There are internet cults. And there is ‘Nerdfighteria’.
On 1 January 2007 Hank and John Green, two brothers in their late 20s who weren’t particularly close, started a year-long project of posting video messages to each other on YouTube — a project that they called Brotherhood 2.0. During that time they didn’t text, or email, or use any other kind of messaging service: it was their only way of communicating with each other (other than in person). Perhaps more by accident than by design, when the end of the year came around they had 40,000 subscribers. And they announced that, although that project was going to come to an end, they were going to keep posting 4 minute videos for each other. And they have been doing it now for just over a decade.
Now major internet stars, they epitomise (for me at least) the best of the new generation of YouTube polymaths. In additional to their immensely popular Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, they have set up (in collaboration with YouTube) channels of educational videos that are so popular in the United States that they are frequently used in schools. They have created charity projects that have raised many millions. John is a novelist who has penned the phenomenally popular The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns. Hank has so many projects it’s hard to know where to start, but he is in a punk band, is an environmental activist, and is now novelist too with the publication last Tuesday of his first novel, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. Both regularly feature on multiple YouTube channels and in multiple podcasts. John has interviewed Bill Gates. Hank has interviewed Barack Obama. I could go on, but all of this is just scratching the surface, so here’s Hank with a summary:
So, collectively 8 million YouTube subscribers, with videos collectively viewed over a billion times. Does that mean anything? Yes, of course it does. However much those in mainstream media might dismiss the idea of being ‘internet famous’, very few of them can say that over 8 million people have consciously decided to regularly follow their work. Then again, they’re becoming increasingly mainstream-famous too, with Hollywood movies made of two of John’s books, praise from the likes of J.K. Rowling and Taylor Swift, and both of them are known to a whole generation as “the dudes that present Crash Course”.
But I think Hank and John Green are fundamentally internet dwellers. And understanding their success is impossible without understanding the nation of Nerdfighteria. Which is the name that they give to their online community of fans. Although the Vlogbrothers videos are ostensibly directed to each other, they’re really directed towards a huge audience of predominantly self-identifying nerds who have collectively created a whole subculture.
And this culture has directly fed back into the Green brothers’ work. For example, one fan, Easter Earl who died at the age of 16 from thyroid cancer, was a direct inspiration for The Fault In Our Stars, and led the brothers to instate ‘Ester Day’, an annual celebration in which ‘nerdfighters’ are encouraged to tell friends and family that they love them.
Now, I’m normally extremely wary of the word ‘philanthropist’ because it is so often preceded by the words “Billionaire, weapons manufacturer, ivory collector and…” but if it has a sincere meaning then it definitely applies to these two, because when they found themselves in the possession of a huge audience they used it to set up the Project for Awesome, which has currently raised over $2 million. Hank also co-founded the Internet Creators Guild, an organisation to protect the rights and promote the interests of other online creators (contributors include Anna Akana and Casey Neisat).
Oh, and somewhere along the way, bizarrely but yet very much in character, John managed to fall in love with English 3rd tier football club AFC Wimbledon. Which, in classic Green brothers fashion, is a story that starts in comic surrealism and ends in a touching celebration of community:
Yeah, I could go on. There are so many projects, so many events, so many subreddits. And when I come to the standard Eulogize This question of ‘what’s so great about them?’… I kind of feel that if it’s not obvious by now it’s hard to explain. in just over a decade they have produced a vast amount of… I don’t even know what to call it — ‘content’ sounds too reductive. But award-winning novels, charities, support organisations, video blogs, educational series… Prolific doesn’t begin to describe it, and as far as I can tell it’s all incredibly high quality.
But more generally, I think they’re a fascinating duo, because they are also at the vanguard of the YouTube revolution. They are part of an internet community that is building audiences of millions with little or no input from mainstream media, and is redefining how our popular culture conversations are conducted. And that could perhaps seem like scary thing, so isn’t it reassuring that here it is being done by two people who are obsessed with kindness, evidence-based knowledge, Happy Potter, the planet Mars, AFC Wimbledon, and imagining other people complexly.
This last point, imagining others complexly, has become one of the keystones of the Green philosophy and runs through almost everything they do. And it’s worth stopping and thinking about. It’s not the same as imagining that everybody is good or right, or assuming that every argument has validity if you look at it from other points of view. It is simply a commitment to make the effort to never dehumanise people by imagining them to be simple, which they never are. This is easy to do when you decide to do it, of course, but it’s hard to make a habit of. Which is why I think John’s video made after Donald Trump’s presidential victory is a good example of the care and nuance that they take when discussing complex and problematic subjects:
Whilst imagining others complexly might be a guiding principle of Nerdfighteria, it’s not actually the official motto. The official motto, right since the early days, is ‘Don’t Forget To Be Awesome’ (DFTBA). It’s a nice, fun, silly sign-off for their videos, but also, perhaps, it means the same thing.
I’m going to wind this up with a YouTube video that I’ve had on loop in my mind for the last couple of weeks. John and Hank had a Vlogbrothers argument about whether Batman is just a rich guy with an affinity for bats who’s playing out his insane fantasy. (Spoiler: yes.) And the video got ‘songified’. Now, as the video says, we can all dance the sound of brothers fighting.
By James Bell
Trad singer, songwriter and romantic fundamentalist.