Pottery, improbably, is the most recent escapist pastime to comb the nation. As a result of making ceramics requires persistence and all-consuming focus, it’s mentioned to be an ideal salve for a specific set of contemporary anxieties — an excessive amount of work, an excessive amount of information, an excessive amount of web. When your fingers are slathered in clay, you can not fiddle round together with your telephone.
To me, a serial hobbyist who has been on the lookout for a saner steadiness with tech, all this sounded fantastic. In January, I started taking a weekly pottery class at a neighborhood arts faculty. I’m nonetheless a novice ceramist at finest, however each week, bowl by bowl, I get slightly higher.
There’s one thing else that has been magical in regards to the expertise. Though I took up pottery to go offline, it has pushed one thing shocking for me on-line: It helped restore my religion within the prospects and the fundamental humanity of the web. Pottery has helped me discover a saner, friendlier nook of the web than the social-networking feeds we’re hooked on, one which isn’t utterly obsessive about Donald J. Trump, the place you get forward not by means of pointed, viral quips however by means of collaboration, persistence and shared ingenuity.
I communicate of the hobbyist web. As of late, any pastime price pursuing — pottery, cooking, gardening, quilting, woodworking and past — attracts a constellation of blogs, message boards, Fb teams, Amazon reviewers, Instagram and Etsy influencers, and lots of a whole lot of YouTube stars. Collectively, they type the web social construction round any pastime, a gaggle of oldsters who’re solely too blissful that can assist you study no matter you are attempting to grasp.
It’s right here, within the hobbyist web’s every day collective battle to make the very best hamburger or develop the proper tomato, which you can glimpse a more healthy relationship together with your digital gadgets. And never a second too quickly. The web has gotten a foul rap currently, and we’re justifiably frightened that our digital gadgets are driving isolation and worry, polarization and habit, loneliness and outrage. The troubles appear to name for a easy repair — we must always all simply 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 center 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 center, 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 center — 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 skepticism. 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 López-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, Mr. López-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. Mr. López-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 Mr. López-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.
Mr. López-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.
And not just cooking. After moving into a new house that needed remodeling, Mr. López-Alt spent the last few months teaching himself a new skill, woodworking, almost entirely from watching YouTube videos. He and his wife have since altered much of their home, raising walls, putting up crown molding and building a laundry room and bathroom from scratch — including a linen closet with drawers.
In some respects, Mr. López-Alt’s experience with woodworking sounds unsurprising: Of course, if you put your mind to it, you can learn something new online.
Yet it is rare to hear about the internet’s leading to productive ends anymore. In this era of fakery and propaganda, where everything you encounter online comes to you through a partisan fog, it can sometimes seem as if all that’s connected to the internet turns sour. The beauty of the hobbyist internet is not that it is free of partisan fighting, but that the fighting rarely takes center stage, because everyone is there to get something else done.
“I often find it’s a more productive conversation when we’re doing art,” said Leah Kohlenberg, a painter and art teacher who lives in Portland, Ore., and has a thriving business teaching drawing to adults and teenagers around the world over Skype.
Ms. Kohlenberg is a liberal who does not support Mr. Trump. “I do have Trump supporters I teach, but when we’re making something, because you’re in the middle of doing it, we’re all focused on something else,” she said.
And when people reach artistic breakthroughs together, differences begin to feel minor.
“Art is an empowering thing,” Ms. Kohlenberg said. “Most people think they can’t do it, and when they realize they can, it’s amazing — it opens up a whole new world, and that world doesn’t really have time for a lot of fighting and fussing.”
Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @fmanjoo.