The Pleasure of Watching Others Confront Their Own Incompetence

There are plenty of misleading videos on the internet, but the ones we worry about are probably not the most pernicious. Conspiracy theories and deepfakes — A.I.-generated videos that depict public figures saying things they never said — are scary, but in the aggregate they most likely warp our understanding less than another, more quotidian threat: instructional videos.

The short how-to video has become a thriving species in the social media ecosystem, breaking down previously specialized skills into digestible products. These cheerful montages give us the impression that anyone can build a storage shed or cook a lentil curry so long as they take the right steps. Typically, these steps are presented in a series of jump cuts: glimpses of header boards materializing atop wall studs, minced onion thrown into hot oil, all held together with jaunty music as words like “lag screws” and “turmeric” appear onscreen. These videos slyly elide the long hours that lie between seeing how something is done and knowing how to do it.

As of early May, my favorite instructional video has been viewed on Twitter nearly eight million times. It is soundless and without context, beginning with a pencil poised above a gray field. The pencil draws a loop with a long tail, then another, then two more. The next seven lines define these loops and tails as fingers. With 11 clean strokes, not counting hatches for knuckles, the pencil draws a naturalistic figure of a woman’s hand, raised in a position similar to what ballet calls allongé.

I saw the hand-drawing video after it was aggregated by an account called @SatisfyingDaily, which posts “extremely satisfying” clips on Twitter. These clips tend to be satisfying the way Doritos are satisfying: not nourishing so much as easy to devour. Short and generally soundless, they are for when we pick up our phones without knowing what we want to see, to fill those moments with someone slicing a bar of soap instead of leaving us alone to remember past relationships. How-to videos are the internet’s version of Xanax. When we are unsettled by the feeling that we should be doing something, they pacify us with images of things being done.

To see the internet’s crappy hands follow so closely on this video, which assured us that anyone could draw them, is vindicating.

n the hand-drawing video, the early strokes are redefined by the lines that follow; what start out looking like lazy 9s, or sperm, become convincing fingers when other lines are drawn around them. The progression calls attention to the enormous role our interpretation plays in a drawing and, by extension, in the act of perception. It reminds us that what we look at is only the beginning of what we see. This idea comes across so strongly in part because the video has been made to emphasize the simplicity of the drawing. The shot stays tightly focused on the point of the pencil, presumably so the artist’s own hand stays out of frame. Each stroke is executed confidently, in a single motion. The message conveyed is that, from a certain perspective, a woman’s hand is just 11 lines that anyone can draw.

And hundreds tried. Their replies are what take the video from interesting to sublime — probably the factor that made it viral. Beneath the video are dozens of photos from people who followed its instructions and ended up with hands that look like rakes and hands that look like wilted bouquets, wadlike hands studded with wrong fingers, hands whose palms vanish into previously undiscovered dimensions. The badness of these reply hands is entertaining, but what’s remarkable is their popularity. One — which looks like a banana peel stuck to a golf club that is hitting a hermit crab — was retweeted 10,000 times. People love to watch the video in which an unknown artist makes drawing a hand look easy, but they also love the pictures in which ordinary people make it look hard. Failure is funny, especially in this case, which has primed us with the plausible claim that anyone can draw a woman’s hand before yanking us back to the truth that basically no one can draw anything at all.

The replies to the hand-drawing video constitute that rare situation in which the internet reinforces the value of expertise rather than undermining it. Normally, the internet’s message to humanity is that we are all qualified to do whatever. After all, it gives us the tools to do almost anything, and for most of history, the line between tool ownership and expertise has been faint. Was the newspaper publisher really so great at shaping public discourse, or did he just own a press? Now that I can publish to a worldwide audience from my laundry room, I have no firm evidence that my opinions are worse than those of some Washington Post columnist who has covered politics for 30 years. The internet has so fully collapsed the distinction between legitimate expert and rent-seeking elite that expertise has come to appear not just unnecessary but also kind of suspect.

It is actually pretty easy to write 800 words on politics and have it come out looking like a column; even some professional op-ed columnists have published mediocre work. But drawing a hand that looks like a hand remains hard — first surprisingly so, then stubbornly. Even the Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli was known for being bad at it. In his most famous painting, Venus emerges from her scallop shell as the embodiment of beauty, until you notice her loaflike hands and feet, which veer into unnatural angles around the third or fourth digit. Botticelli’s hands tended to be so misshaped that physicians and art historians have argued he was intentionally depicting arthritis. The simpler explanation is that he wasn’t great at drawing them. Most of us are not.

There is something refreshing about seeing people come together on the internet to acknowledge this truth. I dare say it is satisfying, but not in the way that watching someone slice a bar of soap is satisfying. It’s more like catching someone in a lie. To see the internet’s crappy hands follow so closely on this video, which assured us that anyone could draw them, is vindicating. “Aha!” you want to say. “I knew you people couldn’t do anything.”

You shouldn’t say that out loud, though. To acknowledge that most people are bad at what they haven’t spent years learning to do feels undemocratic, even reactionary. It is the kind of truth you must be careful not to admit to yourself, lest a whole bunch of untrue but similarly mean ideas push their way in with it. Because the hand-drawing video is free of other content or even context, though, it lets us confront this truth without fear of those other ideas. Some people can draw human hands, but most people cannot, and fortunately we need not say any more about it than that.

By Dan Brooks