Reading a Hacker News post linked to a YouTube video yesterday, I spotted this comment by user tomerico:
I think [Shane Wighton's Stuff Made Here YouTube channel] illustrates well the transition from personal blogs to youtube videos.
If you go to his projects blog, https://shane.engineer/ you could see very detailed blog posts in the past that go deeply into the engineering, including code snippets. However, he only really go traction when starting to publish youtube videos, specifically youtube video with a clickbait subject (such as a self aiming basketball hoop).
What YouTube provides is a highly competitive environment that provides creators with constant feedback. This allowed him to identify and his niche as he uploaded more videos. With YouTube, the exposure these projects receive is orders of magnitude higher, while empowering its creators to be self sustainable with ads (and sponsors, patreon, and merch) revenue.
Aside: It's funny how meta HN gets at times—that was the top comment on a post about a haircut robot.
As someone who is currently experimenting with my own YouTube channel, this comment hit home.
Specifically, this past year I've tried to balance two sometimes-conflicting goals:
- Share deep knowledge on some topics I find fascinating.
- Expanding my audience and finding rewarding avenues for sharing my content.
To the first goal, I often write blog posts for myself. And video is not a great medium for storing and sharing technical content, especially because videos are linear (harder to skim) and their content can't be edited and updated—at least not easily.
And to the second goal, YouTube offers a small reward if you are able to 'monetize' your YouTube channel (the bar is not insignificant if you're just starting out), but worthwhile monetization requires hacking at the YouTube algorithm, and starts pulling your content in directions you might not have wanted to go.
For example, YouTube seems to highly reward total watch time—often more than total views—so if you can stretch a 2 minute video to 4 or 5 minutes without losing people's interest, it is in your best interest to do so.
And that's not accounting for the 10 minute lower limit (soon to be reduced to 8 minutes) YouTube puts on videos for enabling 'mid-roll ads', which entices many people to inflate every video to be at least that long, so they can jam another monetized ad or two into the middle and earn more revenue per viewer.
Even outside the watch time limits, other metrics like impression click-through rate are hugely important, as the algorithm resurfaces content that gets more clicks, and catchy thumbnails and clickbait titles are basically minimum requirements for any channel that wants to get traction.
So far I'm just talking about YouTube, and video content. Other platforms, like Medium, have their own algorithmic tics that entice certain behaviors—which often battle with the main goal, sharing some interesting viewpoints or content with your readers.
It wasn't always this way
I remember when I started blogging. There were blog rings, blogrolls, and every blog on the planet had an RSS feed. Blogging software would 'ping back' or 'track back' other blog posts when they were mentioned, reinforcing the network effect. It was kind of a decentralized network of content. It still required some work to build an audience, but the feedback and reward mechanisms were a lot different.
If you could get people to subscribe to your blog, you had a more or less guaranteed audience for new posts—short of annoying them so badly they deleted your feed. If people liked your content, they subscribed to the RSS feed, and then they'd see new things you posted when you posted them.
But after AOL keywords and centralized web directories died off, companies realized that monetizing RSS was really hard (and, to be honest, it still is), and so it kind of fell by the wayside as new platforms and social media dropped RSS feeds and RSS import functionality over time, and replaced them with their walled content gardens.
Heck, even on Reddit, where the idea used to be "discussing links and external content," the majority of subs now reject external posts as "blog spam" and enforce posting content and images directly inside the platform.
Image from AppleInsider.
Did you know some browsers like Safari even had built-in RSS readers for a time? That feature was dropped in the late 2010s as walled content gardens arose, and now RSS is withering on the vine, at least outside the tech bubble.
So now, the only way to know your content will be surfaced to the world is to either try to get it visible on Reddit, HN, or other content aggregation sites, or post to sites like Medium. As much as we like to hate Medium and its ilk, the problem is for 99% of bloggers, there is no real way to build an audience unless you also spend a lot of time marketing your content and trying to build newsletters and a social media following.
And who of us likes doing that? I know I feel dirty every time I open up Mailchimp and send out a newsletter to my modest-sized mailing list for my Ansible books. And it'll be a cold day in hell before I'd consider an email popup form on this blog.
Barriers on YouTube
Getting back to YouTube, though, a transition from written content to video is daunting, at best.
At a minimum, if you have a semi-decent microphone, you could do screencasts. There are plenty of screen recording apps (or even built-in screen recording on the Mac) that make it easy to record with a mic input.
But good video content requires at least minimal editing, or doing a huge number of takes to get a good run-through, so at a minimum, you have to not only write up an outline or a script (as you would for a blog post), you also have to record one or more full takes, and then likely spend some time editing.
And that's the bare minimum for technical content like I'd share on this blog.
If you actually want to gain an audience, and have video content that is more watchable, the bar starts getting much higher. If you want to appear on camera, you'll quickly realize the importance of decent lighting, a good camera, proper framing, and better editing.
And down the rabbit hole you go.
If I didn't already have a background in photography and video work, my channel would not have grown to be at a minimally-sustainable level this year.
I'm also extremely lucky with my timing: just before the pandemic shutdown most of the USA, I had decided to dabble in live streaming, so I bought a Cam Link, Teleprompter, and a few other helpful accessories before they were out of stock and scalpers drove prices for these essential devices to the moon.
On top of that, if you want to appear on the camera, and put a face to your channel, the bar is raised even higher than for writing—I could finish a blog post any time of day, anywhere in the house, while my kids are jumping around making a ton of noise. Few people could pull off recording themselves on camera in a similar situation (well, maybe vloggers...) and get any traction on YouTube.
Benefits of YouTube
So why try YouTube?
Well, for me, the impact was gradual at first, but the benefits became much more apparent over time. Instead of most of my blog posts ending up in a black hole, to be seen by maybe dozens of people at best, every video had a guaranteed audience, which expanded as my subscriber base grew.
Say what you will about comments, but many regular commenters who follow my channel provide much more insight than I'd typically get from random drive-by comments on a blog post from time to time.
I still try to post a companion blog post (usually with more detail, and updated over time) for any video I publish, but that can be difficult, because the outline, structure, and writing style for a video is usually different than for a well-written blog post, so it takes a bit of time to translate content from one medium to the other.
And in my limited time doing this, I've found the YouTube version of the content usually offers a much more immediate and tangible reward in the form of ad revenue and comments; most of my blog posts still wither on the vine.
I guess it's ironic that I posted a blog post about this topic instead of a YouTube video.
But I'll never consider giving up my blog—there are still many short pieces of written content that are much better displayed here. Also, having my own persistent 'home' on the Internet is essential, as I've seen platforms come and go every decade. And having a searchable public reference of my tech work is invaluable to me.
In the end, I wanted to share some of my thoughts as a blogger-gone-YouTuber, to help other people consider the decision for themselves.