The rise of video essay
Would you spend eight hours watching a chess video from Victorious, the Nickelodeon show that featured a young Ariana Grande from 2010 to 2013? How about almost 14 hours in total on the series as a whole?
Even if you didn’t want to, over five million people did. An additional 3.6 million people spent an hour and 15 minutes watching a video about the Brony subculture of My Little Pony. More than six million people tuned in to watch a two-part series totaling nearly five hours on the TV show Pretty little Liars.
Since YouTube was launched as a platform in 2005, countless video trends have been born and died there: daily vlogs, challenge videos, the era of collaborations with every British YouTuber imaginable. “I started my first YouTube channel in 2012,” says Amanda Gordon, video essayist and NYU student of the amandamaryanna channel. “I found these lifestyle creators, beauty gurus, and I really liked this content, so I thought, “Oh, I will too. So I was doing things like Outfit of the Day videos and stuff like that.
Short-form video content has been winning over the masses since Vine launched in 2013. TikTok now has more than a billion users less than six years after its 2016 launch, and it’s inspired imitators like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. However, longer form content is trending more on YouTube since the platform decided to prioritize watch time when applying ads to videos.
Of course, long-form content on the platform isn’t new: Shane Dawson, the now-disgraced king of YouTube, was posting multi-part docuseries videos that were over an hour long in 2019. Lindsay Ellis, to whom some creators credit as one of the first video essayists, was making long-form commentary videos in 2016. When the pandemic began in March 2020, demand for content to consume skyrocketed. Streaming services have seen their usage increase; subscriptions on streaming platforms exceeded one billion in 2020. It makes sense that the same thing is asked of content creators on YouTube: give us more.
Maia, or Broey Deschanel on YouTube, says she started seeing longer videos popping up in her recommended tab during quarantine. She had already started making commentary videos in 2018 after watching creators like Lindsay Ellis, but she says that “around 2020 is when I felt like the video essay community started to proliferate. , that long essays have become more of a thing”. Gordon started making longer videos after he started distance learning in 2020. “I got into more scripted content, because I couldn’t really do college vlogs anymore, and it all stopped,” says -she.
The appeal of longer videos for creators is simple: you have time to flesh out a point. “You can give context to what you’re talking about,” Maia says. “In shorter form, you have to cut to the chase. With a longer format, you’re kind of able to contextualize things, give counter-arguments, whatever. Incorporating film clips and exterior footage is common in video essays, especially media ones, she adds: “You can kind of play around with the medium and the format. I think the longer form kind of allows for that.
For the viewer, longer content can provide welcome background noise during mundane activities like cleaning their room or doing their homework. Hailey Elizabeth, who on her eponymous channel mainly covers conspiracy and true crime content, says that like podcasts, the longer videos are “easier to digest, and it’s much easier to listen to as background noise, rather than ‘a television show or movie’. where you have to stay engaged all the time.
In an interview with Vox, Madeline Buxton, head of culture and trends at YouTube, said that “video essays are a form that has lent itself particularly well to pop culture because of its analytical nature…We We’re starting to see more and more creators using video essays to comment on growing trends on social media. They serve as a kind of real-time internet historians by helping viewers understand not just what a trend, but the larger cultural context of something.
Gordon also sees YouTube as a platform that can be more educational for viewers than others. “It’s not like Khan Academy,” she laughs. “But you know, you can find something new, or you’re exposed to new ideas.” She also credits TikTok for being a place of inspiration for social media: “YouTube is a way to dig deeper into topics you might come across on TikTok that you can only analyze on TikTok so far because it has shorter deadlines.”
Elizabeth also believes that through her channel, she is opening doors for her future career. “I was going to college to make movies, so we always had to upload our shorts to YouTube,” she explains. “It’s a really good stepping stone: if you want to start a podcast or a TV show or if you want to get into the film industry, YouTube is a perfect way to get there.” Maia agrees and calls YouTube “the future of film criticism.”
The biggest cultural shift regarding YouTube has been related to how the mainstream media has discussed it. What was once a cultural joke – the idea that a bunch of kids were making videos thinking it would make them rich – or a moral panic about kids wanting to be influencers when they grow up has started shifting to the general recognition of content creation as a ‘real job’ “A few years ago, being a ‘creator’ or an ‘influencer’ was kind of a dirty word,” says Elizabeth. “A lot of people didn’t really like that label. Now people aspire to be that. I think that’s really cool. You become your own boss. You can creatively express yourself however you want. I feel like that’s a very good thing.”
The biggest misconception about being a YouTuber, all three agree, is the idea that it’s quick and easy money. It’s neither. Videos can take days to properly research and edit, and everyone says don’t expect to make money the second you start uploading videos. Then there are the issues with the platform itself.
YouTube’s copyright policy has plagued many creators on the app and penalized video essay creators, who often use external video clips and material to create their videos. “The reason things are copyrighted, even if it’s fair use, is because companies have realized this is a great opportunity to make money,” Maia explains. “YouTube allowed them to do that, so they kind of protect everything left, right, and center.” She notes that video essays are “the most difficult videos to monetize” due to their reliance on outside clips and says that “almost all” of the copyright claims she has received have been unfair.
“I just need YouTube to get some rest,” she laughs. “If a video is obviously not trying to plagiarize a work, that’s pretty clear.”
It’s too early to tell if video essays will stick around on YouTube like other video trends, and while some creators have embraced hour-long videos, some creators still aren’t ready to follow suit. “My average video is probably between 45 minutes and an hour long,” says Elizabeth. “It’s a really comfortable length for me; I get everything I need to say there. This length suits me perfectly.
“I don’t even know what I would talk about for eight hours,” Gordon says of the Victorious deep dive. “I started watching it and I was like, ‘Honestly, I can’t believe I’m watching this.’ It’s crazy for me.
How long did she survive? “At least half of that of five o’clock,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll finish it though.”
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