In the deep dark past of June 9th, 2006 I posted my first video to YouTube. I even posted it to my blog on the same day. The really long time readers of this blog (and you johnny-come-latelys better believe there are people who stuck with me for 2+ years) will remember that I only started posting to YouTube because I could embed the videos here.
I still had intentions of pursuing standup back then. The blog writing was helping me work out ideas I thought would work and my initial plan for YouTube was to use the videos as a sort of dry run performance getting ready for potential live performances. Then, not long after I started making videos, YouTube started to seriously take off with the mainstream meaning that even a schmuck like me could get viewed lots of times.
Actually, my timing kinda sucked. If I’d started only a month or two earlier I would have been one of the real pioneers. In all probability this would have gotten me featured on the global front page (if for no other reason than they didn’t have as much to choose from back then) which has turned out to be the ticket to YouTube fame. But hey, two years of hard slog to get 1/100th the attention of those talentless hacks on the “most subscribed” list isn’t all bad.
I’m not bitter.
In fact, I learned early on that the only way to stay sane was to be inwardly focused rather than looking at how people arguably less “deserving” (whatever that means) than me were getting all the attention. It’s actually pretty decent life advice: if you aren’t getting some intrinsic internal reward from what you’re doing, it won’t take much for you to get bitter and frustrated and wanting to give up. This probably explains why so many people hate their jobs.
One of the most common questions I was asked in the first year as I started to gain some dedicated fans was “would you give this up if you don’t get famous?” They were seeing what I was seeing. Huge amounts of attention was being given to people who were mediocre at best. I was working hard to produce far more videos that were, by and large, much more entertaining than what was being produced by the YouTube stars.
SIDE NOTE: I gave up false modesty a long time ago. I am firmly of the opinion that 95% of what I produce is better than 95% of what YouTube celebrities produce. There are without doubt some people on YouTube who are better than me. Some of them are much better. But holy shit some talentless fuckwads get a lot of attention. And a lot more who had potential lose their shit when they get their attention. It’s kind of sad seeing them frozen in terror like a kangaroo staring into the lights of an oncoming truck.
At the time I always answered that YouTube “fame” wasn’t my driving goal and I was focused on doing things for myself and I’d keep going as long as it was fun. There were some days I was stating this with a tad more conviction than I was really feeling. I did occasionally slide towards “fuck this” feelings. But I’m still at it two years later so it appears I wasn’t lying. Woohoo, go me!
I was in two minds as to what to do regarding this anniversary. One thought was to pretty much ignore it. The second (obviously) was to mark it somehow. After a bit of thought on the matter I thought I’d muse a little on what I’ve learned in the last two years. I am quite frequently asked for advice on how to succeed on YouTube (despite the fact any rational person would consider me a tiny speck on the YouTube radar) so I thought I’d try and condense what I have learned over the last two years into one convenient package. Which will promptly be ignored five minutes from now by some moron who can’t be bothered to check if I’ve answered their inane bloody questions before.
The first and most important piece of advice I can give is you HAVE to be doing it for yourself. I’ve basically said it already in this piece but it’s worth repeating. If the videos (or blog posts) you’re producing don’t provide you with some value in and of themselves to you, then you are destined for heartache and pain. Even if you attain that difficult to define “online fame”.
A corollary to that is you can’t keep any audience happy all the time so the driving force behind the work has to be you. As is obvious to anyone who reads this blog or watches my YouTube videos, I interact with my audience. I respond to comments. I collaborate with people. I often approach topics suggested by viewers. But I do NOT do whatever my audience wants. There are two main reasons for this:
1. People are dumb as shit and don’t know what they want. This is of course a joke but like most jokes it is based on truth. If people really knew how to produce quality entertainment they’d be doing it themselves.
2. Audiences aren’t singular entities with uniform tastes. Ask 5 people what to do and you’ll get 6 mutually exclusive conflicting responses. And if you do what someone wants they’ll end up saying they don’t like it.
My second piece of advice for someone wanting to succeed on YouTube is to take a good hard look at yourself and what you’re doing/plan to do and give an honest answer to the question: “Do you deserve to succeed?” What are you doing that is so compelling? And pointing out a YouTube “star” that you think is shit is a cop-out. Stop being jealous of what you don’t have (a battle I’m constantly fighting myself) and make a case for yourself.
There’s a disturbing sense of entitlement I see in the attitudes of many people who upload videos to YouTube. Over and over I see people put out shit and then complain “why don’t people subscribe to me?” It’s quite freaky to me to see people who see success as an entitlement rather than something you work for. I’m continually surprised at how much weight people place on my rather modest levels of success. Then they ask how they can be as successful as me. How about you start with two years of hard fucking work?
My third piece of advice is be prepared for disappointment. Even if you’re very good, that’s no guarantee for success. If you’re the type who’s easily discouraged by setbacks then trying to get noticed on YouTube will crush your spirit. Into tiny little pieces. And the shattered remains of your soul will be eviscerated by the dreaded haters.
OK, this is all sort of abstract. And depressing. Can’t I give some specific tips? And be a bit less bloody negative? I’ll give it a go.
The number one way to advance yourself is to interact. It’s no good you being a genius if people don’t know you exist. So interact with people who are already known. Comment on other videos frequently. In a meaningful way. Don’t leave crap like “LOL” and think that’s interacting. If you don’t know how to do that then you’re probably a lost cause.
And, of course, YouTube is a video hosting site so interact via video. Do response videos (although this is a far less useful tactic than it used to be – the signal to noise ration has gotten very bad). Collaborate with other YouTubers to make group videos. Although don’t expect Smosh (the most subscribed people on YouTube) to agree to do things with you. What the fuck do Smosh owe you? It’s this sense of entitlement thing again. I’m continually amazed at how many people seem to be personally offended when high profile people won’t do them favours or respond to their messages. For fuck’s sake, are you too stupid to realise how many of these messages they get a day?
Making videos on hot topics also tends to get more views than average (whatever your average level is.) Again, have something to say. Don’t make a video on a given topic solely because it’s the buzz du jour. Sure, someone might click on it because of the topic but if you do is say “Britney Spears’ vagina… woah,” they’re not going to click on any other video of yours.
A lot of people (and I mean a LOT) have taken the path of deliberately manufacturing some form of controversy to attract attention. What passes for a mental process with these people seems to go “I have no talent or imagination myself. I could always do something supportive of someone who gets more attention than me but they have a lot of fans already so I wouldn’t stand out much. I know, I’ll attack them! That will make all their fans angry and I’ll get lots of attention.”
I have spent quite a bit of time pondering how fucked someone’s life actually has to be to invite the hatred of random strangers. It seems like the classic loser bully who is acting out after a life of being neglected by their parents. Bad attention is better than no attention.
While this approach most definitely has worked in garnering a number of people quite a bit of attention but what the fuck do you do with that sort of attention? “OK, now I’m widely known as a jealous, talentless piece of shit who uses up all his time attacking people who actually have some talent. Time to parlay this reputation for being spiteful pond scum into a career!” Outside of a job with Fox News, what’s that gonna get you?
Actually, one more thing about the “haters”. They really suck at what they do. I’ve made a point of never responding to them and, indeed, never attacking another YouTuber by name. And they’re fucking lucky. I would have eviscerated them. You’d think if they were going to make it their life’s work to harrass people they’d actually be good at it. But by and large they’ve been utterly pathetic ranters. There were days when I thought I’d be doing them a favour by ripping them apart, you know, showing them how it’s done. But we all know I’m more mature than that.
So that’s essentially what I’ve learned about succeeding on YouTube in my two years:
- Do it for yourself first, pandering to an audience will drive you crazy
- Do something that’s actually worth being known for
- Be in it for the long haul
- Interact with other people via comments
- Interact with other people via videos (responses, collaborations)
- Make videos about hot topics
- Be positive in your interactions with other YouTubers!
Or not. I still don’t know why people ask me for advice. Go ask Smosh. I hear they always answer messages.