On Friday, before our interview, Green was on his laptop making a thumbnail for a video he would upload later that day. We were in Anaheim, Calif., for VidCon, the online video conference that he co-founded (he was also its chief executive until last year, when Viacom bought VidCon). It’s become the biggest gathering of the year for people who make some sort of video on the Internet, the brands who want to woo them and the fans who want to meet and be them.
On Saturday, Green announced that he and VidCon were launching an Emerging Creator Grant Program, which would give $2,000 to a different smaller creator each week for the next 12 months.
Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
WP: I keep thinking about what Nerdfighters was about a decade ago, when it first started to be a thing online: this earnest optimism about the power of the Internet to do good. Now it’s 2018, and a lot has happened. Do you still believe the Internet can have that power?
Hank Green: I still do believe in the power of the Internet for good. I believe it’s a net positive. I believe that it does connect people. It does give people a chance to be more of themselves. It does allow for content to be created for audiences that were being completely ignored and neglected.
I think a big shift happened on the Internet recently. There were people who had seen it all happen and are aware of this moment within the context of the last 10 or 15 years of the Internet. And then there are people who are aware of this moment within the context of only the last year of the Internet. For that group, you don’t necessarily have all the tools for knowing what good information is.
WP: YouTube has gone though a parallel thing, right? Attention outside of YouTube has caught up with what’s going on with YouTube, and not really in the most positive way. Logan Paul vlogging a dead body seemed like this point where suddenly a bunch of parents were aware of what their kids were watching —
Green: Yeah and, I mean, I’m in the same boat! I found out about Logan Paul in the traditional news. I’m 38; I’m an old man now.
I think that’s always going to be a little bit true. Things you hear about a place are going to be the negative things. I live in Montana, and when Montana makes the national news, it’s usually because, for instance, some state senator is trying to make drunken driving legal.
But it is nice that media is catching up with online video. Where I used to say “new media,” that sounds dumb now. And when I used to say “mainstream media,” that also sounds ridiculous. Because YouTube is mainstream media, and it’s not new.
WP: That’s a change from how I’m used to hearing you talk about the “mainstream media.” I was reading what you wrote a few years ago, when you got to interview Barack Obama, where you were critical of how the mainstream so negatively covered the fact that these YouTubers were going to talk to the president. It was just a few years ago, but again, it feels like a lot has happened.
Green: I’ve realized that I have gained a great deal of responsibility without gaining a lot of skills. Like, I have a lot of reach, but I’m not a journalist. So I need to be very careful with the power I have.
It also changed when I realized that what newspapers do more than anything is pick what stories to cover. And of course, once you’ve picked, the process of journalism is vital and important and difficult work. But now, you guys don’t pick anymore. That got taken over. The chief editor of my news is who I follow.
So when news media loses that power but we don’t recognize that anyone else has gained it, we’re not placing that responsibility on the people who have it. We don’t think about that as the same responsibility.
WP: So then who holds YouTubers, and YouTube accountable? Is it their community? Their communities often follow them because they’re also a fan …
WP: Is it the media? It hasn’t been, but accountability is what we are equipped to do. So where does that accountability come from to trigger that responsibility?
Green: I mean, what is a YouTuber? There are lots of YouTubers that no one knows about who are getting hundreds of thousands of views on content that we would be really upset to see. And no one’s holding them accountable because their audience shares all the same biases.
The hope, my hope, is that as we progress down this path we get better at holding people accountable. We get better at saying “that made a lot of sense to me, but I’m going to check.” Or platforms get better at exposing people to contrary viewpoints. Particularly when the viewpoint starts to get pretty conspiracy theory weirdo.
WP: So who holds YouTube accountable?
Green: Obviously advertisers do [laughs]; we found that out this year. And that’s obviously a very mixed bag that has ended with some unintended consequences.
Ultimately, the parties that can hold YouTube responsible? You have creators, who YouTube does listen to when they yell at them.
But there’s really two groups who matter to YouTube. There’s the people who watch it. There’s the people who buy ads. Creators can’t really influence advertisers. But we can influence the people who are watching. We can make them mad, and YouTube as a company has a culture of wanting people to like them, and that’s good.
WP: I feel like this year at VidCon, you can really see how many kids view online video making as a career. What most excites you about what’s going on right now with this younger next generation, and also what worries you the most?
Green: I’ll start with what worries me. It’s young people, and so a lot of the focus is going to be on how you look, how exciting your life looks, how expensive your clothes look, how expensive your house and car look, and it just seems very, like, disconnected from what makes people happy. But that’s not that different from previous generations of media for young people. When I was growing up, it was also cool to be rich.
What I’m excited about is, because this is a more developed content ecosystem, you’re starting to see people who are just ridiculously talented, like Liza Koshy. She’s always on. The energy of her content is so high, the jokes are so good, and they’re so fast, and she makes content so often. When I hang out with her in person, I’m like, “You are just an extremely talented, smart, conscientious, thoughtful young person, and all I want to do in the world is to make you successful, but I don’t need to because it happened. You did it.”
WP: Do you think that your content would be able to find its audience in 2018, if Vlogbrothers started today?
Green: I think it would find an audience, especially if we were as good at it as we are. But the reality is that we would suck at it if we were starting off right now.
WP: I think that that’s important though. For people who are starting out now, it feels almost that there’s less room for them to suck and learn at it because the quality from everyone else is so high right when you start.
Green: There’s very good content that isn’t getting an audience. It’s not quite there, where they can’t quite step away from their day job, or they can’t quite get the camera that they need to look a little bit better than everybody else and stand out. And we’re actually launching a thing for that.
We’re going to be giving $2,000 to a different independent creator every week for the next year, looking for the people who are reaching underserved audiences, or they’re using their toolbox in a really unique way, or they’re adapting on some existing form of online video and spinning it their way.
WP: What would you tell a kid on the VidCon floor — not one of the featured creators, one of the creators who came here to learn — about doing this now?
Green: People will be able to tell if you’re having a good time doing this. So make it something that you like doing. You’re not just trying to build a YouTube channel. You’re also building a skill set. And this will be among the many skill sets that will be important to your life.