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The video essay boom

Hour-long YouTube videos are thriving in the TikTok era. Their popularity reflects our desire for more nuanced content online.

A stock image illustration of a girl sitting on a couch, filming herself.
Video essays are thriving in the TikTok era, even while platforms like YouTube are pivoting to promote short-form content.
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The video essay’s reintroduction into my adult life was, like many things, a side effect of the pandemic. On days when I couldn’t bring myself to read recreationally, I tried to unwind after work by watching hours and hours of YouTube.

My pseudo-intellectual superego, however, soon became dissatisfied with the brain-numbing monotony of “day in the life” vlogs, old Bon Appétit test kitchen videos, and makeup tutorials. I wanted content that was entertaining, but simultaneously informational, thoughtful, and analytical. In short, I wanted something that gave the impression that I, the passive viewer, was smart. Enter: the video essay.

Video essays have been around for about a decade, if not more, on YouTube. There is some debate over how the form preceded the platform; some film scholars believe the video essay was born out of and remains heavily influenced by essay films, a type of nonfiction filmmaking. Regardless, YouTube has become the undisputed home of the contemporary video essay. Since 2012, when the platform began to prioritize watch-time over views, the genre flourished. These videos became a significant part of the 2010s YouTube landscape, and were popularized by creators across film, politics, and academic subcultures.

Today, there are video essays devoted to virtually any topic you can think of, ranging anywhere from about 10 minutes to upward of an hour. The video essay has been a means to entertain fan theories, explore the lore of a video game or a historical deep dive, explain or critique a social media trend, or like most written essays, expound upon an argument, hypothesis, or curiosity proposed by the creator.

Some of the best-known video essay creators — Lindsay Ellis, Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints, and Abigail Thorn of PhilosophyTube — are often associated with BreadTube, an umbrella term for a group of left-leaning, long-form YouTubers who provide intellectualized commentary on political and cultural topics.

It’s not an exaggeration to claim that I — and many of my fellow Gen Zers — were raised on video essays, academically and intellectually. They were helpful resources for late-night cramming sessions (thanks Crash Course), and responsible for introducing a generation to first-person commentary on all sorts of cultural and political phenomena. Now, the kids who grew up on this content are producing their own.

“Video essays are a form that has lent itself particularly well to pop culture because of its analytical nature,” Madeline Buxton, the culture and trends manager at YouTube, told me. “We are starting to see more creators using video essays to comment on growing trends across social media. They’re serving as sort of real-time internet historians by helping viewers understand not just what is a trend, but the larger cultural context of something.”

A lot has been said about the video essay and its ever-shifting parameters. What does seem newly relevant is how the video essay is becoming repackaged, as long-form video creators find a home on platforms besides YouTube. This has played out concurrently with the pandemic-era shift toward short-form video, with Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube respectively launching Reels, Spotlight, and Shorts to compete against TikTok.

TikTok’s sudden, unwavering rise has proven the viability of bite-size content, and the app’s addictive nature has spawned fears about young people’s dwindling attention spans. Yet, the prevailing popularity of video essays, from new and old creators alike, suggests otherwise. Audiences have not been deterred from watching lengthy videos, nor has the short-form pivot significantly affected creators and their output. Emerging video essayists aren’t shying away from length or nuance, even while using TikTok or Reels as a supplement to grow their online following.

One can even argue that we are witnessing the video essay’s golden era. Run times are longer than ever, while more and more creators are producing long-form videos. The growth of “creator economy” crowdfunding tools, especially during the pandemic, has allowed video essayists to take longer breaks between uploads while retaining their production quality.

“I do feel some pressure to make my videos longer because my audience continues to ask for it,” said Tiffany Ferguson, a YouTube creator specializing in media criticism and pop culture commentary. “I’ve seen comments, both on my own videos and those I watch, where fans are like, ‘Yes, you’re feeding us,’ when it comes to longer videos, especially the hour to two-hour ones. In a way, the mentality seems to be: The longer the better.”

In a Medium post last April, the blogger A. Khaled remarked that viewers were “willing to indulge user-generated content that is as long as a multi-million dollar cinematic production by a major Hollywood studio” — a notion that seemed improbable just a few years ago, even to the most popular video essayists. To creators, this hunger for well-edited, long-form video is unprecedented and uniquely suitable for pandemic times.

The internet might’ve changed what we pay attention to, but it hasn’t entirely shortened our attention span, argued Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama. “It has made us more selective about the things we want to devote our attention to,” she told me. “People are willing to devote time to content they find interesting.”

Every viewer is different, of course. I find that my attention starts to wane around the 20-minute mark if I’m actively watching and doing nothing else — although I will admit to once spending a non-consecutive four hours on an epic Twin Peaks explainer. Last month, the channel Folding Ideas published a two-hour video essay on “the problem with NFTs,” which has garnered more than 6 million views so far.

Hour-plus-long videos can be hits, depending on the creator, the subject matter, the production quality, and the audience base that the content attracts. There will always be an early drop-off point with some viewers, according to Ferguson, who make it about two to five minutes into a video essay. Those numbers don’t often concern her; she trusts that her devoted subscribers will be interested enough to stick around.

“About half of my viewers watch up to the halfway point, and a smaller group finishes the entire video,” Ferguson said. “It’s just how YouTube is. If your video is longer than two minutes, I think you’re going to see that drop-off regardless if it’s for a video that’s 15 or 60 minutes long.”

Some video essayists have experimented with shorter content as a topic testing ground for longer videos or as a discovery tool to reach new audiences, whether it be on the same platform (like Shorts) or an entirely different one (like TikTok).

“Short-form video can expose people to topics or types of content they’re not super familiar with yet,” Maddox said. “Shorts are almost like a sampling of what you can get with long-form content.” The growth of Shorts, according to Buxton of YouTube, has given rise to this class of “hybrid creators,” who alternate between short- and long-form content. They can also be a starting point for new creators, who are not yet comfortable with scripting a 30-minute video.

Queline Meadows, a student in Ithaca College’s screen cultures program, became interested in how young people were using TikTok to casually talk about film, using editing techniques that borrowed heavily from video essays. She created her own YouTube video essay titled “The Rise of Film TikTok” to analyze the phenomenon, and produces both TikTok micro-essays and lengthy videos.

“I think people have a desire to understand things more deeply,” Meadows told me. “Even with TikTok, I find it hard to unfold an argument or explore multiple angles of a subject. Once people get tired of the hot takes, they want to sit with something that’s more nuanced and in-depth.”

It’s common for TikTokers to tease a multi-part video to gain followers. Many have attempted to direct viewers to their YouTube channel and other platforms for longer content. On the contrary, it’s in TikTok’s best interests to retain creators — and therefore viewers — on the app. In late February, TikTok announced plans to extend its maximum video length from three minutes to 10 minutes, more than tripling a video’s run-time possibility. This decision arrived months after TikTok’s move last July to start offering three-minute videos.

As TikTok inches into YouTube-length territory, Spotify, too, has introduced video on its platform, while YouTube has similarly signaled an interest in podcasting. In October, Spotify began introducing “video podcasts,” which allows listeners (or rather, viewers) to watch episodes. Users have the option to toggle between actively watching a podcast or traditionally listening to one.

What’s interesting about the video podcast is how Spotify is positioning it as an interchangeable, if not more intimate, alternative to a pure audio podcast. The video essay, then, appears to occupy a middle ground between podcast and traditional video by making use of these key elements. For creators, the boundaries are no longer so easy to define.

“Some video essay subcultures are more visual than others, while others are less so,” said Ferguson, who was approached by Spotify to upload her YouTube video essays onto the platform last year. “I was already in the process of trying to upload just the audio of my old videos since that’s more convenient for people to listen to and save on their podcast app. My reasoning has always been to make my content more accessible.”

To Ferguson, podcasts are a natural byproduct of the video essay. Many viewers are already consuming lengthy videos as ambient entertainment, as content to passively listen to while doing other tasks. The video essay is not a static format, and its development is heavily shaped by platforms, which play a crucial role in algorithmically determining how such content is received and promoted. Some of these changes are reflective of cultural shifts, too.

Maddox, who researches digital culture and media, has a theory that social media discourse is becoming less reactionary. She described it as a “simmering down” of the hot take, which is often associated with cancel culture. These days, more creators are approaching controversy from a removed, secondhand standpoint; they seem less interested in engendering drama for clicks. “People are still providing their opinions, but in conjunction with deep analysis,” Maddox said. “I think it says a lot about the state of the world and what holds people’s attention.”

That’s the power of the video essay. Its basic premise — whether the video is a mini-explainer or explores a 40-minute hypothesis — requires the creator to, at the very least, do their research. This often leads to personal disclaimers and summaries of alternative opinions or perspectives, which is very different from the more self-centered “reaction videos” and “story time” clickbait side of YouTube.

“The things I’m talking about are bigger than me. I recognize the limitations of my own experience,” Ferguson said. “Once I started talking about intersections of race, gender, sexuality — so many experiences that were different from my own — I couldn’t just share my own narrow, straight, white woman perspective. I have to provide context.”

This doesn’t change the solipsistic nature of the internet, but it is a positive gear shift, at least in the realm of social media discourse, that makes being chronically online a little less soul-crushing. The video essay, in a way, encourages us to engage in good faith with ideas that we might not typically entertain or think of ourselves. Video essays can’t solve the many problems of the internet (or the world, for that matter), but they can certainly make learning about them a little more bearable.

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