“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.”