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“Experiment YouTube” and the Democratization of Knowledge

Uncredentialed hobbyists document and discover what you can’t learn anywhere else.
July 9, 2021
“Experiment YouTube” and the Democratization of Knowledge

If you want answers to your questions about steak, don’t bother watching this Epicurious video called “Your Steak Questions Answered By Experts.” That’s what I found out, anyway, as my wife and I were trying to learn how to make steaks with the sous-vide immersion circulator we got for Christmas last year. (Sous-vide cooking is basically a very long, relatively low-temperature poaching method. It yields tender, evenly cooked meats.)

This isn’t to single out Epicurious. It was generally very difficult to find precise, trustworthy, or just plain-old useful, explanatory information online, even from mainstream and professional sources like America’s Test Kitchen. (Serious Eats was a little more helpful.) Much of the informational or instructional material online leaves you in the tricky position of knowing what to do but not knowing what you’re doing.

In my particular case, what are the true time and temperature numbers for food safety? One article says you can eat your shrimp or lobster translucent, and doesn’t explain how or when it’s actually cooked. Others say you can serve your pork or even chicken medium-rare, under the right combination of time and temperature. What is the lowest temperature where you can actually begin to pasteurize, rather than slowly spoil, food—120 degrees Fahrenheit? 125? 130? 131? I still don’t quite know, and we’ve made a lot of steaks! How do you find these things out?

Enter Guga, the owner of the Guga Foods and Sous Vide Everything YouTube channels, with 2.8 million and 1.5 million subscribers, respectively. Want to know the right (and safe) temperature and number of hours to sous vide a steak for perfect texture, from two to 24? Want to know what happens when you sous vide a whole beef brisket for a month? If you apply dry-aging, a method used to enhance premium-quality steaks, to a chicken breast? Whether you can dry-age a steak by encasing it in butter? Whether MSG or koji rice or Southeast Asian fish sauce enhance meat? Whether fresh, powdered, or roasted garlic, or herbs, or olive oil, work well in sous vide preparations? And on and on and on.

Some of this is just widely available information distilled and conveyed in a fun, conversational, easily accessible manner. But a lot of it is knowledge that literally does not exist elsewhere in a form accessible to an average home cook. It’s both useful and uncommon, if not actually unique. Experiments or tests on these channels build on previous results, producing an overall body of work. Why is it just better than the mainstream sources which possess more expertise? Much of it probably seems too absurd—dry-aging a steak in butter?!—for a staid food-focused outlet to publish or even try.

And it isn’t just food. Consider TechRax, a YouTuber famous for destroying iPhones in increasingly creative ways, such as gluing one to the wheel of a car going 100 mph or traveling to the world’s tallest building to drop one. Consumer Reports might run washing machines for a month straight, God bless ’em, but TechRax shows you what your phone will look like if it slips out of your hand and falls down a thirty-story stairwell.

The “experiment” pose, or “we do it so you don’t have to” gimmick, is sometimes just a thin excuse for engaging in flashy absurdities. In many cases, they’re answering questions that nobody is asking, the entertainment equivalent of “As Seen on TV” products. But even here, they have, well, entertainment value. After all, what does happen if you pour molten metal over your iPhone or encase a prime rib in Nutella? Occasionally, any pretense of edification gives way entirely to a stunt that’s just, well, fun—as when TechRax turned a swimming pool filled with 1,500 gallons of Coke into a Coke/Mentos eruption, which USA Today covered. It’s halfway between Jackass and MythBusters, but with a revenue model dependent on video clicks and product-placement deals instead of ads.

Back on the more educational side, other self-taught, uncredentialed hobbyist YouTubers answer questions that very few people ask but that are very important for the people who ask them. There’s a whole genre of channels somewhere between documentaries and do-it-yourself guides. Like James Condon, who has amassed several years’ worth of tutorial and demonstration videos on home-generator repairs. Want to swap a Subaru engine for your blown Briggs & Stratton, and learn all about the details of engine compatibility? He’s got you covered. My father has found these videos, which dive deeply into troubleshooting and repair on a variety of makes and models, useful in working on a couple of fussy old generators. What’s more, it’s information he hasn’t found anywhere else.

These folks have done for a range of practical, hands-on tasks what academics do for their scholarly subjects: become incredibly, deeply, almost impossibly knowledgeable about a very tiny and narrow area of human endeavor. Many began years ago with a grainy video or two, and have grown in both production values and knowledge over the years in conversation with their audiences.

This is work that at one time would have required going to a fancy restaurant or calling a pricey repair technician. Some of it was what Michael Polanyi called “tacit” knowledge; in other cases, it was veiled, or, in modern parlance, “paywalled” information. While some of these YouTubers make considerable money, many—most—are just sharing their knowledge as it accumulates, and in doing so, growing the sum of knowledge in the world. Even if it’s just how to tinker with a generator engine, or how to make a better steak.

These videos, then, can make home improvement or cooking or various tinkering easier and more relatable; they can bring some mass appeal to things that are often seen as dedicated hobbyist or niche interests. They can teach us skills, thereby saving us money (or even making us money). They can fill us with useless but fascinating knowledge, and make our lives richer.

But even more than this, it’s a sort of information ecosystem, distinct from the centralized, professional world of books, magazines, and slick digital publications. At its worst it descends into clickbait, but at its best, it points to a decentralization and democratization of knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing.

If you prefer economic to political analogies, it’s like the invisible hand. A bunch of individuals simply pursuing their hobbies and, if lucky, pulling in some ad revenue, end up crafting a massive body of knowledge outside of traditional institutional sources. Whether they’re making much money or not, they’re more like small business owners, compared to their larger, more corporate information competitors. This is a flicker of what the internet was originally envisioned to be. Yet it’s occurring today on a Google-owned mega platform. That just makes it all the more remarkable.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).