Techno-pessimism is, at this point, received wisdom among most thinking people. Twitter has debased our public discourse, Instagram has poisoned teenagers’ mental health and, as for YouTube, isn’t it full of pouting make-up tutorials, obnoxious vloggers and people filming themselves playing video games?
While much of the above is true, YouTube has come a long way in the last 10 years, evolving into one of the principal ways that people exchange information and ideas online. This is particularly true for 16-24-year-olds, who spend 73 minutes on YouTube a day.
Their hunger for a touch more seriousness to their YouTube consumption, has given rise to a new form, the “video essay”. These educational and frequently erudite videos can explore everything from politics to music theory, and have won their creators an audience of millions.
“The video essay is the best of all worlds when it comes to expressing yourself,” says Jay Foreman, who publishes educational geography videos which mix in elements of absurdist comedy. “You can be more personal and opinionated than a traditional TV presenter, and you can illustrate your point with video clips or graphics or sketches or even songs in a way that you can’t in a simple written article.”
Video essays are generally scripted and advance an argument through a mixture of research, criticism and jokes. Beyond that, the form is utterly various, videos ranging from ten minutes to two hours in length. Some creators simply speak over the top of images or video clips much like lecturers, while others have developed an idiosyncratic visual style.
Foreman says he draws inspiration from a mixture of Monty Python, Vic and Bob, and the BBC’s Mark Steel Lectures to make videos that are “too geographic to be straightforward comedy shows and vice versa”, meaning “they could only exist on YouTube”. And the style clearly connects with people, as evidenced by his 12-minute exploration of town planning entitled Why does London have 32 boroughs? clocking up almost four million views.
David Bennett, who analyses popular and classical music through the lens of music theory on his channel, agrees that the form offers something otherwise impossible in written criticism. “I could spend an hour trying to explain what chord I to chord IV sounds like, or I could just play it to you, and you’d understand. Music is a sensory and interactive experience, and on YouTube you can play clips, you can show images.”
Bennett’s more abstruse videos, for example those on the Locrian mode (which requires keeping to a limited set of musical notes related to the white keys of a piano) and 5/4 time signatures, rank among his most popular. His – and Foreman’s – videos have even been used by school teachers; while politics and culture YouTuber Tom Nicholas’s videos have been shown by university professors.
So, apart from their clever content, what else is behind the growing profile of these show? In 2012, YouTube adjusted its algorithm to a system that rewarded and promoted videos based on how long they were watched (“dwell time”) rather than simply their view count. Longer videos also have more space for adverts, profiting both YouTube and the person making the videos.
This ad revenue can then be augmented by money crowdfunded on Patreon. For instance, Hbomberguy, one of the most prominent video essayists, has almost 11,000 Patreon patrons, each contributing between £2 and £8 a month, giving him an estimated monthly income in the tens of thousands. Though a fraction of the millions earned by celebrity vloggers such as Logan Paul, this significant income has allowed some creators to match the ambition and depth normally found in mainstream documentaries.
Hbomberguy – real name Harry Brewis – goes for films the length of documentaries, his most recent, Vaccines: A Measured Response, being a case in point. Running 104 minutes, it examines the story of disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield and the fraud that linked autism to MMR jabs. It has garnered three million views in just six months.
“That particular video took a long time to research properly,” Brewis tells me. “My producer and I worked with fact-checkers, medical professionals, scientists, and lawyers on drafts of the video and its script to ensure there were no obvious holes in our research or conclusions. I often find myself wondering how many other YouTubers do this – part of the appeal of YouTube for some seems to be that you can basically say whatever you want without consequences, including lying or making obvious mistakes.”
Here, Brewis indicates the elephant in the room regarding video essayists on YouTube – why should we pay attention to these people anyway? Their strength lies in their editorial independence and their ability to speak on issues which they and their audience believe are inadequately covered by the mainstream media. But all you need to upload videos on YouTube is a camera and some editing software, not intellectual expertise.
“Until extremely recently,” Brewis says, “you could tell deliberate lies about almost anything and put the video online and call it a day. So, video essayists are more free than someone working on pieces for a newspaper – but free to do what? Spread falsehoods?” Or, as Jay Foreman puts it: “The drawback of YouTube being so easy to upload to is that there really is quite a lot of bollocks on there.”
Though there is little motivation to lie in videos about geography or music analysis, this becomes more of a problem with politics. Tom Nicholas, whose political videos include A Brief History of the Culture Wars and Cancel Culture: Fear of the Mob, rigorously researches his subjects. But he is acutely aware of both the capacity for political misinformation and the censoring power of YouTube.
“It is a bit of a Wild West,” he says. “There is no editorial structure or peer review. At the moment, it’s a mixture of self-regulation and relying on the moral codes of individual creators, and on the whims of a massive company to decide what they want their terms of service to be. As to what system there should be, I don’t know.”
But perhaps our attitude shouldn’t be scepticism towards these individuals but gratitude for the example set by their output. The internet is generally assumed to have coarsened and lowered our public discourse; they show that with the right intentions it can be used to elevate it, sharing ideas in new styles, with a younger audience that traditional media can’t capture.
As David Bennett optimistically tells me: “Since the dawn of time, people have had a whole range of interests and most of the time, there was no way of learning more without being in the right place and the right time and having the right resources. But now, if you have an interest in anything, you can learn more about it.”