Faced recently with a wash basin welling up, my first thought was to run not for the toolbox, but to my laptop. For those of the Google-first, think-later generation, turning to the web for a DIY crisis is a common reaction. It used to be that if the sink blocked or you decided you'd like to replace the downstairs toilet with a rococo Jacuzzi, you'd phone a DIY-savvy friend, or the plumber. These days, we are much more likely to fire up Google, take ours laptop or smartphone into the bathroom, watch a video about unscrewing U-bends or plumbing in conch-shaped tubs and tackle the job ourselves.
If the recession and a lack of cash is one reason DIY has become more popular over the past year, a wealth of DIY blogs and how-to videos on the internet is another. Google anything from fitting pop-rivets to making your room look like a fin-de-siècle boudoir and there will be a host of results.
So when my sink drama struck, a three-minute "How To Unblock a Sink" video was perfect. Its calm voice-over, expressive presenter and lots of close-ups of the U-bend combined my keen but amateur DIY desires with my favourite thing – the internet.
"Why would you pay £80 to get a plumber out for a simple problem when you could just look something up online, get the information there and then fix it yourself?" asks Alysia Maciejowska, founder of the DIY advice site BookshelfBoyfriend.com.
She has a point. There's information about everything on the internet, but it's a natural fit for home improvement tasks, where a small amount of knowledge can make a lot of tasks quite straightforward.
"It's not that people can't grasp the concepts," Alysia explains, "it's just that they need basic information. Lots of people don't know the difference between a nut and a bolt but it doesn't mean they don't know how to use them. If you explain the basics then you can get to the harder stuff quickly: start off learning what a nut and bolt are and eventually you can change an engine in a car."
One of the biggest instructional video sites on the web is British-based Videojug. With the can-do motto "Get Good at Life", its CEO, Tom Laidlaw, shares the same notion that well-structured information can be useful and empowering.
"Life is full of a million tasks that are well within the capability of anyone who's got ten minutes and the right instructions," he says.
The idea for Videojug came in 2006 when its founder, David Tabizel, got a flat tyre and searched on the internet for advice about fixing it. Finding nothing, he made a film that day about how to do it and put it onto the internet.
Certain that there was demand for this kind of information, he dreamed up Videojug, an online archive of how-to films on almost every topic imaginable.
And video, says Laidlaw, has some inherent advantages: "There are limitations to pictures with captions," he says. "One of our most popular videos is how to tie a tie – and if you've ever tried to follow written instructions on how to tie a tie it's impossible – you have to have someone show you how to do it."
Alysia has a similar set-up story for Bookshelf Boyfriend: having struggled with several problems in one week, a buzzing noise in the kitchen sink was just too much.
"My parents were away trekking in South Africa," she explains, "and I was house-sitting for them with my sister. Suddenly this buzzing noise started coming from the kitchen sink and kept going for hours. We worked out it must be a plumbing noise but didn't know what on earth to do about it. Eventually we had to phone up my dad on his mobile, and we got hold of him in the middle of the Namibian desert... He just said 'OK, what you need to do is pop outside, turn on the garden tap, run it for 10 seconds and that should do it.'"
It worked. And Alysia realised what she needed was a source of reliable information for these fiddly tasks that are simple when you know how to do them.
"I just thought, what I need is the perfect boyfriend that you get off the shelf, get all the answers, put it back again, no obligations. Just an answer machine," she says.
From a design perspective, Ellie Tennant, writer for Ideal Home and homeshoppingspy.com thinks that access to the internet has brought a change in aesthetics as well: "I think it has made everybody a lot braver." She says: "From blogs around the world you can see such a range of products and designs that it has broadened people's horizons, which is quite exciting."
She thinks there's a definite trend towards a more individual and creative look, fuelled both by inspiration from the internet (blogs and design sites) and by products from the internet, with online shopping outlets from eBay to Etsy giving people greater choice than a trip to their local B&Q.
Checking up on the source and authority is very important, she adds: "If you just go into a chatroom or a forum where loads of people are talking about how they do something, it's not necessarily going to be correct. You should make sure that you are looking at a reputable website that has spoken to professionals. Otherwise it's just like walking out the door and asking everybody on the street the best way to tile a bathroom."
James McAllister, head of production at Videojug, knows instructional videos have their limits: "We wouldn't try and make a film about how to re-wire your house [as] somebody would do it badly or dangerously."
Still, he believes giving people advice is only a good thing: "I think if someone has decided to Google 'how do I paint over a crack in the wall?' they are probably going to try it, so they might as well get some well worked-out advice from us and do it properly."
Ellie has a nice anecdote about how a little advice can be useful: "Recently I was trying to knit," she says, "and I realised I'd forgotten how to cast on, so I just got my iPhone out, looked it up and worked out how you cast on step-by-step."
And that's why my iPhone has joined the hammer, paintbrush and screwdriver in my useful tools selection. I'm keeping it well away from the rivet gun though – removing small pieces of metal from my iPhone is one DIY task I do not want to tackle.Reuse content