Lex Fridman, one of my favorite podcasters, has nearly 1 million subscribers on YouTube. But calling him a “YouTuber” would be a mistake. You’ll never hear him say, at the start of his videos, “Hey! Welcome back to my channel my name’s Lex Fridman and today I’ll be talking to you about machine learning and Dostoyevsky.” Most of his podcasts are 2 hours long. Most traditional (if “traditional” is even the right word) “YouTuber” videos are 10 minutes. And 10 minutes is quite a long time considering that the the average attention span is, I’m guessing, the length of a TikTok video. A 10 minute video is recommended only because that’s what the algorithm tends to favor. Turns out, even algorithms have standards. But whose standard are we favoring? Do we make content to please an algorithm, or do we make content for an audience? Is what the algorithm favors an accurate representation of what people favor?
I’m not sure. But regarding Lex Fridman, it isn’t that his content is disagreeable to those with short attention spans. Lex Fridman’s show is catered towards people who like philosophy, technology, science, self-improvement, and, of course, Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Lex Fridman’s content is geared towards people with a specific flavor of interests. It just so happens that people who like philosophy would rather engage with a 2 hour podcast than a 2 minute supercut of Nietzsche’s best aphorisms. The length of one of his videos isn’t as important as the subject matter. The subject matter is what people stick around for. If Lex Fridman started talking about the best flavor of Coca-Cola, in the typical “YouTuber” style, he’d lose his subscribers in a heartbeat.
There are many guides on how to be a Content Creator. Most of them say the same thing: make content in this style. Of course, introducing yourself at the start of each video works. It helps to know who you are, what you do, and what you’re going to talk about. But beyond what we’d normally expect, is it so important that we chop up our content every half second and put on a forced smile as we talk about stuff that probably doesn’t warrant a smile?
On these points, which are subjective, it helps to avoid dogmatism. I can’t tell you what to do to present yourself on camera or on a podcast because I barely know how to do it myself. I smile a lot in conversations. I love reading Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche. But wouldn’t it be weird if I began a video by saying Hey welcome back to my YouTube channel where today we’re going to be talking about Raskolnikov’s self-imposed isolation by means of hiding from his consciousness the fact that he murdered someone! — Yeah that would be weird. I’m not going to do that. And while I love difficult books, I’m not so stoic that Japanese candy and canned coffee is below me. How should I go about making content around sugary stuff like canned coffee? If I start presenting myself as Mr. Reads Dostoyevsky, would I betray my audience of diehard Dostoyevskians? No. I wouldn’t. Carl Jung once said something like personal idiosyncrasies get in the way of art. That an artist, a poet, someone who produces a Thus Spake Zarathustra or Faust, speaks for the collective soul of humanity. A content creator talking about Thus Spake Zarathustra doesn’t speak for the collective soul of humanity. And you can replace Thus Spake Zarathustra with sugary canned coffee and still retain the principle that by talking about something that’s personally interesting to you, you’re not speaking about what’s collectively interesting to the collective unconscious, or, in non-Jungian jargon, to everyone else. While this might seem pessimistic, I see it as a sigh of relief. It’s hard enough to be a vessel for an idea that speaks for 1,000 true fans. To be the vessel for an idea that speaks for an entire people, well, you can go and study the great poets of the 19th and 18th century to see the side-effects of the curse of visionary experience.
I could go on and on about this. But there’s a point that I think solves this problem quite nicely. Labels are stupid. Yes, it helps to define what we do. We call them jazz musicians because they’re not playing synthesizers. But does a label ever tell us what instruments we won’t play?