I. Worn green leather, soggy black floors. The majority of my time spent on a public school bus commuting to school everyday, was spent watching YouTube.
In one of the “academic” middle school summer camps my mom put me in, a couple guys in our class were always huddled around a laptop, laughing about ninjas and green balls.
After a couple days of being confused, I decided to join them.
To my surprise, I saw an Asian American guy on their screen. Granted, he seemed kind of insane, but he was funny, and after getting into his videos, he made my admittedly unenjoyable camp experience much brighter than before.
After that summer, the second generation iPod Touch I got secondhand from a cousin became so much more than a music player.
Through YouTube, I found more Asian Americans who did things I thought Asian Americans weren’t “supposed” to do: short-form comedy (Nigahiga), confronting stereotypes (KevJumba) or performing music (Sam Tsui).
I also found introverts who could express themselves online by doing silly things, whether it be “choose your own adventure” videos (WheazyWaiter) or making Doctor Who-inspired rock (Charlieissocoollike).
One guy in my grade even started his own “let’s play” channel, where he provided commentary while playing Minecraft.
And when girls in eighth-grade algebra started making the Vulcan salute in the hallways, I knew that they were Nerdfighters like me.
That is, part of a global community that sprung up around the VlogBrothers channel (one of the brothers being John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars) that strives to combat mediocrity and negativity (“world suck”) through education, fundraising for humanitarian causes and other collaborative events.
So even though I’d spent most of my bus rides looking down at my iPod, sitting on those green leather seats, I never really felt alone.
II. Three things in September of 2015: Martin Shkreli admitted to raising the price of Daraprim by 5,000 percent, two shows (The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) began airing to low ratings, and I started my exchange year in Germany.
By the time I’d entered high school, my YouTube feed started to expand beyond people in their rooms talking to a camera.
The VlogBrothers had started their “Crash Course” series, breaking down subjects from psychology to literature. Video essayists allowed me to learn about things beyond my school curriculum.
After watching the film Snowpiercer, I learned how Bong Joon-ho expressed permanent choice visually through Every Frame a Painting, and how he embodied the artist as a historian through the channel Nerdwriter1.
YouTube became a place for me to not only connect with introverts who did “silly things,” but a place to learn about current events and the world.
The remote segments from Conan O’Brien’s TBS show take his audience on hilarious, informative and humanizing adventures around the globe. Taking AP U.S. History had made me more politically curious, and I’d started watching John Oliver and Jon Stewart on YouTube to learn about current events before I’d left for Germany.
And while I was there, it was watching shows like The Daily Show and The Late Show through YouTube that connected me to life back home.
Though the content I consumed was taking a more “serious” turn, the function of YouTube had remained the same: It was a way to brighten my day, whether that came from a kid in her room doing impressions or a full-budget production making light of Shkreli.
III. The Daily Show format — political satire in the guise of a regular talk show — has been adopted by comedians worldwide.
If you like international studies or enjoy political comedy, watching these programs (which often have subtitles) on YouTube are a great way to laugh and learn about comparative politics.
For example, the Heute-Show (Today Show) helped me process the election of a far-right party in Germany, Al-Bernameg (The Show) introduced me to the very real problems of former Egyptian President Morsi and Zondag met Lubach’s (Sunday with Lubach) comedic appeal to Trump through an “introduction of the Netherlands” started a wave of parodies by “daily shows” worldwide.
I spent the summer before my sophomore year in college in Taiwan.
When I asked local friends if any Taiwanese “daily shows” had appeared yet, they told me no but that a young biologist-turned-comedian was interested in starting one.
That summer, The Night Night Show with Brian Tseng launched on YouTube.
It was rough: The American comedic style that Brian used wasn’t landing well with Taiwanese audiences, and as an independent production consisting of fresh college graduates, you could tell that everything wasn’t as polished as it could be.
Last week, after three seasons of The Night Night Show, Brian closed his curtains. His production had evolved from a small internet community of young Taiwanese viewers who enjoyed American late night, to a household name and a key platform for all three major candidates of the Taiwanese presidential election.
I watched the last episode while sitting in Bamboo Cafe. Some guy who’d looked over my shoulder approached me and said, “Are you Taiwanese? Don’t cry. He’ll start something again soon.”
IV. As part of the YouTube generation, YouTube has played a huge role in my upbringing.
I’m honestly in awe of the fact that I can send videos to friends at Hopkins and around the world so easily.
Nowadays, my YouTube feed is no longer filled with prank videos, game commentary or people doing “silly” things.
Late night still takes up a large part of my recommendations. I watch a lot of foreign news channels (from the German Tagesschau or Japanese NHK) to process American politics through foreign eyes.
The video essayists I watch are more theatrical and politically pointed: Baltimore-based ContraPoints, for example, has reportedly deradicalized members of the alt-right.
I also try my best to consume both right- and left-wing commentators on YouTube. YouTube has become a place for me to get information, rather than pure entertainment.
Those who don’t understand the YouTube phenomenon often criticize the parasocial relationship between YouTubers and their audience; They criticize that independent YouTubers abuse the trust their (often young, impressionable) viewers have in them to sell products or promote harmful behaviors.
Many also cite YouTube’s algorithm as a rabbit hole for political radicalization.
YouTube, its creators and certainly its audiences are far from perfect.
But YouTube can still be a great place to brighten people’s days, to learn about the world and people different from oneself, and to gain access to a community of people you might not find in your local area.
As much as YouTube can radicalize, YouTube can also de-radicalize.
YouTubers are also mandated to tell audiences if they’re being sponsored, harmful behavior is usually called out by other YouTubers and most people seem to outgrow the content they consumed in the past.
My community of middle school YouTube fans are all working hard at great colleges across the country.
YouTubers move on too. KevJumba became a monk; Nigahiga invited Andrew Yang on his podcast; and Every Frame a Painting ended their channel. YouTube has become a much larger community than it was 10 years ago.
I remember when one million subscribers was a huge milestone, and everyone in the mill-sub-club knew and collaborated with each other. Nowadays, I struggle to connect with (or even identify) the popular YouTubers of today.
Before Charlieissocoollike left YouTube to become a screenwriter, he made a song in 2012 called “No Time to Reply.”
The song epitomizes the feelings many subscribers had written to him and ends by saying, “I think that I’m done / You’re not just for me now / But I’ve had fun.”
Though his channel is no longer active, the middle-schooler within me — who found a friend in his introversion and love for Doctor Who — still hopes that he’ll come back someday.