The Internet Craftsman
An exploration of why construction videos are so popular online, and an introduction to the new face of this movement– the internet craftsperson.
I need to face the fact that I spend the vast majority of my life on the internet. After spending six hours sitting twiddling my thumbs in Zoom meetings and spending time in the hyperactive hive mind of a startup, my time is spent watching movies (made available by the internet), reading books (downloaded from the internet), and catching up with friends (through the internet). Most of my pastimes have been virtualized, now just an interface on a screen simulating their real-world counterparts. As I contemplated how sad it was that my life had been agglomerated onto a bitmap touchscreen, I realized that craftsmanship as a pastime presented itself as an anomaly in the field of digitized recreation.
There’s a long-running internet meme about falling asleep while watching videos on popular streaming platform YouTube and waking up to watching a random video of two men building a giant pool in the middle of the forest. “Genius builders!” one commenter exclaims. However amusing, these kinds of “forest construction” videos get millions of views and their creators hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
While the legitimacy of these sort of videos has been contested, their impact remains the same– people on the internet love watching things be built.
Entire genres has sprung up around the popularity of watching things be built online. On short-form video sharing platform TikTok, videos about assembling wood joinery or showing off a sophisticated costume with mechanical workings garner millions of views across hundreds of countries.
For some clarity, the phenomenon of fascination of things built is nothing new. The phenomenon of “Build in public” gripping startup and indie-hacker-spaces encourages transparency in the day-to-day activities that cumulate in small apps or businesses. The Italian cultural phenomenon of Umarell describes fathers or old people that ‘supervise’ a construction site. Think of your dad who might go outside and “take a look at what the neighbor’s building”, and give unsolicited advice about what tools they should be using while doing none of the work themselves. Shows on national public radio like “How I Built This” are dedicated to telling the stories of individuals and collectives who have made a name for themselves by building successful products or movements.
The focus of this piece however, is on physical crafts like construction, wood/metalworking, and pottery. For this purpose, I will call individuals who showcase their work through fine art or architecture to a curated audience online “internet craftsmen/craftspeople”. The identity of the craftsman as a person who is “skilled in a particular [physical] craft” should not be diluted by the modifier “internet”– I am not referring to individuals who do work in digital mediums or forms of distribution.
A reason for the rise of the “internet craftsman” as it were, is simply their power in numbers. An entirely new generation of content creators on the internet has been enabled with tools like cell phones and video sharing sites and as a result, access to high quality media sharing is more distributed than ever.
If 45 years ago you were a master woodworker, the work that you would perform would be for members of your community and you’d have a much more difficult time trying to showcase your work. The influence of the network effect on viewership means posting to the platform with the most viewers, causing new internet craftspeople to be minted every day, opening up opportunities for a commission to be sent halfway across the world.
The attention that internet craftspeople get online might also be fueled by the dissemination of long-unshared knowledge, and genuine sense curiosity on the part of the audience. The vast majority of people who are likely watching that video have no reason to be building something themselves, and may take to new and obscure information more easily through digital mediums. During a recent visit to my grandparents, I got a 30 minute crash course on the function of an engine and the differences in efficacy and reliability between a turbo and non-turbo engine. This information wouldn’t have been as obscure as I imagined it to be if my grandfather was an internet craftsman of sorts– the nonobvious expertise held by people in his generation are only new being uncovered by the internet.
In watching the video, citizens of the internet get to feel like they belong to something larger than themselves, all without having to put in the effort to build anything or work with their hands. With the nuance of craft flattened on social media platforms, posting videos about a person’s craft might limit the appreciation a viewer might develop for the lifetimes of refinement and practice that have gone into a person’s work.
Despite this negative externality, the instant gratification that watching people build things provides differentiates itself from other activities supported by the internet. While similar to internet pornography or social media in regards to its ability to providing frictionless fulfillment, the ability for internet craftspeople to share and monetize their work to a wider audience is a boon to the world of tradespeople. The visibility of this new generation of internet denizens may even sow the seeds for a movement to restore the popularity of arts and crafts as a leisure activity among younger generations.
There is a paradoxical beauty in the contradiction between craftsmanship– an act of extreme patience resistant to change– being shared in social media networks characterized by impatience and novelty. This contrast between the medium of the work and mediums of distribution is what I believe to be the charm that entrances millions across the globe to watch people build things online.
In realizing how much of my time is spent roaming a virtualized world, I felt compelled to pick up a ‘craft’ of my own– something devoid of all input from social media that is a more intimate expression of my feelings and ideas.
Not quite knowing where to start, I opened YouTube in a new tab and typed “wood block printing for beginners” in hopes that I might learn from an internet craftsperson who had decided to share their secrets with the world.