John and Hank Green are the Vlogbrothers. And they're pretty big on the Internet. The two started video blogging on YouTube in 2007 and have produced a prolific amount of material since, including both short personal videos and polished educational series like SciShow and Crash Course. And the brothers have expanded their digital repertoire even further -- helping produce the videos of other creators and coordinating a conference for online video makers and fans called VidCon, among many other projects.
A thriving fan community, dubbed Nerdfighteria, developed around their projects and lives in YouTube comments, blogs, forums, and real world outings. Here's the brothers explaining it:
John Green is also a New York Times best-selling author whose novel The Fault In Our Stars will be on the big screen this summer. The Switch talked to the brothers about making educational content online, models for funding, and how the Internet has changed fandom (including Nerdfighteria) last fall. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Andrea Peterson: How did you become involved in online video?
John Green: In 2006 Hank and I were big fans of of some video projects, including lonelygirl15. We were so inspired by those projects that we decided over a series of instant messenger conversations to stop communicating textually-- which was our primary way of talking to each other -- and begin making daily public video blogs that would last the entire year of 2007. By the end of that year the project had become so popular that we felt like we should keep going. So we returned to textual communication, but continued to make videos and about seven years later we're still doing it.
And how did you start to branch out to do other types of video projects besides the blogging -- like making educational shows including Crash Course and SciShow?
Hank Green: We had such a dedicated and interested audience that they provided the opportunity to do cool new things -- and we like doing cool new things. With SciShow and Crash Course, we actually also got support from Google/YouTube in the form of money to do those things and because our audience is super interested in it, we're super interested in it and since YouTube was helping with it, it seemed like a no-brainer.
We've also done a number of other things that we would never have been able to do without our audience, or even be able to come up with without their input -- like VidCon, a conference for people who make and love online video, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, an adaption of "Pride and Prejudice" that has been modernized in a series of video blogs. Stuff like that -- this would never have occurred to me if I didn't have that level of support.
JG: We are very fortunate to have an extremely active, passionate audience collaborating with us on these projects. We'd always wanted to make educational content, we'd just never had the time or the resources. You can't make a show like Crash Course with just one person, and traditionally zyoutube is a single person shooting, editing, and uploading the video by themselves kind of operation. Between the kind of start-up energy that was provided by the Nerdfighter community and the start-up capital provided by Google, it became possible for us to kind of let that dream of making educational content that was of reasonably high production value.
How would you explain Nerdfighteria to outsiders?
HG: The Nerdfighter community grew up around our videos and it's people who are pro-nerd: They fight for nerd culture, to celebrate intellectualism, to find and build spaces on the Internet that are devoted to engagement and meaningful conversation instead of distraction and echo-chambery conversations.
And they don't just live on YouTube...
JG: No, it's definitely all over. There are gatherings of Nerdfighters in real life every month in Brazil and Australia and the Netherlands where dozens of people come together and work at a soup kitchen for a day or just go walk around in museums. It's a big thing, that's why it's hard to describe what it is.
HG: Online there a lot of sort of localized places, and having lots of project sit feels like it gives them an opportunity to engage -- like what Lizzie Bennet was created for what I would consider a specific subset of Nerdfighteria and SciShow was made for another subset. Those audiences are pretty different. There's certainly overlap, but it's by no means the same. And those projects have found their own audiences and people are often like "oh, you're the guy [who does that] and you also do that other thing" which is really rewarding for me.
And you talked about how Google had given you some funding to start up specifically your education brands...
But my understanding is that funding has mostly dried up and you've started to fund raise using different models. Can you tell me about those challenges and what models that you think are successful in the online video space?
HG: The problem with educating in online video is that online video is funded by advertising almost exclusively. So when YouTube gave us money they were like "do what you do best" and we were like, "well, that's probably education." It's what we really wanted to do. But in order to make it in online video when you don't have a 10-person team working for you need to get tens of millions of views per video which is really unlikely and very difficult to do when you're trying to teach.
There just aren't tens of millions people out there who really want to learn about saturated alkanes. The trick though is that when you have tens of millions of people watching something, they might not think it's super valuable. They might enjoy it, they might share it with their friends, but it's not like changing their career prospects in the same way education content can.
So we wanted to sort of take a step back and say if there's more value being created by this content, but there isn't more money being paid for it why is that? And is there a system that could be created that actually rewards content for the value it provides to the viewer not just the number of views it gets? That's why we decided to created Subbable, which is a voluntary subscription/crowd funding platform that says if you want to subscribe to this content you can pay however much you'd like -- and if you do pay you can trade that money in exchange for signed posters, or we'll name a fish after you, or you get an embroidered lab coat with your name on it -- that sort of thing.
JG: And I think the fish matters. But really, I think people support Crash Course and SciShow because they want for Crash Course and SciShow to exist and they believe in our mission to make educational content for free, for everyone, for ever.
HG: If you provide someone value, they know that. That transaction exists. And because we're giving them something for free they're happy if they're able to pay for it. And the exciting thing is it's not forcing you to pay, it's saying "I want to give you this money so this will be available for me and also everyone else."
JG: That's worked really well for us -- not just since we launched Subbable, but really since the very beginning of our career in video. There was no way to monetize YouTube for the first year and a half -- and that was fine. We still thought it was very rewarding. But I really do believe that if you make gifts for people and they value the gifts they are going to find ways to help contribute to the creation of that stuff. I've found that as a writer, and I've found that as a conference creator, and as an idea creator. We worry a lot less about how to monetize something and a lot more about whether if it is cool or will change the world.
Do you think fandom online is fundamentally different from the kind of communities that sprung up around various shared interests pre-Internet age?
JG: I think that pre-Internet fandoms were less flat, if that makes sense. I can work really directly with a lot of Nerdfighters on a wide variety of projects. Most of the people who come work for us are from the Nerdfighter community. It's a lot easier to have those direct, unmediated conversations than it was 10 years ago.
HG: The ability for fans to collaborate and build upon a thing is so different -- like I spend a lot of time on Tumblr and the previous wisdom was "you must control your brand" or "make sure there's no one building..." There were times in the beginning of this where there were companies suing people for making music about their brands.
JG: Yeah, don't make Harry Potter songs -- we own Harry Potter!
HG: We own that, it's our thing! Exactly. The idea that was that for the brand Harry Potter is so preposterous to think now. Now, of course, "Doctor Who" is like, "Yes, please write songs about Doctor Who. Yes, please take these clips and make animated gifs and post them on Tumblr -- do that as much as you can. We will also do that. You do that, we do that, we will re-blog it and we will all celebrate this thing we love together." Which is much more cool.
JG: There's a lot that can be frustrating about the commercialization of social media. But there are still places -- like Tumblr -- and there will always be places like Tumblr, where it's just people making stuff together in a fun, fearless way.
Is there a reason you seem to navigate Tumblr more than the other options?
JG: Yes, because Tumblr hasn't been endlessly commodified and saturated and because of its re-blogging culture, Tumblr lends itself to mash-ups, it lends itself to...
HG: Innovating on other people's creations.
JG: Yes! So right now if I go and I search for "John Green Fault in Our Stars art" I see a cake...
Actually, I will just tell you what I see. I see a cake, I see a painting -- a water color painting, an unlit cigarette, I see quotes from the book turned into artwork, I see necklaces that say "okay? okay." I see the swing set from the book. I mean, that's so cool. I see quotes from "our infinity is as big as another infinity" which is a really amazing song. People have made their own book covers and then put them on the book... To me, that's one of the most fulfilling parts of making creative work, is when people make works in response to it and that's something Tumblr is really good at. In 2007, 2008 you went to YouTube for that stuff, but now you go to Tumblr.
Another thing that we touched on is that you have a really wide and diverse audience. But is there a part of you that misses the days of Brotherhood 2.0 when you had a more intimate community? How do you go about as your audience expands, trying to bring those people into the larger core values of your community?
JG: That's a good question. [Laughter]
HG: Part of it is just trying to always keep your values on your sleeve, and then you get the audience that wants to feel that.
JG: That's not the biggest possible audience, but that doesn't matter.
HG: At the same time, every once and a while I'll make a video that is specifically there to get more people to watch our videos.
Can you give me an example of one of those?
HG: I made a video once -- this is an old video, but this is a good example -- called "Top 10 freaking Amazing Explosions"
I think I've watched that video.
HG: That's the definition of that kind of video.
JG: But most of the video we make these days tend to be the opposite.
HG: The best videos do both -- they're shared among people with similar values. I just did a video about 42 maps that changed the way I look at the world. That's a very click-baity title, but hopefully it will also make people say "that's really cool and that makes me think." People who want to think are our core, that's who I want watching the videos.
But as far as how do you have an audience that is so big but can interact in a way that still seems like a community is difficult. Part of the way we handle that is giving people a bunch of different ways to interact with each other so they can find the one they like the best and they can interact with them there. So even though there's lots of people, they're in a lot of smaller communities.
JG: They build communities within the communities that have that sense of intimacy and shared values. And that's mostly how we do it right now.
You mentioned a little earlier that you thought people used to go to YouTube to give their responses to cultural things, but that's moved on to Tumblr now. Do you think YouTube still has room for people who want to break in and do interesting projects, or has it become too commodified?
HG: There's room for it, it's juts a lot harder and the strategy is very different -- Well, besides that a strategy exists at all which is very different from when we started.
JG: There were no strategies.
I think maybe the strategy was make videos?
HG: Yeah, that was one: "Put content on YouTube." But when we're thinking about starting a new project now, the format kind of has to exist for someone to give you their time. They want to know roughly the kind of thing they're going to see next time if they come back, or it's just a one off thing. Because the amount of content is basically infinite now. You could never watch all the stuff that you might enjoy. So you have to create relationships, but you also have to give people a reason they want to create a relationship with you.
And it has to look better. The expectation is much higher about how you're supposed to look. When we were first uploading, we were using 480p -- which is the old 4:3 television quality -- and now anybody uploading in that kind of resolution will have a lot of trouble getting people to watch.
The expectations are just much higher.
JG: The expectation is a lot higher because you have to be a reasonably good editor of videos. Which in 2007, you definitely didn't, as our career attests. I think you can either spend a long time building an audience or you come in with a much more broader skill set than we did a few years ago.
Do you guys know what's going to come next for Crash Course after your current curriculum? With U.S., we're pretty rapidly approaching the end of U.S. History...
JG: We are getting to the present. No, next week we're going to do "the future of U.S. history" and discuss various things that might happen.
I'm looking forward the Science Fiction kick.
JG: Exactly, just 52 episodes on the science fiction future of our country. No, next year we're going to do a mix of things, including filling in a bunch of world history gaps which should be about 30 episodes. We did World History in our first year and we'll be looking back at it, doing some stories we missed. We're also going to be reading five or six books together and talking about how to approach those critically. So, "Things Fall Apart," and "Beloved," and "To Kill a Mockingbird" and stuff like that. We'll read and try to get a handle on some of the critical reading skills that come in handy throughout life. And Hank?
HG: I think that the thing we will do next, we're not allowed to talk about it yet.
JG: Am I allowed to talk about mine?
Well, it's too late now guys.
HG: But yeah, we will continue to talk about things. I want to continue to make Crash Course videos that's sure -- more and more and more.
JG: Yes, we're going to want to do more.
So it seems like you sort of stumbled into doing video -- John, I know you're also an author -- but my understanding is that online video is a major part of your lives and your livelihoods at this point. Do you expect to continue perpetually? Do you know if there's a next step in expanding Nerdfighteria into a media empire...
JG: You know, we don't have a lot interest in traditional media or television or stuff like that. I think that we just want to keep making stuff online and building stuff that interests us. Whether it's funding models like Subbable or video blog projects, or producing other people's ideas. Whatever it is, we just want to keep doing that. And, you know, we figure that will just kind of take care of itself I guess. I don't know. Don't print that, I just said kind of and I guess and like 37 times.
So would you rather I clean that sentence up or include both...
JG: Yes, clean that up.
H: It's going to read like a Sarah Palin novel.
Well, actually, now I want to include this whole exchange now. [Laughter -- and a note: We agreed at the end of the call to include the banter.]
JG: You can include it when you're talking about how Hank answers are unreadable -- when he's answering questions he doesn't think about how they'll appear when written down.
HG: No, I don't. I'm terrible at that.
JG: What he tries to do is that he tries to tell the truth. It's a terrible burden.
HG: Okay, let's start at the beginning. When two organisms want to produce a third organism...
Yeah as far as the larger media empire -- I'm really into the idea of making more education content, whatever that means. I'm also so attached to the idea of online communities and how important they can be in individual people's lives and the larger cultural that I want to find ways to support online communities to create opportunities people to come together -- not just around "you and I have the exact same opinions about all things so we must come together and shout at each other in the echo chamber of supporting each others opinions and never hearing any dissent." But in creating diverse online communities in which people are doing things together -- whether it's being educated together, or whether that's creating together, or loving something together.
The entertainment industry, the media, it's all blurred up to me. I think that when people try to talk about entertainment as one sector of the economy that's kind of confusing the issue. Whereas, there are a lot of different services that are filled through media and I think that they're becoming more important daily.
JG: The question that we get most often from people in the technology world is "what's your out?" "What's your plan for how this all pays off." Are you going to sell to a company, are you going to go public?
HG: Are you going to have an IPO and let Nerdfighteria buy in?
JG: The answer, which isn't the one they want out hear, is there is no out. We don't want there to be an out. We like making stuff, and we like making stuff with people we care about. And that's exactly what we get to do in Nerdfighteria. We've found for a lot of years now that if you just do that and you try to do it in a way that's fair and open and honest, it'll work out.
I do want to take it back to one thing we discussed earlier -- the idea of there being barriers of entry to YouTube. Do you think that' something that has become pervasive on the Internet as a whole? I personally grew up on the Internet where everyone was making Geocities Web sites and even I created more than I do now.
JG: I think some of that is because we're old -- or we're older than we were five or ten years ago. The people who are the age I was then are doing that, I just don't know where they're doing that.
HG: There's also that things tend towards more structure -- that's how society works, it starts out very anarchistic. It's like what you do? I don't know, just do it. And it doesn't matter if anybody looks at it, we're just sort of creating the systems and it is the time of innovation. As that moves forward, people settle into more structured behaviors and more structured systems. We're in a more structured Internet now. Instead of everyone designing their own website on Geocities, you can just click a single time and have a Tumblr.
JG: Yeah, but certainly you can build a really interesting world both as a creator and a consumer. I'm quite proud of my Tumblr dashboard. I think that I follow some great blogs -- I feel enriched by my relationship with them every day. I do agree that there's more structure to the Internet than there was ten years ago but I think that in many ways that's good.
HG: I agree -- and I think that there are always new places... There's a sort of curve that occurs, and the place where you want to be is where something is more culturally relevant than it is culturally recognized. Tumblr is starting to be more culturally recognized than it is culturally relevant. YouTube is very culturally recognized. When we started in 2007 YouTube was very relevant, but completely unrecognized. It got no play. And still even now, I will hear people trying to convince other people YouTube is not just cat videos. I'm like "we're still having this conversation? Amazing."
But finding that place where something's important to the culture but, no one has recognized it's important is the key to getting in and having an opportunity for people to see what you're doing without intense amounts of luck and help. Vine is a really interesting one of those places. There's amazing stuff being done on Vine -- people putting out content everyday that is outstandingly good and eight seconds long.
JG: It's six seconds.
HG: I don't know how long.
JG: We aren't there, obviously because Hank doesn't know how long a Vine is.
HG: We don't have to be.
Well, no, you've already hit your peak on YouTube.
JG: Yeah, we don't need to be there because the people who are already making us irrelevant are there. Which is great. I'm serious. I really do think that's great -- I'm excited for it. You always want people to come in and do things better.
You guys know the headline now is "Green Brothers say Vine will make them irrelevant," right?
JG: Oh, great.
Are there other things about your creative process or your community I haven't asked about, but I should be?
HG: I feel like I'm a kid in a candy store and the opportunities my community provides me allows me to do things I never would have been able to do otherwise and that I never would have been able to feel so excited, and empowered about. I should just say excited without that.
JG: We are exceptionally lucky to be part of the community. Particularly for Hank, it has allowed him to build so many amazing things. From DFTBA records, the astonishingly successful record company he launched in 2008 that also has created livelihoods for lots of Nerdfighters and has become a market place for Nerdfighter design, to VidCon and the shows he has produced like the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Hank has taken such wonderful advantage of the platform the community gave him.
I'm grateful for that because I get to be a tourist in the world of making a ton of things -- and I get to take credit for some of them, although I do almost no work.
That does sound like a really pleasant existence..
HG: Well, I get to sign John's books so there's that.
Yeah, it occurs to me now that I'm not sure I've ever seen a Hanklerfish [the cartoon fish Hank signs in John's books], so I should Google it. I know about it from the videos, but I listen to a lot of them while I'm walking places so I haven't seen one.
HG: Yes, it's a complex organism, the Hanklerfish.