The Internet Craftsman

An exploration of why people like seeing things built online, and an introduction to the internet craftsperson– the new face of a sorta contradictory movement.

There’s an internet meme about falling asleep while watching YouTube, and waking up to a random auto-suggusted video of two men building a giant pool in the middle of the forest.

Despite (or because of) their strange simplicity, 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 repeatedly called into question, their impact remains the same– people on the internet love watching things be built.

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.

A Precedented Phenomenon

The phenomenon of fascination of things built is nothing new. The phrase Build in public has gripped startup and indie-hacker-spaces, encouraging transparency in the day-to-day activities that cumulate in apps or small 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 NPR 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.

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.

The Internet Craftsman

For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on people building physical things– construction, wood/metalworking, and pottery. 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 word internet”– I am not referring to individuals who do work in digital mediums or forms of distribution.

Technology is the main reason for the rise of the internet craftsman”. An entirely new generation of content creators on the internet has been enabled with cell phones and video sharing sites, and as a result, access to high quality media sharing about any topic 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 internet craftspeople to be born 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 majority of people who are watching that video likely 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. People like my grandfather could be elite internet craftsman– the nonobvious expertise held by people in his generation would fascinate the internet.

The Impact of ICs

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.

For better or for worse, by watching a video of a pool being built in a jungle, citizens of the internet get to feel like they belong to something larger than themselves without having to put in the effort to build anything or work with their hands.

Despite these negative externalities, the gratification that watching people building things provides differs from other activities supported by the internet.

While similar to internet pornography or social media in regards to its ability to providing frictionless dopamine, 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 the arts and crafts as a leisure activity or a career among younger generations.

Realizing how much time I spend online, 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.

July 17, 2022