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Saturday, April 25, 2020

How the Internet Made me Love Essays

This will come as a surprise to no one who knows me well or to anyone who regularly reads this blog, but I really like YouTube. It's hard to explain the appeal that a platform with so much diversity of thought is able to offer.

I've found that diversity of opinion and thought is the most important kind; and YouTube offers just that. A (relatively) unfiltered and unmoderated place where amateurs can produce their own content. If you don't like or trust the content, talk shows or news networks produced by mainstream television, you can find countless alternatives on YouTube. Podcasts talking about unique topics or taking unique stands on topics that had previously been unexplored, videos from authors and creators sharing how they create their product or master their skill, shows and machinima made by a handful of hard-working people such as Red vs Blue and RWBY, alternative news outlets like Tim Pool and Louder with Crowder, you name it.

And I love all of it. I love the podcasts, I love the animations, I love the gaming videos and the booktuber discussions and the amateur news anchors. This is probably why I have so many subscriptions--I recently found out that apparently having 407 subscriptions isn't considered a "normal" amount.

Pffft, casuals.

But one observation I made was that out of the literally hundreds of YouTubers I follow, the YouTubers who I get the most hyped for whenever I see they've uploaded a new video are almost exclusively YouTubers who make long video essays.

And this also made me realize that the vast majority of what I write here on this blog is nothing but essays about writing, the Internet, and movies and games and stuff. And most of the blogs I read aren't people talking about their life experiences or travels, but just people writing essays about topics that I like.

If 21-year-old me told 12-year-old me that in the not-so-distant future I would be writing, reading, and watching essays outside of school for fun, I would have slapped the shit out of me. But I couldn't proceed to slap the shit out of me back because then that would be child abuse.

Yet why do people like myself and the millions of others who watch these videos (I mean they have to get a million views from somewhere) like watching and hearing these essays now, in 2020? (Or whatever year it is to you, future people.)

There are a couple of common denominators I can find in the type of people who consume this sort of content.

They're usually an older Gen Z or younger Millenial, between the ages of 19 and 35 in most cases, usually someone who grew up with Internet culture in some way (for the older people it might be the early days of Runescape or WoW), and are usually creative people themselves, whether it be music, screenplay, et cetera.

I can't say this is the case for most of these people, but looking back I can see my own taste for video essays growing right around the time I graduated high school, probably around 19.

It might be safe to say that one reason why people right out of high school or college are likely targets for the video essay community is because public education does a bad job of making students like essays. In fact it's the exact opposite, school conditions students to hate essays.

The majority of young students and adults in high school and college have been conditioned over years to associate essays with boredom, making it a chore.

Yet there's no inherent quality in an essay that says it has to be a chore; an essay is merely and broadly defined as a written (or narrated) discussion on a topic. That's about as versatile as a definition can get without spreading so thin that it breaks. The only distinction between a podcast and a video essay is that a podcast has multiple people talking about a topic and is usually filmed with some room from improv, while a video essay is written and narrated by a single person, usually over footage that they've spliced together themselves or hired someone else to do.

The other thing is that this diversity of thought and content applies to even the much more niche video-essay community and not just YouTube as a platform. Within the small video-essay sub-community you can find an absolutely mind-blowing variety of topics and personalities.

Even just in the ones I follow there's a massive disparity between the types of content produced by each creator.

EmpLemon for example covers some pretty bizarre and specific topics that I wouldn't find anywhere else; there is no mainstream education or news source that will teach the viewer about copyright extortion on YouTube, or how Spongebob became Viacom's most profitable piece of intellectual property. You definitely wouldn't learn about that time a hacker turned millions of YouTube thumbnails into an anime goat in public school.

Quinn Curio is the only creator I can think of who would make an hour-long video essay about the rise of a community of critics in a small YouTube sub-community who bully children.

Razbuten is the only creator I know who would make his spouse play video games for the first time in her life just so he can take notes about her experience and make a video essay breaking down what gaming is like for someone who isn't fluent in game-language.

There's plenty of videos talking about why The Last Jedi was steaming garbage, but The Closer Look is the only content creator to my knowledge who would break down bathos and how TLJ's use of bathos undermined its plot.

The Authentic Observer was the first content creator to make videos that, instead of swooning over her incestuous supernatural "romance," actually criticized Cassandra Clare's writing.

And I'd be lying if I said I didn't lactate a little when I discovered this YouTuber named Joseph Anderson, who happens to be a fantasy writer who makes extremely long video essays analyzing dozens of games.

^Me seeing a four-hour-long video by another writer about my favorite game's lore:

Obviously I wouldn't sit down for literally four hours straight, rather these long essays tend to have timestamped "chapters" so that the viewer can watch one chapter a day or something like that and basically enjoy the content at their own pace. A lot of people might be turned off by seeing such a long runtime but I see that and think, "Sweet, more content!"

It reminds me of something I see girls who try to get into gaming say. Most women aren't really into gaming, but a lot of them have at least some experience with video games, whether it be playing the Wii with their family, playing Overwatch with their boyfriend or oldschool Runescape with their husbands, or just playing the Sims or NintenDogs on the DS. One thing I've noticed is that the one thing that keeps these women from being more interested in gaming is the barrier of entry; they see a game like the Witcher 3 that's several hundred square miles and has all sorts of gamey mechanics and they're immediately intimidated by the massive quantities of information and content thrown their way.

Yet that's the very thing that makes these "big" open world games so good--the fact that not only is it of quality, but also in great quantity.

I'll admit I'm a bit hypocritical for saying this because I've done the very same thing with TV shows, especially anime. I never watched One Piece despite the glowing recommendations because I saw the runtime.

Although maybe I shouldn't be.

That being said bigger isn't always better--a show might start off good and then overstay its welcome (Spongebob and Simpsons, I'm looking at you), but generally with video essays it's the opposite.

With television if a show is profitable (like Spongebob which makes up 5% of Viacom's total revenue just in merchandise), they'll keep making new episodes and airing them no matter how much the quality suffers because they want to squeeze as much money out of the IP as physically possible.

With video essays however, it's precisely the opposite. The creator who is writing a massive script, narrating / voice acting over it, and editing the entire video themselves is incentivized to make the video as short and precise as possible. If they rely on Patreon donations, they don't get extra money by making videos longer, and because making these video essays is extremely time-consuming and difficult to do alone, they make them as short as they can. Brevity is their friend.

Yet that begs the question, why would someone like Joseph Anderson make essays longer than an hour regularly if they're incentivized to make videos as short as possible?

Simply put, there's no filler, just a lot of content.

Take that ungodly-dense 4-hour Witcher video for example. Having watched the entire thing, I can safely say it could have been much, much longer. It just so happens that the Witcher games and narrative--especially the Witcher 3--are so massive that there really is hours of content that could be made breaking it down. In Quinn Curio's video essay about criticism, it doesn't feel like anything she's talking about is at all filler. In fact everything she brings up feels relevant. To take it a step further I'd argue each of her talking points is an integral part of a cohesive whole, and that just removing one of those talking points would make several of the others nonsensical. It feels the same way on a bigger scale with Joseph Anderson's Witcher video(s).

Of course video essays don't have to be long and bigger is not always better; that one by EmpLemon about the hacker who changed video thumbnails to a picture of a pink anime goat is only 12 minutes long. Yet because I know EmpLemon doesn't rely on filler, whenever I see him upload a longer video ( >30 minutes) I know it's just more good content and not something like the Simpsons Season 31.

Simpson predictions never fail.
I guess what I mean to say is that video essays of all lengths are good as long as the content is there to justify its runtime. The same applies to short video essays as well; YouTube has a system in place where only videos longer than 10 minutes get monetized (the ability for the YouTuber to run ads on a video and make any profit from it), so lots of YouTubers who previously made 5-minute videos are now relying heavily on filler by making 10-minute videos that are 50% filler just to pad out that runtime to 10 minutes, because if they don't their video won't get promoted by YouTube. And that fucking sucks because it means half of the content they produce is filler, and because we can't really blame them for doing this since it's the only way YouTubers can continue to survive.

That being said, the main problem with essays is school is that they're usually a generic topic that the student doesn't care about. It turns out a lot of people like learning about stuff if it appeals to their specific taste.

This is also a problem with reading, a huge one. I love reading outside of school, but hate every single book I've ever been forced to read in school. The only story I can think of that I actually liked was the short story The Most Dangerous Game, and any other time I did slightly enjoy a book assigned at school was when I broke the rules and read it at my own pace.

I've always had a disdain that's hard to describe for classes that punish students for reading ahead. If a student reads ahead, it means that they're actually genuinely enjoying the book, and you're taking away that pleasure by telling them they aren't allowed to read ahead and have to go back to chapter two where the rest of the class is since the students who hate reading get priority over those who do. Not only will this drag down the few students who do like the reading material they're given, but the students who don't want to read it still won't like reading, so all that this accomplishes is making everyone equally miserable.

The fastest way to equality is to bring everybody to the bottom.

To be quite frank, the State doesn't know what I want to read, and it doesn't know what you want to read, or what your kids or grand-kids will want to read. And some of their out-of-touch attempts are really questionable.

One that I could never get my head around is who on Earth thought making teenagers read The Catcher in the Rye was a good idea. For the people fortunate enough to have never been forced to read this crap, allow me to inform--the Catcher in the Rye is about a moody 14-year-old who smokes cigarettes, cusses out every adult he doesn't like, and acts real edgy and sulky.

To the vast majority of kids who read this story, they just saw it as an annoying kid whining about how much he hates his life for 300 pages, and the few kids who liked this story probably idolized the main character and decided they wanted to be edgy teenagers who cuss at adults and smoke too.


Take my word for it when I say high school has enough cringy, "edgy" and moody 14-year-olds as it is, we don't need more.

You know, I can't help but wonder if there's a correlation between the schools that have The Catcher in the Rye as a reading requirement and the number of students who either hate reading or act edgy and moody. Somebody get on that, I need answers.

And the thing is, that there are some objectively good and historically important books made mandatory in common core. But they definitely won't be to everyone's liking.

To Kill a Mockingbird is praised as one of the best books ever written historically, and is socially relevant today as a marker in social justice, prejudice, and equality. The prose is excellent as well, there is no disputing that the writing is top-notch and dripping with quality.

And I wanted to blow my brains out every second I was forced to read it.

It doesn't matter how good a book is if it's read by the wrong audience. Most 14-year-olds don't care about civil right movements that happened decades before they were born--they want something that's relevant to them.

And, you know, I really enjoy some of that sort of stuff today--one movie I really like is Twelve Angry Men, which has a lot of similarities in themes of justice and corruption as To Catch a Mockingbird, so if I read To Catch a Mockingbird again today I would probably love it, but I already loathe the thought of reading it because in high school every moment I was forced to read it felt like torture.

That being said there were some students who liked the book when we read it, but most young students don't give two shits about that type of stuff. That's why even genuinely good books like Huck Finn will make students hate both them and reading as a whole when the State makes them mandatory. And the time spend reading these books takes away time to read books they actually do like. In my first college English course, we had to read some obscure book written by some Indian guy in the 80s, and it was so excruciatingly boring that it made me question how much will to live I really possess, and at the time the book wasn't one we read in class, but rather one we had to read at home in our free time. I was reading the Dark Tower series and really wanted to find out how Roland's story ends, but I didn't have any energy left in me to keep reading anything I actually liked since multiple classes of mine were making me read books that I didn't care about.

Not to mention this is all rote learning; I don't remember a single thing from any book I was forced to read in college. I can't even tell you the names of the books or list a single character. I just wanted to get a good grade so all I did was scribble down enough notes about each chapter to pretend I knew what the book was about, followed by loosely plagiarizing Sparknotes and rewording it to make it sound like I was the one who came up with it.

You wanna know what all the other students in my classes were doing?

The same exact thing.

Now apply this same arduous process to essays and writing assignments.

The thing to realize here is that there aren't just people reading and watching essays online, but people writing them. It's not only surprising that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to watch a 4-hour-long video essay about a video game franchise, but that someone spent countless hours writing, researching, narrating, and editing that super long video... for fun!

Just because they wanted to, and for no other reason.

You could try to argue that a YouTuber who monetizes their videos or gets donations through Patreon isn't actually doing it "for fun," but I disagree. If that were the case, there wouldn't be any hour-long video essays. All videos would be in that nice, cozy 10-minute range. Anything more than that is the creator going above and beyond to create more content free of charge.

The other thing is that YouTube is a bad career choice. If someone's main goal was money, choosing to become a full-time YouTuber of all things is one of the stupidest career moves a person can make. It's about as reliable as a knitted condom. Same goes for writing--obviously we hope to break even and hopefully make a profit when we publish something, but if we just wanted money we would have chosen a career that was much more stable and higher-paying than writing. Even experienced writers don't get paid well.

So it should be abundantly clear that individuals making documentary-length essays for fun and uploading them to the Internet for people to watch for free are doing it because they want to and not because they assume they'll get buttloads of cash in donations.

Because relying on the generosity of the Internet to pay your bills is always a reliable option, amirite?

While this certainly doesn't apply to everyone, the fact of the matter is that lots of people will write and consume essays if it's a discussion that interests them.

The brilliance of this is how unbridled it is--a college student who starts a YouTube channel and decides to start making video essays for fun has complete agency and control over the final product.

No rules, no MLA format, no minimum length requirement or maximum length restriction, no having to research and write about a topic they don't give two shits about--just whatever they want.

(I'm still salty about this one time in a college health class when we had a group power-point project and got to choose any health topic of our choosing. I had the idea to make it about coffee, since the medical community is completely divided and some say coffee is damaging to your nervous system while others say it improves cardiovascular health and focus. And then one of my group members hijacked the whole thing and changed the topic to Bariatric Surgery, which is the most boring and dry topic I can imagine.)

And that is beautiful. The Internet made this a possibility; by exposing people to the world of video essays and essay blogs, it made it possible for people to express their creativity and insight without the restrictions imposed by another person.

People are actually willing to spend weeks working on researching and writing a video essay script just because they want to. The mere fact that anyone would do what sounds like countless hours of voluntary homework for fun highlights the tremendous movement the Internet is making towards making essays a fun and creative outlet for both creators and viewers alike. It's beneficial to the creator who gets to start discussions about things they actually care about, and it's beneficial to the viewers who get to learn things that they would never learn anywhere else. No one in school has ever been taught about that time a hacker changed YouTube video thumbnails into a pink anime goat, or about how Dead Space makes the player feel weak by giving them power and abilities that aren't nearly as useful as they seem to be.

Each of these creators has a clear and lively voice about a topic that only they can do justice. Sure there are the "generic" essay YouTubers who just cover trendy and popular topics, but the good ones--the ones that bring up things no one else ever has or take a stand that no one else has considered before--those are the channels that rise to the top as the most notable and respected. Not always the most popular, but the most influential.

EmpLemon is a relatively big channel, but not more popular than some of his generic counterparts--but when on the topic of YouTube history, people go to Internet Historian and EmpLemon, not one of the generic counterparts. He might not have more subscribers than everyone, but he has a bigger voice.

I'd say The Act Man has the same size voice in gaming and The Closer Look does in screenplay.

I see a lot of people admit defeat in the arts because they bemoan, "Everything has been done before," but I call bullshit.

I'd say the reason why so many people think that is because they themselves haven't been exposed to many new and original pieces of content. But one thing that's been made abundantly clear to me after watching God-knows-how-many hours of video essays on YouTube is that there is a lot of unexplored territory. There are so many things I didn't know existed that I wouldn't have had these essays not brought them to my attention.

This also ties into my post about Obscure Stories, but despite the millions of books written and movies produced, we've only scratched the surface of what's possible.

Take something like Bioshock, a game that's set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of a flooding underwater city, or a book like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which is about a modern man going back in time to the 500s and finding out that everyone in the famous King Arthur stories was a con artist, and "Merlin" was nothing but a common stage magician. He then proceeds to invent electricity and make them think he's a vengeful god.

I can think of many examples of stunningly original IPs that were created even recently; you just have to know where to find them. Not only are there still completely new and original concepts that haven't even been touched, but the ones that have haven't been fully explored.

People that have only scratched the surface of creativity and lived their whole lives on that surface will naturally assume that's all there is.

An ant who spends its whole lifetime in one person's backyard will never be able to imagine the greater world outside of that yard, and because we tend to be bombarded with what's the most popular, and what's the most popular is usually somewhat generic, it's easy to come to the conclusion that there are no more new and original ideas and that it's impossible to come up with an original thought or story.

But this simply isn't true and can be proven with what already exists.

The existence of essays on the Internet demonstrate the incentive to learn about new unexplored topics, either by creating a written or video essay about it yourself or enjoying what another denizen of the Internet labored to create for you.

In a way I found a creativity-home in online video essays despite the public school system's best efforts to make me hate essays.

That's all I've got for you today, hope it was worth the read, I started writing this in the early afternoon and now it's 8 o'clock so I think I'ma call it here and go play Bioshock. But real quick before I go, here's a nice, short little video essay to get you peeps hooked. I'm not going to tel you who made it or what it's about, you'll just have to find out for yourself. I'm a video essay drug dealer and this is a little sample. Enjoy.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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