YouTube And The Death Of Personal Study
I’ve spent enough time observing the landscape of personalities on YouTube to have a sense of some overall themes and concerns that are long overdue for scrutiny.
There is a certain lack of curiosity which is peculiar to the platform, particularly in the area of social commentary. This seems to have helped to produce a novel trend in human behavior, which is:
There are a crap ton of YouTubers who have not studied their supposed topic of interest.
And that’s not all: The topic in question is frequently one that they only raise to express how much they dislike it. It’s clear that they care about discrediting and publicly disapproving of the topic, but it’s just as clear that they barely have any knowledge on the topic or virtually any of the disciplines related to its study.
Due to the genuine absurdity of the scenario just outlined, it isn’t much of a leap to question if these YouTubers’ passion lies not in the topic itself, or even in practicing argument skills, but in being seen as more clever than whomever or whatever it is that they hope to dismiss in front of an audience — ideally a sycophantic one.
This typically leads to someone having to debunk their video. The necessity is built in, as the person who made the original video does not adequately understand the topic they tried to fillet for the amusement (and adulation) of others.
The exasperation of the debunker presents as a study in contrast to the giddy self-importance of the YouTube Guru (who may themselves have begun this theatre of the absurd as a pseudo-debunker); Incredulous of the absurdity of the situation they now find themselves in, they also, unfortunately, realize they are one of a precious few people who are adequately equipped to untangle the mess that was gleefully dumped onto YouTube. Again.
The increasing prevalence of this situation is linked to the increasing popularity of a specific attitude — derisive, dismissive, and disingenuous — that has come into fashion over the last decade. It may be funny to think of attitudes as being subject to fashion trends, but it’s pretty obvious this is the case if you spend any length of time watching the various YouTube authorities and Gurus, particularly the ones who prefer to have every position with which they align themselves prefixed by “anti-”.
It is fashionable to LARP intellectual authority, even when it is clearly absurd for the person in question to have a reasonable claim to the title (at least on the topic proposed).
The basic drama of the LARPing performance also includes a crowd participation element — a kind of Greek chorus LARPed by the audience in the comment section — and the formula for the whole production is as follows:
The YouTube Guru has a video published of them haranguing on some topic/person/entire discipline that is presently fashionable to harangue (aka “cool” aka delicious internet points). The video might be an upload from the Guru, or might be uploaded by a curating channel. In either case, they have been posted on YouTube with a trendy title, which, at the time of the writing of this essay, is: “_____________ DESTROYED!!!”
Through the video, the Guru passes their pre-digested bits of nonsense down to the baby birds in the comment section, who chirp with delight at their imagined relationship and resemblance to the hero of the hour (doomed to falling out of favor as fashion changes, but for now, the “thumbs up” button is being tapped more than an excellent yo mama joke I could make right here).
The comment section occasionally includes something nominally reminiscent of debate, where fledgling birdbrains try their hand at further regurgitation of nonsense, or perhaps even jumping off an intellectual cliff entirely. “Dumpster fire” is a popular descriptor of comment sections for this reason, but there is at least a sense of belonging in the circle jerk flight patterns, a sense of family; the excitement of attending the daily reunion of All The Very Clever People.
This flavor of YouTube content (though it is an acquired taste, as the uninitiated readily observe) is apparently a very seductive treat — although, I think, seductive only when someone has been starved so completely of intellectual nutrients that any nugget even resembling wisdom is not only palatable, but seems downright profound.
It may also be that the depth and breadth of personal study has become so impoverished in the average life, that the obvious evidence that a given YouTube Guru has not achieved a functional grasp of their topic has become functionally invisible to their audience.
Personal study, pursued with the intent to achieve the highest level of mastery that you (as a uniquely gifted and flawed individual) might attain, teaches a certain knowledge about what is required to achieve mastery in a much more universal sense. As a consequence of becoming familiar with the process of deliberate practice and the progressive realization of discreet, necessary skills, the shape and nature of mastery itself begins to become familiar.
The faults in the level of study undertaken by any of these YouTube Gurus, and the apparent blindness of their audience members to any of these faults, suggests that people are not being encouraged to invest in a useful level of personal study elsewhere. Or, if they have reached such understanding on other topics, there might be something so seductive about the sense of belonging and approval from a “community” of audience members, perhaps something very nearly addicting, that the standards they have experienced in other realms are just not transferring over. Regardless of the reason, many audiences do not seem to know that they do not know enough, or that at a very minimum, that it would be unrealistic to believe that they do know enough, simply due to an obvious lack of effort on their part.
It isn’t easy to be informed.
Part of being informed is having the ability to evaluate the credibility of other people’s claim to authority or expertise. Perhaps some people hesitate to take on this kind of work, for fear that they might misjudge someone’s level of expertise and prematurely dismiss what they have to say. Great — keep that attitude — but, if there is one person whose level of personal study you can assess with regard to any topic, that person should definitely be you. You were definitely there during all that time you have spent not studying the topic (obligatory shout-out to the Dunning–Kruger effect).
Now, it is more difficult to put effort into studying and researching a topic one disagrees with. However, if you fail to put in enough effort to accurately summarize the topic, it is better to admit that you don’t care sufficiently about it in the first place to do any study of it justice, and instead shift your focus entirely to something which you do care about.
If you decide that you do care enough to commit to personal study of the topic, we can now begin to consider the problem of determining if the YouTube Guru (and/or the curators of their arguments) has, in fact, studied their supposed topic of interest.
How do we do that in any manageable way, you ask?
We need to practice (myself no less than anyone else) assessing if the YouTuber:
- is demonstrating signs of familiarity with his topic; in particular, displaying traits that tend to be universally present in the speech of those who have adequately studied a topic.
- is demonstrating signs that he sufficiently cares about his topic; specifically, that he cares enough to be able to stay committed to the level of personal study required for successful understanding and meaningful criticism of the topic.
The following are some questions to ask yourself as you practice assessing a speaker’s familiarity with his topic (and related disciplines):
- Is there a language (either formal lexicon or informal jargon) that is associated with this topic or discipline? Does this person reference that language at all? When they do, is it correctly applied?
- Does this person use layman terms, or invent their own terms, for concepts that are covered by the language of the topic or discipline? Are the layman terms significantly distorting the theory or arguments of the discipline?
- Does this person know the history of this topic or discipline? Are they framing the history correctly and rationally?
- How much study would it take to know this topic well enough to comment intelligibly on it? Is it reasonable to believe that this person spent that much time on it?
If you have spent time engaged with meaningful personal study on a topic, you have developed a greater sensitivity for determining the likelihood that others have invested in their own study adequately — even if a topic is initially unfamiliar to you. You can also more successfully navigate towards people who have put in adequate study on that topic. Game recognize game, basically.
Which takes me to my final point, and what I consider to be the most important concept to grasp about the value and wider utility of committing oneself to some form of intensive personal study — and argument for the advantage it gives you in your approach to life, watching YouTubers, or anything:
Passion is often a prerequisite to adequate personal study. It takes a certain level of fanaticism to endure the unglamorous process of acquiring competency in a demanding skill of any kind — technical, physical, or intellectual. It not only takes time, but it also takes more humility than you believed that you had (and almost always far more than you would have hoped necessary). You will make truly embarrassing mistakes. You will look stupid. You will get tired. There are few things, even the debunking of what you may correctly assume are stupid things, that do not require you to invest considerable effort in personal study if you hope to achieve a meaningful level of overall understanding.
Therefore, it is invaluable to question if the YouTube Guru has that distinctive mixture of fanaticism towards study and humility towards oneself that adequate study usually demands.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you practice assessing if the speaker has sufficient interest in the topic to have done the work necessary to study it adequately in the first place:
- Are they excited about the topic itself, learning about it for the sake of finding personal satisfaction in the process of learning?
- Do they ever say something to the effect of, “I don’t know”, or, “I have’t studied that particular aspect enough to comment”?
If the answer to either question is shaky or “no” — engage suspicion.
A true authority has no fear of looking foolish. The process of learning has long since stripped them of such precious protection of their ego. If you try to keep your ego safe from harm while engaging in serious personal study, the study itself will always take the blow.
If after sufficient personal study and critique of the situation, you come to realize that what truly excites the YouTube Guru du jour is merely the idea of being some clever authority, their practice of personal study has probably been dead for quite some time.
And most of their content is probably pretty rotten as well.