Do It Yourself (Poorly)

PUBLISHED: May 3, 2011

There was a time, not too long ago, when "do-it-yourself" meant trying to fix the leaky shower head without the help of a professional plumber. Or changing the oil in your car without a mechanic.

Nowadays it means much more. Technology and enhanced communication have ushered in an era with numerous opportunities to do it yourself—and, for many practitioners, to do it poorly.

My own career has centered on two fields now overrun with do-it-yourselfism: television and journalism. TV used to be a big, expensive process, left mostly to trained professionals. Then everyone's Uncle Harry got a camcorder. Now, with little more than a cell phone and access to YouTube, we're all television producers.

Journalism? There's hardly a more explosive do-it-yourself field than the fourth estate. The line between citizen journalists and their professional counterparts is increasingly blurred—or blogged. According to the website BlogPulse, roughly 65,000 new blogs are created every day, with the total number of blogs now at an estimated 162 million.

But thanks to the Internet we now also have do-it-yourself lawyering, accounting and, of course, stock brokering. All this isn't necessarily bad: Some professions were rightly doomed as technology gave consumers the tools to do things faster and cheaper on their own. The travel agency business comes to mind.

So are we now returning to an era of self-sufficiency? Or is this the dawn of an age of do-it-yourself mediocrity?

On the popular WebMD website, there is an article titled, "Do-It-Yourself Dentistry." Included is this bit of instruction for replacing your own crown or cap: "Clean it out thoroughly, and either buy paste in a drugstore or mix your own with Vaseline and corn starch. Mix it to be a pretty thick paste. Then, put the paste in the crown, place it on the tooth, and bite down gently until it's seated. Wipe off extra glue that will seep out."

Marriage on the rocks? "It used to be hard to get a do-it-yourself divorce, but not anymore," states the website

Problems with your immigration status? Websites such as offer products like "The Complete Do-It-Yourself Immigration Kit."

Yet rather than eliminating jobs, perhaps our determination to do things ourselves is creating an even larger need for professionals to clean up after us—much as the circus discovered the need for workers to follow behind the elephants.

My doctor complains that he must now spend an inordinate amount of time with many patients, trying to correct snippets of half-truths and misdiagnoses that they've acquired from do-it-yourself online doctoring.

The real problem with, say, do-it-yourself wedding photography is that the photos look like they were taken with Aunt Julia's cell phone, because they were. We self-publish our own books, and they read that way. We teach ourselves Spanish on the Internet and then wonder why we can't even order a taco.

Personally, my attempt to repair the shower head only resulted in a small flood in the bathroom, water damage to the room below, and eventually a call to a plumber who did his best to avoid snickering while fixing the thing.

(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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