What’s it like being a YouTuber? What does it mean to be a writer on a video-sharing platform? How can writers use the medium of videos for social justice?
I was able to sit down with Phil who operates the YouTube channel called That Dang Dad. Phil has always been a writer and creator—poetry, essays, film reviews, music—and has since focused his writing on creating video essays on topics like racial justice, accessibility, toxic masculinity, and more. His work is radical, but also funny and approachable.
He talked with me about how he came to create his channel, his writing process for a video, and what is unique about writing for YouTube.
- What was the motivation behind beginning your channel and the framing of your channel name That Dang Dad? Are your intentions for your channel for fun expression, to solve a problem, or something else?
I’ve always enjoyed discussing big ideas with people and sharing new things I’m learning. As I got plugged into the YouTube community of people talking about radical social, economic, and racial justice, I found myself really energized to keep learning and making connections between pop culture, academic scholarship, and my own life experiences. I decided to start a YouTube channel as a way for me to continue to share my findings with others as well as just to generally put more kind, thoughtful, and inclusive content on the platform. YouTube is famous for platforming thousands of harmful hucksters fomenting violence and exclusion, so I wanted to do my part to cancel out some of that noise.
My first and foremost intention with my channel is to express an idea I’m wrestling with in a way that will stimulate and delight others. So, not necessarily to teach (although that does happen), and not necessarily to entertain (although I hope that happens), but more to… feed a sense of curiosity about the world. I personally find it exhilarating to see things in new ways and my desire for my channel is to give my audience that same exhilaration.
2. What is your writing process like for creating a new video essay?
Typically, it starts with an idea stimulated by something I’ve read, seen in TV or movies, or an idea sparked from an incident in my real life. I’ll spend anywhere from a week to a month just letting the idea rattle around my skull and seeing what kind of noise it makes, whether it’s “A Thing” or not. Once I’m satisfied that I have something that’s worthy of a 20 minute discussion, I open up a blank document and start writing a script from the top.
Generally, my approach to a script is a quick introduction that entices an audience, two or three big chunks that explore my idea, followed by a “So what?” section in which I attempt to take what I’m talking about and explain what I think it means, why I think it’s important, and how I think it should impact my (and implicitly my audience’s) life.
Typically, it takes me 2–5 hours to write a 20 minute script, including rereading, rejiggering, and revising. Research-heavy videos can take twice that as I hunt for relevant passages in books and essays. I always read a script out loud to myself to see where I stumble over my own words, or where I lose my own train of thought. Once it reads comfortably to me, I’ll wait until my daughter has gone to bed and then record myself performing the script in my home office late at night. When I have all the video and audio recorded, I’ll open up my video editing software and add the files in, and then I start carving it up to make sure it flows well, taking out long pauses and cutting around flubs. This is when I start searching for supplemental images and footage, like charts, graphs, news articles, clips from shows, and the like.
Depending on the subject matter, I always like to make sure I have some jokes and cutaway gags to break up the video and add some places for an audience to catch its breath. I don’t try to write full-on humorous videos, I just let my natural sense of timing and playfulness come out from time to time.
3. What are the strengths or unique considerations for sharing writing and essays via a video platform like YouTube? What is it like to write for YouTube versus for other mediums?
YouTube is a really interesting platform because its ecology is so enmeshed with the modern Attention Economy. In order to have your work succeed on YouTube, you have to get people to click on your videos and watch them in a single sitting without clicking onto another tab. What’s worse, you are competiting with 3 minute long meme videos, 30 minute long incendiary clickbait, videos of people playing video games, videos of raccoons being cute, and food porn, all pre-curated to steal each viewer’s attention.
So, if you’re trying to win over an audience that isn’t extremely niche or loyal to you, you often don’t have the luxury of long introductions or careful, exhaustive table-setting. You have 10–20 seconds to pique their interest or their eyes will float down to the suggestion column for something else. Everything from your video thumbnail to your opening line to your audio quality to your general demeanor has to come together in service of your point.
This means writing for YouTube requires you to have a very strong value proposition up front, and by that I mean, you have to know why a viewer a) wants to hear this, b) will understand it, and c) should trust you to deliver it. You have 10 seconds to make an idea appealing, make it clear, and make yourself credible.
On the flipside, YouTube is amazing for niche topics from voices on the margins because the audience is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. There are vibrant communities for people who are, for example, asexual and aromantic. There are communities of people who document dying malls. There are communities who interview people about daily struggles that society doesn’t know about. There are communities built around support for incarcerated individuals. And there are communities that film themselves playing games and talking to their friends, creating a party atmosphere even during quarantine.
I say that to say, your value proposition doesn’t have to target everyone on YouTube. You just need a strong value prop for the specific people with whom you’re trying to build a community.
4. What is your most popular YouTube video and how do you think it came to be so widely experienced? What impact do you think it created/is creating?
My most popular video is “How Law Enforcement Taught Me to Dehumanize.” I wrote it during the Black Lives Matter protests in the spring of 2020, and it was picked up and promoted by a popular YouTuber and has been very successful since.
If we go back to my explanation of value propositions, this video has a very strong one: a) it’s appealing because we are living during a time of highly visible police misconduct disturbing a nation, b) the topic of dehumanization is something that many people intuitively feel from law enforcement but may not fully be aware of, and c) I’m credible because I’m a former police officer.
Now, would this exact same video have been successful in, say, 2004? Of course not: in the wake of 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War, American reverence for armed forces was at an all-time high. My video just happened to be written at the right time to ride in the wake of a large movement. This isn’t to say the only successful videos are anchored to specific times and politics, only that, for me, the time period was part of the value prop.
The impact I see the video creating is one that is contributing to a slow, increased skepticism about law enforcement in general. Many people take the existence of the police as a given, as a default. Many commenters on my video expressed shock at my experiences and told me it made them see law enforcement a different way. Many said they were sharing it with family and friends to “open their eyes” about how law enforcement really is. To steal from Mark Fisher a little, I think my video is helping to dislodge the modern conception of the police from occupying the horizon of the thinkable.
5. What video(s) of yours are you most proud of? Tell me about how it/they came to be.
I should be proud of my most successful video (and I am), but the two videos that are actually my personal favorites are “You Are Alienated” and “Why You Should Care About Designing For Accessibility.” The former is a kind of spoken word/music video format discussion our modern alienation from our money, our labor, and our communities. It’s very different from my other videos, much more “artsy,” much more audacious—but when I watch it, I feel like my music, my words, and my visuals all harmonized perfectly to create the feeling I wanted to create. Alienation is often subtle, often scary, often demoralizing, and I wanted to give that a voice for people who felt it but couldn’t articulate it. I think I hit it exactly right.
As for my accessibility video, I created it to share lessons I’d been learning about how disabled people are excluded from work, from wealth, and even from democracy. I was so shocked to learn these lessons that I felt I had to amplify them. If they blew my mind, I knew they would blow other minds. I’m super proud of it because my abled commenters told me they had never encountered many of these concepts about disability and disabled access, whereas many of my disabled commenters told me I was one of the first YouTubers they’d seen treat these issues as important. Many disabled commenters told me that even other left-wing or social justice oriented channels seemed to ignore the disabled community and that my video made them feel seen and feel included. That video has a fifth of the views of my dehumanization video but it’s the one that makes me the happiest.
6. For people who may be interested in sharing their own work on a video platform like YouTube, what wisdom might you share with them about the experience?
Practical first: audio is more important than video, believe it or not. If people can hear you clearly, a fuzzy camera image isn’t as big of a deal, especially since you can always supplement with free stock video, free stock images, or footage of you playing Dark Souls.
Also, when you’re finding your voice, I would advise trying to err on the side of being too short instead of too long. Like I said, you’re competing in the Attention Economy and unfocused rambling is a great way to lose eyeballs. Find the core nug of your message and stay focused on it. As you grow your channel and find your sea legs, you’ll start to get a sense for what your audience is willing to stick around for, but when you’re an unknown, people may not invest two hours into someone they’ve never heard of before. I have never done a video longer than 30 minutes and I’ve never felt like I didn’t fully explore the topic I wanted to.
On that same wavelength, there is a concept in user experience called “information scent,” which posits that people click links on the Internet almost like they are foraging for sustenance. If they want to know about a topic, when they click a link they are going to decide within seconds whether they are still on the trail of the topic they want to know about. If they think they’ve lost the scent, they will hit the back button and try a different link. So if you want to make content for people researching a topic, make sure that within a few seconds, your video is clear about what you’re going to cover so that you reinforce the information scent for your famished visitors.
With that out of the way, my big piece of advice is that passion will build an audience. Maybe not a big one, maybe not one you can monetize and replace your income, but one that is authentic and engaged. If you are passionate about mathematical paradoxes, trans liberation, labor relations, young adult horror novels, weird history, cosplay, recipes from ancient cultures, or queer themes in 80s television, you have something to offer on YouTube.
And passion doesn’t mean bombastic speeches, loud talk, or an in-your-face demeanor. More, the passion to do a subject justice, the passion to do the research, to explain a concept people haven’t thought of, or to show them the interesting side of something they thought was mundane. I once watched an hour long oral history of the Super Mario Brothers world record speedrun. I once watched an hour long video about the ten year history of a Japanese professional wrestling rivalry. Passion is infectious. YouTube is full of people trying to make a buck by gaming the algorithm and trying to coast on whatever is trending. My advice is to not worry about the algorithm and instead of focus your energy on getting people excited about what you’re excited about.
Lastly, if you’ve done work you’re proud of and passionate about, don’t be afraid to share it! Promote it on Reddit, share it on the socials, text your friends, and don’t feel selfish about talking about your stuff. If it comes from a place of passion and authenticity, you’re not being greedy or egotistical telling others to see it. And always ask your audience to share your videos. Word of mouth is huge on YouTube.
7. A question we like to ask folks: what are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Postcapitalist Desire and The Weird & The Eerie, both by Mark Fisher, as well as 99% Invisible Cities by Mars & Kolstedt. I also read from Gore Capitalism by Sayek Valencia once a month, but I am as a mewling baby before this text and the only thing I fully understand from it is the concept of “the precariat” and basically nothing else. Normalize👏 not👏understanding👏books👏!