Could it be over? Could we finally be getting out of the pandemic (even though it has become endemic?) Whether we are or aren’t, we’ve spent two years adapting as necessary. I don’t think the New Normal will become fully apparent for several years, but am looking forward to things that have undoubtedly been in development in the meantime. There will be grandiose productions, but I’m more interested in the people who had an idea, played with it, and finally had the time to devote to it. The fun stories are easier to find. The profitable stories will eventually prove themselves in the marketplace (and possibly in my portfolio). The personal stories, well, I know so many creative and productive people that I am hoping at least some of them finally get fully compensated (or more) for all their efforts. This post will be about the fun ones.
The fun ones. I won’t apologize for the definition of fun I’ll use for these examples: educational YouTube videos. Surprised? (I’d provide my list, but I can’t find a way to copy it. Send me an email or leave a comment about a specific topic and I’ll see if I have a lead for you.) I have been fascinated, or at least intrigued, to watch people who had a simple idea, pursued it for the fun of it, and watched it grow beyond their expectations. It is particularly fun to see someone as they become popular – even if they don’t know why.
For me, the classic story is that of Nick Zentner. He describes himself as; “I teach geology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, USA.” Oh come on, for frigging sake! (#SorryPatrick – inside joke) “teach geology”? He’s a professor with decades of experience! Sheesh. But that honestly understated approach to Pacific Northwest geology meant there was no dogmatic or pedantic lecturing about rocks. He’d talk about what he knew, and if he didn’t know it, he’d show how he learned about it. His style is what I’ve called on Twitter, “The Mister Rogers of Geology”.
They’re already making documentaries about what he has accomplished, but those are from the perspective explaining his success. I’ve been watching his videos for over six years. I stumbled across his early videos where he described the geology along I-90 in Washington, and his Two-minute geology series that seemed to be aimed at a younger audience, but done so in a way that appealed to this old guy. When I started watching him I was surprised that he was only getting a few hundred views for excellent videos.
Then, the pandemic hit, he appeared to feel cooped up (duh), and he started making a video a day, almost every day. Do Not Hit View All unless you have nothing else to do this year. His daily videos were frequently an hour long, and there are hundreds of them. Along the way his audience grew. The number of people watching him live exceeded the viewership of his earlier work, and grew ten-fold as people watched them later – and then watched the old ones, too. Some of those earlier videos have millions of views, now.
He did it for the fun of it. (Yes, science can be fun.) He did it for the fun of it to the point that he had to release a video telling folks that there was no ulterior motive. And they don’t believe him.
Years of videos for the fun of it, then more intense sessions as a way to cope, and now, wow.
I’m cheering his success, but to make this point. He is not alone. He had a simple idea, played with it, didn’t worry about success, and succeeded in ways that confuse others. I’m pretty sure there was no business plan, marketing strategy, or ultimate goal. Just a good idea competently produced and presented and provided for free.
There’s a commentary for you, good stuff for free is hard for many people to believe. I’m not in his league, but recently someone pointed out that a lot of the unofficial volunteer work that I do is hard for some to believe and an opportunity to be taken advantage of by others. So what? If it needs to be done, or is fun, or is both, then great! My life has enough constrained and planned projects. Outlets are necessary.
I won’t bore you with my Subscription list from YouTube. There are over five dozen channels I track, and the most engaging ones are about math, science, and history. But, here are few.
Hank and John Green (vlogbrothers, but more importantly for this, SciShow, CrashCourse, and several more channels)
Hank and John are brothers who started sending each other video letters via YouTube when YouTube was new. They’re both educated, work hard, and have fun exchanging ideas. The videos were public, because, why not; and spawned more channels than I can keep track of. They’ve both become authors, run seminars – and attracted the attention of people like the Gates, personal attention, like come fly with Bill to go find a fix for something. All they started with was a couple of brothers kidding around online.
Brady Haran (Numberphile, Periodic Videos, and more)
Brady was a videographer, as I understand it, who kept making videos until he found his niche. He did not find his niche and then start making videos. His leap to popularity happened when he decided to interview a chemistry professor from the University of Nottingham. Professors can enjoy their work, and it showed. The Albert Einstein hair and unassuming approach helped too. Success on one channel made the other disciplines jealous, and more channels followed – and then other professors from around the world get involved. It grew beyond any expectations, a central theme, here. By the way, the chemistry professor was subsequently knighted.
(Also helped launch, Dr. Becky, astrophysics; and is an excellent way to find mathematicians like Matt Parker’s Stand-up Maths comedy routines – note the plural of math.)
Scott Manley (Scott Manley)
From his About section;
“Scott Manley is someone who fell into youtube because he felt a deep compelling need to teach people orbital mechanics and rocket science so they could play Kerbal Space Program…” Whenever I think about starting a YouTube channel about aerospace I think about Scott who does not have a degree in engineering, but has learned so much along the way that I wait for his perspective on news, and appreciate his analyses. I won’t even try to compete. And this isn’t his day job. He travels around the world for stories, but has a regular job doing software.
In all of these cases, the people did what they wanted with what they had. For many, their ‘studios’ are a corner in their house. Brady produces science and math videos using a handheld camera, butcher paper, and Sharpies.
How many people with similar resources created something out of boredom in the last two years which may just be about to finally reach critical mass?
How many inventors and entrepreneurs have done so?
How many performers now have an impressive portfolio?
Overnight successes frequently take years. Doing something for the fun of it can be so fun that the person making it isn’t even aware that others might think it is even more valuable. Surprise!
I am encouraged by the possibilities of significant positive disruptions to entrenched conventions. I suspect that some of the most successful will happen without a plan, except to have fun and maybe, maybe, make something useful. They make it. They enjoy it. Then out of a population of billions, they may find millions that are glad they did. A million-to-one multiplier of something good? Thanks to everyone who does such a thing – and lets the rest of us enjoy it, too.
“… only getting …” _____ … getting only …
“… he was only getting …” he was getting only 😉