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Creating online content for more than a decade with Hank Green

Chris Hayes speaks with wildly popular vlogger, podcaster and author Hank Green about where the internet has been, is and will go in the future.

Hank Green has been on the leading edge of online content creation for more than a decade. He and his brother John created VidCon, the world’s largest video conference and have steadily built a wildly popular online community. You may know Hank as the host of science "Crash Course" videos, for his "Vlogbrothers" series, or his numerous other YouTube channels. We couldn’t think of a better person to help us understand where we’ve been, where we are and where the future of online content is going. He joined to discuss the growing popularity of platforms like TikTok, using the internet to do good and how monetization has evolved in an increasingly more competitive space. He also answers questions from WITHpod listeners Casey, Dan and Jake. And Chris has a special shoutout at the end for Asher, who has listened to 45 WITHpod episodes, totaling 2,495 minutes, this year.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Hank Green: I love that more people get to create for a living than they ever have before. But I also am very deeply ambivalent about the kinds of creations that do well. Some of them are I think really positive and wonderful forms of art and connection and education, and I think some of 'em are really down deep in the sort of human psyche stuff that makes us more sad, more isolated, and more angry.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Why Is This Happening? with me, your host, Chris Hayes. I think I talk about this a fair amount on the show, but I'm 42 years old, and that's the age that is the first kind of internet native age I think. It's right when my cohort started getting internet from, like, 13 or 14, really the first sort of band of people in a mass sense that were on the internet and, you know, came up with it as part of their life in their adolescence, not of course in the way of, like, younger folks and smart phones.

And it was not as ubiquitous, but it was hitting kind of, like, mass appeal at the age that I was sort of growing into it. And it was incredibly formative in my life and in my career. You know, my early years were as a freelance writer in Chicago.

And one of the things that was truly transformative for me is that I was living with Kate in Chicago, she was working at a domestic violence advocacy organization, and then she was in law school. And I was publishing stuff but connected to other centers of politics and media outside the city of Chicago via the internet, via blogs, via email listservs.

And that connectedness really did a lot for my career. I was able to sort of get in touch with people and pitch people and publish for publications that I think really would've been more difficult in a pre-internet era. And I was part of a group of people that was this kind of-- we were, like, the young upstarts who were blogging.

And we were throwin' open the doors. We didn't care what the doorkeepers thought. Did I say doorkeepers? (LAUGH) We didn't care what the gatekeepers thought about us. We were crashin' the gates. I think that was Markos Moulitsas's book, Crashing the Gates.

And all this to say that, you know, death and taxes, we get older and things change. And then the kids, they got their Tiky and their Toky and they're doing their viral dances. And you feel like a grandpa because, you know, you're watchin' it and you don't understand it.

And you've got your cyrpto and your NFTs, and (LAUGH) everything's so confusing. And there are some people who have managed to, like, remain, this is an incredible thing, to sort of remain fluent, relevant, and, like, native to the internet of the moment throughout and over a long period of time.

And I find it incredible to be able to do that. And also those folks have a really interesting perspective I think on what is the internet that we have now, what it was before, and how it's changed, which as you know if you listen to the podcast is a thing I think about a lot.

It's one of my (LAUGH) sort of, like, top-five obsessions. So today's guest is someone who is basically exactly my age and who is that. His name is Hank Green. You may know him. Well, among a certain amount of people he's incredibly famous, and then there's some people who probably don't know who he is.

He's a vlogger, video blogs. He's creator of Vlog Brothers that he and his brother, John Green, John is a really talented guy as well and an author among other things. He does, like, these science explaining videos. He has a podcast.

He's the author of books, including A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, which is a science fiction novel. He's an entrepreneur. But he has been a kind of internet presence (MUSIC) for, like, 15 years. He's now on Tik Tok. He was on YouTube and has sort of seen the development of how the internet does and doesn't work, how it gets monetized or not monetized, what commercial pressures there are. And I just thought there was almost no one better to talk to about what the internet is now and where it's going than Hank Green. So Hank, great to have you on the program.

Hank Green: Thank you so much. It's a dream come true. (LAUGHTER)

Chris Hayes: Well, Hank, I've been watching you and your brother for, you know, 15, 20, I mean, how long have--

Hank Green: Wow--

Chris Hayes: --been interneting?

Hank Green: Well, I mean, in video form since 2007.

Chris Hayes: What was the first one you did? Because I remember seeing it and being like, "Whoa, this guy's good at this."

Hank Green: Maybe not the first one. Like, the first one was at my friend Brian's house on New Year's Eve making the worst video ever, where I'm like, "Here's what we're gonna do. For a whole year we're gonna not talk to each other. (LAUGH) But we are gonna make videos to each other," me and my brother.

Chris Hayes: What's the first one that got big enough that it would've, like, entered into my consciousness from the side?

Hank Green: It may be my first Harry Potter song, which came out the week that the last Harry Potter book came out, if we can remember that far in the past. And that one went, in the sort of scale of the time, viral, which meant, like, hundreds of thousands of views.

Chris Hayes: Right. (LAUGHTER) So quaint. Because, like, people can drop, like, a skateboarding Tik Tok now and it's, like--

Hank Green: Accidentally--

Chris Hayes: --five million, yeah. Like, (LAUGH) totally accident. Which is something I wanna talk about. But let's take it back to the beginning because I think first, tell me about basically where you're from, how you grew up, and how you first started, what your entrance into the internet was.

Because I think we're about the same age. And I talk about this on the-- on this program a lot because an enduring obsession of mine is, like, the internet and why-- why I felt like it used to be awesome and why I feel like it's not so awesome now but how we can reclaim the awesomeness. And I think that's--

Hank Green: Well, who knows?

Chris Hayes: I know. But it's also very, like, Boomers of a certain generation being like, "No one rock and rolls anymore. (LAUGHTER) Like, it used to rock and roll. Like, the Rolling Stones." And I feel, like, so lame about it, but I 100% feel it intensely. And I feel like we're the same generational cohort. So how old are you, first of all?

Hank Green: I'm 41.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, exact same. Yeah.

Hank Green: And, like, we were a fairly early-adopter internet family. We had, like, a 14.4 internet modem.

Chris Hayes: Same.

Hank Green: And so if you're in the know you'll be able to place that in history. And I liked CompuServe and AOL and, like, my own bulletin boards. And my first foray into creating on the internet was a Mars website, where I sort of collected information about Mars.

And I was like, "Here's a Mars website." Before Wikipedia existed if you wanna know about Mars you might end up on my website. But the first time I sort of, like, actually created something that I felt was sort of createy was when I had a bad, boring quality control job in a lab.

I made a website about transportation policy called If you have ever been in Orlando or anywhere in the sort of central Florida area you know about I-4. It's a bad road that everybody needs. (LAUGHTER) Can't avoid. Just like the internet.

It's a bad place that everybody has to be. You know, it was sort of tongue in cheek how bad this is. But it was also a little bit about like, "How could we do this better? How could we do sustainable transport in Orlando Florida, a place that was deeply, deeply not built for sustainable transport?"

Chris Hayes: I feel like I think of you and your brother as, like, hatched from eggs onto to internet (SLUR). Like, tell me about, like, your upbringing and the universe you were raised in and what the sort of ethos was and how you kind of acquired this specific, you know, sort of (LAUGH) internet-savvy nerd ethos.

Hank Green: I mean, it's where I live. Like, my dad was a big nerd and so that's how we ended up with computers in the house.

Chris Hayes: What did he do?

Hank Green: He was the Florida State director of the Nature Conservancy for most of my childhood. So he worked in land conservation. And then after--

Chris Hayes: That's cool--

Hank Green: --that he worked in real estate, which is sort of a similar business. And now he is back to working in land conservation actually. And he was a documentary filmmaker for a little while as well. So he had that same background in content creation and in video.

And that was actually very helpful for us in the early stages of us making content on the internet, making video on the internet. But, like, the reality is I've always had friend groups that were all online. John's first girlfriend, like, serious girlfriend he met on the internet, like, back when that was not a normal thing to do--

Chris Hayes: Right, no.

Hank Green: And the things that really made us interested and excited about the internet were not the information parts but the community parts. And when we saw communities coming together around video it became very enticing for us, especially for John, who was involved in early fan communities around some early video projects. It was very exciting.

Chris Hayes: There's connection between fan communities, intense communities, intense communities of, like, passion about things, nerd culture, and internet culture that you're, I think, at the nexus of and, in some ways, one of pioneers of. But why do those things fit together? Like, let's go back to the origin of them all fitting together (LAUGHTER) because that's really the origin in some ways of, like, our entire culture, right?

Hank Green: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: But, like, before it became our entire culture, why did all those things fit together? Because I was part of that as well.

Hank Green: Yeah, I mean, it's because, like, being in a situation where maybe you live in a town of 200,000 and there are, like, maybe one out of every 100,000 people is really into Anime (like, that might be the case in the '80s or the '90s), or, like, really into Magic: The Gathering. So the internet allows for less popular things to have spaces in which they are popular. Like, that exact same function also turns out to be true for really radical beliefs. So, like--

Chris Hayes: Yes, (LAUGH) exactly--

Hank Green: --this really wonderful--

Chris Hayes: Yes--

Hank Green: --thing about the internet--

Chris Hayes: Yeah, you're the only Nazi in your town.

Hank Green: Yeah. (LAUGHTER)

Chris Hayes: I mean, and then it's, "Oh, wow. There's a whole community"--

Hank Green: Yeah, there's a bunch. "Look at all these Nazis. Wow, I can really find my home." That's something that I try to keep my eye on, is that, like, a lotta the things that we hate about the internet are the internet being good at what we want it to be good at but just for the wrong people or in the wrong way or it's capturing the wrong human impulse.

And I love that more people get to create for a living than they ever have before. But I also am very deeply ambivalent about the kinds of creations that do well. Some of them are I think really positive and wonderful forms of art and connection and education, and I think some of 'em are really down deep in the sort of human psyche stuff that makes us more sad, more isolated, and more angry.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Yes, these sort of communities of affinity across vast geographical distances for people with obscure likes and passions.

Hank Green: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Or just not popular ones. Like, that I think is such a defining trait. And also to me, the other thing that I found at that time, you say the community, like, for me it also was the information, like your Mars thing. It really was incredible.

I mean, again, I'm now waxing nostalgic, but, like, 13 or 14 it would be like the idea that you could literally (LAUGH) just look up anything that you wanted to know and then just spend, I would just fall down these holes of just whatever it was, I mean, you know, obscure political facts. Or, like, "What was the deal with Teapot Dome? (LAUGH) Someone mentioned that. What was Teapot Dome?" You know, it's like.

Hank Green: Yeah. And I remember, like, also early times, like, having conversations with people who disagreed with me. Like, you know, you find a creationist or a creation finds you. Like, and I wanna engage with that. I wanna interrogate my own perspective through their challenges.

And that was an early lesson in knowing that, like, the internet isn't good at actually convincing people of, like, changing their minds necessarily. But it is good at, like, helping me understand where I'm at and also, like, I think it's important to learn that lesson, that, like, I'm not here to change a mind. I may be here just to explore an idea.

Chris Hayes: So right now I'm looking at you and you are in what has become, like, an extremely familiar visual grammar, okay, (LAUGH) like, the setup. And it's amazing to me how widespread it is and how dominant. I'm looking at you. You have headphones on.

You have a microphone. You got a little P-popper thing over it. There's some bookshelves in the background. It's like you're sitting in a normal room. You're framed by your computer. This is now, like, the dominant aesthetic (LAUGHTER) of how people talk on the internet, which I don't know if, like, you specifically created but you were really one of the first. And I want you to talk about how this came about. And are you surprised by the degree to which this has become the baseline visual grammar of video internet?

Hank Green: I guess I'm not surprised by it. Like, right now I'm literally looking into my computer. The computer on the other side of this screen is the best my human non-like-made-of-meat mind, it's the best version of this is where the, you know, the universe that I actually inhabit, this is the window through which I observe it. And so, like, there's that part of it, where it's like, you know, this is the observation point.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, you're talking into the world.

Hank Green: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Like, you're literally talking into the device that is the device that is the portal to the world. And so you're talking on the stage to that world.

Hank Green: You know, when I'm making a video I turn to the side. That's where my camera's set up. It's sitting right there. But then, like, that is the window through which the world views me. And, you know, I think a lot about what authenticity means, about, like, both the sort of wonderful thing and also the peril of this performance of self that, you know, like, I've been doing for a long time now and have gotten comfortable with and have, like, drawn my own lines around.

But, like, everybody puts those lines in different places. And, like, it's all very new, so we don't have good rules over sort of, like, the sort of norms and taboos of it. And so, like, this way in which you invite someone into your space that looks very much like their space, it gives you a set of pieces of information by which you can judge them.

Like, in my videos I've, like, since the beginning, I've always had this map of Narnia, which is now, like, a inside joke that I can't get rid of because it's always been there. And I have a bookshelf. And what does a bookshelf tell you?

It tells you a lot about who I am. Like, I'm-- I'm a guy who is a big enough nerd that I wanna put a bookshelf behind me. And then if you wanna, like, pay attention you can see that they're all, like, science fiction fantasy and business books. And (LAUGH) then you can be like, "Oh, he's, like, a terrible nerd." (LAUGHTER) And also, like, science nonfiction.

So it is an invitation into a normal life. And that is both a powerful thing and kind of a scary thing because I think we need to figure out how to do it right because it is-- it is what people expect now. You know, there's always been performers.

But the extent to which it is expected that your performance is of your legitimate authentic self, I think that that's bad. You know, it's always gonna be a performance, and that should be understood by both the sort of performer and by the audience.

Chris Hayes: That's interesting. I mean, what I do, I perform for a living. But it's similar in the sense that people that I think watch the show, like, that is really pretty much me. I mean, it's an amped up version because I'm performing. But vocal tics, the jokes I make, my delivery, like, if you meet me, like, that's basically how I talk. (LAUGH)

Hank Green: Yeah. Yeah, well, I mean, it's also basically how I talk. And, like, this is the thing: There's no part of my performance that isn't authentic to me. Like, I'm not faking, like, interest in science. I'm not faking, like, (LAUGH) wanting to--

Chris Hayes: That would be really--

Hank Green: --go down like--

Chris Hayes: --funny if it was all a bit. (LAUGHTER) Like, all you do--

Hank Green: I hate chemistry--

Chris Hayes: --is like--

Hank Green: --so much--

Chris Hayes: --you just drink--

Hank Green: But I--

Chris Hayes: --Coors Light--

Hank Green: --just push through it (LAUGH)--

Chris Hayes: --and watch rugby. And that's it. That's your whole life.

Hank Green: Yeah. So what you're seeing is real, is authentic to who I am. But there's a lot that you're not (LAUGH) seeing, you know?

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Hank Green: And I think that it's increasingly important for people who do what I do, which is a increasing number of people, there's literally millions of people probably just in America who make, you know, five figures or more doing this. So, like, a lotta those people make $10,000 a year. It's certainly not their full-time thing.

But, like, it's enough money that it matters and that it's, like, an important part of both their income and their life. I think it's so important for people who do my job to recognize that, like, yes, you gotta be you. But you don't have to be all of you.

Find a place to be and try and stay there. Because it's really easy to one, let it sort of take over your private life, which I think it's really important to sort of diversify the sources of meaning that you have. And if it's all coming from the internet it's extremely destructive.

And then and two, to know when you're getting out of your comfort zone 'cause you're gonna get yourself into trouble. Because, like, this internet knows when you screwed up. And it's really easy to screw up when you get out of your lane.

Chris Hayes: In terms of this just narrow attentional question about this genre that you were at the beginning of and is now, as you said, you know, millions of people are part of, which is the kind of web videos, YouTube videos, now a lot of Tik Tok of a person talking to the camera, you know, for (UNINTEL) better word.

I guess that's it, right? (LAUGHTER) So here's what I find fascinating about it because if people have been listening to this podcast they probably know that I'm, you know, very obsessed right now with these questions of attention because I'm working on something on it.

Like, you know, cable news or local news, like, there's all this production element that is there to get people's attention, right? Like, the swooping, the sounds. And in some ways these are just, like, the visual elements of pre-conscious attention, like a siren or a casino design, right?

Like, these (LAUGH) things are like, well, there's bright lights. There's flashing lights. There's loud noises. Those things attract your attention. Those are what (LAUGH) commercial television does. Like, "Here are the sirens. Here's the fog machine.

"Come look, look, look, look." You know, what you do has none of that, but it works attentionally. And not only does it work attentionally as a one-off, it works attentionally as a genre. And that to me is what's so fascinating. Because I do think there's something, like, great about that. We can get into sorta the not great things, but, like, it's not the type of thing that if you pitched it as a show anyone would've ever, (LAUGH) like, done. No, seriously.

Hank Green: No, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chris Hayes: But it works. It really works.

Hank Green: And still, like, even now, like, there are lots of stuff, things now on Tik Tok that wouldn't work as YouTube channels. And because it's so good at discovery, because it's so good at surfacing talent, like, you suddenly see all these new genres of content that wouldn't even work on YouTube.

So, like, you see the way that YouTube shows wouldn't work on TV, now Tik Toks that wouldn't work on YouTube. It all has changed so quickly. I don't know how we got so, like, one, we started very early. And so the learning curve kinda took care of itself because, like, there wasn't a lotta competition in terms of quality content on YouTube.

There was good stuff (I'm not saying there wasn't good stuff), but, like, there's so much good stuff now. And so we got to learn along with the growth of the platform. And then also, like, you know, we only ask for four minutes, or eight minutes a week, so two videos if you wanna watch all of ''em, two four-minute videos.

And that's a little ask. What we really tried to do with that is be really respectful of people's time, which no offense, but cable news is not great at. (LAUGH) Like, I think that a lot of what it's good at is like, "How do we fill up all of these hours of the day?" And it's gotta be live because, like, who has time to produce content for that much time--

Chris Hayes: Well, it's also reverse engineered. No one made it. Ted Turner made 24-hour cable news. And then you have to make the stuff--

Hank Green: How do you fill that up?

Chris Hayes: Yeah, right. Like, it doesn't work in the opposite direction. I can't wake up and be like, "Yeah, I got about 17 minutes in me today." (LAUGHTER)

Hank Green: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And, you know, sometimes I wake up and feel like I got about 17 minutes in me today. But I gotta find the other 27.

Hank Green: That's a very nice thing about, like, these new formats is, like, one, sometimes they force you to be fast. So, like, Tik Tok was, you know, for a long time 15 seconds. And then it was a minute. And so, like, it forces you to capture someone and hold them and then let them go.

And YouTube is less like this now than it used to be, but it used to very much be like, "You have to hold onto them. There is Reddit right in the other tab. Their emails are right in the other tab. There is 1,000 videos on the side bar that are, like, extremely compelling and have very visually interesting thumbnails. You have to hold onto them"--

Chris Hayes: Right. They're beckoning right there, like, in the same browser.

Hank Green: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). In the window with you. How do you-- how do you teach chemistry in that environment, Chris? Like, this is a difficult (LAUGHTER) challenge.

Chris Hayes: Yes, it is. Well, so what did you figure out? Let me do this. There are people listening who probably haven't watched your videos, so take it (UNINTEL). Why don't you just explain, like, give an example of the kinda thing you doing after we take this quick break.

Chris Hayes: The videos that sort of started being the central thing for you, like, give an example to folks that are listening to this that haven't watched one.

Hank Green: I mean, most recent video, as of this recording, was about helium. It was inspired by me continuously being frustrated that people were wrong about helium. (LAUGH) It's just a very internet experience. People on the internet were wrong and I had to make a video about it, particularly the ways in which we have a helium shortage.

I think that it's easy to say like, "The problem is party balloons." The problem is not party balloons. The problem is production of helium, which is something that we're not good at and that we haven't prioritized for really weird economic reasons, which is cool.

It's a cool, interesting thing, but I get to talk about chemistry. And I get to talk about, like, physics. And I get to talk about economics. And I get to talk about all of it inside of the frame of, like, this thing that you mostly know from the party store.

Chris Hayes: That's a great example. And what you do really well, and have done really well from really early on, is, like, in a relatively short amount of time, like, unpack something and explain it in a way where I come away being like, "Huh. Cool," to the point where, like, maybe that's a thing I'll share, you know, with someone. Like, not just share on the internet but, like, might tell them at a bar. Like, "Do you know why we have, you know"--

Hank Green: Yeah. "Actually, did you know about the Federal Helium Reserve"--

Chris Hayes: "Actually," yeah. (LAUGHTER) How much were you iteratively getting better at that attentional thing from what you were learning from the metrics you were getting on the back side?

Hank Green: Yeah, I mean, so as an example, we had an early video where an early glitch of YouTube is that it picked the exact middle of your video to be the thumbnail of your video. So we call them thumbnails now and you can change them. But back then that wasn't a thing.

Like, you could concentrate and intentionally make the central frame of your video a particular image. Getting the click is always very important, holding the attention once you get the click. I mean, it's very much like headline writing and lead writing. Like, you have to get 'em in the first, you know, couple sentences or you lose 'em.

Chris Hayes: So you are on YouTube for a while and as YouTube went from this very kind of DIY, I mean, YouTube itself was never really a DIY platform, although I guess before Google bought it it was, you know, started up by some random folks. It's so funny, like, generationally it is the place where young people watch TV. Like, kids watch YouTube in the way that we used to watch TV.

Hank Green: And then they use Tik Tok the way that we used to use YouTube. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: Right. Right, exactly. I want you to talk, I wanna spend some time on Tik Tok now. Because again, this is a little bit of, like, explain this to Grandpa.

Hank Green: It's very weird.

Chris Hayes: I'm fascinated by Tik Tok. There's a lotta things I find really interesting about it. But you're someone who's, again, my age, you have managed to kind of, like, roll with the constant disruption that is (LAUGH) internet culture for the last 14 years in an incredibly impressive way.

Like, I've already started feeling like my parents about stuff, like, the way they must've felt about, you know, things that I was into. And it doesn't make me feel great. It makes me feel old. I don't really like it. And I think that feeling is the thing that makes you not learn more about it 'cause you're like, "I don't like that feeling, and so I don't try to figure it out," you know?

Hank Green: Right. Well, I had a huge advantage, which is that, like, kids know who I am because I taught them biology and chemistry. So I have this YouTube series called Crash Course. They are whole courses on a number of different things. We've covered economics and anatomy and physiology and literature.

But I did the biology and chemistry episodes. I hosted those ones. So they know who I am from that. And then it was like, "Oh, that dork who taught me chemistry is on Tik Tok. And that's funny." Just, like, the fact that I was there was humorous to them. And, like, so I got to lean into that. Like, "I am old and don't know what's going on"--

Chris Hayes: It's like Grandpa is break-dancing.

Hank Green: Yeah. (LAUGH) Yeah. And that was, like, the entire ethos of my Tik Tok for the first couple of months. And then after a while it was like, "Oh, man. I have two million followers and, like, it's clear that I'm good at this. And so I have to just be good at it now. I just have to, like, pretend that I'm a Tik Toker," which I guess I am.

Chris Hayes: Well, what's-- so what's different? Like, just explain what is Tik Tok. What are the constraints? What works? What doesn't? How is it different from YouTube?

Hank Green: I think that what we need to remember is that it turns out that it was true the whole time that the medium was the message and that whenever a new media arises it controls what genres get created on that platform. So, like, YouTube created YouTube videos, but it also created beauty videos.

It created gaming videos. It created vlogs. It created family vlogs. It created, like, prank channels. You know, like, these new mediums spawn so many different genres of content. The way that it does that is with these very subtle differences in it versus TV.

So the way that the algorithm prioritizes watch time or likes or views, the way that people interact with the content, the humans that are there, what they are into, the different sort of categories of people that are there. Like, what content is easiest to monetize? So you'll notice in the world that there's a lot more financial content than maybe it seems like there should be. It's because it's easy to monetize that stuff. There's a lotta beauty content because it's easy to monetize.

Chris Hayes: Why are those easy to monetize?

Hank Green: Financial content is easy to monetize because it's standing next to a waterfall of cash. (LAUGH) So, like, people in the financial industry make a lot of money because they're proximate to flows of money. And so converting people into, you know, a new well management or bank, like Robin Hood or Fidelity or whatever, like, that can gain a lot. Over the lifetime of that customer it can be extremely valuable. You're talkin' about five, six figures of value.

Chris Hayes: Wait, so you're saying in terms of from the creator's standpoint, you're saying the ads being sold against the content--

Hank Green: The ads, yes, the ads then--

Chris Hayes: Yeah, I just wanna--

Hank Green: --are sold against--

Chris Hayes: --be clear.

Hank Green: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: The incredible innovation, just for folk that don't follow this, right, is that, like, YouTube created a system where anyone can upload a video and then they're handling all of the ad back end. And the creator's getting a cut of that. And so you've got this situation in which, like, the world's most powerful advertising company is handling all the messy stuff that you probably couldn't do by yourself. But you can make stuff and if people like it and you start doing numbers then Google's entire infrastructure of ad sales can now be applied to the thing you're doing in your bedroom, and you can start to see the money from that.

Hank Green: Yeah. And that was sort of, like, how the money first came. But the primary source of most people's income is direct relationships with brands. So if I'm making financial content then I could work with Fidelity and be like, "This video's sponsored by Fidelity."

Chris Hayes: Gotcha.

Hank Green: And, like, that's much more valuable because I get to tell you that pitch rather than a pre-roll.

Chris Hayes: And you see that in the podcast space too obviously, where--

Hank Green: Host-read ads--

Chris Hayes: --the host-read ads, right.

Hank Green: Yeah. And then interestingly, the second-most common source of people's primary source of income in online content (this surprised me because it's relatively new and it's growing very fast), is their own company. So a beauty creator, like, launches a makeup palette.

Or a finance creator launches a course that you can take from them. Or, like, I launched a charity sock club subscription that is by far the thing that generates the most revenue of anything we do, though I don't make from it 'cause I don't need to make money from it.

Right now our sort of, like, main priority is to do what's interesting rather than what's profitable. And, like, that change is big and coming and bigger than I think a lotta people will expect. It's like the way that everything used to work is gonna change a lot. And so, like, I'd kinda rather buy tea from my, like, internet friend Zack, who has a tea company and also makes me laugh with his content than I would like to buy tea from whatever a tea company is. I couldn't come up with a name of one.

Chris Hayes: Yes, exactly. I was just about to say, "Than, like what?" (LAUGH) Well, and this is, I mean, that is--

Hank Green: Numi. There's one. Wow.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, Numi--

Hank Green: I got one--

Chris Hayes: Nice. (LAUGH) You got there. They have some, like, chamomile, yoga tea or something? I don't know. So this is such a profound point to me. Well, I like it because it fits with the thesis (LAUGH) I'm working on.

Hank Green: Well, I also didn't even answer your question about Tik Tok and what makes it different from YouTube. But, like, there are all these little differences.

Chris Hayes: So I wanna get to that. But that point, I just wanna stay on that point because that point's really important, which is, like, what you're saying there is about the attention economy and about attention being prior to other things, right?

So it's like if the financialization or the monetization of it is that, like, I know you. I have a relationship with you. You have my attention fundamentally, right? You have succeeded in capturing my attention. And then you're gonna sell me tea.

And I'm gonna buy tea because, like, I don't have really strong feelings about tea brands. (LAUGH) I mean, one way to think about the way products got produced in industrial capitalism is, like, you started making tea. And then you were like, "We have really good tea. How do we get people to know about our tea," right?

Hank Green: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Chris Hayes: And then you, from that, sort of reverse engineered from the product is the world of advertising, marketing, all the attentional things. And what you're just saying there, right is, like, a complete inverse of that, right? Like, the sort of attentional relationship comes first. And then the product or whatever it is comes after because the attentional thing is primary.

Hank Green: Yes. Yeah, and I think that's gonna be a big change in marketing in the future. And Chris, so I just did this charity sock subscription, where I was like the pitch is, "You're gonna have to buy socks. Why don't buy them from me and all the profit will go to charity instead of going to some stranger you don't know." And that person--

Chris Hayes: It's a good pitch--

Hank Green: --has enough money already. It's a good pitch--

Chris Hayes: That's a good pitch. It's a good pitch.

Hank Green: 45,000 people signed up for (LAUGH) a monthly sock subscription, which is the literal maximum we could manufacturer and ship. We hit our max.

Chris Hayes: You know what? I hope it's not the max 'cause I'm listening to something and I need socks. And, like--

Hank Green: I know--

Hank Green: But it's too late now. You missed out. We had a short--

Chris Hayes: I can't get in on the sock club?

Hank Green: We had a nine-day subscription window. We sold 45,000 socks a month--

Chris Hayes: Oh, my God. I should've bought crypto earlier. I should've gotten into the God-damn sock--

Hank Green: You should've--

Chris Hayes: --sock club--

Hank Green: --into your socks. Like, I don't have the time or the energy to do this, but I want so desperately to do that with everything. Like, look at this world right now. Like, we know how to make this stuff. Why do I need--

Chris Hayes: Well, that's--

Hank Green: --to buy--

Chris Hayes: --other thing--

Hank Green: --all these things from companies that are trying to tell me some brand story that's gonna make me feel warm and fuzzy. Just give the profit away.

Chris Hayes: Well, this is--

Hank Green: That's how I feel--

Chris Hayes: --the other thing. (LAUGH) Well, you know, this is the thesis of Naomi Klein's first big book, which is No Logo, is about the fact that like, "Look," one of the central insights of it is like, "Everything you're buying is just made in, like, the same 10, like, factories in Shenzhen anyway.

"Like, the only thing that's differentiating any of them is the brand, that the brand is where the value's stored." Because literally it's all just coming from the same place. Now, as you can probably attest to, it's like you could actually just go and, like, actually create a relationship with whoever to make and ship you stuff--

Hank Green: Yeah, it's not super easy. But, like--

Chris Hayes: No, no, no, no--

Hank Green: --especially right now, but, like, yeah, absolutely.

Chris Hayes: To get back to this question though of, like, so the medium as a message, which I think is interesting about like, okay, YouTube sort of selected certain things and then certain things became easier to monetize. So what are the differences in Tik Tok from YouTube?

Hank Green: So obviously there's a format difference. There's a sort of forced, you know, one-minute to now three-minute format. You can't go longer than that. You're in, like, vertical orientation rather than landscape. But, like, the real difference is the entire thing is algorithmic.

Chris Hayes: Yes, yes, yes.

Hank Green: I do not make choices about what I would like to see on a typical Tik Tok viewing session. Every time I swipe another video will come up. And it has been chosen by Tik Tok and its algorithm's preexisting knowledge of what people who have behaved like me in the past have enjoyed.

And then sometimes I will get a video on that page that has zero views and zero likes because they are constantly trying to give new pieces of content a little more life and, like, give an opportunity to surface things that literally is just some person, like, filming their chicken, you know?

And, like, that video isn't gonna go anywhere, but they don't know that until they get a couple pieces of data on it. So because it is constantly surfacing and because it is the only thing making the decision, rather than you, it is so good at discovery.

It is so good at giving people a chance, at giving content a chance, in a way that is just not possible on any other, like, platform that isn't that way. And that changes what you make really deeply. And it also changes the pressure on a creator really deeply.

'Cause it used to be (and this is kinda what killed Vine, and it's this way on YouTube), there are a lotta people who are really successful. They have a lotta resources. And they have preexisting audiences who have an affinity for them and it's just so hard once that upper tier of creator has been created to break through that umbrella and get a little bit of light, whereas on Tik Tok that's much easier.

And that both means that, like, the discovery is better and creators can find an audience when they otherwise couldn't, but it also means that the pressure on the people who already have an audience is intense. 'Cause it can always go away. There's always somebody waiting to take your place.

Chris Hayes: Wow. Well, that's profound. I mean, so there's two things about Tik Tok I find fascinating. So the algorithmic thing to me is what makes it really distinct, I mean, really different than anything else. You know, I think one of the things I've loved about the internet (I loved this about early Twitter, and it would be true about message boards), is just there's so many smart, clever, talented people out there--

Hank Green: Yeah. Yeah--

Chris Hayes: --in the world with funny observation. You know, on Twitter you would encounter just, like, this perfectly funny joke that just a person made who is a plumber or a nurse or an insurance executive or a lab tech or a whatever who doesn't work in comedy but is funny as hell. And there is so much talent. And this is a thing that I think Tik Tok really recreates well right now, of just finding some very random person--

Hank Green: Something beautiful--

Chris Hayes: --who--

Hank Green: --weird, yeah.

Chris Hayes: --yeah, and just is super funny or super witty or an incredibly talented singer, an amazing dancer. And, like, the beautiful patchwork quilt of, like, human talent is, like, a thing the internet is great at but then is constantly getting, like, buried (LAUGH) by all the other crap on top of it.

Hank Green: Oh, yeah.

Chris Hayes: And I do think that Tik Tok is really good at that, although then at the same time then you see the intensity of that memification means that, like, someone comes up with something original and funny and then it's like, "Oh, my God, now there's gonna be a billion of these, a billion (LAUGHTER) of these things."

Hank Green: Right. And then it will be gone in a month. And if you do something like that in two months people are gonna be like, "Wow."

Chris Hayes: Ooh, cringe.

Hank Green: "You've been under a rock? Cringe." Yeah, exactly. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: Well, so what does it even mean? I guess because it's algorithm, when you say (UNINTEL) the followers, this is the thing that I find sort of fascinating. So there's two sides of that. When you say because people aren't, like, going to people's pages so much, like, a typical session is you just scroll through the algorithm, it feeds you stuff. It also means that A, people can find themselves in the crosshairs of viralness in a way that's completely--

Hank Green: Yeah, just shocking viralness. And just like--

Chris Hayes: Shocking viralness, right?

Hank Green: And it's so funny because one of the things that I'm most proud of is kind of being an architect of community, and that includes pruning. You know, it includes saying like, "Who are the people who don't belong here?" And when someone doesn't belong there we say, "Go away." (LAUGH)

Like, you make it an uncomfortable place for people to be if they wanna be a jerk. And whereas when a post goes viral you have no control over that. Like, you are constantly getting inundated with people who are very happy to both be mean and also, like, thumbs up the mean comments.

And so not only do you see somebody who's been cruel to you, you also see the 24,000 people who agreed with the cruel person, which just feels not good. (LAUGH) And it can come from nowhere, and it can come without expectation. And I think humans are very, very, very, very malleable. Like, we're very good at that. Like, we can handle a vast variety of circumstances.

Chris Hayes: It's our real super power. We acclimate.

Hank Green: Yeah. And so I think that for the most part, like, kids are gonna be okay. You know, it's easy to think like, "If this happened to me it would be an absolute just, like, world-changing, I will never recover from this." But because it's more typical now and because maybe you probably woulda been okay I think that for the most part the kids are gonna be all right.

As a father, it's very worrying to me. I think that it's very hard to be involved in these parts of our kids' lives because they are so different from our own experiences. And also, like, in order to actually get a feel for how Tik Tok works it takes a lotta time. You know, it's fun. It's, like, snack food time. It's not, like, work. But, you know, it takes a lotta time. And also the Tik Tok that you're gonna get is gonna be very different from your kids' Tik Tok because that's the--

Chris Hayes: Well, that's--

Hank Green: --whole point--

Chris Hayes: --the other part--

Hank Green: --of Tik Tok--

Chris Hayes: --part of it, yeah. It feels like obviously it's just an iterative sort of change to what other things were, but it does feel like something very new, frankly because of that algorithmic aspect of it. And I think the algorithmic aspect also solves a problem that increasingly is the problem that I think consumers of content have, which is like, "What do I watch?"

And I feel completely overwhelmed by that all the time. Like, I end up just watching whatever basketball game is on because it's, like, there's no choice there. Or I'll just futz around and be like, "Oh, I'll see this team. I watch League Pass, you know."

But taking that away has proven to be this incredible, brilliant innovation (LAUGH) I think. And in some ways so many things go back to the future, like sponsored content or, you know, reading the ads yourself, which is what TV used to look like in the 1950s, you know, like, the host would walk over to the set to do the-- and now, like, that's what networks did. Networks didn't give you a choice. (LAUGH) Like, network told you what you wanted to watch. And they had an algorithm that just looped one video after another. It was called the show schedule of what the network was. (LAUGH)

Hank Green: Yeah, I mean, I sometimes like to remind people that it's not like we didn't have systems of recommendation before. It's just that they were people. And they were just as flawed as the algorithms are. And they're flawed in definitely different ways.

Chris Hayes: I wanna ask you a few listener questions 'cause you have obviously a huge following, community. People were excited about this crossover episode. So Casey Brazille from Illinois asks, "Will there ever be a competitor that forces YouTube to be a better collaborator with its creators?"

Hank Green: Yeah. I think that we are seeing the opposite of that. So Tik Tok is a demonstrably worse platform for creators than YouTube is. And in fact, like, both YouTube and Instagram are competing with Tik Tok, not by having a better product, they pretty much have a slightly inferior identical product, but by paying creators more.

Instagram has just announced a fund that is paying creators way more than Tik Tok does. YouTube is I think probably gonna do the same thing. And the Tik Tok creator fund is garbage. It's garbage. It's so bad. Like, so I love your question and I wish that I could give you great news.

But no, the way that YouTube shares revenue is every dollar that YouTube makes an advertisement that runs on my video I get 55 cents of that. And so that is, like, a percentage. So however much, like, creators get a piece. On Tik Tok, however much creators make, you get a piece of a set amount of money. So they have a certain amount of money that they give away every day. And it's the same amount of money every day. So if there's more views on the platform, the amount you make per view goes down, though they--

Chris Hayes: Oh--

Hank Green: --are making more.

Chris Hayes: Oh, my gosh. They just artificially zero sum it.

Hank Green: Yeah. They've said like, "We're gonna give a billion dollars away this year," and that sounds really good because they were giving away zero dollars, so I guess it's better than that. And then if the platform grows Tik Tok makes more and creators make the same or make less because there's more of us getting views, which just makes me so mad. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: This is another thing that we've seen happen in previous institutional economic arrangements, which is, like, there's no collective, you know, there's the Writers Guild in Hollywood. You know, there's all kinds of structures that are created through the years to stop creators in different iterations, in different industries, from absolutely having their faces ripped off by completely predatory enterprises time and time again. And in the absence of those countervailing forces that's what you get. You get perdition.

Hank Green: Right. Right. And it's super easy to do in this situation because one, most of the people doing this professionally are in their teens and twenties. And so they don't know what the right amount to get paid is, you know, how much (UNINTEL). There's always somebody who wants to take your place.

If you wanna say, "I'm not gonna work on this platform anymore," it's like, "All right. Well, other funny people exist." And then-- and also the other reason that it isn't, you know, sort of talked about that much is people make money other ways. Like, there are other better ways to make money than these creator funds, like doing your own brand deals, selling your own products.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Hank Green: And so it's like, "Hey, if you can create a makeup palette and make $200,000 a year what do you care if we send you 20 grand extra?"

Chris Hayes: Right. Right. That's a really good point. Jake Conner, from Georgia, asks, "What subscription will you start next that ends a terrible malignant of the human condition?" (LAUGHTER)

Hank Green: Yeah. So the money we were raising from the sock club is going to build a hospital for pregnant women in Sierra Leone and their children, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Something like one in five women in Sierra Leon can expect to die in childbirth, which is just, like, unacceptable.

So the numbers have gotten better and are getting better. And we're working with Partners in Health to raise money for that. And that's what the sock club kind of was, is, like, we needed to raise $25 million for this hospital and we were like, "How the heck (LAUGH) are we gonna do it?"

And the sock club has really helped with that. So I think that, like, I would love to do more stuff like that. We're looking into coffee right now because, you know, making great coffee isn't that hard anymore. Still harder than makin' a great sock, honestly. And there's a lot more that sort of goes into the supply chain of coffee. But yeah, we're lookin' at that because I think people need coffee, man. I do. That's for sure.

Chris Hayes: Dude, I gotta get on the ground floor of (LAUGHTER) this coffee situation and not miss out like the sock situation, which is just--

Hank Green: That's right--

Chris Hayes: --gonna really, it's gonna haunt me.

Hank Green: I appreciate that question though because it is quickly becoming the thing that I am sort of most interested in (LAUGH) is how do you sell stuff for charity.

Chris Hayes: That's a brilliant thing to be interested in. All right. I'm rushing here only because I wanna take the listener behind the fourth wall. I have had, like, the most disastrous tech day ever. I've had one of those days where literally every single piece of tech I depend on has failed me at some point today. And it's driving me insane. And right now I have 10% left on a laptop that Apple designed to only have one USB port, (LAUGHTER) which is the port that I have the MixPre plugged into and not my battery--

Hank Green: The charger--

Chris Hayes: --charger.

Hank Green: That is wild. It's like an iPad--

Chris Hayes: Thank you--

Hank Green: --at that point. It's got one port? What's happening--

Chris Hayes: Yeah. Anyway. All right. So I'm gonna ask the last question, which comes from Dan B. from California, which is a fun one. "Why can't we decide if a virus, most viruses, are living organisms or not? What the hell?" (LAUGH)

Hank Green: I mean, this is a pet peeve of mine. But I think that we teach what life is exactly wrong in schools. Do you remember being taught what life is in a school? (SIGH)

Chris Hayes: Very, very vaguely, yes.

Hank Green: It's taught as a list of criteria.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, like, some sort of respiratory thing, you know--

Hank Green: Yeah--

Chris Hayes: --know, some kinda--

Hank Green: They have to replicate. They have to, like, respond to stimulus, like, just a list of criteria, which I think it's basically trying to carve things out and be like, "Well, fire does this so fire's not alive. So let's make sure that we have a category that eliminates fire from the life thing."

I'm a chemist by, like, original training. Like, that's what I used to do for a living. And it's so clear to me that (LAUGH) there is a very clear chemical definition of life, which is just any system that maintains itself far away from chemical equilibria, like, that keeps itself there, like, permanently.

There is a chemical pressure to keep itself away from chemical equilibria. And when we die, when you and I die (and when individual cells of ours die and fall off of our body or we excrete them), they return to chemical equilibria because they are not alive anymore.

Like, that's just, like, it requires an understanding of what chemical equilibria is, which is probably why it's not taught to fifth graders, but the super cool reality of that definition is it's a actual definition. You can look at a virus and be like, "Is it maintaining itself far from chemical equilibrium?" And yes, it is. It is relying on other living systems to do that, but, like--

Chris Hayes: Right. But it's doing it--

Hank Green: --I don't know, so am I. Like, I eat bread, (LAUGH) you know, like, I also parasitize organisms in a way, where the wheat doesn't survive its interaction with me.

Chris Hayes: I wanna say that it's been so great to have you on. I feel like I know you because I've been watching you for a very long time and listening to things you've had to say for a very long time. And I've just really enjoyed getting a chance to talk to you. Were (LAUGH) my G.D. laptop not--

Hank Green: Not gonna run--

Chris Hayes: --like--

Hank Green: --out of batteries--

Chris Hayes: --a ticking time bomb.

Hank Green: Let's just go until it goes.

Chris Hayes: No, that's seriously stressing me out.

Hank Green: It's a new podcast format. (LAUGH)

Chris Hayes: Right now the little, like, low battery thing just came up and I can feel my entire nervous system, like, straining under the anxiety of it running out, as if there will be some terrible thing that will happen (SLUR). All that will happen is that this will get cut off. But I feel like some deep existential dread about it.

Hank Green: Yeah. You just had cortisol released into your body--

Chris Hayes: Exactly (LAUGH)--

Hank Green: And you can feel it in your armpits. (MUSIC)

Chris Hayes: Low battery. Hank Green, vlogger, creator of Vlog Brothers, entrepreneur, philanthropist now I guess or a sort of entrepreneurial philanthropist podcaster, author of books including A Beautiful (SIC) Foolish Endeavor, science fiction novel, entrepreneur. You can find him on YouTube and Tik Tok. Hank, that was awesome. Thank you.

Hank Green: Yeah, thank you so much.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Hank Green, who stuck with us through tremendous amounts of technical difficulties, (LAUGH) which really drove me insane. You can always send us your feedback about your technical difficulties or the podcast. Tweet us with the hashtag WITHpod, email

We'd love to hear your feedback. We got Tiffany Champion reading your stuff. Our new producer, Doni Holloway, reads that email list too. So we wanna hear from you for sure. Also I should say that we ran a little bit of a contest, as it were, I don't know if you'd really call it a contest.

But, you know, everyone's been doing their Spotify wraps, which is the end of the year when Spotify says, you know, this is the thing that you've listened to the most and lotta people listen to our podcast on Spotify. And so I asked people to, if their podcast was Why Is This Happening? we would give a shout-out to the person most.

And Asher Noble (LAUGH) at AsherNoble23 with an old-school emoticon, not the new ones but, like, the actual typed out one, a colon and a slash, meaning like, "I don't know," he wins. He listened to 45 episodes for a total of 2,495 minutes.

So well done, Asher Noble. We truly love to see it. Why Is This Happening? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to