Daniel Deshaies asks: This is a question I have for all Youtubers, do you think you're going to do this for the rest of your life? Do you think people like you or ERB or Game Grumps will be in your 50's putting out videos? I ask because this is a relatively new profession and no one has been doing it that long.
Good question. Honestly, I don’t really know. When I was younger I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I was certain that I would be a feature filmmaker. When that all fell to shit shortly after I graduated college, I knew I was going to be a novelist. I knew it. These days I don’t make those kind of declarations, nor do I think in those terms. The only success I’ve ever had came from taking projects one at a time. I didn’t know what this YouTube thing would be when I started. I just made the next video. And the next. And the next. And here we are. Like you said this is a new profession, so most of us don’t know what the future holds. There is still that urge among a lot of us to attempt the move into traditional media (TV or film), but that urge feels anachronistic, a holdover from a dead era. It has taken creators like the Vlogbrothers and Casey Neistat, who have planted their feet firmly in YouTube (or online video, more generally) to prove that we don’t have to go the direction old media types want us to go. I think these pioneers are important to the constellation of internet professionals who are struggling the same question you’re asking me. I’m not going to project myself too far into the future. I'd rather focus on good work now and better work next week. If something different comes my way that I feel like I want to do, I’ll give it a shot. Until then, the next video...
Manasvi M asks: I'm an eighteen year old from India who loves your videos. My question is a slightly generic and has little to do with the technicalities of your video essays and more to do with the ambition behind it. Every time I watch a thought-provoking video or read a fantastically written article, I have this burst of inspiration to do something, anything productive. Unfortunately, this doesn't last very long. How do you motivate yourself to be productive with your time? And, when did you know that video essays were your thing? Do you have any advice for the eighteen year olds out there who are struggling to make the most of their time? How were you spending your time when you were eighteen?
Let’s take these one at a time. First, on motivation: we all struggle with motivation. Distractions are everywhere and I’m frequently waylaid by them. It’s not good that my work is so closely connected to the internet because Will Smith solving a Rubik’s Cube is always one click away. So it’s a constant battle, but I think the trick is understanding that you’re two people: the you who wants to work and the you who wants to watch Will Smith solve a Rubik’s Cube. You have to create an environment where the first you still has a voice even when the other you is in control. I have a pavlovian response to finishing a video. It feels so good. I love that feeling of accomplishment. Wanting that feeling motivates me to open the Google Doc and get to work. To feel that elation the first time you actually have to finish something once. So finish something. You might just launch a perpetual motion machine that results in some great achievements. Also, now that I have a bunch of subscribers, I really don’t want to let them down. That motivates me too.
I didn’t know video essays were my thing until I was well into doing them. They never really existed (in this form), so it was this crazy moment -- I think for a lot of us -- of realizing that, “wait, can this--? Is this--? I think this could be a profession!”
At eighteen my time was spent very poorly. You shouldn’t sweat it that much. Do stupid shit while you still can.
Jasaron Bajwa asks: Do you believe in the concept of high art and low art, or is there simply good art and bad art?
I think distinctions between “high” and “low” art are mostly historical. Older, entrenched art forms have always lashed out at new (and popular) ones. These attacks often take the form of labeling “lesser” mediums as “passive,” while what the attackers are defending is “active.” This was and is a common accusation leveled at movies in favor of books. All these terms are contextual, a matter of personal definition and history. I do believe, however, that some works of art are harder to engage with than others. Some very important works of art are not all that entertaining (at least the first time they’re experienced). Classical music, for example, is hard to appreciate out of the box. It’s not immediately apparent to someone not versed in musical theory why a certain composition by Bach or Beethoven is “good.” (Forgive all the quotes in this answer.) Modern music is accessible to us because it features beat and rhythm prominently, two things we’re biologically attracted to. Classical music, on the other hand, rarely has a rhythm section, and it barely ever has a beat. So you’re left with the complex, entwining interactions of melody and harmony. A lot of classical music sounds beautiful, but the truth and significance of these dense pieces requires some knowledge of what is actually happening. I know very little music theory, but what I do know has augmented my admiration considerably for classical works. The same could be said for the films of, say, Andrei Tarkovsky. You’re not going to connect with them in the same visceral way that you connect with Indiana Jones, but there are some profound rewards for those willing to dig a little deeper. To sum up, I don’t think there are such things as high and low art, just different levels of difficulty of engagement.
Johnny Schuler asks: Watching your new Fact checking video and I noticed something. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump give off an atmosphere (for lack of a better word) that they are constantly lying. Why is that?
This is obviously subjective, but I think there's a unique reason for each. Trump seems like he’s lying because he has the mannerisms and speech of a huckster performing 3-card-monty in Times Square. How anyone has mistaken this for “authenticity” or “telling it like it is” boggles the mind. My pet theory is that people don’t like his authenticity so much as his shamelessness. There’s a great vicarious freedom in that. As for Hillary, she doesn’t seem able to project the warmth and caring that so many people report she has in more intimate settings. (Obama is great at this.) She comes off as someone who really wants to tell us how she feels, but has determined that focus-grouped language is the safer route, the route more likely to put her in the Oval Office. For both candidates, these are obviously problems based on how voters make decisions in America. But I wish it wasn’t that way. Manner should matter much less than it does. I often wonder how the campaigns would be doing if all we got was their remarks in text form...
Ryan Huber asks: Multiple times during this video you use euphemism for Hillary lying, or spin it almost as a positive trait, but condemn Trump for it. If I recall correctly, you only directly said she lies once. Why wasn't this video about correcting all politicians live? Is it just a view numbers thing, because I know you're too smart to accidentally inject bias like that into your writing. From my perspective, it doesn't matter which (if any) candidate someone supports, this would leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth. I don't think you're trying to manipulate anyone, but it does seem like bad writing.
I obviously didn’t come down as hard on Hillary as I did on Trump (or Matt Lauer, for that matter), but I don’t think I spun Hillary’s lying as positive. It’s not. I’m troubled about her penchant for omission and secrecy. But Trump was my subject for the piece; he’s who I wanted to focus on because of the unique challenge he poses to journalism. Like I said in the video, this guy lies on another level. He moves around like a bunny on crack, and if you call him on his bullshit he just says, “Fuck you!” Obviously every politician should be aggressively fact-checked -- the video is about correcting all politicians live -- but I think Trump proves that fact-checking is less about keeping politicians honest than it is about keeping the public informed. Hopefully, in the end, the latter will move the needle on the former. And yeah, if I go anywhere near Trump in a video, expect to see him in the headline. It’s about the views. As Hank Green once wrote, “don’t feel bad about getting someone to click on something if the thing they’re clicking on doesn’t suck.”
Charlie Hamilton asks: Do you trust the media to be truthful itself when fact checking? I'm not voting in this election however most of my friends lean left, I brought it up to them about whether they trust the media and almost unanimously they believed most networks would at least spin stories and leave out facts. I'm worried that if a real time fact checking system was implemented the media would manipulate it the same way they have manipulated stories in the past. After all even if I don't like trump everyone deserves a fair and unbiased moderator and I'm not sure I trust any news outlet to be that.
I worked at MSNBC for a few years, so I’m well aware of media bias and how it can corrupt the news. But I think something that’s even more insidious than media bias is a wholesale distrust in journalism as an institution. There are still plenty of journalists and institutions doing great work. In TV, the major network newscasts still give a relatively objective take on things, and they’re all going to carry the debates. So will CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and C-Span. The moderators are one thing, but eight channels will carry the debates with eight different producing teams -- that’s eight chances to try something like real-time fact checking with chyrons. Fox and MSNBC would skew, yeah, but what about the rest? I’d be more excited that such a technique was happening at all than I‘d be worried about the bias they might have. Even one lie pointed out would be awesome. I hate bias as much as the next person, but I guess my point is: what is there to lose?
Austin Knight asks: I'm often criticized by my brother and many other friends for "having to analyze everything". When I watch/hear something, whether it's Lil Yachty, a documentary, or an action blockbuster, I tend to ask myself "why?" and "how?" about everything. They then wonder why I can't just sit back, watch a movie/listen to a song, and not develop an opinion of it. From watching your channel, I think you and I consume art in a similar fashion. Do you have people in your life that get annoyed by your "over analyzing" of everything? What do you tell them?
Hahaha! Yeah, I get that. People usually just say, “Why don’t you make a video about it huh?” It doesn’t really bother me. I think there is such a thing as over-analyzing (well, not if you come from the postmodern tradition), but most of the time when someone criticizes you for that, what they really mean is “Why don’t you think less?” Excuse me, but I like thinking and writing and analyzing. It’s enriching and enjoyable and calls for a profound engagement with the world and with myself. We spend most of our lives going through the motions, not developing a reasoned opinion on things. Thanks, but I have enough of that. I’d actually like to probe a little deeper, see what I can discover. Oh and by the way, when you develop a habit of analyzing you’re better suited to deal with the world coming at you, and you’re more empowered to change the world too. Because when you’re not working on the world, the world is working on you, sorting you into the boxes it has ready-made for unthinking people. In the end I think these are all silly distinctions; the people who accuse you of over-analyzing are doing plenty of analyzing themselves, even if they can’t see it. And I guarantee there are times when you switch off and let a song pass through you without thinking about it too much. You're going to get that criticism forever, I bet, but when you do, just laugh it off and say, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Luke Hyland asks: I'm wondering about your thoughts on art as escapism? Here is a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien: "Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can" Would you consider escapism to be a positive or negative?
Great question. On the topic of escapism, I’m torn. Or rather, I hold two conflicting views at once. On one hand, I think escapism is a toxic feature not only of literature and film today, but of modern society at large. Convinced of our powerlessness in the face of economic and political elites, we retreat into the escapist fantasies of entertainment or the escapist fantasies of consumerism. On that point, I’ll match your Tolkien quote with one by Alan Moore from 2014 on the continued popularity of superheroes: “To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics.”
I think Moore is spot on, even if that point of view is a bummer. And it is. When I’m not feeling so pretentious or solemn about things, I of course love escapist entertainment. It takes only a brief look at The Nerdwriter to see that I’m in love with geek culture (Tolkien most of all), and I’m not a snob about films. I like everything from Face/Off to Tarkovsky and back. Life can be a real pain in the ass, and there is something luminous and vital about Starship Troopers or Love Actually or Spiderman. Escaping your own life for a few hours is an experience I cherish. I'll continue to love escapist art and entertainment, just like I'll continue to worry about escapism as an all-consuming trend in modern culture.
So, to answer your question unsatisfactorily: both.
Sinlinara asks: I’d be interested to know what it’s been like to interact with your audience in particular. What are some of the highlights? And if you'd care to share I'd also like to know what some of the less than enjoyable parts were.
I don’t think I’ve ever had an unpleasant interaction with a viewer of the show. The people who watch The Nerdwriter are extremely thoughtful and kind (especially compared to what I’ve seen elsewhere on the internet). The one unpleasant experience I had happened a few months back when I received some accusations of plagiarism on my Prestige video. I happened to write a headline that matched with something the AV Club used a few days before for their own piece on The Prestige. It was an article I had never read and wasn’t aware of, and we were making wholly different points about the movie. But somehow the use of similar headlines sparked a circle-jerk of accusations. It was the first (and only) time I’ve seen the internet’s fangs come out. I was like, “Shit. I know, like, ethically I’m on the right side of this, but that may not matter.” Once the internet (read: Reddit) gets an idea in its head, it can be hard to swing sentiment the other way. I explained the situation in the comments, but what really helped me out was the author of the AV Club article, without any prompting from me, tweeted that he had no idea what people were talking about, the articles were completely different, and even went into the Reddit thread of my video and personally responded to accusers. That dude is cool as fuck. The episode blew over, thank god, but it taught me a lot and I think it’s a good lesson for other creators. Once you get to a certain size, shit like that is going to happen. When smaller creators ask me for advice what I tell them is: be aware of your process. Understand why you’re doing this, understand what you’re doing, figure out what your standards are, write them down and make sure you’re keeping to them. That way, when bullshit comes knocking you’ll have answers.
All my other interactions could basically be considered highlights. I love The Nerdwriter fans. I wish I could interact with them more, but I'm spending the vast majority of my time grinding it out on what I think people want most: the videos. If in the future I switch to bi-weekly, I'll have more time for this kind of engagement. As it stands, though, every week is a race to the fucking finish.
Jefferson Bay asks: How do I understand art? What do you see in art and how did you begin to love it?
All good art is trying to tell you something about your life. Your life, Jefferson Bay -- you specifically. So understanding art is a process of understanding yourself, and vice versa. In both cases, you only learn by engaging. Watching isn’t enough, neither is reading or listening or thinking for that matter. From my perspective, engagement means writing. An idea that’s been snaking around in my videos for a long time is that we learn by saying, not thinking. You know something when you can articulate it, and for that you need words and sentences and paragraphs. So introspect, write down what your mind is doing. And when you watch a movie or look at a painting, write down how you feel about it. You’ll be amazed how one informs the other, and before long you’ll see some beautiful sparks.
Viraj Kumar asks: What are your thoughts on movies that divide most audience opinions into extremes like "I love it" and "I hate it"? A couple examples in this context could be the 2005 movie “Stay” directed by Marc Forster, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.
It doesn’t surprise me that movies divide to such extremes. As much as I hate to admit it, films have a pass/fail kind of quality to them. They work or they don’t. The illusion was sustained or it wasn’t. A single scene -- or a single actor, or a single music selection, etc., etc. -- that’s tonally off can spoil the effect.
I hate to admit it because I don’t think this quality of filmmaking is very helpful for criticism. It results in the wholesale dismissal of movies that might still have something to teach us. As a critic, I think it’s my job to take a more nuanced approach, to try to see the good things in bad movies and vice versa. Very often a movie fails because it’s too experimental, but failure comes with the territory of trying new things. We should encourage experiments in filmmaking. And we shouldn’t brush off those experiments as “indulgences.” Let filmmakers move in the direction that excites them. If something doesn't work, fine, but dismissal only hurts the continued growth of filmmaking as an art.
two-hearts-beat asks: What do you think, why do some people - as intelligent as they may be - do not take pleasure in aessthetics, poetry or philosophy and things that convey these things (such as movies, paintings,...)?
This is a bit tangential, but I was in a bar once and the bartender – the significant other of a good friend of mine – said he “didn’t like art.” I wanted to punch him in the face, mostly because I didn’t believe him & thought he was saying it for dramatic effect. I’ve come across plenty of people who don’t have esoteric tastes, who hate black and white films and can’t be bothered to endure a piece of art that isn’t aggressively entertaining. I’m mildly annoyed by this, but I don’t waste too much stress on it. I have my own problems. I think there are very few people who (like the above douchebag) don’t like art of any kind. All films are art, all books, all visual pieces that have no other purpose than to be looked at. Stand-up comedy is art; imgur posts that make me laugh out loud are art, so are the ones that make me snigger quietly to myself. Everyone who likes Game of Thrones takes some pleasure in aesthetics. Anyone who listens to Kendrick Lamar has some interest in poetry. If you enjoyed Ex Machina, guess what? Philosophy intrigues you. Art is everywhere. Some art asks you to be involved, to invest your time and thought and stress and suffering. It’s no surprise why some people don’t want to do that, or don’t want to do it that frequently. I found it pretty hard to enjoy Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness On The Edge of Town the first time I listened to it. It’s much more harsh and unfriendly than Born To Run or Greetings From Asbury Park, but when I came to love it, I loved it deeper for the effort, and I knew deeper love.