The internet and social media, at their worst, provide outlets for constant performance and demonstration of one's quality of life, instantaneous, unfiltered expression of careless claims, and dilution of language and attention. But, by harnessing our increasingly visual, expression-centered culture to promote education and creation, a new wave of tech-savvy video essayists represent what the internet and social media can be at their best: platforms through which people may cultivate and satisfy a thirst for knowledge, share information, create, and inspire.
Video essays, which could be considered an extension of both the essay film and the blog, utilize images, clips, animation, and audio to support the thesis of the essayist, who guides the viewer through the argument using a voiceover. Much like the essays that have graced print publications for centuries, they may discuss any subject from abstract matters of love and psychology to concrete analyses of artistic works, usually in under ten minutes. And it is on YouTube—the same domain that has nursed misguided music and stunt videos for over a decade—that video essays have blossomed in quality and number. Most of the essayists themselves wear the bizarre anonymity of the online identity, but they are commonly linked by inspiration. They are individuals who, once snagged on an idea, must set out to develop and share their thinking, to dive further into an inkling and discover deeper meanings in even the mundane.
In the midst of the constant fear that our culture will dissolve due to our phone screens, these essays are a refreshing lesson in cultural literacy and learning initiative. Evan Puschak, whose YouTube channel "The Nerdwriter" has garnered millions of views on videos dealing with philosophy, morality, and art, says that while people most often associate the "essay" with the chafing five-paragraph body format taught in schools, it is simply an articulation of a train of thought and the subsequent learning process. While some essayists have educational backgrounds appropriate to the topic of the video—the man behind "Sideways," a channel that examines musical compositions, has a B.A. in music from Colorado University—most make time outside of their careers to craft their videos. The investigations they conduct and the time devoted to learning about topics of interest, emphasizes one of the most important aspects of education: initiative. After an opportunity is provided, it is the duty of a student to invest in the learning, and that is what these essayists do as students of life, conducting research on topics one would not necessarily focus on in a classroom setting. They demonstrate continued education and a desire to inform themselves and others, and the videos are their findings in a consumable, shareable format.
Through the openness of the platform itself, the essayists make such discussion accessible and welcoming. Channels such as "Every Frame a Painting," which analyzes aspects of well-known TV and film franchises as well as music and literature, demonstrate how critical thinking and analysis are not to be relegated to high art that's entirely foreign to us. Investigating the cultural implications and nuances of Adult Swim ("kaptainkristian"), LGBTQ+ representation in pop culture ("Needs More Gay"), and unrequited love ("School of Life"), shows how everything is rightfully worthy of attention and investigation, and art and discovery are everywhere. And this is part of what is special about this growing movement: while not all the people crafting the video essays have degrees qualifying them to educate, they each have something important to say, and they find intelligent, valid, and artistic ways to say it. The emphasis is on the power of voice and reason rather than the formalities by which we tend to deem people qualified, which relays another important message about education and expression—everyone has a right to each. Every voice is valid, and these essayists invite each other and their viewers to draw their own conclusions from the world around them.
Their work serves as a peculiar, idealized paradigm of the massive energy we channel into instant self-expression every day via social media: amongst throngs of people asking themselves "What do I have to say?" and posting impulsively, smart video essayists simply ask themselves additionally "Why should anyone care?" While the world encourages and allows us to express ourselves right now with no filter in 140 characters or fewer, competent video essayists cultivate patience and thoughtfulness, channeling their desire for expression into something with lasting relevance, with the communal experience integral to online culture. Imagine a world where we could all challenge ourselves to be so careful with our words and so focused on presenting our thoughts artfully and thoughtfully, thus fueling vital discussion.