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In June of 2018 long-time YouTube creator and controversial internet figure Shane Dawson uploaded the first part of his first YouTube documentary series onto his channel titled, “The Truth About Tanacon”. The thumbnail features a sobbing Mongeau in distress and a perplexed-looking Shane. There were three YouTube video essays within the series, each one exceeding 10 million views; by the end of the series, Dawson had garnered over 62 million views. The series and Dawson’s transition into longer-form content established the beginning of deep-dive content videos on mainstream YouTube.
What are video essays?
Video essays on YouTube are typically longer-formed content videos covering a specific topic of pop culture or celebrity or influencer. These commentary channels find success in discussing the long-term effects of social media on mental health, body image issues, ultra-feminine ideals, and so on.
The possibilities are endless as the media is constantly evolving and growing around itself with the dying of old trends and the birth of fresh ones. As trends and patterns become more established over time, audiences and consumers of media become acutely aware of their effects. Video essayists are simply pointing them out, giving their viewers something to think about as they scroll through their feed or watch an A24 movie.
Looking for more internet history? Check out our deep dive into the evolution of beauty gurus here.
Video essays on YouTube, however, had a much more humble beginning than the series of one of the biggest YouTubers on the platform. Deep-dive content began with channels like Watch Mojo, The List, The Take, and Nicki Swift. These channels rose to favor in the mid-2010s and found an audience through analytical videos about movies and pop culture. Nicki Swift’s channel uploaded an essay titled “Why Hollywood Won’t Cast Taylor Lautner Anymore” in 2016 with over 7.2 million views, breaking down the ebbs and flow of the actor’s career as it coincided with the fickle beast of Hollywood.
As influencers and influencer news became increasingly common, blending the lines of traditional celebrities with the new age of media, their videos altered and reflected this evolution as well.
More recently in 2020, The Take’s “The Cool Girl Trope, Explained” reflects on the rise and fall of a particularly popular and fawned-over movie trope that was popular in the early 2000s. The video has now garnered over 2.6 million views and is one of their most popular videos to date.
These movie clichés and pop culture tropes now translate onto TikTok, blending into various short form trends and memes satirizing the tropes and archetypes presented in those YouTube videos.
Video Essays: Now
Now, as longer-form content has, as of late, been rewarded on YouTube’s platform, and the algorithm is playing particularly into these deep-dive videos, video essays have taken a new form. Longer videos of genuine analysis are no longer reserved for private video-producing companies. Individual YouTubers cover the site with essays on “the rise of [insert topic here]” or similar titles in the same lower-case font.
Viewers become fixated on this type of content for many of the same reasons over 60 million people tuned into Shane Dawson’s video series about the Tanacon scandal: everyone loves a good show. Deep dives are simply the latest iteration. This obsession and curiosity promoted a rising interest in documentaries and biopics over the last few years, as well.
For Gen Z, video essays are smart and poignant. They watch their peers draw conclusions about topics that they see on a daily basis on their feeds and tune in as area professionals provide obscure and niche information.
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Julia Cudney and Teen Rom Coms
Julia Cudney is a 24-year-old YouTuber whose channel and content are critiques and commentaries on popular teen romantic comedies and TV shows. Her channel started in 2016, but she only recently began posting consistently.
One of her first videos that became extremely popular received over 1.4 million views and talked about the “104 Reasons to Ship Bughead”. Three uploads later, Julia Cudeny found mainstream success in the video essay niche of YouTube with her video titled, “mean girls 2 is a garbage movie” which received over 3 million views.
However, the video she is likely most well known for is the video on Anna Todd’s After series, “what after reveals about immoral romance” where she dives into the dynamics of an abusive relationship, the dangers of its faulty characters, and the potential impacts on the viewers. Her audience responds well to her content because it’s authentic and demonstrates a clear understanding of the topics at hand, as Cudney consumes this media herself.
Mina Le: Fashion and Film
“I’m just a girl who likes fashion and movies,” she says in her YouTube bio. With over a million subscribers, Mina Le and her eyebrows have built quite a reputation for introspective analysis of the pervasive ways of pop culture.
Her most recent video titled “the messy rise and fall of Victoria’s Secret” goes into the scandals of the lingerie company and its attempts at salvaging the remainder of its reputation. Her most popular video, “tiktok is kind of bad for fashion” has over 3 million views as she sits with a microphone and discusses the empty quality of fast fashion and the devastation TikTok trends and creators have done to the environment.
The intersection between film and fashion is undeniably fascinating. Combine that with intelligent commentary and her viewers cannot get enough.
See how the internet, specifically TikTok, is influencing fashion across the industry in this blog.
A commentary channel on YouTube covering topics from the fetishization of Black women in the media to hypersexuality, Tee Noir gives her two cents on topics that the mainstream tends to gloss over. Her most popular video with over 1.6 million views, “The “Blaccent”: Nonblack Creators’ Key to Fame” responds to the appropriation of ebonics and Black culture by non-Black creators.
Her videos speak mostly on the topic of Black womanhood in videos like “Society vs. The “Average” Looking Black Woman” where she says bluntly, “I don’t want peace, I want problems always,” anticipating the backlash on the video. Tee Noir analyzes the covertly problematic issues of pop culture that we encounter daily on our screens in 20 to 40 minutes on her channel.
With 2 channels, both of which have surpassed well over a million subscribers, D’Angelo Wallace is likely the most renowned commentary channel on YouTube. In 2020, Wallace went “from 600,000 subscribers to 1 million subscribers in one week,” Insider reporter Kat Tenbarge wrote in an interview with the YouTuber.
Since then, Wallace has released many video essays diving into the likes of Jake and Logan Paul, Artist Lana Del Rey, and most famously the influencer and Covid-19 scandal.
His videos all received over 3 million views each, but the video titled “INFLUENCER-19” at an hour and nine minutes long garnered over 7.7 million views as Wallace breaks down the dangers and irresponsibility of various TikTokers and YouTubers during the Covid-19 pandemic. The video was incredibly well received and praised by fellow YouTubers. D’Angelo Wallace’s content holds influencers accountable and establishes confidence in his audience.
Video essays have been a part of YouTube for some time, but only recently established a true niche for themselves on the platform through eye-catching thumbnails, cohesive titles, and thought-provoking commentary. The rise of video essays is indicative of a more thoughtful audience and viewers, ones who want to understand the world around them and the media they consume. They are no longer being fed ideas, but, instead, they are eager to dissect them.