Video tutorials considered harmful


Sometimes, 1000 words are worth much more than their video.

During the months of Italy’s lockdown (1) I had, obviously, much more time than usual to kill. For reasons unfathomable even to myself (except the fact that in those weeks we were eating much more canned food than usual…), I ended up killing part of that time practicing… how to build lightweight wood gas stoves.

This temporary interest brutally reminded me a ugly reality of the Internet, and of online knowledge sharing in general: there are too many people who, for many different reasons, but almost always in good faith, WASTE A LOT OF TIME of all the people they sincerely WANT TO HELP.

I am talking of all the people who make videos when they are the worst way to share, or who make only videos, when they are “efficient”.

The first category includes everybody who makes a video of something that did not need to be video at all, because it would have been much easier and faster to understand and use as… written text. The best, but surely not the only examples of this category are the screencasts of people typing or clicking in their computers, instead of just writing “to do this, click on this button, then copy and paste this TEXT”.

The second category, of which the “DIY Wood Gas Stove” is a perfect, painful example, includes people sharing their knowledge on how to build something, only by filming themselves while they do it. Without publishing also a short text summary of how to do that, or a drawing, even one ugly pencil sketch done without looking.

You see, building a wood gas stove out of tin cans is not hard:

you must make some cuts and holes in two empty cans of different sizes, and then fit the smaller can into the bigger one. The problem is that, for the stove to work as expected (almost smokeless) you must get exactly right the number, size and position of all those cuts and holes, and all those parameters depend on the sizes of both cans. If there were even one single table, or diagram, listing all those numbers, or the underlying formulas, one could spend 3 minutes watching a video, then print that table or diagram and start working.

As things were (until May 2020, at least), instead, you not only had to watch lots of videos to find one that, besides being clear, also gave all those numbers explicitly: You also had to watch it all, maybe twice because of bad audio, bad shooting, no captions… to get and write down all those numbers by yourself.

Video tutorials considered harmful /img/wood-gas-stove-bad-tutorials.jpg
Look at all those VIEWS. How many of them are ONLY due to lack of WRITTEN instructions?

No, this is not a pet peeve

This may seem like a silly complaint, but check it out yourself on YouTube, and please see the real point I am making here.

Some of those wood gas stove videos are at least 10 minutes long, and have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of views. Many of the same videos have comments explicitly asking “please write down those darned numbers somewhere!”, still unanswered after years.

50K views of a 10 minute video make almost 140 hours actually spent by actual human beings. Any of the authors of those videos could have written down a complete diagram, or table, using one sheet of paper, one pencil and five minutes of their time, once, plus another minute to include that image in the video, or publish it anywhere online. He or she could have saved others a lot of those 140 hours by just spending six more minutes, just one time (2).

Now, try to calculate the total waste of time caused by this carelessness. Never mind wood gas stoves. I am talking of the total duration of all the video tutorials you can find on YouTube, on any topic, that have no attached documentation of any kind. Even if the complaint above applied only to one thousandth of those tutorial, the total amount of potentially wasted time, bandwidth, electricity… would still be huge.

To conclude…

If you do video tutorials, do NOT leave them without at least some explanation, projects, design.. that it is quickly usable ON PAPER. Thanks. (3)

  1. to know what it was really like, please read, and support, my Coronavirus reports!
  2. Yes, I do know that some authors may not provide such information explicitly to inflate their views and comments counts. They deserve to disappear.
  3. YES, there are lots of exceptions to this rule. I myself have had to apply them sometimes. What I am saying is that they should be exceptions
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