(CNN) -- Rather than read this article, why don't you learn something useful? In the time it takes to read this, you could instead watch an online video that shows you how to do something practical in the real world -- like fold a T-shirt in two seconds.
5min.com is one of many Web sites offering instructions for users.
That's because the musty old how-to is getting a YouTube-era makeover. Traditionally the how-to has been the domain of the printed page: books, how-to articles and instructions included with, say, a home-assemble computer desk. But it's never really worked to satisfaction.
Anyone following printed instructions long enough eventually yearns to just be shown what to do. Words are poorly suited for illustrating how to do things. Hence the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. And a video, it follows, is worth even more.
Of course, how-to DVDs and videotapes are readily available for sale, but making and distributing them requires time and money. For that reason, publishers gamble only on topics they think will produce enough interest and return -- but that leaves out a massive number of things people might be interested in learning.
A new crop of Web sites enables anyone to upload how-to video instructions about almost anything, including magic tricks, computer shortcuts, origami, beauty tips, casino strategies, dance moves, video game secrets, massage instruction, six-pack abs and many other topics.
That's light-hearted fare, perhaps, but "the populist nature of the Internet is a big part of what's working here," notes Kirk Olson, a consumer strategist at trend research firm Iconoculture. "It's bottom-up media serving consumers' constant need to quickly understand DIY tasks and projects. The trend should continue to grow."
It's generally free to upload the videos, and some sites share the advertising revenue they earn with their "producers." On Metacafe, for instance, some producers can get paid $5 for every 1,000 views. One user who goes by the name Kipkay on Metacafe and requests anonymity says he's helped pay for his son's university tuition by posting how-to videos on the site. His videos show viewers how to, among other things, escape handcuffs, boost the range of a TV remote control and trace where an email has come from.
But even without a monetary incentive, there's no shortage of people eager to share their know-how with others on sites like YouTube, 5min.com and VideoJug. And judging by Web site traffic there's no shortage of viewer demand. 5min.com says its traffic doubles every month.
The demand is fueling competition, which is leading to specialization. Both 5min.com and VideoJug focus specifically on how-to videos and break them into categories. Art, tech and fashion are the most popular ones at 5min.com. The site also hosts a built-in media player that's designed specifically for the how-to. It allows zooming in and out, storyboarding, subtitling and slow-motion and frame-by-frame playback.
The videos on these sites are generally short, and that's a good thing. On the Internet, short videos "attract a much larger share of online viewers than long videos do," notes Joe Laszlo, an analyst with Jupiter Research. (The motto at 5min.com: "Any solution can be visually explained in 5 minutes.")
Some how-to videos appearing online are, inevitably, controversial, like a clip showing how to develop a "one-shot" euthanasia pill. And many demonstrate how to put consumer products to unauthorized use: how to unlock an iPhone, for instance, so that you're not stuck with just one cellular provider. (Even though trying this could permanently damage the product in a way not covered by warranty.) And some clips are simply pirated material from how-to DVDs and videos.
At their best, though, these videos are original, innovative, free how-tos. If you're a harried new parent, for instance, consider: In the time you've taken to read this, you could have learned several new tricks for lulling a baby to sleep. Now that's news you can use. E-mail to a friend