out how to fix it or make it happen myself. Thanks to a wide and willing world full of people who want to document their own solutions, answers are easy to find.

Fifteen years ago, this wouldn’t have been so true. A trip to the library and a helpful reference librarian would probably have necessary. The information I left with (if I left with any at all) would have come from experts. But now, because technology has made it so easy to find and share information, everyone is an expert.

The online iteration of the resurgence of DIY has been a hot media topic since knitting was rebranded in the early 2000s as being all of the best buzzwords: hip, fresh, and modern. Economic recession combined with greater access to high-quality materials produced a batch of young knitters (mostly women) who were able to enjoy a nicer end product than they might have otherwise afforded; the concept of making something by hand re-entered the mainstream, with a sidecar of slowing down to enjoy the handmade process in the bargain.

If everyone is an expert, then what happens to the real experts?

DIY is a handy mindset, a philosophy that’s been kicking around the U.S. since at least the 1950s, though it didn’t really take a radical turn until the late ’60s. Then, DIY became about explicitly reconnecting with fundamental skills like canning, sewing, construction, farming, raising farm animals, plumbing, electrical wiring, and more; it became about being able to do things for yourself that the American middle class had lost touch with and reclaiming that power from the educational system.

Knitting joined a proliferation of handmade crafts that fell into that fundamental category, with thousands taking up the needles in pursuit of economic and social liberation. And now, it’s all gone mainstream. DIY supplies like fabric, tools, art materials, and the like are estimated to be a roughly $30 billion industry.

The conversation happening in the early 2000s seemed primarily to focus on whether handcraft—knitting in particular—could be a feminist act. New knitting circles sprang up even where old knitting circles existed, often referring to themselves as Stitch ’n Bitches, a term that Debbie Stoller borrowed for her 2003 book title, Stitch ’n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook. (While Stoller has been credited by some for coining the term, it’s been in common usage since World War II.)

That’s nothing new—learn a skill, then teach that skill—only the technology for doing so has changed. With that technological shift, DIY culture has actually managed to realize the great democratization that is part of its ideological core.

DIY supplies like fabric, tools, art materials, and the like are estimated to be a roughly $30 billion industry.

One in every five people in the world owns a smartphone. How many of those people possess a skill they need, or can share with someone else by creating a tutorial? The answer to this question cuts to the heart of the discussion about online DIY. It’s not just about the explosion of craft culture but about how we define and value expertise as a concept.

Traditionally, “experts” have been experts in their fields, though the qualifications for that vary; online, “experts” seem to have become those people who get results. The primary danger of this shifting definition is that results aren’t always repeatable. This might not matter if you’re watching a tutorial for how to apply eyeliner, but it could be a much bigger deal if you’re following someone’s recipe to make your own mascara; eye infections aren’t actually fun.

Even so, I cannot resist a good (or even a mediocre) online tutorial—perhaps it’s down to esprit de DIY, but there is, in fact, something quite satisfying to knowing that other people are sitting in the same bandwagon as you, watching a video about how to peel garlic.

That video works; I can vouch for it because I’ve tried it. But it’s often hard to know if the tutorial you’re following is a good one until you’re way too committed to step back and evaluate. This is so common online that there’s even a meme—Nailed It—to share just how frustrating it is when you’ve found the place that expectations and reality diverge. Sometimes professional skills (and professional photography) really are required.

Kat Tanaka Okopnik, author and activist, summed up the pros and cons of anyone being able to post a how-to:

“I love having someone show me how to manage the tricky sequence of motions at three in the morning, over and over again without losing patience,” she told The Kernel. “I hate having to go through five different tutorials to find the one I really want, and having to do the fact and source and quality checking that a professional editor or publisher would have done for me.”

With that, Okopnik introduces the question readers have struggled with since self-publishing started to boom, thanks to the ease of computer processing and the proliferation of vanity presses: How do you tell the good from the bad? That question introduces another difficulty as well: If everyone is an expert, then what happens to the real experts?

And, in some cases, do we even care? Historically, men (white men in particular) have gotten to be the experts about things. This comes from their social power and access to resources. Now, people are redefining expertise through online media. Members of smaller social groups and communities have a chance to be heard, and to bring their skills to the digital table.

The easy accessibility of digital media tools means that someone who is looking for makeup tips that take into account his or her race is probably going to find a beauty blogger who has dealt with the same or similar issues. Writers looking to overcome their own inner critic plus internalized oppression are going to find Minal Hajratwala’s proposal course.

We want to see some reflection of ourselves in the Internet around us, even if we don’t see that reflection in our physical world.

And people really are looking, because we want to see some reflection of ourselves in the Internet around us, even if we don’t see that reflection in our physical world. (Ask me about my fat fashion blog habit. No, really.)

It doesn’t matter what you’re learning; someone online is probably teaching it. There’s an element of buyer beware and personal risk, but that’s overwhelmed by the freedom of information. Users assume the responsibility for their own actions, but isn’t that part of the DIY ethos anyway?

Expertise online becomes a local idea, created not through external validation but through sharing media across online platforms and building communities of people. Those who post reliable and interesting tutorials grow larger in the community, building a web of DIY authorities who sit outside traditional routes like having professional training and experience.

In that sense, the democratization of DIY is serving small communities who would not otherwise be able to share resources. The technology facilitates relationships we’d never be able to have without it. Through the power of my iPhone, I can stay in touch with friends, sure. But I can also initiate contact and ask that guy in New York how he made that tentacle quilt. I can search YouTube for rubber stamp carving videos and then leave a comment asking for clarification on a technique.

I can work not only to benefit from other people’s individual expertise, but help build a community in which we are all sharing knowledge. In that sense, we all become the new experts.

Photo via Russ Nelson/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)