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Why we love how-to videos

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Interesting read on the psychology behind how-to videos via Nautilus.

An insistent pattern has quietly taken hold in my household. I will order some consumer product online. The product will arrive. I will open the package, extract the thing from its protective wrappings, and retrieve the instruction manual. I will examine the product briefly, then begin to read the instruction manual. And then I will go to YouTube.

There, I will find, almost invariably, that someone has already done the thing that I am hoping to do. They will have documented the process with varying degrees of professionalism ranging from chirpy, well-captioned professional productions to people in their poorly-lit bedrooms.

Most recently, it was a hitch-mounted bicycle rack for my car giving me trouble. The written instructions were telegraphic, the drawings may well have been ancient cuneiform. I found my salvation on YouTube, and the rack was road-ready in minutes. When I later thanked a friend who had recommended the product, I confessed I had gotten a video assist on the install. “The guy with the Subaru?” he asked. “In his driveway?” Our path to enlightenment had apparently crossed, along with some 57,000 other viewers.

It is not just product assembly. My YouTube search history is filled with moments of fleeting pedagogy: How to best “pop up” on a surfboard, how to play Dinosaur Jr.’s “Get Me” on guitar, how to set up a private server for my daughter’s Minecraft (Minecraft tutorials alone must number in the hundreds of thousands). When a plumber came by to unclog our toilet, he tenderly told me after I could have done the same thing with an auger from the hardware store—and saved $100. And so I immediately purchased the device. But how to use it properly? To YouTube I went, suddenly realizing I should have looked there first. I was steered to a video of a man patiently demonstrating auger technique on a sample jam. This task, he noted, was a plumber’s “cash cow.” He joked about being forgiven, if any plumbers happened to be watching, for “giving away the secrets.” But he need not have worried: YouTube is rife with auger demonstrations from plumbers themselves.

Last year, it was estimated that YouTube was home to more than 135 million how-to videos.2 In a 2008 survey, “instructional videos” were ranked to be the site’s third most popular content category—albeit a “distant third” behind “performance and exhibition” and “activism and outreach.”3 More recent data suggest that distance may have closed: In 2015, Google noted that “how to” searches on YouTube were increasing 70 percent annually.4 The genre is by now so mature that it makes for easy satire.

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