As co-founder of VidCon, The Internet Creators Guild, the Project for Awesome and more, Hank Green has proven to be one of the internet’s most influential personalities.
YouTube was only two years old when a biochemist from Montana decided to share his musical musings about Harry Potter on the fledgling video-sharing site. Hank Green penned his ditty, “Accio Deathly Hallows,” in anticipation of JK Rowling’s seventh release in the Potter series, “Deathly Hallows.” The video of Hank strumming and humming his complaint — I’m gettin’ kinda tired of this/ Pre-publication media blitz — is still getting views nearly 10 years later, now honing in on two million. Word on the street is that Accio’s feature on YouTube’s front page catapulted Hank and his brother John, better known as the Vlogbrothers, to YouTube stardom.
We had a chat with Hank to pick his brain about what he was thinking when he launched the Internet Creators Guild (ICG). But first let’s unpack a wee stretch of the YouTuber’s journey and how he got here from there.
“I saw from the beginning that online video was going to be a very important part of culture, and I just wanted to be a part of it,” Hank tells YouTuber from his production studio in Missoula, MT. Before YouTube, Hank paid his bills working as a camera operator and doing graphics at local TV stations. His father was a documentary filmmaker.
It was his brother John’s fixations on YouTube performance artists that got Hank hooked on internet video.
“John was particularly obsessed with Zefrank, who in a lot of ways defines the genre of the video blog,” says Hank. “He was doing really interesting stuff and we saw that the people watching the content were an important part of the thing that he was doing. That was really appealing and interesting to us.”
Hosea Jan Frank was one of several trailblazing video bloggers who owned the conversation performance space on YouTube that was just taking off in 2006. Torn-from-the-headlines commentary chopped up with visuals and quirky clips supplied by fans made the show with Zefrank a daily three-minute head spinner of never-seen-before video content. With episode views in the hundreds of thousands and a million channel subscribers, the online video community sat up and took notice.
“People I had a lot in common with and people who with their content were highlighting what was boring about traditional media, fitted my aesthetic really well,” says Hank. “It’s this lean back versus lean forward thing.” Traditional media was about something that happens to you as opposed to new media where you participate and make your own stuff, explains Hank.
Hank and John Green launched their first YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers, in 2007 to host a daily video blog they called Brotherhood 2.0. The premise was for the brothers to stop communicating by textual means for a year, instead communicating only through video blogging. The daily dose of the Vlogbrothers was so popular and the Greens loved doing it so much, they couldn’t put it down and have since launched other YouTube channels including their educational hits Scishow — ‘you make curiosity contagious’ (3.7 million subscribers) — and Crash Course — ‘creating smarter people’ (4.7 million subscribers).
VidCon and the Guild
While they were picking up a huge following of millions of subscribers and garnering gazillions of views, the Vlogbrothers and their fellow YouTube pioneers were transforming the DIY video sharing community into a digital content creation industry. Driven by imagination, innovation and advertising dollars, the swelling cultural force of online video needed an outlet. Hank and John Green gave it a place to party, and they called it VidCon, an annual gathering of international creators, fans and industry gurus.
“The goal of VidCon is to reflect the state of online video and let the industry define itself,” says Hank, who has since delegated much of his day-to-day involvement with the event to showcase “other people’s ideas of what’s interesting.”
When VidCon was first launched in 2010, about 1,400 believers showed up. Since then, the event has doubled in size every year. Thirty thousand online video disciples mixed and mingled in the summer of 2016 to take part in panels, seminars and master classes where the established and the proven schooled the next generation in strategies and secrets. “To drive more viewers, engagement and revenue across every significant social video channel,” reads the blurb on VidCon’s ‘about’ page.
According to Hank, there are 37,000 YouTube channels that get more than a million views a month. And the most prolific online personalities creating content across a range of categories — education, gaming, how-to, politics, lifestyle and music — are making a decent living from it or significantly supplementing their income.
“I started paying my bills with YouTube money around the time I hit a million views a month,” writes Hank in a post that introduces the Internet Creators Guild.
The ICG’s goal is simply to increase the number of people in the world who can be creators professionally, according to the banner on ICG’s home page.
Part support group for content creators, part industry watchdog, the Guild came out of Hank’s concern that unseasoned creators might not be getting the best deals from video streaming platforms such as YouTube and Twitch.
“Maybe these people were young and inexperienced, the kind of thing you might see in the music industry,” says Hank. With ten years of content creation notched on his belt, he says he’s had many conversations with YouTube that other creators should have been a part of.
He explains: “Because we were old school and we’ve been making content for a while, we’ve been advising YouTube for a long time. They’ll come to me with product ideas and I’m like, I’m just one guy and I don’t want to be the only voice. I don’t want you to think that me and my five friends are the people who are representing the creator community, which is literally tens of thousands of people.”
He says he’s seen new YouTube product launches fail because the lines of communication between creator and platform can get crossed.
What’s needed says Hank is “some kind of intermediary that’s trying to give platforms a fairly unbiased view of what the creator community’s interests are. And also giving the creator community an unbiased view and a well-communicated look at what platforms are doing right now and what they could be doing that might be better for creators.”
The most urgent impetus for starting ICG, says Hank, is to bring solidarity to the creator community, which he sees as mostly a loose collection of groups of friends who come together only occasionally to collaborate on projects.
Hank is using proceeds from VidCon to launch the Guild, which he’s stacked with a stellar board of directors made up from influencers on both sides of the creator and platform divide. When we caught up with Hank, he was in the thick of juggling several projects and preparing a podcast. We asked him how things were going moving forward items on the freshly minted Guild’s to do list.
To keep the conversation organized, we tackled each tenant of the ICG manifesto individually.
Share stories and strategies from professional creators that will be available only to members
If you’re making stuff on the internet, you can be an ICG member, and for sixty dollars a year, Hank says he’ll make it worth your while.
“We’ve got about 500 members right now. Every week we release a podcast, which is an interview between me and a creator who is making money at some level. We’ve done everybody from Tyler Oakley, who obviously has a gigantic following, to an episode with R. J. Aguiar, a daily blogger who’s been cranking away at this a long time.” Hank says the Creator Talks podcasts fit snugly into the Guild’s mission:
“Some creators are like, this will supplement our income while I try to build up my social media presence which helps me get jobs, and there’s Tyler Oakley who’s like, yeah I make money through all these eight different strategies, and I have a really robust team of people around me to help me.”
The podcasts are all archived, and Hank is looking to put together a compendium of text-based resources as well.
Increase transparency about what creators do and don’t receive from MCNs (multichannel networks), advertisers, agencies, and managers
YouTube offers a definition of MCNs for creators on its Partner Program page: Multi-Channel Networks (“MCNs” or “networks”) are third-party service providers that affiliate with multiple YouTube channels to offer services that may include audience development, content programming, creator collaborations, digital rights management, monetization, and/or sales.
Anyone who meets YouTube’s criteria and passes a written test can become a certified third party service provider for channel creators. But, says Hank, there is no consistency in the deal making:
“We hear often from people, and I’ve had this experience, where you’ll basically do a deal and then you’ll hear from a friend who has roughly the same sized channel as you and they got paid twice as much. And you’re like, well how did that happen, what did I do wrong?”
Hank says the online monetization landscape for video creation is so new that often ad sales people don’t yet know what a contract should look like: “So we want to work with MCNs and agencies to create some stability in terms of how much people are making. But also, what are the deal points that we definitely think shouldn’t be in a contract and what should be.”
Platforms and advertisers want rules in deal making as much as creators, but the difficulty Hank says is “when you go to a creator and they’re like, this contract is crap, whereas another creator might immediately accept it. So I think that everyone wants a little bit of standardization. We’re in the early stages of reaching out to all the stakeholders.”
Share useful information on everything from dealing with stalkers to understanding your audience.
“A lot of people deal with things you wish they really didn’t have to deal with,” says Hank, who has a friend trying to cope with a bad stalking situation. He says the friend has the support of UTA (United Talent Agency), the L.A. agency giant, to take things in hand, “But in this brave new world, if you have an audience of 10,000 people and one of those people happens to be a stalker, then you’re in trouble because at 10,000 people, you don’t have enough of an audience to have an agent. Guild membership gives creators an infrastructure that can protect you when stuff goes wrong; you know what to do and how to do it and how to protect your identity.”
The Guild’s online membership center also offers guidance for maximizing YouTube’s community management tools. “I’m working on a resource right now that lets you promote members of your audience to moderate your comments,” Hank says, “how to inform them of your policies, how to decide what your policies are going to be and how do you create that system? It’s a very granular thing that’s only interesting to people who make YouTube videos enough, that are controversial enough that they need to do that. If that information isn’t being shared, everybody has to be reinventing the wheel.”
The Guild’s members-only chat room is a robust forum for kicking around ideas and sharing concerns. “We see things in there like, ‘what should my philosophy be about making a video that I think is just about getting views versus a video that I’m actually proud of in terms of its content?’ I watched that conversation happen last night. It’s the eternal question; do you make content that you’re really proud of or do you make content that’s going to get watched. And when and how can you do both of these things at the same time? But also things like how do you effectively use Patreon (the crowdfunding platform), what kind of content works best with crowdfunding, what kind of content works best with brand deals, what kind of content works best with merchandising? So there’s monetization stuff, but there’s also actual craft conversations that I think conferences should be having more of, like how do you make your content look good? What kind of lenses should you use, what kind of lighting should you use?”
Foster diversity in online video content, including but not limited to language, age, race, gender, and economic opportunity.
“In some ways,” Hank says, “we’ll be reaching out to our membership to be thinking about [fostering diversity] and to be thinking about how they make content that’s appealing outside of their base audience. But I think it’s also making sure that information is shared outside of friend groups. If it’s just me telling all the people that I know about how to be an online video person, then it’s like I’m talking to a bunch of people who are just like me because I live in Montana and my friends are like me. But if the information is shared more broadly and if it’s available inexpensively, then hopefully we’ll see a future where how to bring down the barriers for distribution and production is more broadly available. There will be less of a lag than there has traditionally been in terms of skills getting to every demographic in America.”
Unify the voice of online creators to create change.
What that means, explains Hank, is “to decrease the amount of friction for someone to become a professional creator.”
Ultimately, the benefit of ICG membership is that creators as well as industry types have access to a community of people who are going through similar things: “We just had our first real life meet-up in New York City where a bunch of ICG members — between 20 and 30 people — got together and had a chance to feel a little less isolated as creators. I think that often, it can be a fairly isolating thing. You don’t really know that other people are going through the same things as you. You get to support this industry and end up having a voice that we don’t currently have. And also, you have access to all of our case studies, interviews and the resources that we’re building to make it easier when something goes wrong. We just want to make it easier for folks.”
Hank Green, seasoned digital entrepreneur with a degree in biochemistry, musician, educator, producer and vlogger, says he doesn’t think a lot about the future of the industry because he’s not very good at predicting what’s next.
“I think we can draw parallels between what’s happening in video right now and what happened in music in maybe the 50s and 60s.” Hank continues, “There will be some consolidation but there will also be people who are always doing the weird, interesting cultural things. In the same way that happened in the 50s, you get content that’s opened up to different kinds of people instead of making content just for the biggest group possible. So you get content that’s being made for people who weren’t represented before. And that’s really exciting. In my opinion, as long as more people get to be professional creators and get to be making stuff for a living, because I think that it’s just a really fascinating job that I’m really lucky to have, then I’m happy.”
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