The YouTube Knowledge Transfer Revolution

Since its founding, popular consensus has been that YouTube is making people dumber. But critically overlooked is its unlocking a form of mass-scale tacit knowledge transmission which is historically unprecedented

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that can’t properly be transmitted via verbal or written instruction, like the ability to create great art or assess a startup. This tacit knowledge is a form of intellectual dark matter, pervading society in a million ways, some of them trivial, some of them vital.

Before video became available at scale, tacit knowledge had to be transmitted in person, so that the learner could closely observe the knowledge in action and learn in real time — skilled metalworking, for example, is impossible to teach from a textbook. Because of this intensely local nature, it presents a uniquely strong succession problem: if a master woodworker fails to transmit his tacit knowledge to the few apprentices in his shop, the knowledge is lost forever, even if he’s written books about it.

Massively available video recordings of practitioners in action change this entirely. Through these videos, learners can now partially replicate the master-apprentice relationship, opening up skill domains and economic niches that were previously cordoned off by personal access. These new points of access range from the specialized trades, where electricians illustrate how to use multimeters and how to assess breaker boxes, to less specialized domestic activities, where a novice can learn basic knife-handling techniques from an expert. YouTube reports that searches in the “how-to” category has grown 70% year-on-year.

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