NEW YORK: Pottery, improbably, is the latest escapist pastime to sweep the nation. Because making ceramics requires persistence and all-consuming concentration, it is said to be a perfect salve for a particular set of modern anxieties — too much work, too much news, too much internet. When your hands are slathered in clay, you cannot fiddle around with your phone.
To me, a serial hobbyist who has been looking for a saner balance with tech, all this sounded wonderful. In January, I began taking a weekly pottery class at a local arts school. I’m still a novice ceramist at best, but every week, bowl by bowl, I get a little better.
There’s something else that has been magical about the experience. Although I took up pottery to go offline, it has driven something surprising for me online: It helped restore my faith in the possibilities and the basic humanity of the internet. Pottery has helped me find a saner, friendlier corner of the internet than the social-networking feeds we are addicted to, one that isn’t completely obsessed with President Donald Trump, where you get ahead not through pointed, viral quips but through collaboration, persistence and shared ingenuity.
I speak of the hobbyist internet. These days, any pastime worth pursuing — pottery, cooking, gardening, quilting, woodworking and beyond — attracts a constellation of blogs, message boards, Facebook groups, Amazon reviewers, Instagram and Etsy influencers, and many hundreds of YouTube stars. Collectively, they form the online social structure around any hobby, a group of folks who are only too happy to help you learn whatever you are trying to master.
It is here, in the hobbyist internet’s daily collective struggle to make the best hamburger or grow the perfect tomato, that you can glimpse a healthier relationship with your digital devices. And not a moment too soon. The internet has gotten a bad rap lately, and we are justifiably worried that our digital devices are driving isolation and fear, polarisation and addiction, loneliness and outrage. The worries seem to call for a simple fix — we should all just use the internet less often.
But on the hobbyist internet, the opposite applies.
Consider how one gets started with pottery. To make a pot on a potter’s wheel, you must first manipulate your ball of clay so that its centre of mass matches the rotational center of the spinning wheel. This goal — “centering,” in the jargon — sounds simple, but figuring out how to do it is a subtle process of trial and error, and there is really only one way to get it right: To try again and again until it clicks.
Three months ago, I was stuck in centering hell. I would spend most of my time at the wheel trying to centre, but with only two hours a week in class, I was not making much progress. Then I discovered a way to supercharge my training: YouTube, where thousands of ceramists from around the world post videos of themselves making pots.
They were revelatory. From the videos, I learned there was no one way to centre — that different potters had developed different techniques and that, by watching closely, I could ape the styles that worked best for me. The videos were no substitute for actual practice, but they were a kind of catalyst. One night a few weeks ago, I spent an hour watching dozens of centering videos. Later, at the wheel, I had a breakthrough; because I had absorbed the online potters’ tricks, centering had clicked for me.
While much of this is not new, the way the internet can help steer us toward something useful bears mentioning in a time of growing digital scepticism. It is a reminder that the internet’s most effective trick is connecting disparate individuals into a coherent whole. There are only a small number of potters in any given city, but online there is a whole ceramics metropolis willing to help.
This sort of hobbyist collective builds on itself. It lets people new to the hobby pick up the basics — but by creating new markets for content and equipment, and connecting every hobbyist who has discovered something new to an audience eager to learn every trick, it heightens the experience for people at every level.
Look at how home cooking, too, has grown so much geekier thanks to the web. “In pre-internet days, it would have been very difficult to do what I do,” said J Kenji Lopez-Alt, the food writer whose column at Serious Eats, The Food Lab, pioneered a new kind of exhaustively in-depth recipe style.
In the first edition of The Food Lab, published in 2009, Lopez-Alt spent more than 3,500 words taking readers through an exploration of the different ways to boil eggs. He updated the article in 2014, landing on one revolutionary tip: For the perfect hard-boiled eggs, start your eggs in hot water.
“There’s no way anyone would have published that in print,” he said.
But online, there was endless space and, more important, an audience willing to indulge his geekery. Lopez-Alt has since published hundreds of Food Lab recipes, some of which did make it to print as part of a best-selling book. Some of Lopez-Alt’s Food Lab recipes call for unusual ingredients or equipment — he was early to sous vide — but that isn’t much of a barrier for his fans, because in the Amazon era, nothing is out of reach.
Lopez-Alt said the internet still played a key part in expanding his cooking skills. If he is working on a dish from another country, especially one he has not visited, he will often hit YouTube first.
“I watch lots of videos of people cooking with their grandmother,” he said.
By Farhad Manjoo © 2018 The New York Times