We Live in the Golden Age of Video Essays

Runtimes are ever-on-the-rise, but quality continues to be a staple of the genre.

Often slipping our perspectives on the early days of user-generated content online is the fact that the medium is very young, so to have it even remotely figured out this early in its lifetime—especially in contrast to print, radio and broadcast television—is nothing short of miraculous. This is true of the video essay genre which in the span of less than a decade has now taken on its quasi-final form–a motion-picture-length visual dissertation on any given topic, bolstered by copious amounts of research and an elaborate presentation to foot. One wouldn't be remiss to call this a “golden age” of sorts, the nomenclature sounding less hyperbolic the more one considers where this genre has started, and how far it has come over the last few years.

Original attempts at the video essay genre were quintessential products of the early internet–a lot of emphasis on (often insensitive) humor, and the information is interspersed between skits as creators were looking for any means to retain their audience’s eyeballs as simple academic blabber then didn’t suffice. What transpired since is a combination of video equipment becoming more affordable and more user-friendly for regular consumers to fully harness the power of, and editing software looking less like an enigma only a Hollywood-grade editor could decipher–this subsequently made for an explosion in the number of video essayists, and even those with existing followings took the leap forward and upgraded their presentation to meet ever-shifting production standards accordingly.

A thing that remains true of the internet is that audiences are sophisticated, and their taste for content can be scaled up to do away with the less-pertinent aspects of the core content produced, so skits and visual recreations of then-nascent internet memes took a backseat to the more substantive analysis, and even as essays’ runtime continued to balloon, the people watching have yet to show any significant signs of dismay. This shift took place on the heels of YouTube abandoning views for watchtime as a primary determinant of healthy engagement–that combined with later tweaks to the recommendation algorithm in order to accommodate the platform’s changing priorities saw the density and sheer volume of information in video essays continuously ramp up to where they are currently; sitting now comfortably well-over the one hour mark, with a few outliers sporting a healthy multiplier if a topic’s treatment proves fickle enough.

In a stunning display of what the medium allows for when stretched to its absolute limits, creator Joseph Anderson uploaded last April what could only be described as the Snyder Cut of video essays–a four-hour and eighteen minutes of in-depth musings on the first installment of the Witcher video game franchise, packed with a thorough literary and historical analysis of the source text and the resulting adaptation. You’d think upon finding this out that it wouldn’t generate much fanfare, but the video is slowly approaching the three-million view mark and is likely to surpass it in time–evidence here is anecdotal, but the video’s success suggests that it ticks the algorithm’s every box of solid engagement. It’s now not entirely uncommon to see videos creeping into TV episode-length, or like Anderson’s essay, give long-winded visual storytellers like Peter Jackson a run for their money.

Video essays aren’t strictly preoccupied with media however, and if one were to broaden the net cast on the ocean of content produced since the earliest days of the Web 2.0 era, a lot of it is about history, science, technology and even other subject matters that would not be so welcoming of personal insertion quite like artistic or literary analysis. Creators like Veritasium, CGP Grey and Vsauce were doing essays on topics that are ostensibly better served by raw consumption of relevant scientific papers, but their role as a translation layer for the layman made for strong presence on YouTube’s forefront for years. The same could be said of fixtures like Overly Sarcastic Productions, AlternateHistoryHub and the Great War–the history they draw on is common knowledge for their audience, but the main attraction here aren’t the facts laid, but rather the people laying them out.

What has arguably been a revelation is the subgenre of political essays, mostly congregated in what is now known as BreadTube. Creators like ContraPoints, Hbomberguy and Philosophy Tube produce these videos with gargantuan runtimes, mammoth detail, incredible density,  and a tantalizing presentation with exquisite wardrobes, furniture, props and lighting to boot. Contra’s “Opulence” essay is perhaps the epitome of this–filmed in the Baltimore Museum of Art, the video’s aesthetic reminiscent of Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s “Apeshit” outing in the Louvre before it. The desire to break free from a not-so-opulent perception is clearly there, and it’s the main driving force behind video essayists taking the demand for higher production values in stride.

The openness of YouTube audiences to experiment with longer-form content cannot be downplayed here–this may be a simple mindset transfer from watching even longer Twitch streams, but it shows at least that viewers are willing to indulge user-generated content that is as long as a multi-million dollar cinematic production by a major Hollywood studio. That a different mentality was adopted over time isn’t always explicitly acknowledged by creators as they chameleon themselves to the needs of the day, but by Lindsay Ellis’ own recent admission, making a multi-hour long essay is a thing they would not have even considered a mere few years ago.

But just because this is what trend-setters are doing, doesn’t mean there isn’t a divergence of styles below the genre’s coveted royalty. Many continue to do as good a job with far fewer subscribers–just to mention a few favorites of mine, there’s film critic Amanda the Jedi, cognitive psychologist Cass Eris, political VTuber Suris, revolution chronicler Mexie, historian Mia Mulder, comics guru La’Ron Readus, game critic Errant Signal, media and politics commentator Carlos Maza, pop culture scribe Lady Emily, and influencer watchdog Pastel Belle. The freshmen class of video essayists are ready to take up the mantle if and when the old guard bids the space farewell–the thing that makes YouTube so special despite its many pitfalls is that there is no shortage of talent and creativity, and if video essays ever find themselves in dire need of innovation to rejuvenate interest, chances are they’ll pull through successfully.