: Have you ever gone way down the YouTube rabbit hole? You know, you watch one video, and then the algorithm gets you and you watch another and another? I do this a lot, probably more than is healthy, and one the creators whose videos I can't get enough of is today's guest, Tom Scott. If you know Tom, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you don't know Tom, then you have hours and hours of great entertainment ahead on his YouTube channel.
BUT! First, it is Follow Friday, so we're going to talk with Tom about who he follows online.
You're listening to the public feed of Follow Friday, which means you're going to hear about four of Tom's favorite follows. And you can get a bonus fifth follow by supporting this podcast at patreon.com/followfriday
. The XL version of this very podcast should be out right now, so go to patreon.com/followfriday
and consider becoming a supporter for as little as one dollar a month.
Thank you to our patrons, and to everyone who has told a friend about Follow Friday, or shared it on Instagram or Twitter or wherever else. Your support means the world to me.
Today's show is also brought to you in part by Timber, a service for craft-loving indie podcasters that combines coaching and hosting. When you host your show with Timber, you'll get one-on-one expert feedback from industry professionals. Check it out at timber.fm
OK, let's hit the theme song. Turn it up.
: I'm Eric Johnson. Welcome to Follow Friday, the 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.
Today on the show is Tom Scott, an educator and web developer best known for his YouTube channel, where he shares fascinating stories about science, history, language, and more. You can find Tom on YouTube
@tomscottgo and on Facebook
Tom, welcome to Follow Friday!TOM
: Thanks for having me.ERIC
: I'm so excited to have you here. And I've been watching your channel for, I think about a year now. I think it was last year when you put out your Jingle Bells (Batman Smells) video. Does that sound right?TOM
: Probably, time is meaningless at the moment.ERIC
: That was the gateway drug for me was that YouTube recommended that video. And after that, I was lost in the years and years of great videos you've made.TOM
: Yeah. I've been doing this for a while.ERIC
: Well, one of my favorite things about your channel is that you're not only passionate about the topics you're covering, but you often travel to really interesting places. It's also kind of a bit of a travel show, that you go places. I don't know if you have an answer for this off the top of your head, but what's the most intense trip that you've taken for a video?TOM
: Oh, probably the Arctic trip many, many years ago. I wish I could do it again now because I think I'd do such a better job. I generally hate anything I've done more than about two years ago and despise anything I've done more than about five years ago. And the Arctic trip is five years ago now.
So, getting the chance to do that again, there's so many things I'd do differently. This was a trip up to the high Arctic, Greenland and the Canadian north. I have talked about this at length in the past, I will point you to that. But in terms of intensity, it was three weeks, cut off from the world on a Russian icebreaker that had been converted into a floating "cruise ship?" Sort of? There's a big question mark over that. It looks like someone's put a cube on a big boat and it's not aerodynamic. It doesn't have to be, it just has to barge its way through ice.
That was a small group of us as part of a tour of about 100 people, maybe 150, 200 on the entire ship if you include the crew. And that was it, away from everywhere for three weeks.
And it's very strange when you recognize, at least for someone who lives in the city and travels a lot, it's very strange when your entire universe is about 200 faces. About halfway through, a couple of extra people joined us because we had to change helicopter pilots, which is a whole story in itself and there were two new people on the ship. We were like, "Who are they? We haven't seen them before!"ERIC
: So in terms of intensity, that was easily the strongest.ERIC
: I got to go check that out. I've not gotten that far into the archives.TOM
: Honestly, if anyone's that far into the archives at this point, I start to get worried about them.ERIC
: Well, I do know, I thought that I was introduced to your channel only a year ago, but then I was looking at your most popular videos prepping for this interview. And I saw that you did an early viral video, Two Drums and a Cymbal Fall Off a Cliff, maybe about 10 years ago.
[clip from video]TOM
: You've heard the old joke that goes, "Two drums and a cymbal fall off a cliff. Right, well we've got ... two drums, a cymbal ... and a cliff!"
: I'm assuming this was way before you were thinking of YouTube as something that would be a profession for you. That was just sort of a fun side video, just for fun?TOM
: I've been throwing stuff on the internet since I was young, probably since before the year 2000. It's all a bit of a blur from back then, but yeah. I used YouTube for a long time as a dumping ground for any project that happened to include video, because it was a miracle in 2006, 2007 that someone was going to do this ruinously expensive job of hosting video and they were going to do it for free. And they were going to do it so it just worked everywhere.
"Yeah, absolutely, we'll happily help you. Oh, I can embed it in my website? Great. You'll do everything. Brilliant. I'll just do that." And then at some point, many years later, I figured out, "Oh, all the advice they had about channels and branding, now that makes sense. Okay. I probably should have been paying attention to that 10 years earlier.ERIC
: Well, however you get there, you've got one extremely popular channel. And now you've got Tom Scott Plus, which has recently launched, which you're going off and doing other types of longer projects. You're collaborating with other YouTubers, so you've got a lot of great stuff going on.TOM
: The gag there being that every video is plus someone else.ERIC
: Yes. All right. Well, speaking of someone elses, let's find out who Tom Scott 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.
Tom, 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 super talented, who is still under the radar". And you said Rollie Williams, the host of the YouTube channel Climate Town
. He's also on Instagram @climatetown
. You said in your email to me that Climate Town has done the seemingly impossible and made clickable videos about climate change.
So you're the expert on this, on clickable videos. Tell me about why that is. What is it that Rollie and his team are doing that makes these videos work?TOM
: One of the really difficult things about science communication, and communication in general on YouTube, is that while it has this "wonderful" recommendation algorithm, and I say wonderful with so many quotes around that can be taken so many different ways.
It's a brilliant achievement of technology. It works a lot of the time and sometimes it really doesn't. One of the downsides of that is that you have to sell your video in a title and a thumbnail, because you'll have some of your audience who will be back every week, no matter what you produce. Great, loyal viewers are brilliant, but a lot of the time, people are being led to videos by title, thumbnail, maybe the name on it if you're lucky, but that's all you get.
For all the people who say, including myself, "Oh yeah, I'm subscribed to people. I watch every one of their videos. I don't use..." You watch one and they're in the recommendations. No matter how much a lot of very vocal people are like, "Oh yeah no, I just want a subscriptions feed on the chronological list." Evidence-wise, that's not how the vast majority of people watch YouTube.
It is extremely difficult to create videos that are popular about subjects that people don't want to know about. And climate change is one of those subjects that people do not want to click on. I know multiple people who've tried to set up channels about that, who have tried to brilliant communication about it and they're so good at the job, and everyone goes ... If you have the recommendations there and you have 10 things to click on, and one of them is about climate change, that little bit of your brain that doesn't want bad news is not going to click on that.
And that's true for a lot of things. More close to what I've done in the past, motorsport. Completely different thing, completely the opposite end if we're talking about gas guzzling, and things like that.
But if you're doing stuff about motorsport, either you already know everything about motorsport because you're a fan. And so, you're probably not going to click on the thing that's a basic explainer or a general public video. Or you don't care about motorsport and you're not going to click on that video.
So if you're doing videos about that for the general public... A few months ago now, I got a drive around the Nurburgring, which is the racetrack/toll road in Germany, where there's no speed limit and you can just rock up in a car and drive, provided you've got insurance. My original title for that video described it as a "racetrack." There were some other words in there as well.
I think the only words I changed when I realized that video was underperforming was I changed it from "racetrack" to "toll road." And the minute I did that, the minute I took out the reference to motorsport, people started clicking on it because it was relevant to them. There's a whole industry in optimizing this stuff and I try not to go too much into clickbait.
Climate change ... people do not, if they know the video is about climate change, they are not going to click it. What Rollie's done and I don't know if it's his team, but Rollie is the face of this, what Rollie has done ... his most recent titles, as I look at this in the Climate Town series are: "It's time to break up with our gas stoves", "Fast fashion is hot garbage", and "How the auto industry carjacked the American dream."
Now sure, it says Climate Town in there. That's not the big story. Those are not obviously stories about climate change. And it is such a brilliant bit of misdirection. He's got an agenda, he's clearly got an agenda. His agenda is stopping the planet warming, and I applaud that, but the agenda is not obvious to someone who is scrolling down the list of recommendations and going, "What do I want to hear about next?"
And he's funny! He's got a background as a comedian, so it's not just dull explanation. It's joke after joke after joke.
[clip from Climate Town]ROLLIE
: Whenever I need to look like the kind of guy who understands fashion, I cram myself into a suit that looks like it was made for some kinda European heroin addict. And for the low price of $30, you too can walk out of an H&M dressed like you're Slenderman's younger brother. In fact, at prices like these, it can be more expensive to clean your clothes than it is to throw away your dirty clothes and buy all new ones. And I know that sounds like the sort of plan that was invented by some sort of 9-year-old king, but it's actually pretty close to reality, because the average garment in America is worn just seven times before it's thrown away.
By the time you realize, oh, this video is about climate change, he's made you laugh enough times, you don't care. And I hate that that's the way that this has to be done, because I grew up in the age of linear media when you would sit down in front of a television for a half-hour magazine show with four or five different segments and you'd know, yeah, maybe that segment wasn't for you, you'd still watch it, there wasn't another option. You'd have the ability to get a brand across, as opposed to a clickbait title.
And I really don't like the fact that it's so optimized towards the title and the thumbnail right now, but I am just in awe of how Rollie and the Climate Town team have been able to do that.ERIC
: And you mentioned that he's a comedian, which is so important because you think about the most famous climate communicators, people like former vice president Al Gore — branded as a snob, as an elitist, as looking down at you. I watched some of Rollie's videos, including the first one you mentioned, "It's time to break up with our gas stoves" and he's very much ... kind of similar to what you did with the toll road video, where everyone's been on a toll road.
So there's immediately accessible, relatable, understandable about the idea of like, "Oh, well I have a gas stove in my house. Why should I break up with it?" It's the combination of the humor and the relatability, which have eluded, I think, a lot of science communicators and politicians in the past.TOM
: It's always about the story, identify the story, identify the thing that will hook people in. And that's not to disparage all the folks who take another approach. There are plenty of other ways to do that communication, but in terms of my work, my industry, that inevitable need to optimize for a million-channel audience, they absolutely nailed it.ERIC
: Yeah, that's so impressive. This is something I did not look too deeply into the comments, just to preserve my own sanity.TOM
: Wise. Very wise.ERIC
: I'm sure there must be blowback he faces. I mean, it's such a depressing and politically divisive issue. I'm sure he has to deal with a fair number of detractors, climate deniers, all sorts of randoms.
But I'm wondering, do you find in the videos that you do that touch on political subjects, do you find that YouTube has become a healthier space for any sort of controversial material? Because for a while, I think YouTube comments were notorious as one of the worst places on the internet, right?
And recently, maybe it's just the bubble that I'm in, but recently when I do watch a video by someone that seems to be on a controversial subject, at least to me as a regular viewer, as not the creator of the channel, it seems like the comments have maybe gotten a little more civil in recent years. I don't know. Have you noticed that?TOM
: I wouldn't like to say without empirical data on that. I know, internally, YouTube will have data on that. It will be a metric they're tracking. I don't know how, I don't know how you get that feedback, but it'll be in there somewhere, in the vast swathe of recommendations they have.
I do know that the Royal Institution, which is a name that sounds like it's out of a comic book, but they've been going I think 200 years now. They've been sort of the space for discourse about science. They've been putting stuff out on YouTube. They are obviously listed as "reputable" by YouTube.
So when they put out videos about climate change, they found that they were getting a lot of angry comments from climate deniers for anything like that because YouTube was deliberately promoting them, because they are listed as reputable. They're following the science, they are trustworthy, which means they show up in the recommendations for people who are interested in climate change or would absolutely love those videos, but are going there for the argument, but are going there to find their people and to shout what is scientifically nonsense in the comments.ERIC
: That's depressing.TOM
: I hope that's changed over time, but I'll be honest, I haven't checked in with them and their moderation team in the last few months.ERIC
: Well, hopefully they're doing okay. Well, that was Rollie Williams, the host of the YouTube channel Climate Town.
Tom, let's move on to your next follow. I asked you for someone who's an expert in a very specific niche that you love. And you said Gretchen McCulloch, who is on Twitter @GretchenAMcC
and on Instagram @gretchen.mcculloch
Gretchen is an internet linguist and the author of a book I absolutely need to read called Because Internet. She also co-wrote some of your YouTube videos about language. I want to ask about that, but first, how did you first start following Gretchen? How did you first come across her work?TOM
: I think it was doing research for my own language videos many, many years ago. Honestly, it's one of those things, I can never remember how I've met people for the first time. I've got no memory of first meetings with anyone. I honestly can't remember how we were introduced or any of the details on that. All I know is she is just a joy to work with.
She's this incredibly knowledgeable linguist. My degree is in linguistics, but that's 15 years ago now, or something like that. I cannot reasonably call myself a linguist anymore. I am so far away from that world. My knowledge will be able out of date.
One of the interesting things that I found while studying is that some of the lecturers I had back in my university were saying, "This is new, what we're teaching. I'm not sure I agree with it, but this is what we've agreed to teach this year." So, by definition, they will have found out new stuff by then.
I'll be honest, if you study linguistics, there are two career options for you. There is speech therapy and there is teaching linguistics. And that's basically all you've got. I'm going to get angry emails about that one from linguists. I'm sure there are other ones, but that is where pretty much everyone in academia comes from. Not meaning to disparage the discipline, because I studied it for long enough. You find out brilliant things about the human brain and how the world works. But it has been 15 years and I've forgotten a lot of that.ERIC
: Well, technically, you are a linguistics educator. You brought out an International Phonetic Alphabet chart in one of your videos, breaking down all the consonants. That's something that I think most of us would not have been exposed to if not for your YouTube channel.TOM
: It was so wonderful to work with Gretchen and our other co-author, Molly, who does not have a big public profile. It was so wonderful to work with them because Gretchen is great at finding interesting things. I have the sort of teamwork of Gretchen goes, "Okay, here's a list of stuff I've found out, stuff I've written about." And my side of this is going, "That's a story. That's a story. That one just there, I can't figure out how that will work."
And then Molly, who's the third person in this triangle was just a brilliant researcher. And they could go off and find intricate notes, references, and things like that. So between us, we are a great collective author of those videos.
And I really worry sometimes that it's my face showing up for this. It's heavily implied that I am the knowledgeable one, because I'm the one saying the words, because that's what I'm good at. "I can say the words," he says, completely failing to say the words, whereas the knowledge is coming from other people. And that's always a problem with any science communication collective group.
You have a face of it and the face gets recognized. It's the lead singer in the band. It's the star of the movie. Whereas what's actually going on is there's this huge team behind, making it work. I haven't even gotten to the animator for that series. Our animators, now we've had multiple over the years. Five years ago, this was me writing everything, remembering things from my degree, desperately looking at references from a while ago. And now it's Gretchen and Molly doing most of the writing, me doing most of the scripting if that makes sense.ERIC
: To match your tone and the way you naturally speak, yeah.TOM
: Right. And a lot of the adding the lines, the jokes, and the making the patter work is me. But then, animation adds a whole extra level to that as well. Jokes get out of there. Things get explained there.
I will frequently just write in a script, "Animate this to explain it." And that's off to Will Marla who's animated the last couple of seasons of that. Anyway, sorry, Gretchen! I am enthusing about all sorts of people here, but I enthuse about Gretchen because if I point you to anything, it is her book that you mentioned, it is Because Internet, which is this canonical guide to how the internet shaped and continues to shape language. It is an explanation about why you get texts from older folks which end in ominous dots, or why it seems rude now to end the sentence with a full stop in text, but not to other people.ERIC
: And this translation of all the weird things about language we never thought about into this other medium of text and video chat. There's probably a whole other book to be written about how COVID and remote work has changed the way that we communicate. Already, people have learned to deal with broadcast lag as part of a conversation.ERIC
: Yeah, uh —TOM
: Sorry, carry on. You see?! Exactly like that! There's like a 200, 300-millisecond delay on this line. There's this whole new bit of turn-taking based on whether you have a video conversation, whether you have an audio conversation, and that's a new thing.
Well, I'm working on a video at the minute, I don't know if it'll come out. I've got vague scripting ideas about how live used to be live. The broadcast delay used to be speed of light. The phone call delay used to be speed of light. Yeah, there's a couple of diversions, it goes through various wires, but unless you're bouncing off a satellite, it's pretty much speed of light. And that meant you didn't have to do this adaptation for, "Oh, no... sorry... you go... I can't quite hear you because you haven't got full duplex..."
All of this is evolving and Gretchen is tracking that. She's got a podcast with a collaborator as well. She's got a blog, she's got a book. I cannot recommend her highly enough. She is the one with a finger on the pulse. I'm just the person spreading words into a camera.ERIC
: Yeah. And the name of her podcast is Lingthusiasm. I haven't listened to it yet, but I am very excited to check that and her book out. So you're talking about the way that Gretchen was giving you a bunch of different examples of things that she knows about linguistics that were maybe new to you, or that you were realized "that could be a video." What's what was the difference between something that would be a good video about language, a YouTube-appropriate video about language, and something that just wouldn't work in this medium?TOM
: I have absolutely no idea. If I could answer that question, I would be very, very rich. If I could just go, "Oh yes, here's the formula. You need to do this, this, this, this, this," then that would be a brilliant consulting job.ERIC
: But you had a gut check. You had some intuitive sense of like, "Oh, that could be a video."TOM
: It absolutely is, but it is just based on that. There's an old William Gibson novel called Pattern Recognition, which has a character in it that can look at a company's marketing slogan, brand logo, or anything like that and just give a yes or a no, and that's all. Can't do anything more than that. That's what they're paid for. That is the job.
I read that many, many years ago and it just went past me. It's like, "Oh, that's a scam." No, that's absolutely how it works for stuff like that. There is nothing other than the experience of making all these videos and figuring out what works. I get a lot of suggestions from people and I have to turn most of them down because they failed the gut-check. And occasionally, I'll get a reply that's like, "Oh, why is that?" I don't know.ERIC
: Just a gut-check.TOM
: Not a clue. I just don't think it'll work. I know I'm wrong on that sometimes. It's never perfect. And, of course, I can't know which ones would have worked if I'd powered forward. And occasionally, the gut check will be wrong the other way and I'll do a video and it bombs, and that happens sometimes. But it just seems to be oh, I can turn this into a story, or oh, I can't.
And that's just for me. Other people will have completely different reactions for their production, their channels.ERIC
: Yep. Absolutely. Well, that was Gretchen McCulloch, the author of the book Because Internet and the host of the podcast Lingthusiasm.
We are going to take a quick break now, but we'll be back in a minute with Tom Scott.
: Today's show is brought to you by Timber, which combines podcast hosting and coaching to deliver an incredible value to indie podcasters. For one price point, Timber offers unlimited downloads, two credits for one-on-one coaching sessions every year, and additional webinars that will connect you with coaches and your fellow podcasters. I am one of those coaches, along with folks like Skye Pillsbury, Shruti Ravindran, and Jenna Spinelle, and we love helping our fellow indies make their shows better. So I really hope you'll join us. Start your two week free trial today at timber.fm
Also, don't forget that you can get a fifth follow recommendation from Tom Scott by supporting Follow Friday on Patreon. That's where you can find and subscribe to extra-long episodes in the Follow Friday XL feed. Go to patreon.com/followfriday
to hear Tom talking about Australian comedy-musician Tom Cardy. Here's a clip from that.TOM
: It's such a good set of skills. It's the video production, and the music production, and the writing, and the performance, and the jokes. That's a LOT of things you have to get right.ERIC
: Once again, that's patreon.com/followfriday
: Welcome back to Follow Friday. Tom, I asked you to tell me about someone who makes the internet a better place. And you said Jon Bois, who is on Twitter @jon_bois
. Jon works at SBNation, where he co-created the YouTube channel Secret Base
. And he wrote a series of speculative fiction stories starting with 17776
, also known as What Football Will Look Like in the Future.
He's also just really entertaining on Twitter. So there's a lot of different paths we can go down here. Let's start with the fiction he's written, 17776 and it's sequels.TOM
: I am absolutely blown away by the ability to tell a story that could only exist on the internet in this form. It's this perfect match of medium and message that could not become a book. It could not become a TV series. I mean, you can always adapt things like this, obviously but in the sense that it is a thing that has been created for the internet.
And I kind of don't want to give away too many spoilers here. The first time I was linked to it is an article called What Football Will Look Like in the Future. I'm not a sports person. I know a bit about American football. I'm not going to click on that. Someone just had to tell me, the third time someone's like, "Click this." Again, talking about the recommendation engine, sometimes you just have to have someone say, "I know this doesn't seem like a thing you'd like, but click it." And the first three seconds are... "This looks like a dull article. Okay, it's doing a thing!"
It's doing a thing and it's a thing that could only exist on the internet. It is long scrolling formats. It is switching to video. It is using formatting and GIFs and Google Earth in a way that has not to my knowledge been done before.
The closest thing it reminds me of is Scott McCloud back in 2000, I want to say, who had a book and then a website called Reinventing Comics. And this was in the days where every computer was a 4:3 screen on a desktop with a web browser available and you had a webpage that would be seen only that way. This was before mobiles, before anything like that.
You could pretty much guarantee everyone would have the same experience going to a webpage, which you can't anymore. Scott McCloud realized that comics did not have to be three or four panels horizontally, or that standard American Sunday strip format. "Oh, we can scroll. We can do long stuff. We can have transparent backgrounds now. We can go sideways for a bit. We can have things split and hypertext, all sorts of things."
And reading 17776 and its sequel felt like that. It felt like it was 19, 20 years ago and I was a kid going, "Oh, this is what you can do with the medium." It's so clever that way. And then, on top of it, it's a really good story. It's a really good science fiction story or more speculative fiction story about what humanity could be like in a future, and what we strive for and what would motivate us and what would happen if this struggle that we had wasn't a thing anymore.
And it's this combination of utopia and dystopia seen through the lens of sports, but you don't need to know anything about sports because this is not American football, in any sense. And then the sequel comes out this year which is the same world, some of the same protagonists, just absolutely nails the idea of getting invested in a sport and why people watch these and the character drama that comes out of it.
I'm hoping that the final installment comes out soon because 20020, the second one is the first half of a two-part story. But given that the second part is now several months delayed, I mean, I'm not going to try and pester someone. I know all too well what it's like when you got people pestering you for something you're not feeling creatively. So I'm not going to try.
If it ends here, I will be sad, but I'll be happy that it happened. If this turns out to come out to the conclusion, then I'll be even happier. I'm just in awe of the ability to do that. And then there's also a YouTube channel called Secret Base, which ... video games stuff is not my thing. I don't understand video games. There's a lot about FIFA and Madden on there that I just don't get. But then there's also this additional deep dive into stories of sports told through statistics. And I know, again, nothing about baseball. Will happily watch a video about the batter — I'm going to say that's the right word?ERIC
: Yeah, that sounds right.TOM
: I know more about cricket than I do about baseball, and that's not saying much. The batter most likely to get hurt by a ball. That's great. Will happily watch that. And then just dive into statistics with graphs that are just beautifully made. And I will gush about this for a long while because it is this perfect match for the medium. It could not be told like this, before YouTube came along. After YouTube, there probably won't be a medium that works so well for it.
I'm not going to try and predict the future there, but this seems like a thing that could only exist here at this time. And I really, really enjoy it.ERIC
: Well, going back to the 17776, I vividly remember I was sitting in an airport lounge on Twitter and everyone was tweeting this link like, What Football Will Look Like in the Future, very similar to your story. And I so rarely remember where I was when I consumed something on the internet and just opening this and kind of your moment of like, "Oh, this is doing something." It felt significant in the moment just starting to read it.
And I'm wondering, I was reading it on a laptop. And last night I was rereading the first chapter of the first novel on a desktop. I mean, the series started 10 years after the first iPhone. Most people are consuming this stuff on their phones. I'm sure this is something that you also think about a lot as a video creator; what size screen are you intending for people to view something on?
I don't know. Do you have any thoughts on that and the fact that these stories being so tied to one specific form factor to go back to the Scott McCloud example that, in some ways, something like 17776 could be made obsolete or could be made inaccessible to a lot of people?TOM
: I was doing web development during the transition to mobile first. I was doing web development when it was four by three monitors, and then it started going to 16 by nine monitors and more resolutions that became a bit more difficult. And then phones came along and it's like, oh, we've got to rebuild everything. Hover doesn't work anymore because no one's got a mouse to hover over stuff.
Screen sizes have completely changed. Things might be portrait now. People might be on a device that has almost no processing power and no bandwidth. Fortunately, Jon Bois' stories were built, I'm not sure they're mobile-first, but they are certainly mobile-friendly.ERIC
: OK, that's good.TOM
: Particularly, the more recent one, that is very much so because you have to design like that now. And grumpy as I am that the job has got far, far more difficult — I miss the days of being able to go "View Source on a webpage and go, "Oh, that's how they did that." I really think we have lost something there.
But I'm sure that the kids who are starting out now will think the same about the tools they're using now in 20 years' time. They are going to have easy paths that I can't even see because I'm so embedded in the systems I grew up with.ERIC
: You said that Jon makes the internet a better place. Obviously he's a very great creative talent, but is there anything you think the rest of us can learn from the way that Jon is using the internet or anything that you've been inspired to do as a result of following his work to make the internet a better place?TOM
: Sometimes it's okay to go weird. One of the things I've said for a long time is that there's this graph that I made when I was like 18, 19. And on one axis, it's got effort, and on the other axis, it's got awesome. And those are deliberately not defined, but there's this line down the middle. And if effort outweighs awesome, then you do it. A stupid little graph, obviously meaningless, but it's still this thing that I try and live by.
And the definitions of effort and awesome have changed over time by a long way but it's still something that I try to live by. Yeah, you still have to build things up. You still have to start small and work up from there. If you'd put all that work that Jon Bois' done into something like that and it had flopped, then I imagined that would be heartbreaking. It has certainly been for stuff I've made in the past.
But at some point, you have to take those risks. You have to build on what you've done before and go, "Okay, this is going to be a big project. I don't know if it's going to work, but let's try it."
The more popular you get, the more your failures are public and reflect on you as a creator, as an individual, as a brand, as much as I hate to say it. Whereas if you are starting out, you have so much more space to experiment because if you mess this up, oh, well, not a big deal.ERIC
: Try again tomorrow.TOM
: It's not much effort. Or I hope it's not much effort or money if you're just starting out. Whereas at the point I'm at, I can't take some of the risks that I could when I was younger. And I really like Jon Bois' work for one of those reasons that it feels just a little bit risky.ERIC
: That is some great advice on how to make the internet a better place. Be weird like Jon Bois, who is on Twitter @jon_bois
We have time for one more follow today. I asked you for someone you just started following, and you said the science fiction author Becky Chambers, who is not on social media, but has a website and an email newsletter at otherscribbles.com
I think, if I did my research correct, Becky's first book is called The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It's the first in a four-book series called The Wayfarers, which you told me that you're reading. I have to plead my ignorance. I've never heard of the series before, but it gets stellar reviews. Can you tell people what it's about?TOM
: I mean, as science-fiction recommendations go, as far as I understand that, if you know your science fiction, this is a really basic recommendation. I think there've been all sorts of awards and accolades for this. I've arrived very late in the series. The first book is almost a series of vignettes and that each book seems to be a different series of vignettes from a different set of characters set in this world.
I was trying to work out before I came on how to kind of say what it's about without sounding really dull and without giving away spoilers. And I think the answer is that it's just nice. I wish I had a better description than that because that's the word that your grade school English teacher tells you not to use, like "pick a better adjective than nice!"
And by nice, I mean that it is not a utopia. It's not a full dystopia either. It's a universe that is difficult for its characters. But fundamentally, the characters and the protagonists that I've met in this series are not terrible people.
They're trying to be good. They're trying to do good things or at least trying to get by. And I read science fiction for the ideas, I always have. It's how my brain works. The stuff I tend to like is a kind of big-picture things that play you with enormous ideas, the fate of the world, identity.
I love the work of Greg Egan, who has told stories where characters merge and fork and has told a story in a universe with two dimensions of time. That sort of really mind-expanding, "Oh, I had not thought of this" is what I tend to read science fiction for. For me to find a science fiction book that has that... It's just this is a universe, and here are some people who live in it.
And for me to read that say, "Oh, this is lovely. I would like to spend more time in this universe," is so rare for me to not find something like that a little bit dull... Because one of the fundamental problems with the science-fiction I grew up with things like Star Trek is that they are 20th and 21st-century humans, just kind of with some bigger technology in there.ERIC
: Right, five minutes in the future.TOM
: Yeah. Oh, you've got a thing that can replicate matter from energy and you're using it for creating tea. And it's fine because it's not about the science. It's about the characters and it's about the human stories. And I get that, I understand that is how you make it accessible.
I still like that, but often it's like, this could be on board a sailing ship. Just change the technology and have them meet a mermaid. I mean, the original Star Trek was pitched as "Wagon Train to the stars." It was a translation of a human thing. And the science fiction I tend to like is where we are talking about stuff that is not current human-accessible. It's stuff like Charles Strosser's big picture things.
So I'm really happy that I have found a series that is a little bit "Wagon Train to the stars." You've got a lot of aliens in there and you've got interesting cultures, but ultimately, they are human-adjacent. And I'm still going, "I like this. I want to spend more time here." For something that I have no nostalgia about, for something that I have no deep emotional connection to, that is so rare. And I really like Becky's writing for that reason.ERIC
: You have sold me. I am going to start reading this. I was looking at Becky's website. One of the things that she says there is she has a section about fan art and fan fiction. She's like, fan art of the characters from The Wayfarers? Go ahead, send it to me. Fanfiction, stay the hell away. Because there's all these thorny legal issues where she doesn't want to be receiving some new story idea from someone and then be accused probably years later of like, "You took my idea."TOM
: I can sympathize with that. I've had to have for the last, I can't remember when I put it in, but there was a section on my website for contacting me. At first, it was like, yeah, if you send me an idea for a video, absolutely welcome. Please do. Here's the policy. Here's the legal ease that says that I can use your idea." I know it sounds obvious, but I need to put that down there. And then a section that says, "If you're coming up with a video format idea, if you're coming up with an idea for a show, or you've got a whole script, don't send it to me. I won't read it and it will never even reach me. I won't see it and you won't get a reply."
And everyone who works in the media industry who might get an unsolicited pitch has that policy because we have all read the horror stories of, someone sends a thing, you happen to be working on something vaguely similar or perhaps even entirely similar. And you don't even see the message, but a few years down the line, there's someone with a lawsuit because they're like, "Well, I sent you this email five years ago."
So it's just this worry that you cannot read ideas like that. You cannot let them get into your head. You have to have a filter between you and the world. And if something gets through that filter, you have to delete it and not look, just in case. And if someone brings up this in conversation, you have to make it really clear that it's happening, just so, at some point, in five years' time, I can go in court and produce the transcript of this podcast and say, "I said this. I have said this a lot. Here are three other times where I've said this."
I didn't know that was there. That's another bit of Becky's writing that I like.ERIC
: I heard a story years back, this may be apocryphal, but basically that Robin Williams was frequently accused by other comedians of stealing jokes. And the story goes that apparently, it reached a point where he just like carried around a wad of cash. If someone came up to him with no evidence, but just said, "Hey, you took my joke," he would just give them a bunch of cash and say, "Go away."
I think part of it was he didn't trust his own mind to know for sure whether or not he had seen someone do a set and then internalized a joke or something, which is heartbreaking, but ...TOM
: To be clear, I do not have that policy.ERIC
: Fair enough. Well, that was Becky Chambers, who you can find online at otherscribbles.com
, and the name of her series is called The Wayfarers. The first book is called The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.
Tom Scott, thank you for sharing your follows with us today. Before we go, let's make sure listeners know how to find you online. Where do you want them to follow you?TOM
: I'm on YouTube. If you search Tom Scott, you'll find me but also tomscott.com
has links to pretty much everything I do.ERIC
: Wonderful. Follow me on Twitter at @HeyHeyESJ
and don't forget to follow or subscribe to Follow Friday in your podcast app. If you like this episode, then check out the past Follow Friday interviews with comedian Alasdair Beckett-King, Noble Blood host Dana Schwartz, and Imaginary Worlds host Eric Molinsky.
Follow Friday's theme music was written by me and performed by Yona Marie. Our show art was illustrated by Dodi Hermawan. Special thanks to Patreon backers Jon and Justin. Visit patreon.com/followfriday
for extra-long episodes and more.
That's all for this week. This is Eric Johnson, reminding you to talk about people behind their backs. And when you do, say something nice.
See you next Friday!
One more thing before we go: 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 you can invite additional users to access the show settings, upload episodes, view analytics, and more. Check them out at Transistor.fm