(The first draft of this post was originally posted on my facebook page.)
There’s an episode of the (amazing) show Parks & Recreation in which all the members of the different branches of the local government have a contest to see who can create a mural that will be hung up in City Hall. The Parks department (the stars of the show, if you’ve never seen it) spends all day working on it, but each person is attached to their own idea and they can’t agree on anything. So Leslie, the deputy director of the Parks department asks Mark, a talented city planner, to create a mural for them because she really wants to win the contest. Mark creates a competent, but bland, innocuous painting of an old man in a park. Most everyone hates his painting, but Mark says, “I’m not saying this is any good. I’m just saying it will win. It’s mass appeal.” — “No point of view whatsoever.”
I bring this up because is something I’ve been thinking about with my own work on YouTube lately. I’ve been fortunate enough to gain a relatively substantial following on YouTube and social media, and my goal has always been to grow and get more exposure. To get ideas, I often check out what other successful creators are doing. But what I’ve realized is that almost all them are like Marks painting. They’re bland, but they have mass appeal. If they have a point of a view, it’s a consistent, non-nuanced point of view that never changes or evolves or is challenged. And in general it’s a mainstream point of view that is well-known as something tons of people subscribe to already. And that’s if they even have a point of view, as the majority of very large YouTube channels simply lack a point of view. As you can probably imagine, this is the literal antithesis of my channel.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but I’m starting to realize that simply due to the nature of my work, I’m facing an uphill battle that many other creators don’t face. I have this lofty idea that one day people will be able to have discussions with each other and enrich each other even if they disagree. And while I see a lot of people doing that, much more in my videos than most other comment sections on YouTube; the reality is, it’s far more common for a person to simply click dislike and unsubscribe when they find something they disagree with. Now I’m not losing sleep over losing subscribers, but as a person who wants to grow on YouTube, it’s disheartening to realize that pretty much every video you make, you’re probably going to lose a bunch of subscribers, simply because, as Mark said, “It’s a stance. And there’s always someone who’ll oppose a stance.” It’s particularly relevant for me, because I make videos that appeal to two classically opposed factions on the internet; some videos seem to appeal to feminists/social justice people, while other videos seem to appeal to anti-feminist/skeptics. So after gaining a bunch of subscribers from one video, I might lose them in the next.
Now, from a purely career standpoint, I could easily just “pick a side.” Most of my most popular videos, like “The top 10 Most Brutal Disney Villain Deaths” or “That Mysterious S Thing We Used to Draw” are videos with no point of view. But a couple do take a stance, and I could have just stuck with that one narrative for my entire career. My video “You’re Probably Not Really a Nice Guy” is very popular among feminists, and I could have just spent my entire career pandering to feminists. I’d be a lot more popular now if I did, that’s for sure. (Incidentally, that video has received lots of criticism from feminists because of the language used. It’s really hard to win when you’re not specifically pandering.) But frankly, I don’t want to do that. And I’m pretty sure my most loyal and engaged viewers wouldn’t want me to do that. But I think, unless I get really lucky, it’s going to be very difficult for me to get where I want to be as an independent creator, while still advocating nuance and context and enrichment of perspective through disagreement.
I think what I’m going to have to focus on is the loyal engaged fan base that follows me and is interested in what I make. I have to expect that support and admiration is fleeting and only a special bunch is here to stay. And of course, more people will come down the line. That’s part of the reason why I started this website and my newsletter. Instead of trying excessively hard to go out into public and attract new people who I’m not even sure will stick around, I think I should pay more attention to the people that are already here.