YouTubers are the future of culture

Wait. And Drink — such was the advice a professor gave to us, a room of philosophy (soon-to-be)PhDs about how to face the academic job market. Academia doesn’t pay, the message was, or at least the expected pay off (the chance of getting a tenure track job x the income you get from it, roughly) of pursuing an academic career these days is extremely low. Since what academics have to offer is ideas, that suggests the broader conclusion that ideas don’t pay.

This is a conclusion most would agree with. To see why, consider other fields in which ideas are the product. Fiction writing? A recent report showed that the average income of a writer is sufficiently low that to be a writer today requires that one be subsidized by (typically) a spouse. Non-fiction writing? Open up Twitter and about every month or so you’ll see lamentations as journalists you read announce they’ve been laid off in the recent restructuring. Ideas don’t pay. If we know anything, we know this, surely.

It’s wrong, though. Ideas make plenty of money when presented in the right way on the right medium, which is to say in entertaining and well-produced YouTube videos and podcasts. The story behind this truth about money and ideas is a fascinating combination of, well, money and ideas, and I want to take a shot at telling some of it.

For a start, ‘ideas’ is vague, so I am going to concentrate mostly on one area that I know well, namely popular philosophy and cultural criticism.

Because academic philosophy, like most of academia, is pretty much unreadable to those not trained in it, many have tried to popularize it for the general public. Philosophy Bites is (or was, it might be on hiatus) a podcast that interviews working analytic philosophers about their research for the general listener. Aeon publishes long-form on philosophy and related topics, while The New Philosopher is a print magazine featuring professional philosophers popularizing their work.

You’re probably familiar with this genre. Its articles are titled things like ‘What would Plato say about Brexit? or ‘what Montaigne can teach us about our post-truth era’, and they present elementary exposition of some thinker’s ideas and use them as a lens to understand some feature of life today.

How popular are these popularizers? In the absence of any better data, I took a look at their Twitter accounts. In particular, I looked at how many followers they have and, using this useful tool their most popular recent (last two weeks) tweet, as measured by number of retweets:

Aeon. Followers: 138k. Most retweets/last two weeks: 58.
PhilosophyBites. Followers: 72k. Most retweets: 56
The New Philosopher. Followers: 15.8k. Most retweets: 36.

Let me emphasise something: Nigel Warburton, the Philosophy Bites person, would, if one were to ask for an example of a public-facing philosopher, be the first name that would occur to many professional philosophers. Aeon has a massive editorial team and is widely seen as one of the best venues for popular philosophy; the New Philosopher publishes loads of respected professional philosophers. As far as analytic philosophy goes, this is as popular as it gets.

However, this is only really to tell part of the story. Philosophy is a wide field, and analytic philosophy is only part of it. So let’s look further.

Slavoj Žižek is a paradigm and very influential continental philosopher. In case you don’t know, while analytic philosophy tends to hew close to contemporary, precise, Anglophone work, continental philosophy is more about the big things, and references figures from the history of philosophy as well as those much hated postmodern French theorists.

The importance of Žižek is that he was one of the people who popularized blending high and low culture in analyzing features of contemporary life, art, or politics using fancy theorizing. He would use, for example, the film Psycho to explain features of the work of Jacques Lacan, or old detective novels to get a handle on Hegel.

This sort of work tends to be called ‘cultural criticism’ and is, undeniably, an important medium in which people communicate ideas about the world. And there are venues for it, in the form of typically left-leaning (philosophy in general has a left-leaning orientation) publishing houses and online publications. So it’ll be helpful to look at them to round out our picture a bit. Consider The Outline, searching in the domain of which reveals articles about the philosophy of climate change and stories about French theorist Felix Guattari, or The Baffler, a google search for which brought up articles about Sartre and Elon Musk and the simulation hypothesis, or n+1, one of the first pages of results for which are two occurrences of contemporary French Lacan-cum-set-theory guy Alain Badiou. Here is the data:

The Outline. Followers: 43.6k. Most retweets/last two weeks:15.
The Baffler. Followers: 47.6k. Most retweets: 78
n+1. Followers: 90k. Most retweets: 11.

(One point: For each of these magazines, retweets of theirs of their writers (i.e. Outline has x write something, x tweets ‘I wrote this for @theoutline’) do better numbers than this, but we’re still talking at most low hundreds. Also, both The Baffler and the n+1 are also print magazines, which might skew things somewhat. But I’m confident these trends would hold for other venues.)

These venues, then, don’t appear to be churning out viral content on the reg. Of course, maybe that’s just what we would expect: philosophy, either in its nerdy analytic or cultural criticism vein, is a niche pursuit, for people either on top of their symbolic logic or their postmodern NeoMarxism. And that would, of course, fit in with the dearly held belief that ideas don’t pay. People just don’t care too much about these things.

Wrong

Nope. People care a lot, and people will pay for what they’ll care about. The idea producers above just don’t know how to sell their ideas.

But some do: podcasters and YouTubers are out there, presenting ideas, getting loads of viewers and loads of money. You might have heard of Chapo Trap House, the ‘dirtbag left’ podcast set up by some hipster friends in Brooklyn who met on twitter. Although I haven’t listened to it, I’ve read the book (I reviewed it here) and from what I’ve read, it’s acerbic leftist scatological commentary (a neat and quick way to get a sense of what I’m talking about is to note that one of their main rival is called ‘Cum Town’.) They discuss politics, inviting often serious thinkers for, I assume, serious discussions alongside fart jokes. Their book, at least, contains words like ‘Gramsci’ and ‘hegemony’ and their humour is informed by a decent knowledge of American politics old and new.

So: they’re selling ideas. But the difference is, they are selling them. The Outline, for its 43k followers and under one hundred retweets, raises a lot of money — it recently raised $5.5 million in funding. And while its stated business model is based on quality and not quantity of readers, it’s probably not a reach to say that it’s going to have trouble showing it’s worth it (a sign of which, perhaps, is that it recently fired a bunch of employees, and even more recently has been acquired by a bigger media conglomerate).

But Chapo? Chapo, a podcast, which is a few guys in a room, earns over $120,000 … a month. Taking into consideration the low costs, the profit margin of these guys must be the sort to make any businessperson salivate.

Of course, maybe that’s a fluke. Except, it isn’t. YouTuber ContraPoints, aka Natalie Wynn, has around 10,000 patrons, and since her minimum tier is $2, at the minimum she is getting $20k a month. Another leftist YouTuber, PhilosophyTube, aka Oliver Thorn, doesn’t have exact numbers but a reasonable estimate is that he is making between $5k and 25 a month (per this). Both of these people studied philosophy at graduate level, and make videos on philosophy and culture wars issue more generally — the videos I watched contained expositions of Hegel and a role call of Eastern European Marxist theorists.

This financial data is reflected, more or less, in the social media engagement (the Chapo figure here obviously doesn’t support my view; not sure why). Here it is:

PhilosophyTube. Followers: 65k. Most retweets/last two weeks: 2449.
ContraPoints. Followers: 188k. Most retweets: 11467.
ChapoTrapHouse. Followers: 97k. Most retweets: 12

Needless to say, the money and the social media activity correspond to actually consuming the content. Chapo, per its wiki, gets 120,000–150,000 downloads per podcast. ContraPoints’s last video, published a month ago, has 1,000,000 viewers, while PhilosophyTube’s latest video has 500k. For contrast, The Outline, last year, posting pieces many days a week and employing a handful of staff, was reported as having 3,000,000 viewers a month. Of course, that’s not bad, but when you consider that there’s next to no money behind ContraPoints 1,000,000 views, it puts things in perspective.

What this shows, I think quite clearly, is that there is both an appetite for ideas, and, even more surprisingly, there’s money to be made from them. This is a fact deserving of explanation, and I want to provide one shortly. But first, I need to rebut an important objection.

But … are they any good?

Of course, these numbers don’t show much. After all, in a sense we know there’s a market for ideas — Jordan Peterson’s book is a multi-million copy best seller. The more important question, of course, is whether there is a market for good ideas, whether all the money is going towards things of cultural value.

Pretty much, I think the answer is. The Chapo gang, at least as far as their book seems to suggest, are about as interesting as any cultural commentator you read on the hipster platforms mentioned above. PhilosophyTube’s expositions — at least those I’ve watched, which aren’t many — are typically pretty solid, and ContraPoint is pretty good at dismissing alt-right opponents. Moreover, she is funny, like laugh out loud funny. And both of them produce videos that really ought to qualify as a sort of art — well shot, acted, edited, generally enjoyable to watch. It is, I think, all round good intellectual entertainment.

Indeed, I would say comparing these three with Žižek who, as I say, is certainly one of the most famous living philosophers, they compare favourably. Žižek has read more, and, no doubt, understands more, perhaps much more, than these people, and is perhaps somewhat more insightful. But they all are in the business of using philosophical ideas, often loosely enough, to cast light on contemporary phenomena (Trump, Brexit, trans issues) in a stylish and entertaining way. And at least the YouTubers don’t seem to hover as close to milkshakeducking themselves as Slajov.

To repeat, then, my thesis is that ideas pay — if you present ideas in the right way, they’ll be both popular and lucrative. There is room for mass market intellectual culture.

But this is very surprising, and it provokes this question: why only now has this come to light? It’s plausible to think that if young people like accessibly presented ideas now, then the young of previous generations would also have liked them. And thinking that like, you think there was a massive failure in the market for ideas whereby there was a willing audience who weren’t being served. Why?

My proposed answer involves what I will call intellectual elitism. Intellectual elitism is the thought that ideas are not something that have mass appeal, that philosophy and literature are niche products produced for the few by the few. Subsequent generations up to and including Generation X and many millennials (including yours truly) have been trapped by this idea, and so, if they’ve wanted to produce ideas, have produced ideas for a specialized and niche audience. The YouTubers and podcasters are not trapped by this idea, realize ideas have mass appeal, and have tapped into that market with great success.

Why were previous generations trapped by this idea, which now seems wrong? Basically, cultural history — modernism and postmodernism, both of which are paradigm instances of intellectual elitism.

The novels of Dickens and Dostoevsky in the 19th century were accessible and written for commercial gain, and published as serials in journals. If you can read, you can read and appreciate them, and indeed most other writers of the era. Things changed with modernism. For reasons I don’t know but presumably some do, art became inaccessible. Joyce wrote Ulysses, formally very experimental and packed with allusions, hidden structures and meanings, and in general something that requires education and perseverance to appreciate. Ditto Eliot and ‘The Waste Land’, the very first pages of which contain three different foreign languages.

As modernism waned into postmodernism, things got even more inaccessible. People like Pynchon and Barth wrote formally experimental, kind of theory-laced (at least in the latter case) works that require a lot of intellectual resources to read — they are ‘difficult’, where that is not meant to be pejorative, and so, duly, literature became less accessible.

For philosophy, the story is partly different but with the same end point. The massive influx of people doing advanced education and seeking academic jobs encouraged very minute specialization and — so some cynically argue — the need to justify themselves as being a worthy object of study has compelled theorists to make their work ‘difficult’. Just as one needs training in differential geometry to understand modern physics, so one needs extensive training in heady French theory to understand and produce ideas. If literature were easy, why all these departments studying it? So literature became difficult.

There’s an interesting consequence of culture being difficult: it demands a certain homogeneity between reader and writer. In order to read any contemporary philosophy, you pretty much have to know as much philosophy as the writer. In order to appreciate Barth, you have to know the annoying French theorists he knows as well as the tradition of the short story that he plays with.

But if you know as much philosophy as the contemporary philosopher, or as much literature as the contemporary author, you probably want to put that to use and to be a philosopher or author.

(This reaches its apogee in contemporary literary journals which are, as far as I can tell, read almost exclusively by people who (aspire to) write for them.)

This homogeneity is a truly awful set up for a marketplace of ideas. To see this, consider an example: say I’m a master milliner — I make stunning hats. Am I well advised to pitch my product as a special deluxe hat aimed only at only milliners? No. While it would be nice and all, because I know that audience could really appreciate the hats, you shouldn’t target your product at people who can already supply themselves readily with that product. Even if that were advisable, it’s a tiny market — there aren’t many milliners out there. Best to produce hats for the masses.

Much contemporary culture aspires to be the deluxe milliner. It does so, I’ve suggested, because it is influenced by modernism and postmodernism, and its doing so explains why people think there’s no money to be made from ideas.

Moreover it’s because they are distanced enough from the modernists and postmodernists to not fall into the same trap that the YouTubers are the future. I must admit, I don’t have any solid data to back this up, but I’m pretty confident that the people paying the patreon fees and watching the videos of ContraPoints and PhilosophyTube aren’t the same hypereducated culture vultures who read the trendy Brooklyn mags or know who won last year’s Booker Prize.

So that’s part of my response — previous generations had this weird (but venerable) and wrong idea that culture was an elite thing, produced things only for elites, and so made no money.

But that’s a bit unsatisfying. Why did it take YouTubers to come along before this was realized? I have this kind of depressing vision of the past few decades according to which there was a hunger for ideas in people but there was simply nothing on offer for them. But why was this so? Why didn’t someone come along in the 90s and develop, say, a philosophy show on MTV? Why didn’t people realize this would work (assuming it would)?

I’m tempted to say this: some people probably did realize it would work, but they didn’t have a platform. YouTube, for all its faults, gives anyone a platform. And more or less as soon as a platform for this stuff was made available, people flocked to it.

If this is right, it’s truly fascinating. What it means basically is that the mostly inaccessible culture of the last few decades has been, at least to some extent, a function of the technology around at the time. Part of the answer, perhaps, as to why cultural theory and (some) philosophy devolved into annoying postmodern theory is not because of some deep trend in the history of ideas. The path of culture is not inexorably towards the difficult and recondite, the 20th century notwithstanding, but is just because the means to present ideas accessibly weren’t widely available.

The Future

What are we to make of all this? I think it’s a genuinely exciting cultural development, and I think that it can be so even if — like me — you don’t care either for YouTube or for podcasts (I spend most of my life in front of a computer and don’t want to spend my leisure time in front of it, and podcasts are fatally flawed by the fact you can’t skim listen them).

If I’m right, the YouTubers and podcasters have forged a new path away from making cultural production elite, and towards making it accessible for all. There is no reason that this need imply our culture will be weakened — elitism was just a (post)modernist fad, that can now happily be put to rest, and culture, the world of ideas, can be accessible and, because accessible, lucrative.

You might deny this. You might sensibly worry that the culture these people will produce will be inferior in some respects. For example, it seems unclear to me that we can expect genuinely new thinking, for the simple reason that being both a genuinely new thinker and charismatic enough to attract a wide audience are skills that are probably, if anything, anti-correlated (it’s worth pointing out that the guy behind PhilosophyTube is an actor).

While that’s probably true, I think there’s a response. Evidently there’s a market here, and people will move into it. At the minute, let’s say, there are few producers, and those happen to be charismatic, but perhaps not super original. But if you’re an original thinker but moderately charismatic, then assuming that audiences care both for charisma and (perhaps to a smaller extent) originality, then there will be people out there willing to forego some charisma in exchange for some originality who will pay for your product. We could thus expect the market to come to supply a range of different products, and it doesn’t seem ridiculously implausible that someone producing original ideas could do well in it.

People often wonder what the internet will do to us — to our relationships, our brains, our habits, our culture. And the answer people give is invariably negative: it rots all.

If my thesis is right, then, at least as far as culture is concerned, this perspective is wrong. The much-spoken-about democratization of ideas that the internet produces has — in addition to all the bad stuff — shown a way to make intellectual culture popular and profitable, and has revealed as a contingent fact of history the tendency towards difficulty that modernism and postmodernism might have lead us to believe were inevitable.

Added 23 June 2020: From summer 2020 I’m going to move my occasional writing from medium to tinyletter. If you want to read more from me in your inbox, please consider signing up: https://tinyletter.com/mittmattmutt. I’ll post relatively infrequently, and hopefully interestingly, on the same sort of themes as the blog, so: popular philosophy/explainers, culture, literature, politics/economics, etc. I might also do things like brief reviews of books I read and so on.

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/

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