Do you remember hobbies? Before the Internet hobbies were what we did with our free time. When we weren’t watching telly. These days, although we might do some of the same things, we don’t seem to call them “hobbies”. These days, with the Internet, we have an audience, and seem reluctant to call our activities hobbies.

We never used to have an audience in mind. Hobbies were simply something that interested you. Given the chance, we might have shared things with people who had the same interest, but our hobbies didn’t require or expect an audience.

You might show a friend the BASIC computer program you’d been tinkering with. Your hand-knitted sweater might inspire favourable comments from friends. You might show off your new model train layout at a local club. A particularly good photograph might, if you were very lucky, be seen by a few thousand readers of an amateur photography magazine a couple of months after you developed it in your darkroom under the stairs.

But that was it. The audience wasn’t why we had a hobby. Hobbies were interesting. They were a passion. They were a distraction from the rest of life. We took up a hobby as much for the pleasure of the process as for the satisfaction of the final result.

Even that phrase is special: “we took up a hobby”. There’s something admirable in it, to “take up”. The commitment required. The marking of the start of a new activity that we would stick with and make part of our selves. We could then say we “have a hobby”. We would take up a hobby and we would have a hobby and we would be a hobbyist.

Today though, it seems harder — certainly rarer — to be a hobbyist as we once knew it. Through the Internet we’re connected instantly to all other hobbyists and, as a result, hobby-ness is somehow diluted. Now that we see the result of more hobbies it’s easier to dabble in more of them ourselves. It seems rarer to dedicate our free time to a single hobby.

This global audience for hobbies and, I think, the dilution of the old-fashioned hobbyist focus, somehow turns hobbies into… what? I don’t know. Do we have a new word? Is a hobby now, boringly, just “a thing we do”? A hobby used to be something performed mostly in private. It wasn’t done for publicity but for personal satisfaction, to achieve order, to escape the family, to learn and improve skills, to make something useful or beautiful.

Now, every “thing we do” has forums and Facebook groups. Programming, knitting, train sets, photography: their results all appear on Flickr and YouTube and dedicated communities for friends and fans to Like and Favorite. Every thing we do, all of the things, can now be validated by an instant worldwide audience. Few of us have the willpower to turn this thing back into an old-fashioned hobby, to hide it from everyone, to do it just for ourselves.

Which isn’t to say this new audience is a bad thing. It’s an extra thing and a different thing. It exposes us to new skills and people, and it allows the spread of techniques and ideas. The audience might be detrimental if it becomes the main reason for doing the thing we do, if that brief burst of virtual applause becomes our only aim. If the audience makes us forget how much we don’t know, and think our public dabbling means we’re on a par with those who have dedicated their lives to this particular skill. But often it’s simply nice to share something, to quietly show off our abilities and interests and to learn from others.

These days we collectively still do the same things but we don’t seem to call them hobbies. And that’s a shame. It’s a lovely word for a great idea — a productive pastime that isn’t work. But even if we don’t use the word as much, deep down, under the dabbling, these activities are still hobbies.

We’re taking up more hobbies than ever, we still have hobbies, and we’re still all hobbyists.


  • What's interesting about the new hobbies is that the results can feed into other people's hobbies: your results turn into someone else's raw material. I'm reading Steven Shapin's Never Pure right now, mostly about Boyle and Hook so far, and there's a lot of similarity to early science that you're touching on here. Most of all, it's the addition of an audience to home tinkering that turns the old hobby into the new public pursuit.

  • I was watching this video and thought of your post: vimeo.com/9702393

    That guy is definitely aware of his audience (the "YouTube sensation" comment seems relevant), but I think having friends around who are doing the same thing is also important. For a lot of people it's probably hard to find people nearby who are into the same things they are.

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16 Aug 2011 at Twitter

  • 10:04pm: Looking for an early ride to @LaptopsandLooms tomorrow. I lost my seat in the car to a #thingomatic !
  • 9:48pm: @TheRRMargate News. Just reading news is angry-making enough recently, but somehow it's worse, watching people talking it.
  • 9:28pm: In hotel lounge with iPad (wifi not stretching to the outbuilding), wondering whether to watch the news and end up going to bed angry.
  • 8:07pm: @tomcoates I don't miss Blair but I was thinking that Cameron makes one realise how much worse Blair could have been.
  • 7:54pm: @hondanhon Remember I did start this blog for Tom some time ago... bit.ly/reEB4Z
  • 3:28pm: @blech @thegareth Given cycling and boarding aren’t allowed on the podium there’ll be a little fuss about how/if C4 got permission.
  • 3:25pm: @blech @thegareth Barbican residents will be less than pleased with some of it, given the ongoing damage to the tiles. (Looks amazing tho.)
  • 3:23pm: Phew. 24 days of @samuelpepys in hand, to allow for several consecutive Fridays off.
  • 12:47pm: @jeremyet I think you have to be extra keen to call reading a ‘hobby’. But either way people share what they read online too.
  • 12:38pm: I wrote a bit about hobbies: bit.ly/qg2ufF (As ever, consider it thoughts-in-progress rather than an unshakeable opinion.)
  • 11:32am: My 90,000th Last.fm scrobble (since 15 April 2004): Bix Beidebecke: I’ll Be A Friend With Pleasure.
  • 10:29am: Today’s cure: Bix Beiderbecke.
  • 7:53am: @tobybarnes @FinalBullet Yes, and, possibly, a greater tendency to coast, to be content (not that that's the worst thing ever!).
  • 7:29am: @FinalBullet I would have agreed ten years ago.

16 Aug 2011 in Links