“How to...”

This installation, accompanied by an essay, marks the start of an ongoing research that started during the HIAP Design Residency 2020.

YouTube tutorials can be seen as a crowd-sourced archive of intangible cultural heritage. Traditionally, the knowledge of how to make a Swedish butter knife has been passed on locally, through generations. Today, it is documented and spread online to anyone with an internet connection.

Material: Installation, essay
Year: 2020

Created during a Villa Eläintarha residency in Helsinki 2020, supported by IASPIS, HIAP, Strelka Institute, Helsinki Design Museum and Helsinki Design Week.


How to:

Recognise YouTube Tutorials as a Source for Intangible Cultural Heritage

By Mikaela Steby Stenfalk

‘Nu ska jag visa er hur man gör en enkel smörkniv!’ [Now I will show you how to make a simple butter knife!], says YouTube video creator Love Granefelt (age 11) and smiles as he looks away from his drawing of a Swedish butter knife contour in his workshop. Throughout the video, we get step-by-step instructions of how to make a simple butter knife with the help of a piece of paper, pencil, scissors, wood, rasp, file, sanding paper and a bit of oil. Granefelt ends his tutorial with the words ‘Nu är min klar, så här ser den ut. Undra hur din ser ut?’ [Mine is now ready, it looks like this. I wonder how yours look?] and gives us another one of his charming smiles. In another video, a crafts teacher using the name HumanHandicraft, leaves the camera on as he carves his butter knife with a sheath knife. In the quick 17:42 minutes it takes him to finish one butter knife, he also instructs the viewers on the different ways to use the knife and how to properly follow the grains of the wood.

One simple search for “slöjda en smörkniv” [craft a butter knife] on YouTube resulted in 19 butter knife tutorials (and roughly 250 other videos with more-or-less related content). There, hobby carpenters, workshop instructors, teachers and trained craftsmen teach their knowledge and skills to anyone who cares to watch. Although each video displays a slightly different strategy, one can sense a general notion of how a Swedish butter knife is shaped. As well as a commonly accepted dramaturgy of the tutorials themselves has started to take shape.

Tutorials are traditionally defined as ‘a period of study with a tutor involving one student or a small group’. More interactive and specific than a book or a lecture, a tutorial seeks to teach by example and supply the information to complete a certain task. In recent years, the word has taken shape as an instructional video in the ‘how-to format’ online. On social networks, the ‘tutor’ no longer needs to be in the same room as their ‘students’ — the intimate study session has become available to anyone with an internet connection.

With the shift in framework, the components entangled in the term ‘tutorial’ have significantly changed. In the traditional definition, a tutorial would have been composed out of a set of instructions communicated through words and movements from a tutor to a group of students. A contemporary definition would take into consideration several additional components, which will be discussed throughout this essay.

Perhaps the most noticeable element is the video, which has become an object in its own right. Here, sound and image is combined within an understanding of aesthetics and strategies that have become distinctive for its community — the tutor has been given the task of a film director and editor.

Much can be understood of this video-object through the discussion about found footage filmmaking and film archiving, where footage (often from film archives) is being reused and recontextualised into new films. Here, the technological recording devices utilised, the dramaturgy of the films, as well as their content itself can prove valuable. Especially to interpret and reinterpret film history (and history at large) later on. The term ‘Archiveology’ was coined in 2000 by Associate Professor of Cinema at Concordia University Catherine Russell and refers to how the reuse, recycling, appropriation and borrowing of found footage from archives presents new ways to examine the past. 

In 2012, the Eye Museum in Amsterdam displayed the result of an attempt to bridge film production with film heritage in the exhibition ‘Found Footage’. The museum had invited artists and experimental filmmakers to work with fragments from the museum’s film archive to create new narratives. Giovanna Fossati, head curator at the time, stated that although the digitalisation of film archives had played a significant role in the process, digital media is ‘dramatically affecting the way films are made, presented and consumed, as well as how they are archived and preserved as film heritage for future generations.’ Further, she introduces the term ‘crowd film archiving’, meaning the widespread downloading, uploading and remixing of audiovisual content on platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo. Both being vital parts in film archiving practices and effectively film history.

In light of this discussion, the butter knife tutorials may be of future use in representing a type of videos produced in the 21st century, just as much as the craftsmanship being described within them.

Although Fossati does not mention tutorials directly, she points out the value of digital-born content created for YouTube as a collection of film history. She then calls for ‘new participatory curatorial and archival models, alongside the traditional ones, [...] to make sure that (a selection of) the audiovisual content created today will survive in the future.’

The next component of contemporary tutorials is one that is also part of the traditional definition of the word; the knowledge. The process of which knowledge is being transmitted through platforms such as YouTube could be compared to the one of a parish elder sharing their wisdom to the youth around a campfire. Although there are some quite vital differences, this one being the most evident: The knowledge disseminated through on online platforms is being recorded. In effect, there is a unique opportunity to preserve this immaterial cultural heritage.

In 2003, UNESCO inscripted the text of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Within the convention lies an attempt to see beyond objects as the sole manifestations of cultural heritage, and also value immaterial heritage such as knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. Whereas UNESCO previously would have focused on preserving craft objects, the 2003 Convention is concerned with the knowledge in craftsmanship and on ‘encouraging artisans to continue to produce craft and to pass their skills and knowledge onto others, particularly within their own communities.’

As threats to these types of heritages, UNESCO points out mass-production and as a result a lack of motivation to bring the knowledge forward to future generations. One risk, according to UNESCO, is that certain craftsmanships will fail when competing with industries to supply goods at a lower cost and in a faster pace. The outcome being that younger generations might choose a more lucrative employment within an industry over taking an apprenticeship from an older craftsman, which might eventually extinguish the craftsmanship as the generations shift. Among their efforts to prevent this, UNESCO is offering financial support to both the apprentices and the masters in order to make the transfer of knowledge more attractive.

The 2003 Convention is predominantly focused on continuing local traditions within their original setting (which, in fairness, is a very crucial method), however is potentially neglecting another form in which knowledge and skills are being passed forward today; the online video tutorial.

In terms of the financial framework these videos are currently existing in, anthropologist Particia G. Lange’s term ‘Algorhythmia’ seems a suitable entry point. The term combines the word ‘algorithm’ with sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s definition of ‘arrhythmia’ and indicates the moment when ‘the rhythms shaped by the pace of creating videos fall out of sync with the expectations of algorithms and audiences.’

The current conditions for video creators on YouTube are based on the gig-economy model and are determined by the algorithms (which in turn are determined by human beings working for the corporation) and answers to a different type of taxonomy than what would normally be the case of a protected heritage practice. When a video receives a large viewership, it becomes more lucrative to place advertisements in and around it, which orderly builds up a small fee for the video creator. A video creator that continuously uploads videos raises in the search results and their fee becomes more and more reliable as a source of income, as long as the flow of videos is constant and the viewership remains. According to Lange, algorhythmia occurs when the pressure of withholding the flow of quality content is out of sync with the human abilities of the video creators — a small vacation or personal break from uploading videos can result in a significant drop in search results and subsequently in income.

When viewing YouTube as a source, or even an archive, of intangible cultural heritage, this type of financial conditions is highly problematic in several instances. Considering UNESCO's aim to create a financial incentive for the craftsmen to disseminate their skills and knowledge, the financial circumstances they face on YouTube can be rather devastating. Secondly, the demand for a constant flow in order to stay relevant in the search results means that when the craftsmen stop uploading videos (perhaps of old age or other personal reasons), the videos will become less and less easy to find in the vast amount of videos on the platform. Although the videos may still be there, they will eventually be buried and forgotten. Consequently, the knowledge and skills that can be found in these videos will not survive much longer than the craftsman themselves.

The sovereignty of this source of intangible cultural heritage is presently in the hands of YouTube, and accordingly Google LLC. By no means is it necessary to explain that this corporation is not a democracy and decisions made in concern to the platform are entirely dependent on its leadership. This was shown quite drastically in measures taken by the platform to limit ‘borderline content’. In 2017, YouTube started to ‘bury’ videos including content they deemed ‘controversial religious or supremacist’. The concerned videos would no longer be monetised with advertising and functions such as comments and likes would be turned off. As an effect, the video creators would no longer receive any financial reward for their (sometimes) hard work. And more importantly, YouTube started to take authority over what content is more or less appropriate.

Even though it might be long before the making of a Swedish butter knife is deemed politically controversial, is this really a safe keeping for our cultural heritage? History can find many examples of cultural heritage being lost due to (sometimes temporary) political differences. When it comes to cultural heritage, we are always confronted with the question of what to keep. What would future generations find significant and valuable from our current surroundings? Certainly, internet culture and the community around tutorial production on YouTube can be considered characteristic of this time. In addition, we find numerous people who have dedicated time and effort into documenting and sharing craft skills and knowledge.

Sweden’s cultural heritage of the non-industrial carving of a butter knife, as well as the contemporary how-to video format, can be found in the collection of YouTube, but — unless we aim to protect it — it could also be lost there.

1 Love Grenefelt, “Slöjda en smörkniv”, YouTube, Mar. 21, 2017. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uFS75o7R9lg 2 HumanHandicraft, “Täljning 101: Smörkniv”, YouTube, Nov. 6, 2014. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-Sl-tK610E
3 YouTube, search: “slöjda en smörkniv”. Accessed on Aug. 17, 2020. Link: https://www.youtube.com/results?sp=mAEB&search_query=slöjda+en+smörkniv
4 Cambridge Online Dictionary. Accessed on Aug. 17, 2020. Link: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/tutorial
5 Catherine Russel, Archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices (Duke University Press, 2018), 8-14. 6 Giovanna Fossati, “Filmmaking, Film Archiving and New Participatory Platforms” in Found Footage: Cinema Exposed (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), 177-184. 7 UNESCO, “Traditional Craftsmanship”. Accessed: Aug. 20, 2020. Link: https://ich.unesco.org/en/traditional-craftsmanship-00057 8 Patricia G. Lange, “Algorhythmia” in Video Vortex Reader III: Inside the YouTube decade, edited by Geert Lovink and Andreas Treske (Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2020), 50-58. 9 Daisuke Wakabayashi, “YouTube Moves to Make Conspiracy Videos Harder to Find”, Jan. 25, 2019. Link:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/technology/youtube-conspiracy-theory-videos.html

Selected press


© Mikaela Steby Stenfalk