The “everyday experts” of YouTube—and one MIT physics grad

Ask most people what YouTube is good for, and chances are you won’t hear “a place to learn” among the responses. But that would be a mistake: there are now billions of views going to videos whose aim is to make us smarter.

Regular cool guys and gals teaching on YouTube

Once the domain of public broadcasters and specialty publications, educational content is yet another genre in which the distinction between professional and amateur has been dramatically reduced, if not altogether eradicated, by the Internet.

Are the videos in question being produced by journalists or veteran practitioners in the field? Generally the answer is no. On YouTube there’s a reversal of the usual path to punditry.

The majority of content that falls into the category of educational or “edutainment” (a combination of education and entertainment) is not coming from those with deep expertise in the area, but rather via “regular guy or gal” types whose ability to relate to an audience and keep them entertained tends to be more important than official credentials.

For example, there’s Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown of the ASAPScience channel, who use stick figures and doodles to tackle questions related to the science of dogs and what would happen if you stopped eating; Michael Stevens, Kevin Lieber and Jake Roper of the VSauce channels, who deliver short bursts of programming on topics such as optical illusions, how babies learn, and paradoxes of time travel. CGP Grey’s animated videos enlighten us about things such as bizarre geographical borders and the origins of daylight savings time.

To learn more about this growing field of digital edutainment I talked to a trio of YouTubers working in this area during Buffer Festival, the gathering of YouTube creators and fans held annually in Toronto.

The waiter who will teach you about U.S. politics

Craig Benzine went from being a wisecracking waiter with an underwhelming 32 subscribers and a few hundred views to netting over 100 million views and most recently becoming the host of Crash Course: U.S. Government and Politics, a YouTube channel sponsored by PBS Digital Studios.

Benzine’s YouTube origin story is suitably humble. He started out just over 8 years ago, while working at The Big Bowl, an Asian fusion restaurant in Chicago. It was during this time that he developed the alter ego of “Wheezy Waiter,” performing re-enactments of interactions between waiters and customers, and posting the videos to the then new video-sharing platform.

“At 27 I felt like the old dude making videos in his apartment,” he revealed, as in those embryonic days of YouTube it was populated largely by teenagers and pets (not to mention a fair bit of pirated content.) “Until video 100 I had maybe in the low hundreds of views. It was pretty much all friends and family.”

The turning point was getting mentioned on the Nerdfighters website and through that gaining exposure to the audience of Internet nabobs Hank and John Green, aka the Vlog Brothers, who are now stewards of a media empire that includes books, merchandise and a network of YouTube channels with over 1 billion views. They also conceived VidCon, an annual conference of YouTube stars and enthusiasts that brings 20,000 people to Anaheim, California, each year.

The number of subscribers on Benzine’s YouTube channel jumped from 32 to 1,000 in one week. It continued to build, and in January 2010 he put out a challenge to his audience, stating that if he received 100,000 subscribers he would do a new YouTube video every day. Benzine did not get 100,000 subscribers, but he did get to 40,000, and decided to do the daily video anyway.

Within about a week his subscription numbers jumped to 70,000. Now at over half a million subscribers and 100 million plus views on his Wheezy Waiter channel, Benzine has secured a deal with the prestigious PBS Digital for “Crash Course.”

Benzine’s “Crash Course” videos are used in classrooms across the U.S., and the waiter that loved mocking customers as well as his fellow servers is now explaining topics such as how congress works to millions of viewers.

Putting a degree in physics to use

26 year-old Dianna Cowern, aka Physics Girl, came to YouTube with extensive subject matter expertise, but no idea what to do with it. An MIT graduate with a degree in physics, Cowern then worked as a researcher at Harvard, a software engineer at General Electric, and in educational outreach at the University of California at San Diego’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences.

After winning a national award in 2014 for a video she made about the physics of colour, Cowern came to the attention of, yes, PBS Digital once again, who then contracted her to produce 32 videos for their educational YouTube hub.

Initially researching, writing, shooting and editing her own videos, Cowern now has enough budget to hire part-time help in the form of an editor and a few writers. “My first video, funnily enough, was about what to do with a physics degree, because I really had no idea what I was going to do with it.”

Full-time accountant and other fascinating facts

Matthew Santoro, who is the recipient of between 25 and 30 million views per month for his “Fascinating Facts” videos, was a full-time accountant in St. Catharines, Ontario, up until a few years ago, and a pretty miserable one by his own description:

“I’m never going back to that. Never. If YouTube ended tomorrow I wouldn’t go back. Because now I know that if you love doing something you can get good at it, and if you get good at it you can make money from it.”

It took Santoro almost four years to build his following on YouTube from zero in February 2010 to 2 million views per month by the end of 2013. During this period he plodded his way through debit and credit ledgers at his day job while singlehandedly doing the research, writing, shooting and editing for his YouTube videos at night and on weekends.

Santoro is now part of the network Collective Digital, a multi-platform media company that works with YouTubers, brands and broadcasters.

He credits Collective with bringing him what he terms “value-added opportunities,” such as a part in the upcoming Resident Evil movie, speaking engagements alongside stars such as Ashton Kutcher, and brand partnerships with companies such as Canon, Audible and CoffeeMate.

As of spring 2015 Santoro has also added a trio of close friends—two writers and an editor—to his media-making machine. “I don’t have a job on YouTube,” he pointed out, “I have a hobby that I make money from.”

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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