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TikTok Magic, train surfing, singing skeletons

Freddie Wong (RocketJump)

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Podcaster and filmmaker Freddie Wong — the co-founder of RocketJump and co-host of Story Break and Dungeons and Daddies — knows better than anyone that the way we consume media on the internet is constantly changing. And throughout it all, he's been paying close attention.

Today on Follow Friday, Freddie talks with Eric Johnson about why TikTok is funnier than any other social media app, a "terrifying" realization he had recently on Reddit, and four great accounts he follows online: A fascinating TikTokker who appears to be able to float; an anonymous travel vlogger who believes in "illegal freedom"; the most exciting animator on the internet right now; and a brilliant old-school YouTuber whose original videos are now a kind of time capsule.

And you can get a fifth follow recommendation from Freddie — as well as Ann Reardon, Mark Chrisler, and our future guests — when you back Follow Friday on Patreon, starting at just $1 a month.

Follow us:
- Freddie is on Twitter @fwong and he co-hosts the podcasts Story Break and Dungeons and Daddies
- This show is on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok @followfridaypod
- Eric is on Twitter @heyheyesj

Theme song written by Eric Johnson, and performed by Yona Marie. Show art by Dodi Hermawan.

Thank you to our amazing patrons: Jon, Justin, and Elizabeth
Full transcript of this episode
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ERIC JOHNSON: Today on Follow Friday, we're going to talk about magic powers, train surfing, Chernobyl, singing skeletons, Heffalumps and Woozles, giving money away to strangers, and Jar-Jar Binks. That's coming up in a minute with Freddie Wong.

ERIC [AD]: But first, a big thank you to Jon and Justin from Transistor.fm for backing Follow Friday on Patreon. Transistor is an independent podcast hosting company with a simple, modern interface for uploading audio, distributing your podcast, and viewing analytics. You can also make as many podcasts on Transistor as you want for no extra cost, and, if you're working with a team, you can invite additional users to access the show settings, upload episodes, view analytics, and more. Check them out at Transistor.fm.

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[theme song]

ERIC: I'm Eric Johnson, welcome to Follow Friday, a podcast about who you should follow online. Every week, I talk to creative people about who they follow and why. This is a guided tour to the best people on the internet, led by your favorite writers, podcasters, comedians, and more. If you like the show, please consider supporting it with a monthly donation of any amount at patreon.com/followfriday.

Today on the show is Freddie Wong, the co-founder of the Hollywood production company, RocketJump, which made the award-winning web series Video Game High School, among many other things. Freddie is also the co-host of a podcast that I adore called Story Break, where he and his colleagues, Matt Arnold and Will Campos, tried to outline a movie based on a ridiculous premise. You can find Freddie on Twitter and Instagram @fwong, and he's also on TikTok and YouTube at RocketJump. Freddie, welcome to Follow Friday!

FREDDIE WONG: Hello!

ERIC: Thank you so much for doing this.

FREDDIE: Yes, no, thank you for allowing me the space to point out some of my favorite internet things, which is basically all I do these days.

ERIC: I am looking forward to talking about your follows, but before we do, I do want to talk about Story Break for a moment. Currently you, Matt, and Will are trying to write a movie that — if it ever gets made — it's going to win all the Oscars. Do you want to explain the premise of your current mini-series?

FREDDIE: We have two modes on Story Break. The first mode is, we come up with a ridiculous idea, it could be anything, it could be something we hear on the news. One week was "Why did the chicken cross the road?" and we tried to envision what the feature film for that prompt would be, start to finish.

ERIC: Great episode, I love that one.

FREDDIE: One of my favorites as well. The other mode is we take one of our ideas that has resonated particularly with our audience and we try and actually write that script one page at a time, scene by scene, every week. The most recent sort of iteration of this we've been working on, a story off of our first episode, which was a Jar-Jar Binks standalone Star Wars movie. You know, the much-maligned character from Episode I, what if he got the Solo: A Star Wars Story treatment?

That's what we've been trying to do is, what is the war story, the Jar Jar standalone story, and it's very ridiculous. It also allows us to play with some of the things within the Star Wars fandom that nobody's really thinking about, nobody's talking about. For example, in this story, Jar Jar communes with Qui-Gon Jinn, the force ghost. And then we realized if it's a spy movie and someone's a ghost, there's no spy movie because they're a ghost! They could just go there and figure out what it is. In fact, a ghost is the most powerful spy you could have on your team, it's almost an unfair advantage.

ERIC: It's cheating!

FREDDIE: So trying to navigate those plot details while trying to tell a fun Jar Jar Binks-based star wars movie.

ERIC: I have to say I've been riveted. I mean, your first draft isn't even done yet and it's already better than most Star Wars movies.

FREDDIE: Ah careful! It's a lot of fun, and it'll never get made, but it would be made in your hearts, our hearts.

ERIC: That's the thing, and you also previously wrote another, or you drafted another kind of mini-series called Heaven Heist, which was maybe more likely to get made in the future?

FREDDIE: Maybe, we're actually exploring some stuff with that one, but that's one where it was just based on my own cultural upbringing and going to visit my ancestors and spending time at their grave sites. One of the things that you do in Chinese culture and some Asian cultures as well is you burn what's called joss paper, which is a very materialistic envisioning of the afterlife, because you need to burn these representations of money so that your ancestors will have that wealth, that money, in the afterlife.

I always remember asking my mom, "We're burning grandpa like 10 billion spirit bucks, inflation must be rampant!" It's got to be like a Weimar Republic hyperinflation scenario over there if everyone is getting billions of dollars of cash, and my mom waved it off, of course, but that was always just something that was funny to me. So we decided to do a heist movie, sort of supernatural heist movie, about a group of criminals who flatline themselves to get into Asian heaven, to convert and steal all the gold and money that we've been sending our ancestors, called Heaven Heist. So that was a very fun one and probably more plausible in comic book and/or movie form.

ERIC: Well, I am crossing my fingers for a future for both of these movies, but let's move on and find out who Freddie Wong follows online. You can follow along with us today. Every person he recommends will be linked in the show notes and in the transcript at FollowFridayPodcast.com.

So Freddie, before the show, I gave you a list of categories, and I asked you to tell me four people you follow who fit in those categories. Your first pick is in the category "someone you just started following", and you said the TikTok user @its557am.

FREDDIE: This person is fascinating, have you had a chance to look at this stuff?

ERIC: Yeah, for all of these, I've looked up some of their videos. I agree they're fascinating, and I honestly don't know how to describe them. Do you want to take a stab at that?

FREDDIE: Yeah, so let me preamble by saying that I'm a huge fan of these new platforms and the art that can happen on them that is endemic and specific to the platforms. I'm not interested in a cooking show on YouTube, I'm interested in what is the cooking show that works on YouTube.

ERIC: And only on YouTube.

FREDDIE: And only on YouTube, right. And that kind of art, the art that is so married with the function and the form at which it is expressed is I think the most incredible stuff. I gravitate towards the films that could only be films, these sort of visceral cinematic experiences that you don't get from reading a book, that is incomparable to watching a play.

When it comes to online video and these sort of digital forms of art and media, I think that we sleep on these new platforms and we write them off at our own risk. Because I think there are some genuinely fascinating explorations of the linear storytelling and filmmaking that shows up, and TikTok especially.

I think TikTok is very well-known originally for dance videos, and then it turned into where we see visual comedy and the sort of almost Edgar Wright-ian, even silent film/Charlie Chaplin-esque kind of setups and punchlines and deliveries and these very consolidated and concise jokes. And I think that the quality and rate of laughter you get browsing through TikTok is greater than any other medium, which I've had some thoughts on this with regards to how that may affect how we think about comedy in general. Because without the trappings of a narrative structure that comedy films often feel like they need to do, you get a different kind of thing.

I think sometimes that the humor you get off just a laugh is identical. You may get some more depth from that laugh from a story or a narrative behind it, but a hearty laugh is still a hearty laugh. Not the same way as something like crying at something or some of these other emotions, which I think a short form is not as well suited for. There's a reason why when we think about comedy, we think of standup comics and the delivery and setup and punchline of the concise sort of set and jokes.

But there's another world of TikTok too and this person is really fascinating to me because what they're doing, it's a series of videos that are shot in their apartment, and they appear to be floating. What they're pushing across in the meta-narrative of the comments and the responses to the videos is they have magic powers and they can float. They're doing these videos where it's like them just hanging out in their living room and the guy is almost in like a skydiver pose with his arms and legs off.

Obviously, there's some apparatus that's in place here and it's a feat of physical strength and balance to sort of get the right angle, but they're doing things very magician-esque, where they're sweeping underneath them to show that there are no wires and they're taking objects and passing them underneath their body to show it in a very, almost 19th-century stage magician way. It's just these strange late-night videos where you see their feet and it's just somebody floating on the ceiling and they're up there and they're in their bathroom and walking up the mirror, it's just very strange. And it's the kind of thing that for me, when I saw it, engendered this very curiosity, and what was fascinating about it was again, this meta-narrative.

We don't have a conservation in film with the people who make the film. It is just the work and our experience with it. But on TikTok, and these social media platforms, there is a conversation, there's an implicit presence of the author. So the way that this person is talking to people — and people will post a challenge and say hey, I bet you can't do it like this, and they'll respond to it and show it and do it. It's fascinating. It is equal parts magic trick, experimental cinema, it's a conversation, it's all of these things wrapped into one. It was just something that really was interesting to me and it really caught my eye. And it got me to really think about the ways in which people use TikTok that go beyond even YouTube, that go beyond even Instagram video and that go beyond cinema itself.

ERIC: Yeah, I'll elaborate on your point you were saying earlier ... For the most part, if you go to see a movie — I mean, I guess there are just some old theaters that do double features and stuff. But for the most part, a lot of art is enjoyed in its own vacuum, its own space. But on TikTok and other social media, you're seeing all this stuff back to back to back. TikTok, you just open it and it's just one video after the next, after the next, and so you might see 10 different, more conventional dancing videos, where it's just someone doing a weird new dance to a hit song. And then suddenly you get this guy who's floating in the air, or there's others where the editing is really glitchy where it seems like he's teleporting around the room? It's really hard to explain without seeing it, but I do think that the context of TikTok makes a big difference as to why this is so interesting to look at.

FREDDIE: I'm watching some of these right now to remind myself. There's one here where he appears to be floating in front of his refrigerator and he's pouring milk on himself. To me, it's the same level of interesting, sort of Dadaist art or even like this performance almost Charlie Kaufman-esque kind of spectacle. Because again, inherent to TikTok is the understanding that, for the most part, these are all videos filmed on someone's phone, and we're all familiar with that toolset, and the limitations inherent in a phone.

You could write an academic thesis on the aesthetic quality of vertical phone video, itself implying a degree of veracity for what you're looking at, which nobody thinks about. We all know how our phone camera works, and by knowing the limitations of the tools that we know that these people are using, that space creates mystery. Because you're looking at this image and you know how it's captured, but you can't figure out how it exists on someone's phone. This is what this guy does, I think, so well.

ERIC: Yeah, it's like a magician would say "Look at this, an ordinary deck of cards" or "An ordinary top hat" or whatever. This creator, its557am, they don't need to show you anything in advance because we already know what our cameras look like, how our cameras work. So then they can just go straight into breaking the rules, being weird. I think this is such a great recommendation. It's so unusual, and I think to your earlier point, such a TikTok-specific creative exercise. I really love this.

FREDDIE: It's 5:57 a.m.! Just a late night, just get into it, get weirded out and follow that thread. I think it's important to do that.

ERIC: That was the TikTok user @its557am. Freddie, let's move on to your next follow. I asked you for "someone who inspires you" and you said the YouTube user Shiey.

FREDDIE: This is a train surfer, an urban explorer/train surfer, and when we think about train surfing, I think there's an image of the American west and the depression and hobos on open box cars. But the reality of it is I cannot look away from this stuff, and I think that this is one of the most interesting and dynamic YouTube creators right now. And what he is, is he is a person who travels and explores these countries on foot and train-surfs. So he will show up somewhere and they'll find the train yard, they'll have spotted an area, sometimes he's with a few people, sometimes just by himself, outside a train yard and they wait for trains that they can run up to as they're going and hide under, and they'll cross borders into different countries. And there are a lot of things that this person is doing that I think is just completely incredible.

Number one, the narrative of these often hour-long, two-hour videos is told in this very linear… He has a Go-Pro on a stick, has a GoPro on his head, you just play through it and then there'll be a cut, and then we'll be somewhere a little bit further in the future. So it's a travelog that has stripped away all of the pretense and bulls**t around YouTube travelogs and online video travelogs. There are two things that he does: One, he rarely points the camera at himself, and when he does, he's wearing a mask. He was even wearing a mask before all the COVID stuff, because what he's doing is illegal and because he knows that there's an audience here, he needs to hide his identity.

So when I look at travelogs, I'm reminded by, I need to find the person who said this, but there's a Japanese filmmaker who basically talked about how terrible life would be if our eyes were in our hands, because we would be forced to look at ourselves all the time. And I think about that quote, like constantly in this world, where our eyes are in our hands. The way that we see the world is through, back at ourselves, and there's an inherent narcissism and there's an inherent selfishness to that point of view, and it elevates you yourself as the subject.

And people who want to get into it, I highly recommend anything from his illegal freedom series. He has a number where he walks into Chernobyl and spends time in Pripyat and they sleep in the abandoned office buildings and apartment complexes that are still there. They are evading the tourists that show up because they know that the tourists bring security guards and the security guards will kick them out, and it gives a perspective of travel that I've never seen before.

Also occasionally they'll get like a room or something like that, but he essentially hammock camps and once they get somewhere and it's late, he'll go off the road, find somewhere to tie up onto a tree and sleep for however much he can, often in freezing environments. But there's a sort of like veracity in these videos that you cannot find anywhere else.

And like the most recent one, he went across Bosnia [and] Herzegovina, there's this little thread of narrative work, you know, he's waiting for a train and they're waiting, and he finds a little stray puppy and he starts to feed this puppy, but he's like "I'm going to keep moving. I can't bring this puppy with me, but I'll bring him some food."

And then he finds a sick one, and there's this interaction there where they find a sick puppy, he doesn't know what to do. And on one hand, there's this tension of like, he's this traveler who the way he moves through this world is almost like invisible, this very light touch. He camps, he sets up a hammock on a tree, and he inhabits these abandoned spaces, so it's a very light touch. But then there's this animal in need, who's sick, who is dying, so then they just find someone in the middle of nowhere to hand it off. And there's this interaction that I keep going back to where he talks to this farmer and the person says, "No take this away." And he's like, "No it's sick though," and he holds a puppy up and the guy's face is blurred out, to protect his anonymity. The guy walks up to the box, he looks at it and he's like, "All right," and he waves him in.

That's such an authentic moment where two strangers came together and they understand that this animal is sick and they're going to take care of it, and there's nothing like this right now. And you have this incredible perspective, this on-the-ground perspective through these European countries, just absolutely beautiful from these trains; it's breathtaking. I think it's the best form of travel, I think it's honest travelog in the way that is just fascinating, and I think he's one of the greatest right now.

ERIC: Yeah, you mentioned that his main series of these trips is called Illegal Freedom. So I'm wondering, without putting yourself in any legal jeopardy, have you ever done anything like this?

FREDDIE: I've done my fair share of urban exploring and messing around, but watching this, I literally started to look at train yards differently and I started to think about OK, if I could I hop on this one... It's this feeling of there's this entire world and knowledge set that is not available to me that I don't interact with. I know that the way into this is you need to find someone to shepherd you into it and guide you a little bit. It's a very much a journeyman-apprentice kind of thing, it feels like. And it's this whole universe of seeing the world and travel that I really desperately want to do.

Then at the same time, you see a video where they got into Germany and they get seen, and the entire video is them running from the border police, and hiding in the woods as helicopters search for them. That's just incredible, it's something I want to do more of. But as I get older, I feel my physical limitations, you're just like ah man ... But at the same time, maybe this is the only way I could vicariously enjoy this. I also have a crippling fear of heights, too.

ERIC: That may be an issue.

FREDDIE: So that helps, because this guy every time he sees something tall, he has to get up on top of it, and you're brought along with that. Highly recommend this stuff, just truly just incredible filmmaking.

ERIC: When I was watching some of his videos, I was thinking, there's a whole genre of like stealth video games where you're trying to avoid being seen. But the thing is that a lot of times it's like, you're a spy and you're trying to avoid, there's like dozens of security guards and it's more about an enclosed indoor space. And so I think it'd be fascinating if there were a way of simulating this.

FREDDIE: Like an evasion in outdoor spaces, yeah.

ERIC: And it's like, you just have to get around.

FREDDIE: Yeah, and I think that also just the style of travel too ... we've all gone on vacations or gone to things where there's someone in our group who is like the itinerary person. You know, it's like, okay everyone's gonna meet for dinner at 6, we're going to go to this restaurant, that's all organized and laid out.

ERIC: Oh, that is me.

FREDDIE: Yeah, so that's one style of travel and this style is one that blows my mind. The idea of like, all right, I'm going to be here in Croatia, I'm going to be here in Ukraine, and I'm just going to try and get from point A to point B. And today, I'm just waiting for the train to take me there, and it might not come today, and I need to go camp tonight, but that's it.

And he talks about, and you get this sense of like this sort of wanderlust and this idea of just like walking through and letting things happen. And when they do happen, they happen and it's so in the moment, it's so like I need to get here and this is the next decision I'm making. Then one of his videos, he was going through Europe, they take a break and he's at a beach and he starts swimming around. And he talks about how it's like the feeling of being in danger, which is how he is the entire time. When you're on a train, when you're camping, you don't know what's around you, you need that in order for this moment — and it's him just in a paddle boat in a little touristy spot in Italy — for this moment to have so much more depth, the calm and the safety you feel here, is so much more palpable.

It really struck me because I think that we never put ourselves in that kind of almost animalistic fear. Especially in the comfortable life, you know, there's not a lot of situations where you find yourself where it's like, where I'm sleeping tonight, feels dangerous. This idea of I can't see this world around me, but I need sleep, it's this very primal sort of thing, and we just don't encounter that I think in modern life, as much as we did, and to put yourself in that, I think it's fascinating.

ERIC: Definitely. That was the YouTube user Shiey. We're going to take a quick break now, but we'll be back in a minute with Freddie Wong.

ERIC [AD]: Today's show is brought to you by The Edit from Timber. If you or your business does anything in podcasting, you should check it out. For $20 a month, you get access to a special area of Timber's Discord server, and every month, you can ask for feedback on up to an hour of podcast audio. That feedback comes from four podcasting experts: Shruti Ravindran, the former producer of Science Vs., Skye Pillsbury from Hot Pod, Jenna Spinelle from Penn State Universe, and me! Eric Johnson from the show you're listening to right now, Follow Friday! We'll give you notes on how your podcast sounds, where listeners might drop off, the story, the format, the writing, and more. And because this is a private group with a small cohort, you can rest easy sharing anything you've already published OR a draft of something you're still working on. Either way, no worries! Sign up today for just $20 a month at followfriday.net/timber. That's followfriday.net/timber.

ERIC: Welcome back to Follow Friday. Freddie, I asked you to tell me about "someone that you're jealous of" and you said Ian Worthington, who is on YouTube at Worthikids. He's also on Twitter, Instagram and Patreon at that username, Worthikids.

So he's an animator, and it looks like he's done a mixture of one-off shorts, and he's also working on a series about a food truck called Big Top Burger. Can you explain what he does and what you like about it?

FREDDIE: So Ian is — when I speak about genre, and I speak about platform and the things that you do explore — from a filmmaking animation standpoint, I think the most interesting dynamic animator online right now. He's doing a mixture of 2D animation, hand-drawn. And then also, more recently with these two videos that ... I think the best video of last year, this year, Dried Up Old Bones, which is I think a perfect internet video.

ERIC: Ooh, I haven't seen this one. Could you describe it?

FREDDIE: He's using Blender, he's using 3D tools to make it look like Claymation stop motion, and it looks like a film you might've watched in school or something, and it's absolutely visually aesthetically perfect. Dried Up Old Bones is one where the song, it's this little music video of a skeleton in the desert sort of singing a little dirge for himself and seeing the buzzards and the bugs gather around him, as he knows he's about to die.

You watch this and you'd be like, I swear, this is a film from the '70s, from an old Western song, and it's not. It's a film from December last year, and the song was written by another YouTube user, just some guy on a YouTube channel who just puts this stuff up.

SKELETON: [singing and playing guitar] There's a big hairy spider. He wants me to smile, so I will. He's dancin' on a rock, cause it's too hot for him to stand still. And look at those vultures, they've all stopped their activity. They're gathering round just to have their next meal, here with me.

FREDDIE: Everything about it feels, and has this aesthetic texture to it that I've never seen in CG before. It has this like handmade, very organic feeling sort of aesthetic that is so hard to achieve, I think, with digital tools, and the fact that he's doing this, and it's just so funny too. And he's doing this and his timing and his posing with his 2D stuff, and all of this ... it's a command of both humor and expression and cinematic storytelling and then textural storytelling. There's one he did with Justin McElroy called Free Apple, which looks like a cut scene from '80s Sierra point and click adventure game, and I'm just always blown away every time he uploads; hard recommend, all the stuff. Oh my God.

ERIC: You said you're jealous of him; have you done much animation in this style?

FREDDIE: Yeah, the reason why I'm jealous of him is because I'm a more traditional filmmaker by my hand, you know, it's cameras, it's actors and all that. I think I've spent maybe my whole life looking at animation, jealous of the control and the exaggeration that you can achieve with it, that still feels like it's within the bounds of the form. You're able to do these very exaggerated things. Some of my favorite animes are ones that take animation and push it to the absolute visual aesthetic limits. I'm always jealous of that skill set. Something like that I definitely feel like in another life, if I was better at drawing and spent more time indoors and was less social, in terms of like making friends who also wanted to make movies with me in high school, I would be doing animation, you know? And so yeah, that's a big reason for it.

ERIC: I was watching some of Ian's videos from Big Top Burger, from the series that he's working on, and my immediate comparison point was Justin Roiland's work like Rick and Morty, other shows like that.

FREDDIE: Yeah, and then also by the end, it's just such a more refined artistic style too, and there's a rhythm and a humor that you can establish in animation that can only be found in animation. And I think Xylophone, which Is just two guys in a band who are just stressing out backstage because there's a bunch of skeletons in the audience and they put xylophones in their last album. And of course skeletons like xylophones, and that's why. "We can't play in front of all these skeletons!" Just silly, ridiculous concepts that are just so funny.

ERIC: Yeah, and said you were envious of many animators when you were growing up, I mean, is there a specific style in your mind that really left an impression on you from a young age? You know, when you were starting to appreciate ... I mean, I guess you mentioned anime that really pushes the boundaries.

FREDDIE: Yeah, anime pushes it a lot. You know, as a kid, my parents tell me I was obsessed with like the old Winnie the Pooh and like the 2D Western style sort of stuff. Apparently, my mom would go grocery shopping for an hour and a half and she would just put the tape on: "He's not f**king moving anywhere, he's just sitting there the whole time." That's why I'm like all right, yeah, just didn't have a babysitter, just had Winnie the Pooh and my Legos. So I feel like I have these very deep sense memories of like the Heffalumps episode, Winnie the Pooh, the sound, the music, and also somewhere in the back of my head, just formative in that way, I just have that kicking around.

ERIC: Well, that was Ian Worthington, who is on YouTube at Worthikids.

We have time for one more follow today. Freddie, I asked you for "someone who has stopped posting, but needs to come back", and you said MrChicity3. In your email, you described MrChicity3 as an "original YouTube guy," explain what you meant by that.

FREDDIE: So you can look at the history of YouTube as this almost a generational thing. There were these waves of creators who came in and MrChicity was one of the early, early, early ones. I believe anybody who was doing YouTube before there was clear monetization in place, I think are incredible accounts. Because I think that the moment the promise and in a lot of ways, the possibility of being able to make money on YouTube, I think forever altered the trajectory of the content that got put on there.

Now there's always been ... I think inherent in the internet is this gamesmanship of eyeballs, this idea of, whatever you're doing, you're trying to get people to see it. There's this sort of very "kid in a crowded lunch room, holding their hand up, trying to get attention" quality. That's always been there, regardless of money. The injection of money into these spaces, changes that I think in a way that creates art that is simultaneously about attracting eyeballs, but also about turning a profit and about manipulating the algorithmic structures in place to be able to maximize profit. And again, I don't that anything is wrong with any of that, I just think it just changes what the art is, and I think MrChicity is an example of this.

Because I think YouTube now has become, indelibly, a form that is about money, and the way that I always felt is that when we started on YouTube, back in 2010, we were very scared to put advertising on our videos. We remember that, Brandon and myself, my partner at the time who we were working on YouTube videos with, we remember seeing Smosh enable pre-rolls, and everybody in their comments was like, "You guys are f**kin sellouts, I can't believe it." Just for a pre-roll ad!

What changed was, and I remember distinctly, there's such a difference in attitude, because back then we were scared. All of us, we were scared of putting on ads and we were letting Smosh kind of take the heat and then we would try it out and just be very careful of that. And now, the controversy around YouTube is that they don't put ads on things, right? Like, people are emailing and saying on Twitter that "I can't believe YouTube is not putting ads on my video."

So to go from "I'm terrified of putting advertising on my video" to "it's a problem when you don't put advertising on my video" is such a fundamental shift in the way people on that platform approach what they're doing. By the way, as I mentioned, Worthikids and Shiey, those are two people who also are like ... Shiey is not cutting in the middle of his thing to talk about ads. They're approaching it in just, in my opinion, the purer form, which is doing something worthwhile to watch, and MrChicity was as well.

There are so many things that MrChicity did that became YouTube things later, and the fact that he was there first and was getting visibility first. He was probably most well-known for a vlog style video, where he talks about keeping your refrigerator stocked with all the different types of drinks and the variety of things that you must offer. But then also this insight, you get this window into this person's life because they also are very proud of their "fine Italian tile" that they just got in their kitchen and stuff. It's this composite image of this character, just showing off their fridge, is masterful.

MRCHICITY3: "Oh yeah, one more thing. To the makers of Kool-Aid: Would you n***ers stop putting the juice all the way to the top? Because when I twist the motherf**king cap, I put ... the s**t explodes like a goddamn grenade. Then I got blue juice all over my white carpet. Look, man, I appreciate you trying to give me as much juice for the value, but look ... Look at this s**t. See now, the juice is all at the top. You see? Put the juice down here so that when I open it, it don't spill everywhere, OK? Trust me. I ain't gonna miss it. These motherf**kers cost like five for a dollar. OK? Thank you.

FREDDIE: But he was talking about the problem of monetization in YouTube a decade before anybody was even dealing with this. One of his videos — and I checked this, I tweeted about this — in 2008, he did a Christmas giveaway where he walked around with money, don't know where he got it and he was just giving it away to people and just getting them on camera.

ERIC: Strangers on the street, yeah.

FREDDIE: Which the formula of MrBeast, but MrBeast did it 10 years later. So this guy in this pre-protozoic YouTube period was doing the same format, that would then launch another creator to unparalleled heights of fame and money, that he was doing this first is incredible to me.

ERIC: But he was doing it in a time when the algorithm wasn't quite, or whether when the monetization wasn't the same, and so he didn't necessarily achieve the same escape velocity that MrBeast did.

FREDDIE: So that him getting a bunch of views on the video, you didn't look at that and say, "Well, that's how he's paying for it." There was no exploitation there. I'm not saying what MrBeast is doing is exploitation, but I'm saying that this feeling of like, oh there's a quid pro quo that I'm watching, which colors these videos. Which is, I watch it, and I'm like how is he able to afford that?

We're like, well, but he's got a sponsor and he's doing X, Y, and Z, and that's a reality of the situation. But with MrChicity, the question wasn't what is he getting out of this, and it was self-evident in the content of the video and you're seeing the people's reactions to it. And you weren't telling yourself, oh he's just paying for this from ads from his video, right? It's so different and such a different way of looking at an online video that we've forgotten. I think that money and profitability in YouTube is so endemic to it that it becomes impossible to remember a time and what the world looked like when it wasn't a part of this equation, and I think that he's this window into that. And he came back on Twitter and he's posting his 2K highlights and stuff which are of course always entertaining because 2k is hilarious, but again it's this hold over, and I think it's a time and an era that we'll not be going back to.

I think that, to an extent, TikTok has that, in that there's no clear direct monetization strategy for a lot of TikTok stuff, but at the same time, we're in an environment where to create things online is to also engender an expectation of money, and to bring that question of money into the equation. No matter what you do with it, whether you're a freelance writer or a journalist or a video creator or an illustrator, money is as part of the creation and the ecosystem. I think that that tension of what does money mean here showed up at the beginning of this year with NFTs, and the way that I think a lot of people looked at that and were dismissive of the underlying thing that NFTs represented. To me, I only read that as "this is the state of the general public and our feelings towards our digital entertainment." Which is I think is implicit and implied that where the money comes from should not come from ownership, but some other means, some sort of nebulous other means, which I don't have time to think about, but I just wanted to enjoy this thing.

ERIC: I remember back in I think 2008, which I think correct me if I'm wrong, this was after Video Game High School had started, maybe?

FREDDIE: We started with Video Game High School in 2011, so about four years before that.

ERIC: Okay, so 2008 I want to say was when Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog came around, that was like this web series with actual actors and an actual budget. I remember it, it seems like such a distant time ago, the idea that people are making video for the internet, and it's an actual series with scriptwriters and with money involved. This is around the time that MrChicity is making most of his videos, 2008, 2009, so just a completely different era of the internet.

FREDDIE: Yeah, and something that struck me the other day, which I've been thinking about, which is people were talking — I was on Reddit, and people were talking about 9/11 and people were talking about where they were. This one user posted the story about how they heard about it when they woke up, and their mom, and then they tuned into it on their TV and the news, and they were adjusting the antenna for the signal. And another user made this observation, which is it's crazy that this story sounds like it's from the '50s. Like, the way you're describing it feels like it's in the '50s. How terrifying is it to realize that the way that we interfaced with information just 20 years ago, is so unrecognizable to our present selves that it might as well have been half a century earlier, that it might as well have been almost 70 years ago?

That speaks to me I think to the dizzying pace of how that has changed and how the way we interface with the world has changed. I'm reading a lot right now about the 19th century, America pre-Civil War, during this Jacksonian Whigs years, and this is the same time when the newspaper shows up. At first, that too represented this shift, because prior to this, our understanding of the wider world was simply through our local interactions. And anything you would hear about happening across the Atlantic or whatever, gets only the biggest, most salient pieces get filtered down to the local level. And the newspaper changed that. For the longest time, people were just not quite sure what to do with all of this, like "What am I supposed to do with this information? I know now about the market in New York, I live out on a homestead somewhere. Now I know about what's happening in Europe, what am I supposed to do with this?" And I think it's the same thing now, just more so.

I remember showing my mom an article, this was a couple of years ago. I think it was in Bangladesh, the student protests and how the government was cracking down on it, there was a death and there was a whole thing, and my mom was like, "What am I supposed to do with this information?" Prior to this, even with the newspapers, we would have gotten just the high-level summary of this, but now I know. I saw the video that someone got run over, 5,000 miles away from where I'm at sitting. Sometimes I don't think our brains are equipped to be able to deal with this much information, this much visibility, this much real-time understanding of the world around us, without going just a little bit mad. I think that that's the consequence of our current informational era and I think it's always important to just slow down and recognize that even what we're seeing through our eyes is totally unprecedented. The level, the volume, the speed at which we're consuming things, understanding and processing the world around us. We've never been in a position like this, and I think that that is the struggle of the moment.

ERIC: Yeah, I went to journalism school some years back and when they were telling us about newsworthiness, one of the criteria that they taught us about was "information that the audience can act upon." So they can vote differently, they can spend their money differently or anything like that, but the world is so interconnected, it's so quickly connected that...

FREDDIE: Do you believe in this moment ... What percentage on a day-to-day basis do you think is information you can act upon at this point in time?

ERIC: Vanishingly small.

FREDDIE: Like nothing, right? There's nothing that we're getting, and I'm just looking right now at what's trending right now, and it's just Delta variant, OK, I guess I'll reconsider how I do masks. But then everything else is just like, "This popular tourist spot in China is fake." Who cares?! What meaning does this have for me, at all, anywhere? There's just so much stuff. Some random person I'm following, it's their birthday today, I don't really even know them in real life, but I do know that they were born today at some point. Who cares?

ERIC: You can act on that, you can wish them happy birthday; check the box.

FREDDIE: But is that all of our information now is just box checking and it's just rote?

ERIC: Anyway, we can go back to a simpler, calmer era of the internet, MrChicity3 on YouTube.

FREDDIE: Oh no, that Pandora's box is wide open and we're never going back, but sometimes you can find the artifacts.

ERIC: Or we can pretend.

FREDDIE: Sometimes you can find the artifacts and take a break.

ERIC: If you want to hear another follow recommendation from Freddie, you can get it by supporting Follow Friday on Patreon starting at just one dollar. If you go to patreon.com/followfriday and back us there, you'll get a bonus minisode later today. Big thank you to our amazing patrons for helping us make this show.

Freddie, thank you so much for sharing your follows with us today. Before we go, let's make sure listeners know how to find you and everything you're working on online. Where do you want people to follow you?

FREDDIE: Yeah, I'm @fwong on Twitter. Prove to you, I competed on there since the jump, that five-letter username. You can find me on my podcasts Story Break and Dungeons and Daddies, which is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast.

ERIC: Yeah, I actually should confess I haven't listened to Dungeons and Daddies myself, let's give the brief synopsis of this.

FREDDIE: Dungeons and Daddies is about four regular dads from the world that we know and love, who gets sucked into the world of fantasy that Dungeon and Dragon is in because they lose their kids on the way to a soccer game and they need to get their kids back. One thing I want to always emphasize is that one, it's not a BDSM podcast, despite the title, and two, we are not huge Dungeons and Dragons nerds, we are very, very light on the rules. If you know that Dungeons and Dragons involves rolling a dice and that dice have an outcome on decisions, you know everything you need to know to listen to the show.

ERIC: OK, sold, I have never played D&D, but I have that bare minimum, I've cleared the bar of the information I need to know to listen to Dungeons and Daddies.

FREDDIE: You're good, give it a shot, I'm very proud of the show, so give it a shot, let me know what you think.

ERIC: Will do! Well, follow me on Twitter @heyheyesj, and this show on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok @followfridaypod. Follow Friday's theme music was written by me and performed by Yona Marie. Our show art was illustrated by Dodi Hermawan.

That's all for this week. This is Eric Johnson, reminding you to talk about people behind their backs. When you do, say something nice. See you next Friday.

ERIC [AD]: One more time, don't forget to nominate us for the 16th Annual Podcast Awards. When you go to followfriday.net/podcastawards, you'll be asked to make an account with just really basic info — your name, your email, and the name of a podcaster who has influenced you. After that, just find the Technology category, select Follow Friday from the list of options, and click Save Nominations. One more time, that's followfriday.net/podcastawards. Please consider nominating us in the Technology category. The deadline to do so is July 31. Thank you!

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