Can MasterClass Teach You Everything?

Tad Friend in The New Yorker:

We turn to the Internet for answers. We want to connect, or understand, or simply appreciate something—even if it’s only Joe Rogan. It’s a fraught pursuit. As the Web keeps expanding faster and faster, it’s become saturated with lies and errors and loathsome ideas. It’s a Pacific Ocean that washes up skeevy wonders from its Great Garbage Patch. We long for a respite, a cove where simple rules are inscribed in the sand.

You may have seen one advertised online, among the “weird tricks” to erase your tummy fat and your student loans. It’s MasterClass, a site that promises to disclose the secrets of everything from photography to comedy to wilderness survival. The company’s recent ad, “Lessons on Greatness. Gretzky,” encapsulates the pitch: a class taught by the greatest hockey player ever, full of insights not just for aspiring players but for anyone eager to achieve extraordinary things. In the seminar, Wayne Gretzky tells us that as a kid he’d watch games and diagram the puck’s movements on a sketch of a rink, which taught him to “skate to where the puck is gonna be.” Likewise, Martin Scorsese says in his class that he used to storyboard scenes from movies he admired, such as the chariot race in “Ben-Hur.” The idea that mastery can be achieved by attentive emulation of the masters is the site’s foundational promise. James Cameron, in his class, suggests that the path to glory consists of only one small step. “There’s a moment when you’re just a fan, and there’s a moment when you’re a filmmaker,” he assures us. “All you have to do is pick up a camera and start shooting.”

When MasterClass launched, in 2015, it offered three courses: Dustin Hoffman on acting, James Patterson on writing, and Serena Williams on tennis. Today, there are a hundred and thirty, in categories from business to wellness. During the pandemic lockdown, demand was up as much as tenfold from the previous year; last fall, when the site had a back-to-school promotion, selling an annual subscription for a dollar instead of a hundred and eighty dollars, two hundred thousand college students signed up in a day. MasterClass will double in size this year, to six hundred employees, as it launches in the U.K., France, Germany, and Spain. It’s a Silicon Valley investor’s dream, a rolling juggernaut of flywheels and network effects dedicated to helping you, as the instructor Garry Kasparov puts it, “upgrade your software.”

The classes are crammed with pro tips and are often highly entertaining. Neil Gaiman explains the comfort and tedium of genre fiction by noting that, in such stories, the plot exists only to prevent all the shoot-outs and cattle stampedes from happening at the same time. Serena Williams advises playing the backhands of big-chested women, because “larger boobs” hinder shoulder rotation. And the singer St. Vincent observes that the artist’s job is to metabolize shame.

More here.