The Revolution Starts at Home: YouTube and the World’s Largest How-to Guide
This is the transcript of my presentation at Theorizing the Web on Friday,
12 April 2019 in New York City. This presentation was part of the session
“Follow, Like, Subscribe”. Slide images are shown throughout.
Tēnā koutou katoa
Today I’ll be talking about YouTube videos, specifically fix-it videos. While these don’t rack up views to rival Baby Shark or Pewdiepie, they’re still popular and handy if your smartphone screen breaks, or your washing machine stops spinning. I’ll argue that these videos are more than just a useful tool: in aggregate they open up space for critique and a re-imagining of our disposable material culture.
We live in a throw-away era. It’s easier and cheaper to buy a new $8 toaster from Walmart than it is to fix your old one. If you want to replace a smartphone screen, I hope you have a hairdryer handy to soften the glue before you pry it off with special tools. Want to fix your washing machine? Great — to replace the bearings, you’ll have to dismantle it completely and even break some bits apart first.
None of this is an accident. The neoliberal economic model is finely tuned to ensure that we consume as much as possible. Many appliances, digital devices, and other household items are designed to be hard to fix and only last for so long — for many digital devices, this is about 18 months. This is planned obsolescence, and it rears its head in a number of ways, including:
- making things using cheap materials and hasty construction so they don’t last;
- making replacement parts hard to find or so pricey you may as well replace the whole thing;
- using Copyright law to protect digital systems, so repair and upgrade options are expensive and restricted;
- dropping ongoing support for software, limiting the usability of the technologies that run it, and finally;
- preventing repair, and even recycling, using what I call obstructive design. This includes gluing or welding things shut, using many different types of bespoke screw, or changing core components from model to model.
I did a hasty collection of anecdata from friends in the lead-up to today, and found that toilet seats, car gear boxes, headphones, and printers are among items that are cheaper and easier to replace than repair — and I imagine that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The current linear system — “take, make, waste” as the circular economy folks call it — is not sustainable. Organisations like The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute, and the United Nations E-waste coalition are all making efforts to enable transition towards a circular economy — that is, where all materials and components are kept in use for as long as possible, and waste is designed out of the system. This includes designing products for durability, repair, upgrades, re-use and eventually recycling of their components.
To make a change in our system, consumers will also need to act, by changing their habits and applying pressure to corporations and governments. While adapting consumption patterns on an individual level can seem ineffective, if done on mass, it can slow down the the cycle of production. History tells us that the more people demand action on an issue, the more likely it is that change will happen.
So, how can fix-it videos help?
The scale of the problem is huge, but our view is very narrow. Most of the time, as consumers, we only see a very small part of this complex system of production and waste disposal.
When our products become broken or unuseable for whatever reason, there’s a small window when we have to think about what to do with it.
Once you put something in the trash or recycling, return it to the supplier, or donate it to Goodwill, you don’t actually need to think about what happens next: out of sight, out of mind. And when products are cheap, getting rid of them is often the path of least resistance. But it’s that moment of resistance that I’m most interested in. For those who do pause and consider “can I fix this myself?”, the thriving category of Youtube fix-it videos can crack open a window through which to imagine a different, less alienated, less extractive world.
And here, I’m speaking from experience.
A few months ago my washing machine broke. I was told by the repair guy the bearings were shot and it wasn’t worth trying to fix. But instead of sending it straight to landfill, a friend and I took to YouTube to see if we could try our hand at fixing it — the biggest cost seemed to be the labour, and we had time. A video by Matt from a UK spare parts business became our guide, and we got cracking.
Our story doesn’t have a happy ending. We got to the centre of the machine after many hours of work, and found the problem was worse than we thought. It went to the landfill after all.
But what I did get out of the experience is a sense of great anger, and of revolutionary potential.
And maybe others can too.
There are a lot of varied videos that fall into the fixit genre — a search for “how to fix” followed by the household item of your choice will most likely throw up at least a couple of results, and if you search for something like “iPhone screen”, you’ll be scrolling through pages of options and find videos with millions of views.
So, what are these videos actually like, and who makes them?
Unsurprisingly, the form of the videos vary depending on what’s being fixed. Repairs for digital devices and headphones are usually shot fairly close up from above, with annotations popping up, or a voice over. Large appliance repair videos are a bit trickier logistically, so you’ll sometimes get weird shots of people shining a torch inside the machine.
What about the creators? Well, first up, there’s not exactly a lot of diversity in the creators of these videos: nearly all the videos I came across were from men.
Some creators had channels that focus on a particular type of repair — be it appliances, furniture or digital devices. I found that appliance repair videos are largely made by maintenance and spare parts businesses, rather than interested individuals. You also see videos popping up from creators with a wider scope of interest, particularly general home maintenance or DIY.One highly viewed washing machine repair video was by Chris Fix, who normally makes car repair videos — and has over 4 million subscribers.
The common thread in all the videos is that they’re very practical and aimed at actually giving people the best chance of extending an item’s lifespan. It’s clear from the overall aesthetics of the videos that these videos are less about performance and more about giving actual, practical advice.
I think this blurb from an “about” page of one creator, Richard Lloyd, sums it up nicely:
“My goal is to help people whenever I can in any way I can. I will post a video on anything I think will add value to your life. I love to share my knowledge. I am a Jack of all trades and master of some.”
So, we’ve looked at the creators of the videos — what about the people watching them? Is this just another form of entertainment to binge-watch, or a knowledge transfer system that actually helps people in the real world?
I immersed myself in the comment sections of videos about washing machines, smartphones, headphones and toasters to see if some common themes emerge. And emerge they did. Along with general thank yous, messages of appreciation and the odd mansplainer, recurring themes include:
- people sharing their own experiences of trying to fix things — both successful and less successful;
- people realising that it’s often cheaper or easier to get a new item or reminiscing about the “good old days” when things were made to last; and
- people asking for further advice — and often getting it.
Overall, what I found was a bunch of people learning something new about the inner workings of the objects that populate their homes, and being pretty pumped about the experience.
So, what are the key takeaways here?
First, and probably most importantly, is that this haphazard collection of videos could well have the power to make a big change in the world. We know that millions of people are watching, many with the intention to try their hand at fixing something they own. When you’re empowered to fix something yourself, you might try it more often, and think twice when it comes to getting rid of your things.
For people who realise it’s not be worth fixing something due to poor construction or, say, too much glue? Hopefully that’ll cause anger, and lead people to pressure corporations to do better, and governments to use the tools at their disposal to enable systems change.
The final takeaway is that the medium of video, coupled with platforms like YouTube, are a powerful tools that can enable knowledge transfer at a huge scale. Passing on repair and fixit skills from one person to another is nothing new, but now this can happen on a scale that isn’t possible with in-person classes or one-on-one instruction. The ubiquity of affordable smartphones with decent cameras also means that there are many millions of people who have the tools they need to produce and consume knowledge without traditional gatekeepers or high production costs.
So, to recap: We’re consuming at an unsustainable rate. YouTube videos, and their creators, are teaching people skills to extend the life of their stuff, and — sometimes unknowingly — giving people a glimpse of a previously hidden system of production at the same time.