With over 14 million subscribers across four channels, Vsauce is one of the biggest successes to come out of YouTube. But few people know the story behind the man who launched that empire.
“I don’t want to just create things that are me reading a Wikipedia page,” says Michael Stevens, reflecting on why he seeks to answer as many of the internet’s bizarre questions as he can. “I want them to be a journey – a logic train that makes you go ‘oh wow, where are we going today?’ – and I think that’s what makes them unique.”
Michael believes that people can be dismissive of questions that seem difficult, and even though some may really be impossible to answer, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. He uses ‘How much does a shadow weigh?’ as an example.
“It’s easy to dismiss it by saying a shadow isn’t a physical thing that has mass,” he acknowledges. “But instead you can say, well, shadows obviously aren’t physical things but light has momentum and pushes things,” he explains. “So, if you’re in a shadow, you would weigh less than if light was striking your body. So let’s talk about shadows.”
The way Michael relays this information so quickly is a perfect example of the typical journey each Vsauce video takes viewers on, and how easily he creates narratives that flow from one topic to another. “You answer the question,” he says, “but then you go and visit a lot of other really fun things while accidentally teaching lots of stuff about optics, shadows, momentum, and physics.”
While Vsauce is what Michael is most known for today, it’s not where he began. In fact, his relationship with online video began long before YouTube was the most dominant video sharing platform. “Back then, YouTube was really small. I mean, we’re talking about 2007,” he says.
“Funny or Die was around. There was iFilm, Yahoo, and College Humor. There were all these places where you could upload videos, and I uploaded everywhere.”
At the time, Michael was in college studying for a degree in Psychology, but his passion laid in acting and performance. “I wasn’t doing Vsauce then, so nobody thought of me as the guy that could research and synthesise his script well,” he says. “I really saw myself as the funny guy who had all the jokes back then.”
“This guy who was married to Brooke Shields had just written that he enjoyed this silly video I made so much that he almost respected it…”
He first realised there was something for him in online video when he encountered mash-up videos. “There were so few things on YouTube at that point that it blew people’s minds that you could re-edit a movie trailer.”
This led him to experiment with video-editing software to create his own, eventually gaining notoriety with his CamPain2008 channel which satirised the 2008 US Presidential Election. “I could make a mash-up of a politician and some rap music that would make some funny comment about the politician,” he recalls, “and rather than just make my friends laugh it would make everyone on the internet who found it laugh.
“It wasn’t just a joke between you and your college dorm buddies anymore, it was for the world.”
There was one defining moment for Michael that set his career path in online video in motion. Chris Henchy, one of the initial founders of Funny or Die, noticed Michael’s mash-up of George W Bush and Karl Rove and featured it. “He wrote a little blurb about my video and said that he judged his friendship with other people based on their reaction to it,” he remembers.
“If you watch it today it’s incredibly crude. In my defence, I was just learning how to edit, and videos at that time were just standard definition and low-quality.
“This guy who was married to Brooke Shields had just written that he enjoyed this silly video I made so much that he almost respected it,” he continues. “That’s when I knew that I wanted to do this more and more.”
From that moment on, Michael set out to make as many videos as he could, and notify the editors of websites such as CollegeHumor and Funny or Die when he uploaded. This eventually led to him receiving a message from Ben Relles, the creator of Barely Political, asking him if he wanted to collaborate. “It was like Jay-Z emailing to say ‘I like your raps, wanna be on my album?’,” he affirms.
His relationship with Barely Political grew. Upon graduating college, Michael was hired by NextNewNetworks – who owned Barely Political – allowing him to move to New York to start a career that was worlds away from his degree.
“I was going to graduate school, do psychological research projects,” he says. “And on the side I would make some videos and I could tell people, ‘Hey you know that video everyone’s watching? I made that’.
“They’d go, ‘Really, you made that?’, and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m the guy behind Hillary Clinton Farts’.”
NextNewNetworks was a super distribution company that had creators on staff, as well as a sales team that would find sponsors for the content they created, and they would upload their videos to every online video platform. “I wasn’t necessarily hired because ‘oh my gosh, you’re so funny and creative’,” he says, “I got the job because I knew how to edit [and] how to light a scene, and knew all this stuff about video production.”
“We had to write scripts and edit videos to make sure the middle frame was cool…”
When NextNewNetworks was acquired by Google in 2011, Michael found himself part of The Next Lab, a leg of YouTube that devised strategies for content creators to help them build their fan bases. “The Next Lab; as in laboratory, because we were literally in the trenches,” he explains.
“We were mixing the chemicals, going, ‘What if the thumbnail was blue?’, ‘What if the video was really long?’, ‘Do comments affect if you get on the front page?’, ‘What’s more important: likes, favourites, or comments?’,” recalls Michael.
“To this day no one knows how the YouTube algorithm works except, like, two people, but in those early days, all we did was try and hack the whole thing.”
One of the many achievements of the Next Lab team was figuring out the exact frame that generated the thumbnail for the video – in the days before you could upload your own. “We had to write scripts and edit videos to make sure the middle frame was cool,” he says. “We were really proud of all these sort of techniques we figured out.”
Another highlight for Michael was the success of his annotation game Chris Brown Punchout, where viewers could punch Chris Brown by clicking an annotation of a boxing glove at the correct time to get to the next video. “It was something like 50 videos and they all had to be annotated individually,” he remembers. “I think it got like 30 million views in the first day.”
“You watch them now and it looks like a kid made it. Not even a kid, but a kid who can’t make good videos. But at the time it was like, ‘Whoa, this is interactive, how did they do this?’.”
During this period, Vsauce was in its formative years. Launching in 2010, Michael was to manage the channel with other content creators featured in various series – but the initial concept wasn’t based in education. “The original idea was video game comedy,” he says.
The project wasn’t even going to be called Vsauce – that name was picked from a fake website name generator. “The name that was most likely to happen was Video Game Nation, because the name tells you exactly what it is,” recalls Michael. “It just sounds like a bunch of adults came up with that name.
“I liked Vsauce because the V could stand for video games or videos, or whatever. It could easily become an educational network. Imagine that! If the channel had been called Video Game Nation.” Another possible name was LOL Bowl, “like a bowl full of laughing out loud,” he says.
Michael’s only involvement in the early Vsauce content was as the voice-over for IMG, a series dedicated to the funniest images on the internet. It wasn’t until he created Vsauce2, a channel where the content wasn’t video game-related, that his empire began to take the form we know today.
Until recently, Michael wasn’t interested in being in front of the camera (with the exception of appearances as the Bearded Nun in some of the Barely Political videos). It was the success of Vsauce2 and IMG that eventually thrusted him into the limelight.
“I was not an on-camera guy,” he says. “Like I said, I didn’t get the job [with Barely Political] out of college because I was so brilliant. I got the job because I was willing to do the difficult work.
“You’re not going to start off by being the president of the Comedy Channel, you’re going to have to be the person paying your dues, and then one day they’ll say ‘Hey, do you want to write one of these?’”
Realising how much he enjoyed making educational explanation videos, Michael went about restructuring Vsauce. By the start of 2011, the main channel was the hub for these types of videos. The second channel was hosted by Kevin Lieber and focused on unusual knowledge and technology. Then Vsauce3 was launched, with Jake Roper at the helm, as a place to answer curiosities relating to video games and fictional worlds.
“It wasn’t overnight,” says Michael. “It was very much this process of evolving. And when you look at the old videos you can say, ‘wow, this channel really has changed over time’.”
“Moving to a different country is one of those experiences where you think, ‘I have a lot to learn and I hope I don’t mess up’”
It took Vsauce three years to reach one million subscribers, and in 2012 things started to excel. “I think it was the month where I did What Color Is A Mirror? that brought new attention to the fact that I was doing these wacky explanation videos,” he says. “The pressure was on to keep that on now that I knew what the brand was.”
By September of that year, Michael was collaborating with one of his childhood heroes Bill Nye, the host of the Disney/PBS children’s science show Bill Nye the Science Guy. “He travels with a lot of bow ties,” reveals Michael.
“I didn’t have an appointment to meet with him or anything. I just politely asked him if he could film a thing on my channel,” he says. “He had actually seen a couple of my videos, so he was willing to give me some of his time.
“I told him that he was a big part of my childhood and he was like ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s make a thing’. I think he probably hears that a lot because he really was so influential to a lot of kids.”
Another significant moment also happened during 2012; a role opened up at Google in London and Michael got the job. “It was a new challenge,” he says. “I always liked being a tiny fish in a big pond. The freshman in college. When everyone was just so much smarter and more experienced than me.
“Moving to a different country is one of those experiences where you think, ‘I have a lot to learn and I hope I don’t mess up’.”
“My experiences can help creators in different ways than someone who’s just working as a peer YouTube employee only.”
In his role as Content Strategist, Michael meets with various types of creators to help them figure out a way to make effective content on YouTube. He shares his knowledge of the platform as well as key skills and strategies. At first, striking the balance between his career with YouTube and being on YouTube was tricky. But through merging the two worlds together, Michael has found that they benefit each other.
“I’m getting to act completely independently but I’m tied to YouTube enough that I can help others learn what it’s actually like to be using the platform,” he explains. “My experiences can help creators in different ways than someone who’s just working as a peer YouTube employee only.
“I’m not, like, stuck in my own world constantly. I can go and have lunch with people who don’t even think about making videos. And I’m talking to people that aren’t just YouTube employees, they’re Google employees. They’re working on Chrome, Android or other things Google does.
“I really respect and treasure all my colleagues,” he continues, “because they’re all super smart and they all do very different things.”
Today, depending on the topic and how much he has to learn, one of Michael’s videos could take him two weeks to prepare. “I research until I feel like I have enough cool moments that will make people go, ‘wow, I want to tweet about that’,” he explains. Following this he gets writing, with filming taking a few hours, and editing lasting several days.
Michael’s come a long way since his early mash-up days. “When you watch television shows from 2007 they don’t look too different from the shows on today,” he observes. “But YouTube videos look really different because technology was so different.”
With YouTube turning ten last month, we ask Michael what one video he believes sums up the platform at its finest.
He finds it difficult to answer at first, mentioning the massive spectrum of content hosted on YouTube (“from vlogs, to narrative content, to reporting and news, to video games and so on… what could possible wrap it all up?”), but eventually settles for a video quite personal to him. “There’s a video made by these two girls that did a lip sync dub to a Pixies song, the song Hey,” he says.
“I still can’t figure out what it was about that which blew my mind so much. It had millions of views – which at the time was a lot. I was like ‘wawh, there are a lot of eyeballs on this,’ and on the internet!
“It’s not like a bad video or anything either. It’s really fun,” he adds. “It was a brand new kind of entertainment that had never existed before in such a public way. So that, and some of the mash-ups I watched, are really what inspired me to get involved.”
“The only thing you need to do is what you want to do… I think that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and there are exceptions to every single rule.”
We also ask him what changes he would make if he was CEO of YouTube for a day. “I would make playlists a thing that you could publish to your subscribers. But a certain kind of playlist. A curated playlist of videos you want to shout out,” says Michael.
“I’ve always struggled to promote that kind of thing because I have to make a regular video telling people to go watch the playlist. And I think it would allow even more people to become creators. Because you might not want to be on camera, or know how to use that software, but you do know what you like and have great taste.
“I’d like to see that person putting together ‘Short Films for a Rainy Day: The Playlist’,” he adds.
Responses like that demonstrate Michael’s experience working on both sides: as a YouTube employee and as a YouTube creator. In particular, years spent trying to hack the algorithm, as part of The Next Lab team, have meant Michael is full of nuggets of YouTube knowledge.
But despite his bank of helpful tips, tricks and rules, he believes one thing is more important than anything else: authenticity. “If you create YouTube videos because you really want to tell the world something – no matter how niche it is or unique it might sound – YouTube is on the internet, so you can find millions of people across the world that will love it.
“The only thing you need to do is what you want to do,” he says, passionately. “I think that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and there are exceptions to every single rule [in the YouTube Playbook].”
Michael finds the idea of people wanting to create YouTube content for the sake of being YouTubers a sad reality of this growing industry. “You have to ask yourself what you really want,” he says. “Do you want this to be a way to express yourself creatively because you have some other job? Perfect. Do you want this to become a career? Well, then it’s going to be work, and there’s a reason it’s called work and not fun time.
“If you want to use YouTube to hone a certain craft and then you want to start getting your tentacles out everywhere… well that’s one thing to worry about. Or if you want to use YouTube to sell your albums, that’s a different thing too. They all require different techniques.”
Michael believes that the main way to become a better YouTuber is simply through doing it. “The more you make, the more you improve,” he says. “So just make a bunch of terrible stuff for months, and all of a sudden you won’t make terrible stuff.”
Overall, he’s positive for the future of the online video, and doesn’t think that content creators have a limited shelf-life. “The career of a YouTuber keeps evolving and changing. New things come up,” he affirms. “I think short film will be approached in cooler ways on YouTube and audiences will start to get it more. I also think we’ll see podcasts becoming more visual.”
“I’ve quoted Jenna Marbles for a talk about psychology. I mean, when would she have ever been on my radar if it wasn’t for this shared platform”
Despite speculation, he also doesn’t see platforms like Vessel – a new paid streaming service – as a threat to YouTube. In fact he sees it a necessity for the new industry. “YouTube is where anyone can put something up, so the next brilliant thing will probably always be there,” he says.
“Creators should be supported,” he continues. “They are providing a service that is really important to our wellbeing and our experience on this planet. They really should be paid and compensated in a way that allows them to keep doing that.”
When we suggest that Michael, despite his staggering success, might still be on the outskirts of the ‘YouTube community’, he says he identifies with the education sphere, and is keen to emphasise the platform’s diversity. “I think it’s important to point out how many different communities there are on YouTube,” he says. “We do, however, share a lot of things in common that normally we wouldn’t.
“Normally science communicators wouldn’t be working with vloggers, because they would just be in different worlds. But I’ve quoted Jenna Marbles for a talk about psychology. I mean, when would she have ever been on my radar if it wasn’t for this shared platform?”
“We’re all reaching the same platform, we are all using similar social media,” Michael concludes. “The technology has united us.”
Photos by Rebecca Need-Menear.
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