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YouTube star, author Hank Green on why brother's book success didn't faze him

Victor Ren
vren@statesman.com
YouTube creator and and author Hank Green is coming to Austin on July 30.

If you've spent time on YouTube this past decade, you've probably watched something influenced by Hank Green’s videos.

Green has created some of the most popular channels on the platform. His educational videos on channels Crash Course and SciShow have garnered more than a billion views. The vlogging channel that he started with his brother, "The Fault in Our Stars" author John Green, has a following of more than 3.2 million subscribers and 788 million views. Green’s web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” won an Emmy in 2013 for Original Interactive Program.

Green co-founded Vidcon, a YouTube industry convention, with his brother; interviewed former President Barack Obama; and last year published a novel, “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.” The book is a sci-fi story about robots and a girl who finds herself going viral on the internet.

Austin fans will have the chance to see Green live July 30 at the State Theatre and receive a signed copy of his book with the purchase of a ticket. We spoke with Green last week about his inspiration for writing, his YouTube success and how he's seen the streaming platform evolve. 

On writing his debut novel

“The book took a really long time to write. A lot of that was because I didn’t know how to write a book,” Green said. “I would go a couple of months without writing anything. I had a lot of time to think about the story, which was really nice, because it gave me time to get familiar with the characters.”

Green said he is an avid reader and was able to draw inspiration from many of his favorite stories, including “Dune” by Frank Herbert and “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline.  

Green was never worried about his book being overshadowed by his brother's work.

“No book gets as popular as 'The Fault in Our Stars.' That doesn’t happen to books,” Green said. “It doesn’t strike me as a shame to never write anything like that. Neither will John ever again.”

YouTube fame

Green said he was internet famous at 30, but he already had a career, marriage and identity. A lot of younger YouTube creators don’t have that stability.

“I watched a lot of people get famous when they were teenagers and (didn't) have an identity, plus the first job they have is fame,” Green said. “That’s really hard. Part of the inspiration for the book was watching people go through that and wanting to help people who are going through that.”

Although not everyone is an internet celebrity, anyone can have a brush with virality, or at least visibility, online.

“A lot of people will have moments of fame," Green said. "For example, a significant amount of people will have their tweet pop up at the top of a Twitter feed. Also, all of us are introduced into fame, because we are a part of other people’s fame. People aren’t famous except in how they exist in our own mind. We need to think more carefully about that, especially now that we easily have more direct impact on people.”

Green recalled the time he wrote a snarky comment to tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and then was surprised when Musk took the time to reply to him. “We have grown into this," Green said. "We can actually interact with each other. I think it is a call to understand our similarities.”

Being in the public eye can be tiring for anyone, and that includes YouTube content creators who make videos for a living, Green said. 

“People are going to say mean things about Taylor Swift, and now it is a lot easier for us to actually reach her," Green said. “Taylor is protected from that by years in the industry and the amount of money she has to make herself feel better." Someone on YouTube making videos that have 100,000 views will probably be only making $40,000, which is an average living, Green says, but they won't have the same insulation from vitriol as stars like Swift.

Evolution of YouTube

Green said YouTube has changed dramatically from when he first started on the website, but he doesn't think that’s a bad thing.

“I realized a lot of what I’m nostalgic for is when it was just me and my friends, but now it is for everybody, and I am happy that people have an active platform with content feeding into it, Green said. “Also, now you can make money, so everybody is spending money.”

Green said there is content for everyone these days. 

“Early on, people didn’t know what kind of person was watching, because you had to have a high-speed internet connection, a computer, and be a person that would rather watch a crappy video than a network TV show,” Green said. “You used to have a cooking show, but now you have a cooking show for nerdy guys or teen girls. The format fractured in a way, that if you can create an audience that’s like, 50,000 people, there is a lot of depth in your audience."

Green said every popular YouTube channel now involves hours of time spent planning content, promotion and strategy. 

“Back then, the idea of a 'YouTuber' didn’t really exist. Now, it is a dream for some, and you can be famous or make money, so people will work harder,” Green said. “I think the people that get popular on YouTube are smart, even if they didn’t get straight A’s in school. They are super sharp.”

The question of how to create successful video content is a chief concern for a YouTube creator, and the content has to be something that grabs the viewer’s attention, Green said. It can be tough because that content is not always something the creator wants to watch themselves. Green said he weighs his content against the YouTube algorithm and the effect he thinks it could have on the lives of his audience. 

The popularity of YouTube has opened the doors for everyone to become a creator, and in the past only a few people could do that, Green said. 

“A lot of times the easiest thing to do is look at the most popular thing, but the most interesting thing about digital media is the amount of people that get to be creators,” Green said. “It used to be decided by a dozen people in L.A. Now everyone can do it.”

IF YOU GO

When: 6:30 p.m. doors, 7:30 p.m. show July 30

Where: State Theatre (719 Congress Ave.)

Tickets: $41.50

Information: austintheatre.org