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YouTuber Hank Green on online validation, TikTok and A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour

YouTuber Hank Green is, in many ways, a content creator. Together with fellow author and brother John, the vlogger has launched educational channels CrashCourse and Sci Show, and built a community of ‘Nerdfighters’ via the online video diary Vlogbrothers. Now, as VidCon returns to London for its second year, its co-founder tells me he’s happy with how the event is going.

“I mean, the community here has always been as active as anywhere in the world,” Hank explains. “It’s turning out some of the best content or the best talent in the world. I just love walking around down there which I can do more anonymously now, because I’m older and my audience is less excited. They’re also older. Just seeing everybody having a good time, learning, hanging out, meeting people, doing spontaneous meet and greets – it’s great to see.”

We talk in a corner of the ExCel Convention Centre, in a press room which has its heating up way too high for a cold February afternoon, making Hank’s decision to wear a dark blue suit all the more impressive. The conversation takes place a day after he has uploaded his latest video message to John, The Muck of Millennia, in which a monologue on the rubbish found in London’s River Thames prompts him to consider “what we really leave – and are leaving – behind”.

With the Vlogbrothers channel recently turning 13 years old, I ask Hank if the reason why he creates videos has changed over time. “Oh yeah, absolutely,” he replies. “I mean, I think this is a pretty clear evolution that most creators go through. At first the only reason you’re doing it is like it’s so exciting to see the numbers going up and getting attention and that was absolutely the case for me.

“Then after a while like just that isn’t really enough anymore and so they’re like, ‘what are the other sources of fuel’ and so you have things like money, of course, which is a completely valuable reason to want to make content. That, to me, isn’t like a forever fuel.

“Just making content to make money is basically the same as just making content to get an audience,” he continues. “So you have to find other things, and I think that’s why John and I always make stuff that we enjoy making and so it’s about developing a skill, getting better at stuff, the mastery of the form and seeing how other people are doing it and growing our own skill levels. Then it’s also about helping people.”

It’s perhaps why Hank tells me he has never had a feeling of being illegitimate. “[It’s] a thing that I’ve never had to struggle with because I never wanted to be an entertainer,” he says. “I wanted to be a science communicator.

“I guess I have occasionally had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about not making stuff for Scientific American or publications that I read when I was a kid or younger – and still read for clarity, not just when I was a kid – but like the more, sort of, legitimate science-writing stuff.

“I never had this like, ‘I need to be on TV’ and ‘all of my friends who moved to LA so that they can be in television commercials’. I was just like, ‘you’re just taking away time from your YouTube channel which is way more interesting than being in a TV commercial’.”

“When you’re searching for validation and you’ve gotten validation for how good your things are, and you have to sort of make it better every time, eventually you just can’t. Eventually, you can’t make it better and one video is going to have to be worse than the last one.”

The topic of validation came after a panel earlier that day. In the Breakout Stars of Animation panel, animator Rebecca Parham from the YouTube channel ‘Let Me Explain Studios’ tells the audience about YouTubers feeling a sense of “shame” around answering a question about their future goals, talking about this idea that there “has to be something bigger beyond YouTube”.

I ask Hank if it’s ever possible for a creator to feel comfortable with their own position. “There’s two pieces to that,” he replies. “When you’re searching for validation and you’ve gotten validation for how good your things are, and you have to sort of make it better every time, eventually you just can’t. Eventually, you can’t make it better and one video is going to have to be worse than the last one.

“Then the other piece of that is this legitimacy of what we do. It’s like, ‘are you inside of this story where YouTube content is always sort of going to be a little bit, or a lot less respectable than TV or movie content.’

“In the animation community, a lot of those people’s peers are working at Pixar. To some extent, many of them went to school with those people, and with the idea that they would someday work for a major studio. Now they’re making more money than their friends, and they’re having more impact than their friends, but they don’t feel like they’re on the path of maximum legitimacy,” he explains.

Sticking with the theme of animation, the discussion moves on to regulations such as COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over in the United States. When news surfaced late last year of YouTube’s plans to address the rule, by asking creators to determine whether their videos were ‘Made For Kids’, Parham was amongst those who voiced initial concerns about what this meant for animators, tweeting back in November that she was “really worried” about the news.

The FTC later published a blog post clarifying the situation, saying that “just because your video has bright colours or animated characters” doesn’t mean that a creator is automatically covered by COPPA. “The FTC recognizes there can be animated programming that appeals to everyone,” it says.

“Putting too much power in any single person’s hands, like the CEO of YouTube, or the CEO of Google, is just too powerful for a democracy, in my opinion. Having a concentration of wealth in that few hands is probably bad for democracy.”

When asked about the battle between regulation by government bodies and self-regulation, Hank responds by saying that he sees big companies such Google, Amazon and Apple as being too powerful. “I think that that’s anti-competitive – it’s bad for capitalism,” he says. “Putting too much power in any single person’s hands, like the CEO of YouTube, or the CEO of Google, is just too powerful for a democracy, in my opinion. Having a concentration of wealth in that few hands is probably bad for democracy.

“So from a like a really like high level, there needs to be ways to put checks on their power somehow. What I don’t see necessarily is a bunch of 70-year-old senators are going to be the ones who have the best understanding of the problem to implement a solution that will actually solve problems and not just help these places consolidate more power.

“Regulation oftentimes has the effect of letting established players a barrier to entry. The big people will be able to afford to comply with the regulation and new entrants can’t afford to comply with the regulations, so you never get a competitor to YouTube, you never get a competitor to Facebook, or you only get competitors from other countries, where there are fewer regulations – which we’re already seeing.

“I think that the reason TikTok had to be not a European or US thing isn’t just regulation, it’s the amount of power that Google has in the US or in the English-speaking world that they would have just bought them, or out-competed them. So it’s wild to sort of have the first real competitor from outside the market. It feels very much like when Japanese cars started to happen, when it was like, ‘oh, we’re going to make these cheaper and they’re going to be more fuel efficient and our entire supply chain is going to be a lot zippier’. That’s sort of how TikTok feels.”

On the topic of TikTok, Hank goes on to add: “I think that they’re flying under the radar. Right now, the platform kind of has all the power and creators don’t have a lot of power on TikTok, and governments don’t have a lot of power over TikTok. I don’t know, it will be interesting to see.”

In amongst the chatter about regulation, we find ourselves discussing privacy. As Hank talks about “70-year old senators”, I mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in reference to Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing where politicians were asking questions about Facebook’s business model as opposed to data. As for TikTok, the app’s been facing questions over its parent company ByteDance, based in China.

“We share so much,” says Hank, on privacy becoming a bigger concern. “I think that, individually, I don’t have a good understanding of how much a platform knows about me. I literally don’t know and I think about this a fair amount,” reveals Hank. “So I don’t know how much they know and how powerful that information is, but then as a society I think that we don’t know what the eventual effects of that are.

“I think that we’re only going to find out by watching the next 20 or 30 years live. I’ve been thinking a lot about that because I’m writing a book about it.”

The book in question being A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour – the follow-up to the New York Times bestseller An Absolutely Remarkable Thing which Hank says feels like the book he wanted to write in the first place.

“I sort of needed a door into thinking [on a] bigger scale about the impacts of social media,” he explains, “not just on fame and on individuals but on society as a whole.

“We sort of are in this moment where we’re sort of chasing meaning and we’re not sure why we matter anymore and we’re an increasingly secular society,” Hank adds. “So you have this sort of existential angst and then you also have these like ridiculously powerful communication tools that we don’t understand the impact that they’re having on children.

“We don’t understand the impact that they’re having on society, on elections and how they can be used to manipulate people,” he says.

Hank continues by taking about “one super creepy hypothetical” in the story: if Facebook wants everyone to be happy, could it do that?

“Could Facebook say, ‘too many people are committing suicide, how do we make everyone happy,” he asks. “That’s sort of like a ‘brave new world’ kind of thing – we’re all taking happy pills – but like Facebook is the happy pill.”

“We’re seeing more and more of that every year, where Google says, ‘don’t be evil’, but they don’t really say that as much anymore. Now Google’s like, ‘Well, you know, it’s complicated.’”

Hank goes on to talk of an additional question: “The question being […] what happens in 30 years when it’s harder to deliver shareholder value but they still have all that power?

“Right now it’s very easy for these companies to grow. It’s very easy for them to be 30% bigger this year than they were last year, so they don’t have to compromise that much on their morality. We’re seeing more and more of that every year, where Google says, ‘don’t be evil’, but they don’t really say that as much anymore. Now Google’s like, ‘Well, you know, it’s complicated.’”

“I always talk to people on YouTube who are like, ‘but you know we’re just people and we’re good we’re trying to do like good things’ and I actually believe that, because I think that they are good people. The thing that gives them pause is when you say, ‘but what about 30 years from now’, because they never think about 30 years from now. They think in like a year or two, max.

“They think about setting the company up to be more stable in 20 years, but they don’t think about what it looks like when the amount of power they’ve consolidated is in someone else’s hands,” he concludes.

From the power of tech companies, to the power of individuals. Around one year prior to the interview, we were chatting at the launch of the very first VidCon London – albeit in a different part of the convention centre. We soon find ourselves returning to familiar ground in the form of callout culture, with Hank previously calling it “a methodical way to increase [a person’s] cultural capital”.

As such, it feels rather weird when I show Hank one of his tweets from last year, since deleted because he felt it was “too vague”.

“I feel like YouTubers complaining about ‘The Media’ is increasingly a transparent ploy to construct a victimhood narrative for themselves,” the post read, “despite the fact that individual creators often have much more influence and far less oversight than the outlets they cite as ‘the media’.”

I ask him to elaborate on the idea. “What I was talking about when people are saying ‘the media’, a lot of times I see YouTubers quote a headline from a publication and it’s a blog somewhere,” Hank explains. “It’s like somebody trying to stir up drama and controversy and they’re like, ‘ooh, I would like some drama and controversy’.

“I really am very nervous about individuals, who have a lot of power, attacking the media when we need sources of legitimate information in society.

“I’m not saying that the media has always done a good job of covering YouTubers –  it really hasn’t – but I’m really nervous about that.”

“So that’s one piece of it and the other piece is I do think that victimhood narratives are really powerful. It’s very weird to me to watch somebody who’s making millions of dollars a year, has a really big audience, to sort of like pitch the idea that that they’re a victim in a society where there are many, many victims.”

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour will be published on 7 July 2020 and is available to pre-order online now.


Featured Image: Emma Pamplin (@emmadotjpg).

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