In October 2006, Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. On January 1st, 2007, the brothers Hank and John Green started making videos for each other and shared them publicly on YouTube. That same year, YouTube rolled out its partner program, which shared ad revenue between YouTube and the people making videos. The split was 55 / 45 in favor of the creators.
The partner program basically launched the creator economy as we know it today, and YouTube is the gold standard for creators. It’s something we’ve heard on every creator-focused episode of Decoder we’ve ever done: if you can make it big on YouTube, you can make it a career.
That’s not the case on other platforms. There is no revenue share on Instagram. There is no revenue share on Twitter. There’s no revenue on Twitter at all, really. And importantly, there is no revenue share on TikTok. Instead, there’s something called a creator fund, which shares a fixed pool of money, about a billion dollars, divided among all of the creators on the platform. That means that, as more and more creators join TikTok, the money is split more ways, and each individual creator might make less.
In this episode, I’m talking to Hank Green. Now, as you’d expect from one of the original and most successful YouTubers and creators out there, Hank has very strong opinions about platforms and how they pay creators. In addition to being an individual creator, he’s also the CEO of Complexly, a 50-person company that makes educational content about science, history, and art across about 20 YouTube channels and podcasts. And if it weren’t for YouTube ad money, none of those shows would exist.
So, in February, Hank made a video about how the TikTok “creator fund” is a really bad deal for creators and said the YouTube model is still superior. As it happens, that was right around the time I was talking to YouTube chief product officer Neal Mohan. After that episode with Neal came out, one of Hank’s friends tweeted it to him and said he should go on Decoder and talk about it. So Hank invited himself on the show — of course we said yes; it’s Hank Green!
This episode is pretty deep in our feelings about participating in the internet culture economy and the relationship between huge platform companies and the communities that build on them. But it’s a good one, and it’s not really something any of us talk about enough.
Okay, Hank Green. Creator and CEO of Complexly. Here we go.
Hank Green is the CEO of Complexly and a very popular internet creator. Welcome to Decoder.
Thanks. I listen all the time and learn a lot from the conversations you have, so thank you for having them.
Get ready for the org chart questions, man. They’re coming.
I have been thinking about that like, “I don’t feel satisfied with my own answer.”
You are also our first guest who has effectively invited himself on the show in a tweet. I appreciate that.
In the whole history?
A friend of mine asked, “Hank, why haven’t you been on Decoder?” I was like, “Please,” and it worked.
“Don’t mind if I do!” We have interviewed Neal Mohan, who is the chief product officer of YouTube. He talked about his creator fund for YouTube Shorts. TikTok also has a Creator Fund. You are very opinionated about creator funds.
I hate them.
There it is. That is the whole show, everybody. It has been two minutes and we are going to run about five ads now.
Not only do I hate them, but they are very bad and everyone should hate them with me. Alright, great. That’s how Twitter works, right?
Yes. The promo code is Decoder. We will see you next week. So, you are a business person. You have built a long-standing, stable business on the shifting sands of the creator internet for over 15 years. I want to talk about that.
Start with Complexly. What is it? What are your goals with the company?
Complexly is an educational media company that is focused on making things through the internet that are free and available to everyone, and as good as what you might see on television or being sold to schools by bigger educational media companies. It’s tough. There is certainly stuff that those big companies do that we don’t. It felt like the only way we could compete in that world was to just make it and put it out there. If students and teachers like it, they will use it. If they don’t, then they won’t.
It is a tricky business to put together and it is very diversified — which is a nice way of saying we can’t make it work without trying like eight different things at the same time. It has a few really big YouTube channels and podcasts, which is the majority of what we do, and then some other social media stuff. It has been 10 years now and we are making it work. There are definitely days when I feel like somebody should just come out of the woodwork and give me $10 million so I don’t have to worry all the time, but that’s not business, I guess.
Bezos, where you at, man? [Jeff Bezos, founder and executive chairman of Amazon.] There are billionaires floating around somewhere. They have to watch the channels.
They have to listen to this podcast, right?
I mean, that is the whole idea. They listen, then want to be on it to talk about their org charts. The whole podcast is bait.
You have actually flipped a company before. You started VidCon with your brother — which was the conference for creators — then you flipped it to Viacom. What was that process like for you? Is that something you would do again?
I mean, weirdly it was the second company I sold. The first one was Subbable, which we sold to Patreon. It was basically the exact same thing Patreon did, except we had no tech. To sign up, you had to email someone to ask, “Can I be on your platform?” It was a wonderful, easy project to merge those two companies together. I am glad we did it.
The Viacom thing was much bigger and more complex, and I had to be really thoughtful about it. It has always been something I remain ambivalent about, though less so now that we have seen two years of pandemic. We would have gone bankrupt eight times during that period if there had not been a larger company behind us.
One of the reasons we so badly wanted to do it was because we felt very vulnerable to the world. I was not thinking of a pandemic specifically, but any instability is scary when you base your entire business on three days in the summer. I initially thought we were going to sell to a conference company. I thought, “Some company that runs conferences will run this conference.” I realized if we did that, the company would be trying to make as much profit as possible. Whereas a media company would be trying to make it as cool as possible, so that they look cool. We are not a big piece of Viacom’s budget over at VidCon.
That is the game for events at media companies. That is why they do it.
It seemed like a way better outcome than having somebody trying to squeeze every penny. You make a conference great by creating a cool event that can also serve to make you look good and help build connections, that way you can put your executives up on the stage. Your actual objective should be to make a good conference, rather than a profitable one.
You just said, “I hope someone gives me $10 million.” Having gone through the sale of two companies, are you like, “I need to sell at some point and walk off into the sunset”?
No, I don’t like the sunset. Sunsets are terrible. Have you ever really looked at one? So ugly.
But yes, I am a worker and I like to do stuff. I often wish I had time to do other work. I think about, “How do I create these businesses so that they have great leadership? Am I doing enough mentoring or enough systematizing of my own brain?” It is better than thinking, “It would all be much easier if I just do my own work and don’t have to help other people.”
I really like what both of my companies are doing right now, and I feel really good about them. It is hard, but I certainly do not think about acquisition for those companies. I think about, “How do I get great leadership to support me?”
Here come the Decoder questions. How many people are at these companies?
DFTBA — a company that helps creators make great products and sell those products to their communities — is about 50. There is product development and client support, but the majority are on the warehouse side. Complexly is also about 50 people, most of whom are focused on individual shows, though there are a few who sort of jump between teams.
Let’s focus on Complexly. We could do a whole episode on merch, logistics, and print-on-demand shipping.
Why do I know so much about any of that? That was not my intent.
I think I have to disclose that our merch store is DFTBA.
Vox does work with us.
Yeah, so go buy an EMAILS T-shirt. It will help us both out. The promo code is Decoder. It’s the best shirt that we all make together, to be honest with you. But let’s focus on Complexly. You said most people are focused on individual shows. How is it structured overall?
A lot of our editorial — the words that come out people’s mouths — is contract-based. With Crash Course specifically, we will be teaching a course on chemistry. We don’t want to hire a chemistry writer, just to fire them after a year-long course is finished, so we have a lot of expert contractors that do the fact-checking, syllabus stuff, course design, and the actual writing of the thing. We also have a sort of editorial team that knows how to turn smart people’s words into Crash Courses. It is similar to how it works over on SciShow or over on Eons, which is our prehistoric world podcast and YouTube show.
Those shows live in their worlds. They usually have a person who is in charge of editorial, who is not necessarily writing most of this stuff, but doing the management of contract people. Then there is a production team that is in charge of turning it into something pretty. At Crash Course, the graphics are actually outsourced to an amazing company in Canada called Thought Café, so we don’t have to figure out how to do all of that. If we look at our pie chart, the second biggest piece of the pie after employees is contractors.
We then have a person who is in charge of the content for the whole company and a person who is in charge of the editorial for the whole company. All of those editors who are on different shows report to a person in charge of editorial, and all the production people report to the content head. It is pretty clodged together; I did not think hard about how org structure works. I honestly didn’t listen to enough Decoder before I started.
If you listen to enough Decoder, you realize everyone is just making it up. Half the time they will say, “I changed it for the sake of change,” which is really interesting over time. “I just flipped the table so everyone would get a refresh,” is a real theme that comes up on the show.
Wow. Yeah. We have never done that, or maybe we have and we just rationalized it.
I think a lot of that happens too, and no one wants to admit to it. How many direct reports do you have as the CEO?
At Complexly, I think I have five: head of content, head of production, the COO, my assistant, and the chief of staff.
This is the hardest thing for me. I have a big management business function that I have to do as editor in chief, and then I have to be an individual creative on this show and other shows all the time. I find context-switching between those three things to be almost impossible. I need a full day of just walking around in a circle to reset my brain and go to the other thing. You make a lot of stuff. I would say your James Webb Space Telescope TikTok is one of my favorite pieces of internet content from the past year.
Yeah, that was fun.
You were really excited and in the moment, which is great, but you had to make it. I assume your COO was like, “We have a business deal to talk about,” but they just had to wait. How do you manage that split and time?
I don’t suffer much in switching. I find that once I am in a meeting, as long as I can keep my fingers off of Twitter, I stay in the meeting. Then once I am out of the meeting and on unscheduled time, I sort of slip into creative mode. That might be an unproductive creative mode, where I am trying not to yell at somebody on Twitter. I have switched over to that by the way; that time used to be for yelling at people on Twitter, now it is for trying not to. I think that is a huge step forward for me.
I have a Slack channel with three friends, where we tweet things at each other instead of tweeting it on Twitter. It is very good.
“Which of my YouTuber friends would most like this shitty tweet?”
I think, “Which of my YouTuber friends would most like this shitty tweet?” Then send it to them. I actually made that video while my wife was out of town and I was with my son, who was eating his lunch while watching YouTube videos. I was like, “I have a great idea for a TikTok. I’m going to go make this.”
Do you have to schedule your unscheduled time?
Do you have blocks on your calendar that are like, “Go mess with TikTok”?
Thursday, actually, which is wild. I don’t schedule anything on Thursday unless something is bad. Then I have Friday afternoons, which you are cutting into a little bit, to be honest.
This is creative work here.
Yeah, that’s right. There are usually several other periods of my week where there are four-hour blocks for breaks, but I don’t have that next week because there is a bunch of stuff going on.
Here is the classic Decoder question that you came on to answer. You have been at it for 15 years. You have two companies. You have weathered the shifting sands of platforms. How do you make decisions?
I mean, there are a bunch of different kinds of decisions. You have to balance your stakeholders. I’m really lucky in terms of the first two that I had. I was making this vlog together with my brother in 2007, and there were people who were watching it. That was it. I wasn’t even really a stakeholder at that point, because there was no money involved. It felt right to have the audience be a primary stakeholder and to have my brother be the most important member of that audience.
Oftentimes, I will be in a meeting where people are confused about what we should do, but it will be extraordinarily obvious to me because I’m thinking, “It doesn’t matter what that person or that advertiser wants. If we are going to lose credibility, support, and respect from the audience after this, then that costs way more than any mistake we could possibly make with an advertiser.” That is always the primary touch point for decisions — unless it’s family.
Explain that to me.
That is if my wife is like, “You have not seen your son in four days.”
Right. That makes sense to me. I understand that.
The family, because there is the Mafia boss of all educational YouTubers. If you don’t report correctly to the family, you get whacked. I don’t know if you have seen what happens out here. The family is serious.
I would say there is an underlying YouTube mafia. We will get to that in a minute.
You have 50 people at Complexly who are all working on channels. Is it all YouTube money paying the bills? Where does the revenue come from?
Oh gosh, no. It is a huge piece — I think maybe up to a third of our money comes straight from YouTube — but we have channels that are mostly supported by merchandise or by crowdfunding. As an example, Crash Course has crowdfunding, YouTube money, direct ad sales that we sell, and grants. No piece of that could go away if we still want to make the show. I think the biggest piece for Crash Course is crowdfunding.
So a third of the company’s revenue comes from YouTube. Is that going up? Is it going down? Could you walk away from YouTube?
I could not walk away from YouTube. I feel a little like a citizen.
No, both culturally and economically, I could not walk away from YouTube. That is a little bit like asking, “Could you walk away from America?” There are things I very much do not like about it, but I feel a little like a citizen, so that would be such a big decision to make for me culturally.
In terms of money, it is also no. The monetization, AdSense, is really quite powerful. We get a lot of views and a lot of money comes in from those views. There are not platforms that share revenue like that. A lot of our traffic comes from the YouTube recommendation system and from search. There aren’t a lot of platforms outside of YouTube that drive traffic to videos with search. The 55 percent is a big deal.
That is 55 percent of the revenue split. So you get 55 percent of the ad money and YouTube keeps 45 percent?
Yes. There are a lot of companies out there that would not work without that.
Let me push on “citizen of YouTube” for a minute.
It’s a big idea. YouTube, a company, is not benign. It has motives, it has a CEO.
I will say that this is also true of a country.
That is true, but you don’t get to vote out Susan Wojcicki. She is the CEO of YouTube. She has to deliver a revenue line to Google shareholders, and in turn to Alphabet shareholders. That is a very complicated structure.
Then there is the YouTube community. In the most reductive sense, are you a citizen of the YouTube community or of the YouTube company? Or is it both at once? How does that feel for you?
I think that it is impossible to disentangle them. I think that a lot of YouTubers think of themselves as part of the YouTube community and not of YouTube the company. I think you can have that be a separation you make in your head, but I don’t think it is a separation that exists in the real world.
The YouTube community is based on YouTube’s algorithms, which is based on YouTube’s business model. I would not be the first person to live in a place where I do not get to vote for the leader. The vast majority of societies were pre-democracy in some way.
There are levers, though. When you say, “You don’t get to vote out Susan Wojcicki,” I am thinking, “But what are the levers that people have?” People who work for YouTube, people who make content on YouTube, and advertisers, they all have some power over Susan. There are levers that people pull, and have pulled. We just watched it happen with Instagram. I don’t know when this is going to come out, but Instagram is getting a tremendous amount of pushback over the app being just straight up…
TikTok? Kim Kardashian is mad and Instagram is like, “We are very sorry. We will try something else.”
Kim Kardashian is basically like an oligarch of Instagram who has enough power to influence it. It’s all power structures. Of course, there are many ways in which YouTube is not a country. For example, I can leave, whereas citizens of countries cannot do so as easily. We have to recognize and accept the fact that we live a lot of our lives in places that are corporate autocracies, and that it is our choice to do so. I am more this way than most, but this is still the case for a lot of people.
The fact that it is our choice is what gives us a sense of freedom from the feeling of being in an actual autocracy, because we can always choose to leave. My businesses can’t choose to leave, but that is also kind of okay, in the same way that many people’s businesses couldn’t choose to leave a town. I try to understand the gravity and the significance of that relationship. It is bigger than most people think in terms of both business and our attention, which is the only thing that we have.
You said something that I want to key on a little bit, which is the algorithm shift that affects the community. I think every YouTube creator I have ever talked to is aware at their core that the distribution platform and its whims will directly affect what they make.
You can see it. A recent, philosophically bad example is how views on Johnny Depp/Amber Heard coverage skyrocketed. Hundreds of channels — video game channels in particular — suddenly pivoted to live courtroom reactions to monetize and get themselves in the partner program, explicitly saying that they will go back to making their original content afterwards.
I don’t think that dynamic is obvious to the audience, but you have been a part of this community for a long time. How do you see it play out? If there is an algo change, does the group text blow up saying, “We are all going to make train videos today”?
It is easier to see a shift when you look at two different platforms that have different algorithms, rather than YouTube alone. They may have different form factors or come into being at different moments in time. All that stuff tremendously impacts what kind of content gets made, what the culture of the platform is, how the creators behave, and what the creator’s incentives are.
It goes back to McLuhan. The medium is the message, and in this case, the algorithm is a really important part of the medium. The thing that gets created is going to be the thing that succeeds, though there are some things people won’t make even if it is successful. Some things, even if it’s not very much anymore. And new things won’t be made if they don’t succeed. Even if they do, it doesn’t matter because no one is going to see it anyways.
There are vast differences between television shows, Facebook videos, YouTube videos, tweets, TikToks, and Instagram reels. These things are very different from each other, and what succeeds on those platforms is different. Even in the case of vertical swipeable video, it may seem like the same medium on these different platforms, but very small changes have huge impacts. I think the difference between a YouTube video and a Facebook video is equal to the difference between a YouTube video and a TV show.
Let’s get into the weeds of it. You are, at the broadest brush, like a science YouTuber. Sometimes YouTube loves science. Other times, everyone is dressed up like Elsa and stabbing Elmo in the heart. Weird things happen on YouTube that suddenly gather views and nobody can predict or understand it. Even the people inside of YouTube are often surprised at what the algorithm has decided is trending today.
Yeah. I think that they worry about it.
They spend a lot of time asking, “What is our machine doing?” I cover tech and business; that is the thing I want to do. Though the traffic to our site may come from many platforms — including Google, so we do have some pressure there — we know that, “This is the thing we make and the audience will come to us directly for that content.”
It feels like for creators on platforms, there is only so much of that. You want to be a science channel, and other people want to be tech or beauty channels. Sometimes YouTube will say, “Yep, the audience will come to you for that content.” Other times it will say, “No, the audience is going somewhere else and your business will collapse.” Mechanically, how is that expressed for you? How does that feel? How does that work?
“You need to figure out how to disentangle yourself from the algorithm.”
You need to figure out how to disentangle yourself from the algorithm to some extent. It is great to have deeper relationships with individual people, but it also feels like there are two things at work here.
One is the decisions of human beings, which is the only input that algorithms get. When you get a higher click-through rate and your video does better, that is not being determined by the algorithm, it is being determined by a bunch of human beings making decisions. As with all content creators — forever, because even magazine covers are like this — you have to market your content somehow.
On YouTube, that is with a title and thumbnail. On TikTok, you have to figure out how to hook people so that they will watch for a little while, then you have to give them enough of a reward that they will click the like button or at least finish the video without swiping. You have to be aware of the things that the algorithm is probably taking into account, which is mostly the click-through rates and the watch-through time on YouTube. Then you have to create content that will actually inspire those actions.
There is a second thing at work here. My science videos are not being shown to every person in order to get a 3 percent click-through rate. They are being shown to people who are more likely to click on those science videos. If YouTube doesn’t know what your content is, if it cannot figure out who to show it to — because there are so many different kinds of people — then that is a YouTube failure, not a content failure. It’s a hard problem to solve. It reinforces making content for existing audiences.
When things like the Amber Heard/Johnny Depp mess happen, the algorithm will identify a new group of people, but to create that group you need a pretty big critical mass, you need a lot of time, and/or you need to spin it off from some other pre-existing group. It is harder for YouTube because they get way fewer data points than TikTok. You can probably watch 20 TikToks in the amount of time you spend watching one YouTube video.
It seems like you have to have a pretty analytical, logistical, and somewhat ruthless brain for all of this. You know what the algorithms want, you know what the platforms want, you know what the economics of the platforms are — because at the end of the day you are still trying to get paid, I assume — and you have to be a creative. You, in particular, have to manage 50 people through that process. How do you communicate all the stuff you know about the platform and how it should inform content to 50 people?
It’s hard. And it is important not to think that is everybody’s job.
We actually have an easier time writing a great episode of SciShow than we do marketing a great episode of SciShow. You have a 700-word script, where the title is only five to seven words, but by far those are the most important words in the script. The interplay between a thumbnail and a title, where you are going to have them sort of talking to each other, is important. Oftentimes my editorial team will want to tell people in the title, “Here is what’s in the video. This is what you’re going to get.” To which I say, “Well, now they feel like they don’t need to watch the video because they already got the information.”
This is the problem in all headlines. I now have enough information where I don’t need to consume the content inside. You have to figure out a way to get people almost a little confused, without making them believe something that is not true, which is another big problem. A headline can be true, but it can make somebody believe something that is not true. That is a line we have created internally at the company. People can be misled, because far more are just going to read the headline or title than are actually going to watch the video. Back in the day, I didn’t make YouTube videos. I wrote words.
You’re speaking in my language. This is great. Let’s talk about deks and ledes.
We don’t want every person in the company to be worrying about that. Now, we do want writers to be thinking about how to market the videos when they are writing the script, or at least in the pitch. I like to be in pitch meetings sometimes so I can say, “That is a cool thing about the universe, but who cares?”
Sometimes it’s fine to make videos that are only going to get 100,000 views. When it comes to marketing content, I will do it, then do a case study on it. Or I may look at an editorial team, or whoever else, and say, “Look at how this person solved this problem. This is a really complicated idea to get across in a title and a thumbnail. What is actually interesting about this topic? They did it by X strategy.”
I love that stuff. One of my favorite parts of being a YouTuber is trying to figure out how to get people to click on videos without being a bad person. I am always into doing that.
On that note, one of the worst aspects of journalism for me is that sometimes it feels like a zero-sum game. “Everyone is going to publish an iPhone review, and I have to make sure they pick mine.” Do you think about other science YouTubers as your competition, or that they are still in the community with you? What is that relationship like?
We are all friends. The only people we do not like are the ones who are lying or cheating in some way. They might make headlines that are kind of cheaty, they might make their videos by doing copyright infringement that we could not get away with, or their video is shoddily researched so it’s not a good source of information.
There is a little bit of drama in the educational YouTuber community, though. It is very impressive to me when people get them to work together, because that can be difficult to do. They are just so smart that everybody thinks they know the right way to do everything, yet everybody’s way of doing things is slightly different.
We do get together to play board games and be dumb, and have done so for the last 10 years. When there are new people who come up, the test is like, “Does your content inspire, amaze, and delight? And is it accurate?” If that is the case, there seems to be very little barrier once the algorithm decides that people are going to see it. Once other YouTubers start thinking, “oh my gosh, that’s interesting,” it seems to be quite an open place, as long as you are not being manipulative or misinforming people.
That is maybe the third time you have mentioned the algorithm as a sort of external force that will make a decision. I am picking up on that because I know you mentor a lot of creators, and you make a lot of videos about the platforms and the natures of the platforms. When I talk to folks, they really do see the algorithm as some external force that may or may not bless them. I’m always kind of like, “Yes, but no. There is a part of it that is in your control.” How do you give that advice to younger creators who come to you for guidance and mentorship?
It is very, “yes, but no.” It can be hard when the problem isn’t the algorithm, which is often the case; the hook isn’t “hooky” enough, or the hosting isn’t snappy enough. It is extremely crowded out there, so it’s tough.
Usually when I have long conversations with creators it is because I think their content is good, but the main thing there has to be obsession. It sort of sucks that there has to be an obsession with the difference between a 3.9 percent click-through rate and a 4.0 percent click-through rate. What were your view-to-like ratios on TikTok? What was different about this video? Why did this one pick up?
It can be straight magic on TikTok, because I think it almost intentionally introduces randomness into how it promotes content to get people more addicted. Randomness makes your brain try to figure things out, so it creates false narratives.
The main thing is, how do you select great topics? And then, how do you deal with success? It is easier to talk about because it is more transferable from person to person. Success is so different now than it was 10 years ago. I don’t have that experience. I don’t know what it would be like to try and start right now.
On that note, one of the things I have noticed in the pandemic is that these jobs have become very public, but very lonely. You are in Montana so you have always been somewhat isolated. Three years ago, someone in The Verge newsroom would publish a big scoop, and when they would walk into the newsroom people would know it. There was a little bit of a feedback loop, even though all the attention was really happening online.
Now, many people in these creative industries get famous online, but when they close the laptop lid they are still alone. It’s a weird thing that is happening right now. When you talk about dealing with success, is it because there is going to be a flood of weird agents and lawyers who come to you? Are strangers suddenly going to dissect the background of every video and be weird about you? Is it still going to feel lonely? That to me is the weirdest part of this entire moment.
It is all of those things. One of the hard parts of being a creative entrepreneur is that you have to be ambitious, but also balance it with something healthy. Ambition can be healthy, but it is usually early in a career. It comes from a little chip on your shoulder, from trying to prove yourself, or from trying to be more successful than the person you think sucks. There are a lot of dirty fuels that burn pretty hot and drive a lot of people — and I have certainly used them myself.
I try to talk about it in those terms. Also, if you go all in, you have to be able to come out, to some extent, whether that is every six months or every day. You have to have pieces of your self-worth and identity that are not connected to the 100,000 people that may love you, but who you have never met. What are the things that you are diversifying into that still bring you joy and make you feel valued?
I think I am lucky to have lived in Montana this whole time where my friends don’t care that much. When we talk, I whine about work and then they whine about work. It puts into perspective that I have a lot of cool things going on that I can feel good about, without comparing myself to other creators who are maybe getting more views per video. My friend who is a baker is worrying about bakery things while I am worrying about click-through rates. That’s just life. Some people worry about bakery things, and some people worry about YouTuber things.
I think this is actually a pretty good place to turn to TikTok. Not because of the bakery talk, even though bakery TikToks are very good. Small business TikTok is the best TikTok, in my opinion. You mentioned views for video. We talked about competition, and we talked about whether or not it is a zero-sum game. You are on this show because you tweeted to us about creator funds.
TikTok’s economics are set up as a zero-sum game. There is a fixed pot of money, a billion or so dollars, that they distribute to the creators on the platform per view. That is all the money, and the platform is obviously growing like a weed. That means the payouts are getting smaller and smaller. You made a very long video about this. I encourage everyone to go watch it.
You do a good job of summarizing it.
That’s the whole game. It’s just division. I feel like the Decoder audience in particular is going to be like, “There is a fixed pot of money and more people are eating the money, so the money is getting smaller.” You are on TikTok, and I would say I have seen more and more of you on TikTok over time because it is just easier to make. The cost of TikTok production is so much lower. How are you thinking about that balance between platforms? How do you think about TikTok?
To talk about TikTok, let’s first talk about Instagram, because I think it is fascinating. Instagram never shared revenue with creators. Well, it has, but it has done it in weird little temporary ways. It has never been like YouTube in that, “We are going to create a stable economic ecosystem where you know how much you are making, and you are making that money based on how effectively we can sell ads against your content.”
In order to have a viable business as an Instagram creator, you had to do it as a person who was going to be good at doing brand deals. So Instagram kind of created the idea of the brand deal a little bit. That was the way that you could be a professional Instagrammer.
Can you just quickly explain what a brand deal is for people?
Sure. A brand like L’Oreal comes to you and says, “We want you to talk about our shampoo in your TikTok or in your Instagram post.” It is a way of getting an advertising impression that is connected to the credibility and the authenticity of the creator.
That created an ecosystem where you could only be a professional if you were good at selling certain products. That meant that Instagram became focused on lifestyle and beauty content and aspirational content, not because there was anything intrinsic to Instagram about that kind of content, but because that was the economic incentive. You had to create aspirational content so people would want to have a life like yours so that you could sell them shampoo.
That seems like a huge miss to me. If you had created a platform where you could make money doing lots of different kinds of things, like YouTube did, then you would have a much bigger, cooler, impactful and interesting platform. That is not to say Instagram isn’t cool, but most of the interesting things going on there don’t make any money.
TikTok saw that and it was like, “Okay, why would we share a portion of our money with creators if Instagram figured out how to do it without sharing anything?” I think if you say that you are screwing yourself over, because you are saying only certain kinds of content that are good at selling stuff are going to be economically viable on your platform. At the same time, brand deals are working very well on TikTok. I don’t know if that is permanent. It seems it doesn’t need to be as aspirational. It is less, “You want my life,” and more like, “We have the same life, so trust me.”
“Instead of money, TikTok gives the creator attention. The creators then have to figure out how to turn that attention into money.”
The reality is, people are making plenty of money — not at a per-view level anywhere near the amount you make on YouTube, but they are figuring out how to make it work on TikTok. Instead of money, TikTok gives the creator attention. The creators then have to figure out how to turn that attention into money.
A lot of content still isn’t that good at that, though. The platform is limiting itself only to content that is good at helping people sell things for other people, or for themselves if they are big enough to create their own products. I think that is very limiting for the platform and very bad for the creators, because it means the content is not just what’s successful, it is also what can be turned into something monetizable.
Do you make money from TikTok?
I mean, no, but I do. The main way I have made money from TikTok is that I have a sock subscription. You get a different pair of socks delivered every month designed by an independent artist that we decide to collaborate with. All of the profit from the Sock Club goes to charity. So I don’t make money, but the Sock Club has donated over $1 million to charity. TikTok has been the biggest piece of the marketing for that.
TikTok is pretty good at converting. I get that. The success of YouTube just leads me to believe that the savvy move is to share revenue rather than create these static pools. But that is a very hard message to sell when you have gone from losing money every year to just printing cash. It is a hard sell to say, “Okay, we’re printing cash, but now we are going to give away half of it.”
I very much hope that YouTube puts that pressure on by having that relationship with Shorts, which has just exploded as well. My Shorts are doing better than my TikToks.
But Shorts are monetized by a creator fund.
Shorts are basically unmonetized, currently. They are monetized by creator fund, but for YouTube, Shorts are unmonetized. There are no advertisements running on them. It is just a hole that they are throwing money into right now. I’m like, “Okay, a creator fund is better than sharing 50 percent of nothing.” The moment YouTube launches its monetization product for Shorts has to be soon.
You have a different kind of relationship with YouTube than me. I ask YouTube questions and 35 comms people will lawyer out an answer until it is ground into dust.
I thought Neal’s answer on this podcast was really good though. He was like straight up, “We will share revenue on Shorts ads the same way we share revenue on everything else.”
That was a great episode with Neal. He’s great and I think he is very honest. But he only gets to say that because he already has the thing, and he can just promise the next thing forever. TikTok can’t say that because they don’t have the thing.
What thing don’t they have?
They don’t have an AdSense model that shares revenue like that. They just have a creator fund. YouTube already has the model everyone wants.
Do you think it is the model or the technology that is the problem? What’s the difficulty of launching the thing?
For YouTube, it is very easy to say, “We will extend our current advertising model from regular YouTube to Shorts.” The problem to solve there is that it’s not pre-roll, it’s in between swipes of video.
So you have to figure out who is responsible for the impression.
There is a little bit of a technology, business, and politics problem there. It is not unsolvable, because you can just expand a thing that you already have and say, “It’s going to work this way.” You also have the preexisting understanding from everyone that some huge percentage of the money coming in will go out. That “everyone” includes, again, Alphabet shareholders who know that YouTube is built this way, so you extend the model for them.
TikTok just has a giant Chinese corporation that no one can really pierce the veil of, and they have the Chinese government. They can’t necessarily be like, “We are changing our revenue model so that 55 percent of every incoming dollar goes out to creators.” That is a big change.
Right. So you’re saying it is harder to sell for the shareholders than it is to build the product?
Yes. Spotify is the best comparison I can make, actually. It is tangential but has the same problem. Every dollar you pay into Spotify, most of it goes out to artists.
Or record labels.
Sure, record labels, songwriters, and whoever. They are chasing increasing margins by doing podcasts, audiobooks, and all this other stuff, where they do not have that economic relationship. Then on the flip side, Spotify also has huge shareholders in the record labels, which own huge chunks of Spotify. They have a legal regime in this country, where they are regulated into having to pay certain amounts of license fees for music in certain ways. Creators get none of that.
That’s law. TikTok’s problem is, “Can we get shareholders on board with the idea that this would be a more dynamic, long-lasting ecosystem if we pay creators?” Not just putting the burden of monetization on them, but also doing some work to actually pay them more than 0.0000-whatever cents per view.
I know over the course of the past many years, you have made plenty of videos where you’re like, “YouTube is dumb for doing X,” and then YouTube will change it. My joke is that the life cycle of every YouTuber hits an inflection point where they make a YouTube video about how mad they are at YouTube. That is where everything changes. They become self-aware, like in Westworld. That video is when it happens. YouTube is responsive to its creative community that way. Do you think TikTok is responsive to its creative community in that way?
I don’t really. They are responsive to big, big, big creators, like Instagram is responsive to a Kardashian.
For example, a huge problem they have is that moderation is really automated, and there is very little recourse. I have friends who had accounts with over 1 million followers that just lost them. There is no recourse. I, Hank Green, could not get to them. That sounded very egotistical, but I have contacts inside TikTok. I was like, “What can we do for this person?” They will say, “Well, the person who handles that does not take my calls. I am not allowed to talk to them.”
There is just not enough infrastructure built up there. It feels more like the relationship between Facebook and its creators, where it is sort of like, “They are going to do whatever they are going to do.”
I think the concern is that if you give creators a little bit, they are going to expect more and more. “Just let them deal with us as we exist, and if we hear something that seems like a good feature change, then we will change that feature. But we will not say that we responded to the creator community. Imagine us as a black box instead of live people. People do not make these decisions; TikTok makes these decisions.” I think that is how most creators see it. They don’t think about it as a group of people.
Does that make it a viable hedge against YouTube? I know a lot of creators who think, “Okay, the audience is moving to TikTok.” The platforms certainly are terrified of the audience moving to TikTok. Economically, it just does not seem like a viable, sustainable, or stable hedge against something like YouTube.
What do you mean by hedge?
Earlier we talked about diversifying your revenue streams. I think Patreon is a viable hedge against the instability of YouTube.
“I am a straight up TikToker now.”
So for a creator, is TikTok a viable hedge? Okay. You know what? I think that creators are often super aware of the fact that they are in the attention game, rather than the money game. That is what motivates most of them at the beginning before any money is present. I think in that way, it is certainly an attention hedge, if not an economic one. At the same time, even after two-plus years of being a TikToker — like I am a straight up TikToker now — I do not feel like it is a stable place.
It is going to be interesting to see when that moment of self-awareness arises in enough people, because it happens on every platform. I remember when the relationship between Twitch and streamers was just so beautiful and loving and rosy, and everybody was so happy about every decision that Twitch made. Then at some point it was just like, “womp.”
I remember that happening with YouTube, too. We loved YouTube early on. There was never any drama between YouTube and YouTubers in the beginning. I think it’s been interesting, because it isn’t really when creators start to feel that way, it’s when audiences start listening to them about it.
Right now you can make a TikTok about how annoyed you are by some decision TikTok made, but it doesn’t matter unless the audience is going to watch that instead of the next thing that they could immediately swipe to. It’s just not going to get any views.
Do you think that mechanism, the swipe, actually insulates TikTok from that kind of criticism? You have a relationship with YouTubers in a way that you might not have a relationship with TikTokers.
Right. It does for now. That is, until the TikTok experience in the audience’s head is no longer all positive vibes. I think that right now the vast majority of people who use TikTok still picture them as an upstart, without having any idea of how big ByteDance is. “What a surprise. What a delightful little place.”
They think that TikTok is a little company fighting with the big dogs. It’s like an underdog story, and that feels really good. They think, “Well, give them time and some slack. TikTok is a tiny, little company.” As an American, you just don’t have any other interactions with ByteDance.
You just called yourself a TikToker. Are you a citizen of TikTok the same way you are a citizen of YouTube?
Is it a different feeling than being a YouTuber?
It feels much more surface-level. TikTok, for example, will send you a $200 flower arrangement, but they will not talk to you about whether your friend’s account got canceled. I think they may be cutting back on this a little bit, but for a while there the TikTok swag was out of hand. My wife was like, “You need to tell them to stop sending stuff.” We will see if it happens again, but this Christmas they sent everyone cakes, skateboard decks, hoodies, and boxes of stuff.
This is a company that does not have to make money. That is what that indicates to me. This is a company that is still totally in the burn phase and maybe will forever be in the burn phase.
I don’t think TikTok is in the burn phase anymore. I also think that spending $1,000 on a creator that is making them $100,000 is a great deal for them. If they can send somebody flowers instead of sharing revenue, that is a good deal.
I just realized I should say this. To the people I know at TikTok who are going to listen to the conversation, I want to say I’m sorry, this is how I feel. I would love to not feel this way. I would love to feel like you have the capacity to take on the complexity of the challenges you face. I would love to feel like you want to support creators the same way that YouTube does, but I don’t.
That’s the difference in the citizenship feeling for you.
Yes. I do feel like I love the TikTok community hugely, but this is where it gets complicated. There is so much creativity and there is so much air, so much light in the forest where there isn’t any on YouTube. There is so much opportunity to get discovered, and that means that the diversity of science creators is head and shoulders above YouTube; it’s younger, it’s more female, it’s more of color.
These are decisions people are making. People want content from different kinds of people, and I have loved that. I also love how culture just freaking happens. It is a huge driver of culture. I am happy to be on it, but I have a lot of concerns about it. I think it’s definitely a citizenship thing to not accept the place where you are as the way that it will always be.
Here’s what I’ll say about the diversity of creators: It feels like YouTube’s algorithms have settled in, and they are middle-aged. They are going to be who they are forever.
What do you inject into an algorithm to turn it into a 12-year-old again? We have to figure that out.
They all need to have midlife crises. The tech recommendation algorithm on YouTube needs to buy a convertible and be young again.
Just get really into model trains.
I heard you on Waveform with Marques [Brownlee], and I have talked to him about this as well. YouTube thinks that our videos should be shown to 97 percent men. When we look at the actual stats in the tech industry, 70 percent of purchase decisions in tech are made by women. So I know, based on the actual money that is spent, that women are very interested in technology and you can make content for them.
Then you run into this crusty old YouTube algorithm that is just very set in its ways. It’s like, “Dudes only.” TikTok just has not developed that rigidity, and it will just fire stuff at anybody to see what happens. That algorithmic dynamic seems like a great opportunity, and it also feels like a very big story about how culture works right now.
It is also very interesting because it’s a different question. “Will you watch this?” Versus, “Will you click on this?” I think we have biases about ourselves and about what content is for us in our own minds, too. I think that deciding to click on a technology review video or a science video might be a very different decision than whether I will watch it once it has already started playing. There is a difference there.
Going back to a previous moment in the conversation, when I think about how TikTok is structured, it is just so optimized for the best possible experience of the user, not the creator. It is starting to walk back from that a little bit. You start to put in more advertisements and you try to control things a little bit more so that you are not in burn-mode forever.
YouTube did this to TV. It was a much better user experience than TV, but now it has spent the last 10 years trying to create systems that make it not just pure Candyland, “We will promote whatever stuff does well even if it is extraordinarily destructive to society.” That leaves space open for somebody to come along with a set of features that is even better for users, that is also easy and fun to use.
We have talked a lot about YouTube and its algorithms, how they work, access to YouTube, and how there are levers to influence the CEO. We have also talked a lot about TikTok as a black box, and one of the most important elements of that, is that it is owned by a Chinese company that has some element of control of the Chinese government. They will dispute that actual mechanism of control, but there is something there. There are reports of data being shared with the Chinese government.
There was a story this morning about the Chinese government asking for a propaganda account that was not labeled as a propaganda account. YouTube and TikTok are like, “We have to push back against this.” The conversations are happening.
Does this give you any pause about participating in this platform?
Yes. I don’t know if I am doing the right thing. I have felt this way about YouTube to some extent. There was a time when it felt very values-neutral, or even values-positive to create YouTube videos. Then there was a time when it felt like I didn’t know if it does more harm than good. I feel that way about all of the social media platforms I engage with.
But this is different. I don’t know. I don’t feel like I have the expertise to know how different it is. I also don’t get the idea that anybody does.
I think that we all underestimate how powerful these platforms are. Generally, they don’t leverage that power for much more than increased revenue. The best actors out there try to use that power to bury misinformation. That is some of the work that they do, but almost all of it is, “how do we get people to stick to our platform to show them more ads.” It is just a money motive, but there is no reason why it couldn’t be used for a motive beyond that, whether that is to create division, stick certain narratives in people’s heads, or even just make people more chill.
Facebook has done research on the fact that they can make people happier or more sad by what they show them. They have been trying to optimize for more connection, which I don’t know that they have successfully ever done. That is such a weird thing to optimize for. It’s a weird amount of power for 10 people to have.
This is the weirdest thing about our current society that we don’t think a lot about. There is a huge amount of power being held in the hands of a board and a CEO, and maybe a couple of people around the CEO. Add a somewhat antagonistic foreign government into that equation, and it is an order of magnitude creepier and more worrying.
I don’t know how to interface with that. My hope is that I’m not actually drawing people onto the platform, but rather reaching them with good stuff while I’m there. Though I think that is a weaselly.
Do you think that you have to be there because that is where the audience is going?
I honestly don’t think about it that way. I use the platform because I find it very compelling to use. I could have a lot of answers to this question that would seem a little bit less troubling, but ultimately I think that we are all kind of chasing emotions and dopamine, and I am trying to be honest with myself about that. The audience is there, certainly that is a component of it, but it is just really fun to use.
It does seem way more fun than making YouTube videos. Instant feedback loop, right?
Yes. It’s weird because I am also a novelist, so I have the full gamut. I feel like I am going to work on one project for three years and no one is going to see it, then it is going to be another six months done before any consumer sees it. Take that versus a TikTok or a tweet, which are both instantaneous. I go from having an idea to having feedback on it in less than five seconds.
This is my whole thing. We have talked about a lot of platforms. Twitter has never paid anybody a dime.
They have also never paid themselves or their shareholders a dime.
That is true. Ultimately, if you believe that people are rationally, economically motivated, no one should tweet. Only disaster can befall you, and you will never make any money. Yet the whole media industry is like, “Let’s tweet!”
There are only like 12 people who have made money from their tweets.
Yes. None of this makes sense. We had Dave Wiskus on, who is CEO of Nebula, a streaming service. You are another one of the few creators who could go off and start your own little platform.
Am I? Anybody want to invest?
You have a big enough audience. Do you ever think, “Screw it, I’m leaving these algorithms behind. I am going to make my own thing and you can pay me two bucks a month for Hank Plus.”
It’s not an “or,” but I’ve thought about it in the “and” sense. We would have to make content for it, and I’m quite tired. But I do find that model very interesting, and I hope that it is a big part of the future.
It would be great seeing creators make stuff that is sort of in-between the quality of a YouTube video and a television show, that works because it is on a streaming platform. It would be great seeing different things that couldn’t exist otherwise because of that. I think that Nebula is probably one of the — if not the — standout versions of that.
“We would rather make a little bit of money from a lot of people, than a lot of money from a little bit of people.”
When Complexly and I have these conversations, which I even said in a meeting today, we are impact-focused. We would rather make a little bit of money from a lot of people, than a lot of money from a little bit of people. That is a reason why not to. Diversification feels very good though, and being able to make stuff you couldn’t otherwise also feels very good. There are a bunch of people in my company who want to do stuff we cannot afford, and we need to make more money for them.
I do want to end by talking about the socks, but here is my last question before that. You said you are very tired. I think about what you have done, which is build a stable business on the shifting sands of these platforms. I have read many stories where you have to go to YouTube to patiently explain to YouTube executives how YouTube works. Then you have to do TikTok, and then you have to think about this or that. It seems like building a business as a creator on these platforms, which are not stable, is exhausting. We hear about creator burnout all the time. Where are you in that? Are you burned out? Do we get another 15 years of Hank Green?
I am not burned out. I don’t think I have ever experienced what people are talking about when they say “burnout.” I have never experienced a collapse moment. I have had very bad moments in my career for sure, but usually they are not about overwork, they are about some external problem that I can’t solve. The things that have helped me with that are obviously having enough resources to get help. Usually when I say help I don’t mean therapy, though that is also good. I mean I have people to take the burdens off of me.
Other people to do things.
I am not as driven, because I am not surrounded by people who want the same things as me. I think that that is very self-reinforcing and a nice piece of it. I have a really supportive community of people who tell me to take a break when I need to. My brother is very supportive, and it has always been the two of us in this together. If I am having a hard time and whine to him, he will either tell me to stop whining and solve the problem, or that I am just whining for the sake of whining.
Life is hard, but I had the opportunity to choose a very interesting life that I love. Even if it contains hard parts, other people’s lives contain hard parts, too. I have managed to not feel burned out. I don’t know. I am definitely tired, but I wasn’t this tired before I had a child.
The additive of having a lot of stuff to do and also wanting to be a good dad is definitely tricky. It has me thinking more about, “How do I get great help?” I think that is probably a much bigger deal than I ever anticipated it would be. I don’t hear business people talking enough about succession or how to create really stable systems of excellent executives, which seems to me like the whole thing.
Yes. That is the whole show: How do you build a system that can operate itself? No one has told me the answer yet. If you are out there listening, Jeff [Bezos], give Hank $10 million and come on our show.
It’s true, when I had a kid, that switch flipped for me overnight. I had to spend a lot more time at home. There are a lot of stats out there that say that the thing young people want to be most is a YouTuber. It is the number one desired profession. Whenever I hear the stat, I’m like, “Sure. I want to be an NFL quarterback, but that is really hard and might not be sustainable.” Do you think being a YouTuber is a sustainable career now in 2022?
For a lot of people it is.
Even if you are new?
Yeah. I think that there are ways to do it. I think that it is more like when people wanted to be a rock star than when people wanted to be quarterbacks. Being a quarterback is not a super-transferable skill, it is very hard on your body, and it’s also a very select group of people. Wanting to be a rock star, you at least come out of it being great at guitar.
Wanting to be a YouTuber, I feel like you can come out of it being a better communicator and understanding marketing better. I feel like if you actually chase it to its logical conclusion, it’s like, “Oh, so you want a communications degree?” That is valuable. There are a lot of people who have great jobs with communications degrees.
I don’t think that is how most kids are thinking about it, but if they chase it, the skills that they develop trying to be a YouTuber are more transferable than trying to be a professional sports star. I am glad I wanted to be a rock star for a little bit so that I can play my son Simon & Garfunkel songs.
If the concern is more, “Are you setting yourself up for failure?” I think that dreams are kind of like that. The main thing about dreams is that once they become less interesting to you, whether that is because you are failing or because you are changing, you don’t have to hold yourself to a dream you don’t have anymore. That is the only thing I would say to those kids.
I agree with you there. I would say that for all the management talk on the show, being in a struggling local band was the best management training I ever received in my life.
Oh man, yeah.
You have four people in the room and they all have to start and stop on time. That is really hard.
And being on tour. Did you ever go on tour where you have five guys in a van with 1,000 T-shirts, just smelling each other for two months?
We hit our goal of playing the Metro in Chicago, which is the only thing I ever wanted. Then we were like, “That’s it.”
“Nothing left here.”
“Dream done. I’m going to become a tech reporter.”
It’s like, “I’m out. See everybody later.” We realized we didn’t have the next set of ambitions.
You have to have a member of the band who is mostly there to keep everybody else at peace and on time.
Once you don’t, it’s like, “Oh, this is over.”
It’s Joe DeGeorge. I love him so much.
My job in the band was to play guitar and Final Cut Pro. Those are my two instruments.
This is a whole other show, though. You have two subscription clubs for charity on top of everything else, Awesome Socks Club and Awesome Coffee Club. Tell us about those.
The whole idea is that we buy things we need and want, and in order to do that, you have to have a founder or stock shareholders who are getting rich somehow. But do we have to? Socks aren’t that complicated — though it turns out they are more complicated than I thought, and so is coffee. But really, do we have to? Can you have a situation where you buy socks, and instead of some strange rich person getting richer, could it just help build hospitals or something? That is the business model we are playing around with.
It is certainly not a unique idea. I have studied and looked a lot at Newman’s Own. There are ways that it makes things easier and there are ways that it makes things harder. Some of the ways it makes things harder surprised me, but the outcome has been very good overall. Many people have signed up. I think we have over 10,000 coffee subscribers and over 40,000 sock subscribers. This coffee club just launched recently.
Part of me is like, “Okay, there is going to be a sock company, and there is going to be a coffee company, and that is going to be great.” Then part of me is like, “We are going to take over the world! We’re going to be bigger than Amazon!” I have never been a person who thinks too much about what the goals are. I think more about what happens today, and what is happening today seems good. I am just going to chase it and do it. Whatever decision seems like the right decision, that’s later.
That’s amazing. Hank, you have given us so much time. Thank you for inviting yourself on Decoder. This was really fun.
Yeah. Thank you for asking good questions, knowing so much about this stuff, and also having a podcast that I like.
I appreciate it, man. We will talk to you later.
Decoder with Nilay Patel /
A podcast from The Verge about big ideas and other problems.