Interface Vernacular and the Aspirational Performance of Software Tutorials Online
The obnoxiously intrusive whine of the computer fan gives them away. The tool of production always finds a way, no matter how bluntly, to assert its presence.
But the delicate touches that truly convey the mise-en-scène of amateur software tutorials on YouTube can include an array of subtle nuances: the verbal crutches and hollow platitudes of filler chatter as the narrator’s operating system struggles beneath the processor burden brought on by screen recording software; the dead-air occupied by the sad plastic rhythm of the mouse’s click or the Command-key’s recoil; the obligatory, but often hesitant and drawn-out sign-off at the video’s conclusion, a sure indicator that the amateur tutor is struggling to remember if he’s forgetting any critical detail or final thought.
Today, the software tutorial video — more personable and narratively linear than the user manual that preceded it — has become an important means through which many individuals not only learn to navigate and use software and operating system interfaces, but also find a meaningful forum to insert themselves, as consumers, into the discourse of designed interactions and experiences. The screen-captured video tutorial, uploaded to YouTube and shared on social media, grants the user a sense of dominion over the scripted digital processes that she or he negotiates on a daily basis. It turns the menu-drop, the mouse-click, the drag, the scroll, and the hotkey shortcut into a set of performative gestures — expressions of personal autonomy, charged with meaning and indelibly marked with human intention — and represents an increasingly important, and often overlooked, space for users to convey and assert meaning upon the otherwise detached and impersonal expanse of digital workspace.
Software tutorials videos, like so many artifacts of the world of DIY, fall somewhere along an inverted bell-curve [see Fig. 1], where watchability is lowest exactly at the center of the conglomerate of professionalism, production value, and apparent competence with the given software. Videos produced for Lynda or the Khan Academy fall to the right-side extreme on this graph, with seamless production and coherent discursive arc. Occupants of the left-side extreme often reside, as all loose things on the Internet will eventually land, on YouTube.
While any number of programs will accumulate their attendant suite of user-made tutorial videos, Trimble’s free 3D modeling software, SketchUp, provides a compellingly rich combination of qualities, which bestow a particularly amateurish, uncontrolled, and interestingly improvised tone to the work produced and the tutorials that accompany that work. By comparison, tools in the Adobe Creative Suite, and most other video and photographic editing software, cater to a distinctly “prosumer” mentality, where the ambition is always to surpass, blur, and ultimately erase the line between amateur and professional production. And the tutorial videos that accompany and affirm this prosumer posture tend to be similarly sober, predictable, and task oriented. They are distinctly by-the-book, strongly enamored with the “Official” way of doing things, and leave little room for improvisation.
But SketchUp, in its stubborn insistence on ease of use, relatively low hardware requirements, and entry level community oriented positioning, attracts a messier, more brazenly cavalier crowd to the task of instructional video making. This could be because SketchUp already embodies, in its very existence, a fantasy around user affordance and professional production. An MP4 or MOV file isn’t any less a film — in the strict sense of an image sequence with audio accompaniment — than any blockbuster currently in theatrical release. But a digital file ending in the extension SKP is decidedly not a building.
A SketchUp user would have to be crazy to think that her skyscraper design could be taken through the building process with only cursory knowledge of SketchUp. But then, why would a 3D design software — oriented toward “the people who shape the physical world” — exist at all, if not to encourage and invite the pursuit of this fantasy?
SketchUp users are architects, designers, builders, makers and engineers. They are the people who shape the physical world. They are important, and they deserve great tools because great tools produce great work. Great tools are ones you look forward to using. They do one thing (or maybe two) really, really well. They let you do what you want without having to figure out how.
— The SketchUp Story
These videos make manifest the soaring promises and crushing disappointments of professional software tools, when placed in the hands of amateurs. To screen capture and narrate one’s own tutorial video is to cast oneself as the star in a reality program of computational mastery, digital savvy, and millennial age, entrepreneurial self-assertion. As the title of a 2011 promotional video asserts: SketchUp isn’t just 3D modeling software, but a software for making ideas themselves real.
What it means to make a tutorial—the insistant amateurism of SketchUp tutorials (the best videos are created by those users just on the edge of competency). What it means to be on the edge of competency. The tutorial space is a comparatively intimate online space. Not only in the sense that the viewer is often experiencing the tutor’s desktop
Software like iMovie, Photoshop, SketchUp, and Google Earth promise what we might considered to be an intensely American brand of “Can-Do” sprit. It’s something akin to Brian Eno’s concept of “Idiot Energy,” the blind optimism of a practitioner who has no implications the gravity or scale of the problems with which he or she engages.
Software tutorials are generally instructive of very “beginner” tasks, or operations that are incredibly procedural. The viewer is often disinterested in mastery, but rather simply arriving at a conclusion.
These videos rub-up against the notion of “official” methods or shared, institutional, trade expertise. They walk a thin line between sincerity and parody, oftentimes generating a sense of ambivalency for the viewer — either this tutorial is sincere and this person thinks this information worthy of conveying, or this is parody,
The immutable amateurism of the user-made tutorial video as an unsteady performance of control, expertise, mastery.
The same brand of rhetoric is apparent in 3D printing products and services — that tools will upend what were once otherwise considered permanent barriers to design, production, and dissemination.
What’s compelling about viewing, close listening, and the scrutinizing of tutorial videos on YouTube is the idea that, in their on-the-fly, improvisational manner, they pass from performative gestures to documents of an operational task carried out. The best examples suggest an enactment of an inner monologue, almost a director’s commentary over software interface — a manifestation of the chatter that connects and mediates the threshold between our intentions as users and the computational actions that our chosen systems carry-out. If the director’s commentary attempts to elaborate on and analyze the methods of film making at the threshold between a script and a motion picture, the software tutorial video performs the same operation on a software task.
Making video tutorials is also an important means to claim ownership over software. Users spend so much time familiarizing themselves with an interface, and part of this process includes an internalization of relationships to tools. Each individual has her or his own way of carrying out a task, and the tutorial is a proverbial stake in the ground towards a practice, which is itself an approach to software. It becomes yours when you become a shepherd to others.
The companion genre to the SketchUp tutorial video is the speed build —devoid of narration, often paired with high-tempo musical accompaniment, the intention (endearingly) seems aimed to impress.
As Nick Salvato writes, in drawing connections between amateur theatre and the amateur or professional positioning of performers on YouTube: “The overwhelming tendency in the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st has been to privilege the professional, especially in the evaluation of performance practices. In myriad cases, the designation ‘professional’ has operated as an exclusionary principle and tactic that aims to delegitimate
certain performance idioms along the lines of race, class, and gender, among others.”
He continues, later in the article: “But if we consider, rather, the impact that theatre — and ideas about theatricality — have already had on internet culture, what emerges strikingly is the extent to which earlier eras’ notions of sincerity, pervasive in the literature on self-described amateur theatre, have been reincarnated to shape attitudes toward and evaluative standards for the ‘new’ kinds of amateur performance. The affirmation of sincerity has been remarkably endurant in American culture […].”