YouTube Is Yoda, You Are Luke: How the Video Site Became Our Storehouse of Folk Knowledge

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I want to tell you a little story about how YouTube has become a unique repository for very useful information. What makes it special is that YouTube taps people who want to show you what they know, not write about it. Learning from YouTube is more like a momentary apprenticeship than it is like book learning, and that's what makes it so great.

So, our hot water went out a few days ago. We left for a night, came back, and the tap water was tepid, but not ice cold. 

Perhaps many of you out there might know exactly how to troubleshoot this problem. Certainly when I called a local plumber, they made it seem as if it ain't no thing. The woman who answered the phone asked me immediately, "Did you check to see if the pilot is on?" I sputtered, "Umm, I, uh, I don't know." "The pilot probably went out. Just relight it," she said, and hung up. 

I gulped. Maybe relighting the pilot light on your water heater seems ridiculously easy to you. (Having done it now, I'd agree: it is.) But I didn't know the first thing about hot water heaters. And I'm not a handy person. I grew up playing with graphics cards and HTML. I loved the random manual labor my parents required of me as a kid, but I don't learn how to do stuff around the house. I moved piles of gravel and planted or cut down trees. That's my comfort zone.

Obviously I did what any nerd would do: I started Googling. Using generic strings like "troubleshooting gas hot water heater" tends to lead to content farm crap. And the hot water heaters I saw on the content farms didn't look precisely like the one we have. 

So, I crept down into the funny-smelling basement using my iPhone as a flashlight, found the make of our hot water heater, and then searched for the manual. It referred me to the lighting instructions posted on our heater, which (in a stroke of bad luck) were in a tough to read spot.

I could understand the basic process. But I'd never seen the innards of my hot water heater's pilot system. And without any experience mucking around with hot water heaters, I didn't exactly want to stick a flame near a source of natural gas without some kind of tutorial. 

At the very least, I wanted someone to tell me that I wouldn't blow myself up. It must be easy, I reasoned, or the lady on the phone.

Somehow, then, perhaps Google surfaced the video through search, I found my way to YouTube, to this video, in particular:

In it, MrOzcar82, a YouTube user who has posted two videos ever, both on October 30, 2010, delivers a full and specific tutorial on how to light exactly my kind of hot water heater. He walks you through all the things you should be looking for, giving pretty decent verbal cues as he videos the process.

What I love about this kind of knowledge transfer is that it's so human. The video is shot from a first-person point-of-view, the narrator talks directly to you, and there are no cuts. The lack of production value is a feature, not a bug. When MrOzcar82 struggles for a few seconds getting the flame lit, I think that's useful information. If you too struggle, as I did, to get the flame lit, you realize, "Hey, no big deal, just try again." And I'm clearly not the only one who finds his videos useful: his two tutorials one pilot lighting (one water heater, one furnace) have received something like 300,000 views.

If you start to search around on YouTube for various household fix-ups, you find all kinds of people posting similar how-tos. Some of them have higher production values than this one. Others are created by companies trying to capitalize on how-to videos. But mostly it's just helpful people who decided to record a video and post it to YouTube for some reason.

At a time when it's easy to get jaded about changes enabled by Internet technology, I find myself coming back to YouTube -- and this kind of video -- to be reminded of the mundane wonders of this network. The Internet is not all trolls writing about pop culture; there are a lot of MrOzcar82s out there just adding a little more to the world for no good reason.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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