Ever since the advent of the video hosting platform YouTube in early 2005, numerous different genres of user-generated content have emerged in its wake and proliferated over its almost 15 years of existence. The ‘information age’ of the 21st century to which YouTube belongs has meant that these genres of content are extremely easy to access and, in some cases, easy to produce.
Among these genres of content that has flourished in the open marketplace of digital information, the fusing of education and entertainment, or edutainment, has found itself a wellspring of creators with an equally large and boisterous audience to boot. For example, Michael Steven’s channel VSauce, a channel created in 2010 that produces videos on a multitude of topics including science, philosophy, sociology, etc. in an essay-like format, has amassed an audience of over 13 million subscribers in just 8 years. Stevens was able to gain a staggering audience that has provided him with an above-stable income, over one-and-a-half billion video hits, a live tour with Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, and a YouTube Red original series that recently entered its third season. This is one of the most outstanding indicators of the audience that consumes for this “new age” form of edutainment existing on YouTube.
Michael Stevens was an early example of the audience that existed to be both entertained and educated simultaneously, but during his career other facets of this newfound edutainment medium began to spawn. In particular, the genre of the “video essay” has flourished.
What is a video essay exactly? The most common and colloquial definitions tend to define it as a long-form, script-heavy videos that aim to analyze, inform an audience about, or critique a certain topic. Common Sense’s Tanner Higgin puts it as such: video essays are “usually meticulously narrated and edited, juxtaposing video footage, images, audio, and text to make an argument much like a writer would do in a traditional essay.” Video essayists began emerging onto YouTube during the early-mid 2010’s, particularly around 2014 with creators such as Evan Puschak (of Nerdwriter1), Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou (of Every Frame a Painting), and the media corporation Vox pioneering this new brand of heavily-edited, essay-like videos.
It was made apparent almost immediately that an audience was there to consume content of this caliber. For instance, the channel Every Frame a Painting, despite only uploading a total of 28 videos in two years, garnered over one-and-a-half million subscribers and 65 million video views (SocialBlade). Other channels that appeared in this wake of creators, such as Gregory Austin McConnell’s eponymous channel, still have amassed audiences in the hundreds of thousands in the span of only a handful of years. This proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the voracious audience that exists to consume this particular brand of content.
These numbers and statistics, although concrete proof of a consumer, doesn’t speak specifically to the value that these channels bring to this YouTube edutainment genre. Why have these channels, especially those that speak so heavily about pop culture and entertainment, so popular? To understand this, I talked with two video essayists, Houston Coley (of HoustonProductions1) and Alex Hunter (of HiTop Films), to try and ascertain what role video essays play in this information-age medium.
“I create video essays on mainly superhero content right now- comic book movies and films,” describes Alex Hunter, main contributor and producer of the YouTube channel HiTop Films.“What I consider a video essay is just an opinion piece or basically an editorial on said film or movie. I’m a visual storyteller and I use YouTube as the medium to convey what I’m feeling.”
HiTop Films currently sits at 90-thousand subscribers, and has been producing content since 2016, beginning with Hunter’s short, independent films. It wasn’t until 2017 when Hunter began creating more traditional video essays on topics such as the Sam Reimi Spider-Man films, Daredevil, and Logan.
“I think before video essays existed,” Hunter explains,“to learn about film or to learn about popular subjects or to get opinions, you had to read newspapers or you had to go to film school or you had to have someone who knew their sh*t tell you sh*t. But now with video essays, anybody who knows anything about film or has an opinion can broadcast that to the Internet, and I’ve been doing this for a year and we’re almost at a hundred-thousand subscribers now.”
Hunter goes onto explain how fulfilling the ability to express himself and inspire others to do the same through his content is.
“I think the best thing part about the whole thing and about the invention of the the video essay is [edutainment]. I think that’s just so cool that- I would have loved that when I was 14-15. I’m only 19 now, but when I was 14-15 I would have loved to see videos like the ones I’m making now, and that’s why I started to make them because there are Nerdwriter videos and Vsauce and those are incredibly talented, smart, and brilliant people that I could always aspire to be, but I just didn’t see a niche on YouTube for, I don’t know how to describe my content- I guess “‘punk-y’? It has a style to it.”
Houston Coley describes the new niche that video essays fill in similar fashion.
“I think for sure that video essays have changed the game- and the Internet in general- in terms of educating people and learning about new subjects and everything,” he explains.“The interesting thing about the Internet is, of course, that everybody has a voice now that you can click a few buttons and make an account on social media to tweet your thoughts or upload videos about your thoughts on ‘X’. So that is, in many ways, a very good thing because the power is back in the people.”
Coley’s channel, HoustonProductions, began back in 2011 as channel dedicated to reviewing and showcasing Lego toys. However, similar to HiTop Films, Coley made a transition with his channel into the more traditional, long-form video essay format around 2016.
“You could get similar insights from a video essay or a college professor’s speech about why ‘X’ book is amazing or whatever, but a college professor doesn’t have to make things entertaining,” Coley continues. “The thing about video essays is that if you want to be popular on YouTube, you have to have something entertaining. You have to have an entertaining way of conveying information.” In short, Coley describes the balance between an entertaining presentation and legitimate information to be the key element to the archetypal video essay.
This balance is one that is almost unique to the video essay genre, and signifies it’s importance on our digital entertainment landscape. The fusion of appealing visuals and presentations fused with both objective and subjective analysis of a certain topic is something that’s almost an extension of creators like Roger Ebert, who stood out in the 80’s and 90’s by being a film critic that made his opinions entertaining to consume. The delicate edutainment attributes of the video essay are just as invaluable now as they were then, especially with their new technological and creative capabilities.
Go and watch a video essay- learning is best when it’s fun.