As he celebrates ten years on YouTube, Tom “TomSka” Ridgewell talks to TenEighty about success on YouTube, being a privileged ally, and what it’s like to be rejected by Gleam.
To say Tom “TomSka” Ridgewell is outspoken is, well, an understatement. “At times I can be very self-righteous,” he admits. “And nobody wants to be friends with the guy that likes to call people out, the guy who makes a habit of being a very loud and dangerous person.”
One of his reasons for being so vocal? Because he’s a self-aware cis white male: “I have power, I have a voice. Unfortunately, you need privileged allies to make a difference,” he explains. “My audience is made up of people like me, so they’re the ones who need it most.
“When you watch someone like Laci Green, you’ll receive her brand,” he adds. “The same if you watch a black activist or trans vlogger… They’re preaching to a choir; their audience already agrees with them.
“So it’s important for me to challenge my audience; they maybe didn’t come to me for that kind of thing. People rarely choose education in videos, so sometimes you have to be like: ‘Surprise, motherfucker!’”
But Tom also acknowledges that he’s still a cis white male, so it’s important to use his platform to direct his audience to the ‘experts’ – those who have real-life experiences with, or education of, particular social issues.
That’s not to say Tom doesn’t have his own experiences to draw from. The death of his friend and collaborator Edd Gould in 2012 – who was arguably one reason Tom joined YouTube in 2006 – inevitably hit him hard. Nevertheless, Tom kept making videos, as well as continuing Edd’s legacy with the Eddsworld team, raising money for cancer charities in the process.
And Tom’s documentation of his struggle with depression and weight loss undoubtedly helps viewers who are trying to cope with similar issues.
But Tom wasn’t always interested in doing the right thing. “I grew up being unchallenged on my views. When I started pissing off people, I kept pushing because I wanted a fight,” he says. “Yes, it was lame and I could have just read a book but [those fights were] how I came to understand things. I made a lot of mistakes.
“My biggest problem was that I was being hypocritical. In 2014, I was one way and now I’m calling out other people for being that same way. When I see something I hate, instead of making it worse, now I just want to fix it.”
“I grew up being unchallenged on my views. I made a lot of mistakes”
His comedy sketches don’t shy away from sensitive, potentially offensive subjects, but he declares that he hasn’t had “a scandalous moment in two years”.
“I’m fine with being offensive – even people who are very sensitive are fine with being offensive. As long as you’re not being harmful, no one gives a shit. You can make a joke about black people as long as they’re part of the joke and the joke’s not just ‘they’re black’,” he maintains.
“I did a video about racially driven police and profiling,” he says, of Stripper Cop. “People were like ‘Oh, Tumblr is going to lose their shit about this!’ and it’s like ‘No, they aren’t, because the joke isn’t LOL HE’S BLACK’. It’s a joke about her being racist. That’s the joke.
“Does the joke make an already-repressed minority look bad, or does it just work with the theme to create comedy?” he continues. “Does it punch up or does it punch down? As long as you’re not making things worse for people who already have it bad, you’re probably okay.”
Although a lot of what Tom currently does is sketch comedy, he wants to focus on vlogging at the moment. His Last Week series on his second channel is the result of that. “I’ve been trying to be a normal YouTuber. I need to build up that connection with my audience,” he says. “I recently had a lull on my main channel. And because my videos come out so infrequently, they’re being judged quite harshly.
“People think ‘Oh, I’ve waited a month for this, it better be fucking amazing!’, then freak out [when it doesn’t quite reach that standard],” he adds.
“Does the joke punch up or down? As long as you’re not making things worse for people who already have it bad, you’re probably okay”
Holding onto any YouTube audience is difficult, he says. “Only about 8% of my audience seemingly watch the video and I rely on that 8% to share it. That’s the reason it’s unheard of for a YouTuber with so many subscribers to get [an equal amount of] views.
“It’s a thankless task to try and hold on to them. It’s like a sieve – they’re going to leave, so you may as well try to appeal to a demographic that’s a rolling audience,” he states. “But that means you end up with a lot of dead subscribers.” [Editor’s note: Tom means inactive subscribers, not actually dead. Well, maybe some of them could be…]
Tom does care what his viewers think, even if their average age of 15 leads to hate comments because, as he says, “15-year-olds are mean”.
“I highly value the opinion of [teenagers],” he states. “They’re successfully gauging the strengths and weaknesses of my work.”
And Tom keeps his integrity relatively intact by making videos that he would have wanted to watch when he was 15. “I craft the story I want to tell in a manner that’ll give it maximum effect on YouTube. There is a little bit of science to it, but it’s very difficult to stay as relevant as I have. You’ve got to throw your audience a bone – you can’t just go ‘full integrity’, or your audience will leave. I ask myself not only what I would have enjoyed at 15, but also what would I have needed to see,” he says. “It’s all quite Messiah complex, but I have to do it.”
As for the YouTube community and other creators, Tom sees what others’ success can do for him. “The success of one YouTuber is a good thing for others. For example, PewDiePie has 45 million subscribers. Perhaps 10 million of those only subscribe to him,” he reveals. “They’re potential people who could subscribe to you. He hasn’t stolen your subscribers. He’s made 10 million people create accounts. If you have crossover subscribers with him, there’s a good chance you got them and that they only exist because of him.
“It’s kinda the same with popular people who do animation. That’s one of the reasons I work with other animators and voice actors because people click through.”
Tom is keen to credit the people he works with fairly, although he acknowledges that he underpaid animators in the past. “When you’re a smaller YouTuber, it’s really easy to be like ‘Hey, guys, help me out’. But when you’re bigger, everyone knows you’ve got the money. And if you’re underpaying people they’re not going to do their best work.
“I have to pay people at their higher rates, which is fine. But the content on my channel costs between £1,000 to £1,500 per minute in total. So, for a two-minute sketch, you’re looking at up to £2,000 for the location, crew, etc,” he explains.
“A lot of the stuff I make is just to keep my channel going and to keep it active – but I lose money on lots of it. It doesn’t help my channel. I have videos I made four years ago that still need to reach 10 million views to profit. That’ll never happen!”
Tom’s recent video on YouTube Money – the first in its series, he says – further explains how YouTubers make cash from ad revenue, although he asserts that everyone is different, and he can only speak from his own experiences.
As well as paying people fairly, Tom is keen to give those he works with the correct exposure. “Every single person is listed [in the description of a video they’ve worked on]. A potential employer might read it, and that’s why it’s worth doing.”
Tom uses this method himself to find potential collaborators, but finds it “so infuriating” if a description on a video he likes doesn’t have that information.
Collaborations are a big part of what Tom does, and he’s worked with a number of popular YouTubers, including Hazel Hayes, Jack and Dean, Chris Kendall and, recently, Dan Howell. Tom was reticent about working with Dan, telling us: “I wanted to work with him, but I felt so seedy about it. I knew it would be a success on my channel… But then I started doubting whether I was doing it because I actually wanted to work with Dan, or because it would be good for my channel.” The very fact Tom had this self-doubt suggests it’s the former!
Tom started making videos as a teenager, before he went to the University of Lincoln, which meant that it “turned into a bit of a YouTube university, much to their upset,” he explains. “They were all like ‘Sciences! We do Sciences!’. Then I did a viral video about them and they had an applications spike – specifically in media. A lot of YouTubers came out of there, such as Jack and Dean.”
Just because they went to the same university doesn’t mean Tom inherently agrees with Jack’s recent commentary on the lack of quality content on YouTube. “It’s not that there’s less good stuff, it’s just hard to find,” he explains. “You’re not looking hard enough, that’s the problem! The site has gone from a small number of accounts to millions. The good ones are harder to find because they’re in a vat of content creators.
“It’s a problem with the platform. YouTube is a business first, so it’s not its duty to provide handouts or share what people want; they’ve got to grow.
“YouTube doesn’t have to care about the community. It’s our job as members of that community to share the love. But YouTube as a platform has made that harder by removing things like video responses.” Tom goes on to explain how in the past, if he favourited a video, more than 10,000 of his viewers would go and subscribe to that creator. But that’s no longer possible with the current system.
And the algorithm is also an issue. “You don’t have time in an end card to say ‘Check out this person!’, because you’ve got three seconds to convince people to stay on your channel. It’s no longer in your interest to send people elsewhere. Algorithmically, you’ll be demoted if you do that. YouTube wants people to go and watch your other videos, you’re rewarded [financially] for watch time, not subscribers or video views. For certain YouTubers, it’s harder to achieve that.”
While some think that mainstream media often looks to YouTube for ideas to copy (see AkilahObviously’s claims that BuzzFeed Video is stealing YouTubers’ ideas), Tom thinks that in a lot of cases, it’s the other way around. “YouTube is conforming much more to traditional standards. Most of the things that are taking over are traditional media things,” he says. “You’ve got reality TV, that’s daily vloggers. Gaming channels where you’d usually have sport. The kind of shows that are on in the daytime, like home stuff and fashion: that’s beauty and lifestyle vlogs.
“There’s a reason traditional media was so successful!” he laughs.
We dare to ask what Tom thinks about Gleam. “They’re good for YouTube as a whole,” he says. “The fact that the Daily Mail will run a story about Zoella shows [the world] that YouTube is a real thing, it’s something to be taken seriously. Not like an arthouse film, but it’s a big thing and there’s money here.”
And would Tom want to be a part of that shiny world? “I was rejected from Gleam, actually,” he reveals. “They wouldn’t have me! They’re the Disney kids of YouTube – I asked if they wanted to diversify their brand a bit, I could’ve been a member of their family!”
But even if Gleam wouldn’t have him, Tom is undeniably a part of the wider YouTube community, even if he can see the behemoth for what it is, flaws and all. “The ‘YouTube community’ is indistinguishable from a high-school canteen. [There are] cliques, feuds, gossip and an embarrassing amount of ill-advised sexual congress, but I doubt that will ever change,” he says. “My dream for the future is that one day we’ll all be who we want to be in life; when that happens I hope we can be sincerely happy for one another.
“Except the rapists. Fuck those guys.”
Want more from TomSka?
Check out these exclusive photosets:
- TomSka TenEighty July 2016 Cover
- TomSka TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 01
- TomSka TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 02
Alternatively, read some of our previous TenEighty interviews:
- Lex Croucher: Social Justice Worrier
- Suli Breaks: Not A Role Model
- Hazel Hayes: Kill Your Darlings
- Mawaan Rizwan: Send In The Clown