As creators move to the cultural forefront, the question of how much power they wield — if any — is one Hank Green ponders with care. “I think that [creators have a social] responsibility, but I think that the responsibility can be taken differently by each person,” he says. “And I often cannot stand people who not only don’t take the responsibility of their audience seriously, but actively, almost intentionally, have a negative impact.”
Green has more than a decade of experience as a YouTube creator. He shares a channel with his brother, John, called vlogbrothers, and he co-founded the annual conference VidCon. Last month, he published his debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, which is about overnight celebrity and viral fame. Green’s novel is, in part, his own effort to explore online fame in a way vlogging wouldn’t allow. The book follows a 23-year-old student named April who gains overnight fame after a video of her goes viral — a premise that feels less like a Black Mirror episode and more like a modern reality.
At a recent Q&A event in New York promoting his book, Green reflected on the nature of internet celebrity, creator responsibility, and how the internet has changed our world.
“I didn’t want to whine about fame,” he says. “I wanted to be instructive about it. But I feel like any discussion of it would seem like me whining. You can be empathetic to a character in a book in a way that you can’t with a real person, which is weird, because you know everything there is to know about them.”
The challenge of online celebrity is an ongoing one. Where influence was once restricted to actors, athletes, and other high-profile professions, fame is now one viral video away. It can be isolating, Green says, as some creators feel like they only have an audience, rather than real friends. They become a personality, rather than a person. “The process of seeking fame is a process of seeking dehumanization,” he says. “You are looking for it. You want it. But you only want the good parts of it. You want the part where people see you as just a collection of positive things and nothing else.”
But creators should still be mindful of the power they wield. “It’s so hard to ask people to be empathetic of the powerful, so I don’t really want to ask it,” he says. “I mostly think of this in terms of what do people need to do to not indulge in their own fantasies of their weakness... people being like, ‘I’m the victim.’ No, you’re the powerful person. There’s nothing more dangerous than a powerful person who is imagining themselves as being powerless. And boy, do we have a problem with that right now.”
Social media is, as ever, a double-edged sword. It gives, but it also takes away. Green says that it’s important to be aware of not just how it impacts culture, but how bad actors can use social media to manipulate audiences. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every famous person should have to claim a political or social perspective and champion it. Rather, creators should be aware of the power they wield. “I do want to be forgiving of my colleagues who have a different perspective or a different point of experience in their responsibility,” he says. “But I will not be forgiving of the ones who deny their responsibility.”
Green calls the advent of social media and platforms like YouTube “a communications revolution that we have not seen for maybe 500 years.” And everyone should be thinking about it more. “Ultimately, the internet is made of people,” he says, “and we need to do a good job at being citizens of that space.”