This week’s ITConversations show suffered a tragic glitch that rendered the audio unusable, but I was able to transcribe it as text. My guest is John Leeke, a carpenter who takes care of old buildings and shares his knowledge of the tools and best practices involved in doing that. His methods of sharing have evolved over many years. He started in the early 1980s as a writer for magazines like Old House Journal and Fine Woodworking, transitioned to Internet publishing when that became possible, and more recently has become a leader in the use of Internet video to communicate knowledge that’s embodied, as he likes to say, in the mind, the hands, and the heart.
His approach to Internet video exemplifies and weaves together a number of themes that I’ve focused on in recent years, including narration of work, online apprenticeship, tacit knowledge, screencasting to document our work in the virtual world, and video to document our work in the physical world.
JU: We got introduced by way of the folks at the Open University, whom I met when I visited the UK in January 2007 to speak at the Technology, Knowledge, and Society conference. They were showing me their FlashMeeting videoconferencing system, and they cited you as an example of somebody who’s making very practical use of the medium in your work, which is historic home renovation.
JL: Right. I’d been using FlashMeeting for about a year and half then. They had singled me out because I wasn’t doing education, or developing the FlashMeeting system, like they were there at the Knowledge Media Institute, I was out in the real world doing things with it, demonstrating the horizontal movement of knowledge.
JU: That absolutely grabbed me. Ever since I got involved in Internet video, I saw there was a huge opportunity for horizontal, or direct, or peer-to-peer transfer of knowledge. In particular, of knowledge that is embodied, literally — it’s in your hands…
JL: It’s in your mind, your hands, and your heart. I’ve been sharing what I know through print media since the early 1980s. I grew up working in my father’s shop, in the 1950s, and then was out in the field working on historic buildings as a preservation carpenter for fifteen years. Then I fell into writing about my work: Homebuilding Magazine, Fine Woodworking, Old House Journal. I got pretty practiced at that by the late 1990s.
JU: You’ve published books too, right?
JL: Yes, I’ve self-published a series on caring for older buildings. Through the 1990s I knew that video would be important for my work, but I never came around to publishing anything in video. I didn’t have the time or dollars to put into it. But but 2003 and 2004, it was getting streamlined enough and easy enough to do over the Internet.
JU: As much use of online video as there is, I think we’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to the sort of sharing of practical knowledge that you’ve been doing.
JL: It’s starting to happen. Just yesterday a colleague sent me a link to a YouTube video about how to draw and sketch the classical forms, like Ionic capitals. It was an architect showing how he sketched, and how he developed a balustrade for a fancy classical building. It showed him actually doing it. This wasn’t happening in the 1990s. You could do it, but it was a huge expensive production. Now you can do it for a couple of hundred dollars, and sometimes even less.
JU: Of course there’s still the question of why someone would do this. And in fact, the theme of the talk I gave at that conference was network-enabled apprenticeship. The idea was that throughout human history, people have learned trades and crafts by direct observation and imitation.
JL: Yeah, workers working side by side. And it’s more than observation. It’s the guiding of hands that makes that work. Internet video, even when it’s live, doesn’t get you all the way there. But it’s certainly a dramatic next level beyond print media, that’s for sure.
Expositional work online — presentation of words and pictures and even videos — it’s all presentational. Someone develops it, and as a separate event in time someone else comes and watches and learns. But when it’s live and interactive, that’s when you jump to the next level. Being there in person is best, of course, but this is a really valuable and powerful intermediate level because it opens up access to many more people than I can get together with personally, side by side.
JU: Can you give an example?
JL: In our work we’re often restoring old windows. This is the time of year when you have to take care of them. One of the details of that work is reglazing, where the glass meets the sash — the wooden frame that slides up and down. There’s a material called glazing compound, or putty, and it’s easy enough to use so that any handy person can do it, but it’s hard to get it so that it looks nice and smooth and even, if you haven’t done it before. Once you learn, it’s a cinch. And it’s easy to show someone how. I’ve taught eight-year-olds and eighty-year-olds how to run a perfect line. But you can’t do that with even a detailed series of photos.
JU: And you’ve tried…
JL: Yes, I’ve written three or four articles over the years, and each one is better, and you can learn a certain kind of thing from print and photos. You can learn what kind of putty to use, you can learn how to hold the putty knife. But until you see a putty knife in motion, and can respond in realtime — adjust the angle, a little more pressure — you can get it in thirty seconds if you’re side by side, and in a few minutes over interactive video.
JU: So you’re talking about a couple of levels here. The first is direct observation and imitation. My first revelation on that front was when I had to fix an old HP laser printer. I found a parts kit online that came with a video on a CD, and it enabled me to successfully disassemble and reassemble that printer. Later I realized there was no other way I could have done the job successfully. No written instruction would have gotten me there.
JL: Right, that’s one level and it works well when the printer you’re repairing is just like the one in the video. And when the job involves mechanical parts that lock and fit together.
But with the window putty, it’s different. You’re working with a plastic material. It’s as if you had to make those printer parts yourself. It’s basic stuff, not manufactured stuff.
JU: The motor skills are subtler, and the nonverbal communication is more critical.
JL: Right, and with the nonverbal communication as well as the visual, you really need to be able to go back and forth between the learner and the teacher. If you can do that within seconds — or if you’re standing next to someone, microseconds — that feedback between the eyes, the mind, the hand, the muscles, the tool, the material the tool is shaping — that’s how they learn so fast in person. And it can happen in seconds when you’re doing interactive video over the Internet.
JU: What’s your setup for doing these interactive training sessions over the Internet?
JL: I take my notebook computer, plug in my Sony HandyCam, and shoot whatever it is we’re teaching or discussing. It’s getting to the point where it’s all plug and play, and if I can do it, many people can.
JU: So that’s the broadcast piece of it, what’s the setup for interacting with people who are following along?
JL: That happens on a page at my website, HistoricHomeworks.com. Other people log in there to the FlashMeeting system, and if they have camera and audio at their end, I can see and hear them. Typical numbers are two or three participants, up to eight or ten. The live sessions are also catalogued for later viewing.
JU: The FlashMeeting system has some interesting features, including a method of visualizing the conversation so you can see who spoke when and for how long.
JL: That helps support the Knowledge Media Institute’s principal mission, which is to study and understand how knowledge spreads from person to person around the world. The analytical features built into FlashMeeting serve that mission.
It fascinates me. For example, you can see displayed on a map of the world the locations of viewers of these recorded sessions showing how to restore historic windows, or painting and restoring exterior woodwork. I can see where the interest is, and it turns out that people everywhere care about this stuff, because there are wooden buildings all around the world. On six of the seven continents there are people using these videos streaming from my office in Portland, Maine. At KMI they joke that they’re waiting for someone to start watching in Antarctica.
JU: It’s an interesting point because in the world of online media there’s a lot of emphasis on what’s new, but you’re operating out on the long tail. Your piece on interior storm windows was very relevant to me because I just went through the exercise of doing the stretch-and-seal method, and your demonstration of how to build reusable interior storms really got my attention.
That’s an idea a person might never encounter. But if you do, it doesn’t matter when. The publishing world calls this evergreen content, it’s valuable anytime.
JL: Right. There’s also a discussion on my website about this topic. It’s more expositional — words and pictures — and that goes hand in hand with the video. One of the limitations of the FlashMeeting system is that I can’t annotate the video, after the fact, with links to those materials.
JU: A lot of folks will look at this and say, OK, John Leeke is an unusual guy. He doesn’t just do the work, he also documents the work, and that’s great for him, but it’s not really relevant to most people who won’t have the time or inclination. For them, this process seems tangential.
But I think that’s often untrue. Here’s an example. I have a pellet stove, and there are a couple of maintenance procedures that I frankly screwed up the first time through because I didn’t absorb the understanding of how to do them from the manual. What struck me was that once I knew how to do it, I could have illustrated these procedures with a couple of five minute videos. And maybe I should just do that myself. But the thing is, if I’m the dealer, and I’m getting complaints from customers who are buying these things and then failing to understand the manual and screwing things up, it’s very much in my interest to do some of my own video documentation.
JL: Of course. And by the way, I’m not special. I’m just a carpenter up here in Maine, taking care of my own house. It just turns out that my work is also helping other people to take care of their houses. Well, yes, it’s not unique but special that I have this compulsion to share what I’m learning and figuring out. But the ability to share it — well, no matter who you are, if your neighbor sees you fixing your windows, and comes over and knocks on your door and asks about how to do it, you would show him. This is just an extension of that. Now we can have neighbors further afield.
JU: Yes. There was a time when the work people did was visible. You saw what they did.
JL: You saw what the people next to you did.
JU: That’s right. And you understood what the different kinds of work were, because you saw people doing that work. But then, in the industrial age, dad went off to work, he disappeared in the morning, and showed up again at the end of the day, and work was a black box. Who knew what dad did?
JL: That’s the industrial disconnect. And there’s a disconnect on the marketing side as well. Through the last half of the 20th century, as the industrial revolution gears up to grind itself into nothing — which is now happening — the method of marketing to more people than needed stuff was to disconnect the people from each other, so that everybody needed something, instead of sharing with their family or neighbors. Everybody needed their own lawnmower. But you figure your lawnmower is sitting idle in your garage for 99% of its time. One lawnmower could easily mow everybody’s lawn on the block.
But that’s the consumer culture that was developed by manufacturers. So very few people now know to run that glazing compound to seal the glass to the wooden frame. This is purposeful. They don’t want people to know how to run glazing because that limits the market for vinyl plastic imitation windows.
So I only have one person on the block I can teach locally, but I can connect with more people with interactive video. Because of the access to the long tail, I can be teaching lots of people who need to know that.
JU: Here’s another aspect I wanted to ask you about. When it’s hard to see how work is done, it’s hard to know what it’s like to be a person who does that kind of work. Unless it’s in the family, you won’t see it, and even then you probably won’t. You don’t have the family or community scope in which to see other kinds of work being done. And lacking that, you can get pretty far down an educational path before you realize that the path isn’t for you at all.
JL: Right. So, I’ve been focused on task-specific demonstration, but you’re talking about another thing that’s happening with video over the Internet — life blogging, or life broadcasting. I don’t think anybody’s doing that as a tradesperson. What is it like to wake up at 4:30 AM, so you can be on the site working on the windows, all day long, and then get in your pickup truck and drive back home? As you say, a lot of people could go all the way through school, and study building construction at the college level, and then take specialty courses in historic carpentry work, and by the time they’re in their early 20s they’re well-educated and have a good set of hands-on skills — and then realize that they don’t like to get up early in the morning.
JU: You’ve painted the downside, and that’s fair, people should understand that, but on the upside, the life blogging should also communicate how you feel when you drive by a house that you’ve restored, and how you know the people living there feel as a result of the work you’ve done.
JL: Absolutely. This is the heart side of the work that the industrial revolution leaves out. It boils everything down to mind and hand, and leaves out the heart. That is the heart side, when you drive by those buildings you helped restore, last month or last year or 20 years ago. It is the reason why we get up early in the morning to go to work. You know that you’re helping people who live in and use those buildings.
JU: Now there are certainly many people who will feel that these methods they get paid to practice are proprietary knowledge they wouldn’t want to reveal. My argument is that in a lot of cases, by demonstrating expertise you’ll attract more work than you lose, and that it’ll often be more interesting and rewarding work. What’s your experience?
JL: Both of those ideas do play strongly in the building trades. It’s a real tradition to keep secrets. Going back hundreds and hundreds of years, with the guild systems, there were ways to control the sharing of that kind of knowledge. And it’s still the case. Not every plasterer who can do those decorative Ionic capitals wants everybody to know exactly how they do it. But they do want everybody to know that it can be done.
You’re right, this is how artisans can do good marketing — by letting people know what is involved, by showing some of these methods, and they don’t have to give up all their secrets in order to do that. But you can help people to understand that it’s not just a machine spitting out product, it’s people making stuff with their minds and their hands and their hearts.
That’s another part of how I use Internet video. I go to some of my colleagues’ shops, as well as my own, and show what this is all about, because it is not well understood by the public. Video can get to the nuances of the heart side of this work.
JU: Also, if you can show me how to take care of some basic things for myself, maybe I can turn around and hire you to do something really special.
JL: Yeah. I’m hoping that we’re now in a post-modern cultural movement, which is what I think you’re talking about. Back in the 1970s I was already working in this realm of making fine things by hand, and there was a groundswell of interest. That’s when Alex Haley’s Roots phenomenon happened. It was important because it touched the hearts of people in America. That’s really what our restoration work is about, it’s the connnection with the people who once lived in these buildings. It wasn’t the national trust and the President telling us to save buildings, it was people who wanted to save them because their grandfathers built them.
JU: So where do you fall along the continuum of trade secrets and knowledge sharing?
JL: I’m at the extreme end of sharing everything I know. I’m a one-person microbusiness and always have been. I grew up in the midwest where sharing what you knew, and helping people, was what life was about, for everybody. That was the culture. It was a natural for me. It didn’t seem like it was worth keeping secrets.
My dad said that if you want to do well in trades, you have to let people know what you do. This is what it’s been all about for me — letting enough people know.
JU: And you have found incredible marketing power in doing what you do?
JL: Oh yeah. As I was working as a tradesperson in the 70s, and a contractor in the 80s, I made a shift because I’d been doing a good job of documenting my work. That’s something else I learned from my father. I also had the documents he created for his work, going back to the 20s, this huge information resource that I had to share.
JU: Really? What did he document?
JL: He documented his work in the arts and trades. He was a commercial artist through the 20s, then shifted into furniture and buildings at the craftsman/artisan level.
JU: And he left behind detailed logs of his practice?
JL: Yeah, detailed files of every project he ever worked on. So I learned that as part of my carpentry and woodworking, growing up in his shop, and continued it when I left his shop and came east to work on old buildings. So by the early 1980s I had this whole backlog of my own work to share. And by sharing it, I created extraordinary interest in my work. Back then it was through the print media — Fine Woodworking, Old House Journal, Fine Homebuilding — and a lot of people learned about the work I was doing to restore columns on old porches, saving windows, doing woodwork repairs. When I learned something I thought was worth sharing, I’d write an article about it. The editors loved it, and their readers did too, it was the authentic stuff, what was really going on out there in the field.
With that body of knowledge, by the late 1980s I was consulting on projects, helping people solve problems with their buildings. That meant I could be on even more projects, helping more people, and if I was writing about what I was learning, then each project was an order of magnitude larger. If I’m doing hands-on work on buildings I might only be helping a few people. If I’m consulting, it might be tens of people. If I’m writing, we figured ten or fifteen thousand people were using my articles. Each is a jump in magnitude. Then of course the Internet, where I got an early start in 1994 and 95.
JU: I’m sure a lot of folks will look at your example and feel that, since they’ll never become featured writers for magazines, there’s no point in doing this kind of sharing in a more modest way. But I think there’s benefit at any level of engagement. You’ve clearly thought through the dynamics of the communication pattern here: one-to-many, multi-level distribution. But for a lot of people, even with electronic media, that isn’t obvious. They’ll still spend a lot of time doing one-to-one communication. They’ll write something up, they’ll even take some pictures, but then they’ll just email that to somebody else.
JL: Two birds with one stone. I realized that if I wanted to accomplish the things I want to get done in my life, I have to get more than one result for every action or activity. The print — and now online — publications that I do are my marketing program, so I don’t have to spend money on advertising. And now you call, and want to talk with me, and if I was only getting one benefit from that, I wouldn’t be able to say yes. But I can already see two or three things that’ll come from talking to you, so I can say yes.
Say I’m thinking of taking on a project to help my neighbor rebuild her front steps. OK, I can earn some money. And I can take a series of photos for a print article, and that’ll bring some more income but it’ll also help with my personal goal of sharing more, and then I can easily shoot a little video that I can broadcast on the Internet and that will help an astonishing number of people. So I can’t say no, because I’m getting multiple benefits. But I would have to say no if the only benefit was getting paid to fix the steps.
JU: You’ve really thought it through.
JL: The key is that the video camera and the computer and the Internet are just tools, no different from my table saw and push stick, or my old wooden hand plane. They’re all just tools, and they’re all in the same kit for me, and I’m a tool user, and I help people with their old buildings.
How can people do this? I’ve found a balance. Instead of watching television, I make television.
JU: Well said. Thanks John!