If you’re a survivor of the American education system, you probably remember the famous scene from Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. By pretending that the drudgery of whitewashing a fence is, in fact, deeply fun and deeply enviable, Tom hoodwinks his buds into doing his work for him while he kicks back and polishes off an apple.
What you may not remember, though, are Tom’s observations after the trick:
“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it -- namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a treadmill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”
Tom Sawyer’s point lives on. In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot about coercion, labor, dignity, and play over the past few weeks. About how the best labor is that which resembles play. About how the worst play is that which resembles work.
And about how much of the architecture of social media is designed to turn the beautiful play of handcraft into an insidious form of work.
Some context: I’m a high school teacher by trade, 15 years into the grind, and this semester has felt a lot like the very first couple semesters I taught, years ago. Blame it on COVID uncertainty and the shifting sands of public health guidelines in schools, or on large class sizes, or on the fact that some teenagers are “going feral” with TikTok vandalism trends, or on the very real mental health epidemic teenagers are facing, or on the fact that I’m teaching some new material this year, but it’s been a rare day this fall that I haven’t come home to my family feeling like I’ve been repeatedly backed over by a dump truck. I’ve been able to help make dinner and put my kindergartener to bed before lesson planning or grading, then hitting the hay at 11 to get up at 5:30 the next day and do it all over again.
Which also means that I’ve logged – at most – three hours in the wood shop over the past few weeks.
Here’s something curious about those scant hours. Between the sawing and staring, planing and planning, marking and measuring, I’ve also spent a lot of time (an embarrassing amount of time, really) thinking about how I could take pictures of what I was doing for The Feed. And posting said photos, after they were carefully edited.
It bothered me, the more I thought about it. Unless we’re blessed to be Peter Follansbee or Roy Underhill or Marc Spagnuolo or Christian Becksvoort, for most of us our shop hours exist outside our jobs. (I’m not speaking, in fact, to those woodworkers and makers and videographers who genuinely rely on a social media platform for their livelihood, or who use those platforms to teach. I’m speaking to people like me who use the apps, but who don’t rely on them economically, really.) And here’s what I think: while Instagram can (I guess) be pretty good for making connections with other woodworkers and seeing what cool stuff other folks are doing, the platform is ultimately best likened to a mosquito bite: sucking its userbase for monetizable data while also creating an itch for us to post more and more, forever and ever, amen.
And that’s the worst part about it, I think. It reverse-Tom Sawyers us, whether we realize it or not. Social media’s dark alchemy turns the beautiful play of our social and craft lives into a hidden form of work.
The impulse to post is understandable, of course, and I don’t think it comes from a bad place: mostly, especially when we’re learning a new skill, we want to make sure what we’re doing is any good. Many of us don’t have a network of good craftspeople around us. Having strangers on the Internet scratch that itch feels good, especially if they seem like they know what we’re doing (because they have a high follower count, or a fancy checkmark, or whatever.)
Also, few of us exist in an 18th-century apprenticeship structure. Having Good Woodworkers on the Internet to Heart our Stuff is the best thing we’ve got in the absence of a guy in puffy sleeves with gin on his breath berating our twelve-year-old selves for not planing stock straight and true at the end of a brutal 14-hour workday.
The Silicon Valley attention-economy architects know this fact, of course. Since they’re in the business of keeping eyeballs glued to screens for as long as possible in the bottomless feed, they design the structure of the app around it. Unlike the old-school woodworking Internet forums that are still alive and well in 2021 (such as Sawmill Creek), there’s no end to an Instagram or TikTok feed. I’ve been thinking about the way my attention span and brain chemistry have been effectively hijacked by social media for a while, but reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy last summer helped it snap into focus for me.
I know, too, that I’ve learned the most about transforming trees into nice objects from people I’ve actually met in reality – in classes (like the Preindustrial Woodworking Immersion in 2019 where I first got involved with M&T), in woodworking club meetings in old church basements, and in working in actual production shops over the last couple summer breaks doing cabinetry. There’s simply no substitute for hanging out in a shop with someone who’s made more mistakes than you, and who watches you mangle a particular operation and say, “Oh, I remember when I goofed that up, too. Here, let me show you how to do it.”
I recognize that access to that kind of environment is a privilege, and that for many beginning woodworkers, especially, watching a series of TikTok videos presents much lower entry barrier than figuring out where your closest woodworkers guild is, or catching the bus to one of their meetings. YouTube, in particular, has been an indispensable aid to my own self-education as a woodworker, and I don’t begrudge anyone who’s starting out with a saw and a plane to use all the resources that are available to them.
But here’s the difference: your Uncle Gary or that woman at your church or guy at the local craft fair who knows how to a carve a spoon isn’t the same thing as Instagram. The average American teenager spends 297 hours a year looking at Instagram. They aren’t spending that many hours keenly observing Uncle Gary carve spoons. Mostly because Uncle Gary doesn’t have millions of dollars of research into software algorithm design behind him. (Can you even imagine what kind of fancy spoon you could carve after practicing spoon-carving for nearly 300 hours in a year?)
So, just like M&T itself, I’m quitting Instagram and seeking out more substantive and less addictive ways of talking about and learning woodworking on the Internet. M&T’s Apprenticeship program and Daily Dispatch are great places to start. I hope you’ll join us.