Uses for YouTube

YouTube has long been in the “guilty pleasure” category for me: a source of vacuous entertainment. There’s the hit of nostalgia upon discovering old episodes of a show you enjoyed as a child, vicarious consumption through unboxing videos, the mildly voyeuristic thrill of peeking down other people’s rabbit holes. While enjoyable, I’ve always felt somewhat guilty about these uses for YouTube; it’s been a (mostly) pleasant, if not entirely harmless, waste of time.

But something has changed recently: I’ve found myself getting real value from YouTube. Instead of (or rather, in addition to) turning to the platform for mindless distraction, I’m coming to it more for task-specific training. For example, yesterday I learned how to mend a pair of jeans that had a hole in them. I’ve also used YouTube to learn about the characteristics of different types of fountain pen inks, the proper form for a yoga pose I find particularly challenging, how to play one of my favorite songs (Rush’s Subdivisions) on the piano, and critical information that helped me with various work projects.

Which is to say, I’m increasingly using YouTube not just for entertainment, but also for education. Learning these things in video format has been much more efficient than doing so by other means. I can see what the other person is showing me, rewind, pause, replay to go at my own pace. There are often several options to choose from, with varying levels of skill. (Skill at both the activity I’m trying to learn and capability of the presenter as an instructor.)

Most of these educational videos aren’t slickly produced by professional educators, but by individuals who are sharing their passions. They often make up for their lack of professionalism and structure with charm and passion. In short, they’re educational and entertaining. But it’s a new type of entertainment, very different from the prime time TV programming of old.

YouTube offers an ad-free tier called YouTube Premium. I’ve long resisted paying for it given how many other streaming entertainment channels I’m already paying for. But thinking about how I’m using these things, I’ve decided to give it a go. If I had to choose between two paid streaming services, should I go with the one that only shows me slickly produced movies and TV shows, or should I go with the one where I’ll be learning useful life skills?

(One complaint I have about YouTube Premium right now is that it seems to aspire to become another “just entertainment” medium. Rather than foist second-tier movies on me, I wish it’d be better at helping me discover new things to learn.)