#TCMC keynote: Michael Stevens – All Change?

Part of the Children’s Media Conference 2015. For those unaware, I’m officially blogging some events for the CMC this year, and I’m also unofficially blogging any and all events I can make it to in my spare time, like this! Hopefully the first of many posts, because it’s a pretty great schedule. Official blog for the event.

“If it’s in the universe, then I’ll talk about it.”
Michael Stevens of Vsauce, a collection of Youtube channels that have around 15 million subscribers, over 1 billion views, and asks a hell of a lot of questions to get youngsters (or age 10-80, as he says more broadly) excited to learn something new.

“If it’s in the universe, then I’ll talk about it,” Michael says. He draws people in with a really fun question; a simple concept, but one that has seen him work with everyone from Bill Nye to Chris Pratt. He finds it cool to see the traditional media want to join in on his work to educate with his odd questions, as well as those involved in science.


Would headlights work at lightspeed? It’s something you’ve literally never wondered, but the moment he says it, the immediate reaction is: does it?! Therein lies the success, you’re hooked on the simplest of ideas. He never goes for something that can be Googled, instead turning to more questions within it, some funny, some deep and reflective. “I think that’s why a lot of younger people like it. I always try to say as many hooks as possible.”

Youngest people have the best questions, like, “What’s the opposite of a duck?” It’s a lesson on homophones and words, and through the multiple possibilities he comes up with to explain this, he shows that through language games people unexpectedly find themselves learning.

“Always look at the audience and overestimate their intelligence,” says Michael. In treating them as though they already know the subject, they want to belong. Then underestimate their vocabulary: constantly ask ‘but what is…’. He says it’s become a parody: the Michael Stevens response is ‘What is a response?’

“I can make any topic interesting to anyone if I try hard enough.”
WP_20150701_014 Anything can be interesting to anyone because everything relates in some way to something they care about – the quote shines from the screen. He says, “I can make any topic interesting to anyone if I try hard enough.” When you think about learning you think it’s for nerds and book geeks, but learning is how we express who we are, so he generates content that can help people do that. We share information as a way of expression.

“People like things because they want others to think they’re like that thing.” He shows a Halloween costume when he dressed as his favourite TV scientist and sums it up: he didn’t dress like him to help him, but to tell people that he liked him. When someone shares a funny link on Facebook, it’s a way of saying, I’m funny like this too.

There are three types of sharing, and Vsauce can cater to all of them:

  • Identity: Hey, here’s this video, I’m cool for knowing about it.
  • Emotional gift: Hey, you feel X, so this might make you feel Y.
  • Information: Hey, I wanted to know the answer to…

“I don’t think about what focus groups say people want to watch,” he explains, instead making content that allows people to be who they want to be.

Authenticity is key, especially given the boom of Youtube stars at present. “I don’t think they’re planning their moves, they’re just being themselves.” He shows many Youtubers using something as simple as the way the video’s shot the change the dynamics. Hannah Hart drinks while cooking, keeping the camera on a tripod as if you’re the static visitor who she’ll come and show food to. A maths channel shoots from the POV of one person, bringing you into the intimate one-on-one setting of learning maths. They’re performing just for you. “I want to feel like I’m hanging out with these people.” He knows if he bumped into one on the street and asked them, they could talk about what they do because it’s them, pure and simple.

“It’s just finding better ways to be friends with each other.”
It’s here he coins his own term: infriendity. Infinity x friend.

It’s not just about friendship and intimacy, but you’re seeing them and can keep following the journey, it doesn’t stop with just one film or video. “I wanna do more,” he says, “I wanna see what you do next…”

He recalls watching a ‘How to cure a hangover’ video in which the presenter explained a hangover and alienated him by being the opposite of a friend. You’ve got the title and image, they’re already with you, so just drop straight to the point.


In his Q&A he covers several topics, one being that the frequency of upload vs. success isn’t something anyone really knows; he’s stopped putting himself under pressure and just posts when the video is ready. He also says his is just one way to engage with an audience on Youtube, many are succeeding in different ways, including animation, the genre mentioned.

The closing question: all change? What’s the all, and where’s the change? “I’m a digital native, so nothing’s changed for me,” he explains. It was all there online, he just went into it. What he did was considered a change in how you can reach 1 million people. People describe digital as disruptive, “but it’s just finding better ways to be friends with each other.” All media is following that route.

Excellent keynote, and interesting insight to running a successful Youtube channel in terms of understanding and respecting your established and potential fandom.

Will be posting more over the week here, but you can follow me on Twitter to keep up with #TCMC too! @heathermmcd

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