Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Don’t Forget To Be Awesome: The Vlogbrothers Turn 15

“Nerds like us are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff … Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-your-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it. When people call people nerds, mostly what they’re saying is, ‘You like stuff.’ Which is not a good insult at all. Like, ‘You are too enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness.'”

John Green, “Harry Potter Nerds Win At Life”

15 years ago today, John and Hank Green decided to communicate solely by video blog for a year, signaling the beginning of the phenomenon known as the Vlogbrothers. Over the years, that original gimmick has evolved to weekly videos from the Brothers Green on topics as diverse as the meaning of life and giraffe sex (yes, you read that correctly). They have created their own language of inside jokes, a shorthand that is cheerfully incoherent to anyone stumbling on a video out of context.

When faced with the prospect of trying to encapsulate what Vlogbrothers has done for a generation of nerds and the world at large, facts and figures are inadequate. Paragraphs could be devoted to how the Green brothers’ ability to mobilize nerdy passion for good has led to well over $14,000,000 in donations through the Project for Awesome alone and millions more for the Maternal Center of Excellence in Sierra Leone. In terms of cultural impact, the brothers have collectively sold millions of books, started multiple award-winning Internet projects, helped create the first wave of professional YouTubers, and continue to be role models for influencers today. But there will never be enough records broken or film deals or chart-topping podcasts to describe how watching John and Hank Green for 15 years will make you feel.

John and Hank offer more than just a path towards accepting the nerd within and learning how to nerd out responsibly. They offer the possibility of joy amid fear. John and Hank’s openness about their mental and physical health has made so many feel they aren’t alone in what can often be an unforgiving world for those with chronic illnesses. Their beautiful “Sunset Series” offers pockets of serenity for a world that sorely needs them. They make time for the everyday happiness of life, like John’s successful quest to find a Sing-a-ma-jig that plays “All Star” or Hank’s ode to anglerfish. The Vlogbrothers channel doesn’t ignore the sadder or less pleasant parts of life; some of their best video essays center around the struggle to find the light in the darkness. But they refuse to succumb to hopelessness. There is always a resource to share or a way to help, or even just a silly joke to bring a smile to your day.

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The Greens’ most enduring legacy, however, is the community they have created. While Nerdfighteria’s numbers have swelled (and shrunk) over the years, the core group of devoted viewers has remained as one of the kindest and most thoughtful fandoms out there. If you wander into the comment section on a Vlogbrothers video, you will find only constructive debates, top-tier dad jokes, and friendly interactions — a rarity on YouTube. You only have to look at the beautiful phenomenon that is Esther Day to see that this group is special.

We have John and Hank Green to thank for creating such a vibrant safe space that has become a home for thousands for the last 15 years. As John recently reflected in “I do this every. single. tuesday,” the consistency of Vlogbrothers videos makes the channel the most stable thing in many viewers’ lives. John and Hank are the rare content creators who grapple with the strange parasocial world they have found themselves in, and Hank’s “My Giant Robot Suit” should be required viewing for anyone who fancies themselves an influencer. It is this willingness to be introspective and engage directly with their audience that makes the Greens beloved and the community they have cultivated unique.

11 years ago, I, like so many other young viewers who found their way to Nerdfighteria, was aimlessly scrolling through YouTube’s front page. At 13, I was a goofy nerd who could talk for hours about Broadway musicals or Twilight, but I also worried a lot about the world and my place in it. Thus far, everything I had seen had taught me that in order to grow up, in order to make a difference, you had to abandon the “silly” passions that took focus away from the serious business of being an adult.

The Vlogbrothers were the first adults I encountered in media who were unapologetically dorky and yet incredibly successful. They drew on their faces with Sharpie, they did silly dances … but they also organized massive charity donations, wrote bestsellers, and started businesses. Their refusal to succumb to the notion that being a nerd is not desirable was so refreshing that it changed the way millions of young adults thought about the way their lives could unfold. I would not be the person I am today without their influence. I became a nurse because of John’s profile of Ethiopian healthcare workers, forever changing the direction of my life. The Vlogbrothers made caring about other people cool, not foolish or a romantic ideal.

“The story of humanity is not a story of a few people who had huge, gigantic effects on the world. That’s only the story we hear because it’s the easy story to tell. Caring for ourselves and other people is the only thing that has ever mattered to the future of our species, and sometimes even that care is very difficult, but other times it won’t be. And that, even when I’ve had really dark times in my life, is the one thing that I’ve tried to be sure about.”

Hank Green, “Redefining What it Means to Matter”
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One of the most iconic moments in Vlogbrothers fandom history occurred in 2013 when the brothers headlined a sold-out Carnegie Hall to support John’s book, The Fault in Our Stars. The evening had been filled with readings and performances from the likes of Neil Gaiman and Kimya Dawson, but the moment that has stuck with me for over 8 years now came during the finale. The Mountain Goats arrived to sing their hit “This Year,” and as each of the performers returned to the stage to join the festivities, John and Hank danced with reckless abandon in the background.

That moment encompasses so much of what it is to be a Nerdfighter: dancing like no one is watching while screaming the lyrics to a song about summoning the energy to carry on. The world may not be a perfect place, and we may not be perfect people, but we are people who are trying to make the world more perfect, and sometimes that’s enough. I am proud to call myself a Nerdfighter, but more importantly, I am proud of this community and all it has accomplished in 15 years. As they say in our hometown, don’t forget to be awesome.

“There will be feasting, and dancing, in Jerusalem next year,
I am gonna make it, through this year, if it kills me.
I am gonna make it through this year, if it kills me.”

The Mountain Goats, “This Year”

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