Uri: I'm excited to talk today with Abe Callard, who edited our wonderful video-recommending Viewer newsletter that wrapped up last week.
Abe, after two years of choosing videos, can you tell us what you’ve learned about the world of YouTube?
Abe: If you want more views and more engagement, the most important thing is to display a voracious interest in your subject matter. Many videos on hot topics fail to get traction because of the creator’s impassive tone and editing style (just look at r/videoessay for a litany of these), while a creator like BobbyBroccoli regularly pulls hundreds of thousands of views on videos about obscure scientific scandals from the 70s because he seems genuinely obsessed with them. That obsession is contagious.
Uri: Are there any types of video that seem especially easy or hard to find on YouTube?
Abe: This is probably selfish (it happens to be one of my passions), but I think there’s a dearth of philosophy content on YouTube. The philosophy videos that do exist tend to be either unbearably pseudo-profound or stringently political. I would like to see more creators just giving their straight answer to random philosophical questions. But maybe there’s no demand for that. Another underrated genre is videos about the internet. Internet Comment Etiquette’s comment section videos are great, and I don’t know why there aren’t more like them. Seems like a gold mine.
Uri: Do you think there’s any justice in who becomes a famous YouTuber? In both senses – are the people with huge followings generally doing something well, and are there people doing good work but with very few views and followers?
Abe: Many of the biggest channels are catering to some niche interest, so I can’t really judge their quality. Minecraft, for instance, seems to have experienced a volcanic resurgence in the past few years. But even those videos, which I would never watch, signify a democratic feature of YouTube that I appreciate. Mostly they’re just someone in their room talking into a mic, and they get orders of magnitude more views than the official Business Insider channel.
There are tons of terribly underrated YouTubers, many of whom I’ve put in The Viewer. The Canvas has been making thoughtful, beautifully edited art analyses for more than two years and still only cracks a few thousand views on his videos. It’s definitely a domino effect; once he gets one big hit, the channel will grow exponentially. But a downside of democracy is that you’re not guaranteed any exposure at all from the jump.
Uri: How much do you sense production values matter? Both in terms of popularity, and in terms of your own enjoyment? What makes the best low-production-value videos “work”?
Abe: Production values are pretty important; they subconsciously signal to the viewer that she is listening to someone of authority. But you can make a smash video with no money. Like low-budget movies, the key to a good low-budget video is simplicity. Film yourself talking straight to the camera. Use vivid language rather than snazzy editing to convey what you’re passionate about. (Simon Roper does this really well.) What doesn’t work is an amateur editor with a headset mic trying to make a Vox video. That just feels like someone approaching you on the street and shouting conspiracy theories at you.
Uri: Are there any hidden patterns in what makes a good YouTube video? Anything you’ve noticed about style, pacing, content, structure that unites a disproportionate share of the videos you picked?
Abe: Specificity is crucial. It’s easy to make a video about something interesting/important, but what’s special about your coverage of it? You can find dozens of amateur film critics talking about the 1932 horror flick Freaks, but the reason Cold Crash Pictures’ video got in the Viewer was because it had a surprising thesis: Freaks isn’t a horror movie. You don’t need to have a prior interest in the creator to be grabbed by that idea. That’s what unifies the videos I’ve picked; a sense that there’s a tangible reason for this video to exist.
One way to add interest is to heavily structure your video by breaking it up into a series of clearly delineated sections. Everybody prefers bullet points to a monologue. I think the best video essay I’ve ever seen is Every Frame A Painting’s “Akira Kurosawa - Composing Movement,” and one of its many virtues is how ruthlessly zero-fat it is—it’s just claim, example, claim, example, claim, example. I can almost recite it from memory. Which I certainly can’t say about the hours of loose film-related ramblings I’ve skimmed through weekly these past two years.
Uri: Are there any trends you’ve spotted, any changes in what’s big on YouTube in the last two years?
Abe: Increased censorship (sparked by YouTube’s perennial ad-revenue dilemma) has led to fewer weird, controversial videos. People seem afraid to touch those topics now, which is a negative. But a positive is that I’ve noticed more academics on YouTube recently—professors and grad students and undergrads just talking about their field. I love those.
Uri: Are there any favourite videos you can share from among the hundreds you’ve selected for us these last two years?
Abe: Tom Scott's "The Greatest Title Sequence I've Ever Seen" is a perfect example of the endearing obsession that I mentioned in my answer to the first question. TimbahOnToast's history of dubstep blew my mind. Imaginary Ambition's "How to Sample" always gets me a little choked up at the end. (That’s how you make a low-budget video!)
Uri: Thanks Abe – it's been a pleasure following your selections over the years, we're all excited to see your future work.