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How A YouTube Channel That Answers Weird Science Questions Amassed Millions Of Fans

Scishow adCourtesy of YouTube

If you live in New York City or Chicago, chances are you’ve seen the enormous YouTube ads adorning some billboards and subway trains. Nerdy baker Rosanna Pansino and wacky comedy duo Epic Rap Battles of History are among those who have been featured in recent months.  

The latest YouTube channel to make an appearance is SciShow, an educational program hosted by Hank Green, Michael Aranda, and Caitlin Hofmeister. The team makes six videos a week, with each video answering a question relating to a number of scientific topics, from biology and evolution to astronomy and space travel.

The ad campaign is starting to show up on signs and public transit, and a spot premiered during the Season 5 premiere of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” on Sunday. 

“Personally, it feels really weird. My Twitter exploded, our followers and subscribers exploded,” Green tells Business Insider. “A friend of mine sent me a picture of me on the side of a bus, and that is, in some ways, even weirder than being on TV.” 

With more than 2 million subscribers and 210 million views, SciShow may be a big success now, but it got its start with a different channel, one that was much more informal than this one.

Brothers Hank and John Green uploaded their first YouTube video on Jan. 1, 2007. Called “Brotherhood 2.0,” each brother would send a goofy message to each other on whatever topic they felt like talking about that day. 

They uploaded the videos to a channel they called “vlogbrothers” and soon found a wide audience was tuning in to watch. Still, the vlogbrothers experiment was just a fun activity, and the brothers figured they should start a side project in case it wasn’t still paying the bills in a few years. 

Hank john greenSoulbust / Wikimedia CommonsHank (left) and John Green onstage at VidCon 2014.

That side project was VidCon, a conference of YouTube creators held annually in Anaheim, Calif. In 2010, the conference’s first year, 1,400 people attended. In 2014, attendance swelled to 18,000. 

“I never would have imagined the path that it took,” Green says. “I see YouTube like the transition from movies to TV. And we’re still in the early days.”

It turns out Hank and John were wrong about vlogbrothers, too. The channel’s audience grew so widely after a few years that they were contacted by the YouTube team, which offered to help them start another project. 

“My brother and I had this successful channel that really had no format. It had no format, but we loved — and continue to love — doing it,” Hank Green says. “We saw that the direction online video was taking was still an emphasis on personality, but a larger emphasis on actually doing something, in a more branded format, where you do the same thing every episode and people come to expect that.” 

Hank and John pitched two educational channel ideas to YouTube — one called CrashCourse, which taught eight different courses in a series of short videos (John is the author of several best-selling novels, including “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Looking for Alaska”); and another one called SciShow, which focused on scientific topics (Hank has degrees in biochemistry and environmental studies). 

YouTube approved both of the ideas, gave the brothers some startup funding, and a year later, both channels had close to 1 million subscribers.

“At the time it was just the two of us, so we needed the help to kickstart things,” Green says. “We were really excited to be spending money on educational content.” 

SciShow premiered on Jan. 2, 2012, with a video on how non-Newtonian fluids can save lives.

SciShow has grown a great deal since then, and the team now employs a full editorial, production, and operations staff. Green works on between 20 and 25 videos a week across multiple channels. 

“We juggle it by having lots of help,” he says. “I’ve never worked this hard in my life.” 

No topic is off-limits at SciShow. Green has a final say on the script, but the writers generally have a lot of freedom to cover topics they’re interested in, or questions asked by readers in the comment section or social media sites. 

“Things like Ebola, genetically modified food, or nuclear power — these are things that are important, and a lot of people have made up their minds about it already,” Green says. “We focus on doing the topic justice without caging to pressures of people who disagree with science. Science is everywhere.” 

To coincide with the launch of the national ad campaign, Green is releasing a series of videos that answer Google’s most-searched for questions with science. Today, he answers “How can I get rid of the hiccups?” 

Every weekday until Oct. 28, SciShow will release a video covering Google’s other biggest questions, including the science behind love, the Earth’s age, beard-growing, the meaning of life, calories, the sky’s colour, water, sleep, and energy. 

Green says he’s excited about the campaign and the potential it has for bringing attention to all the people doing amazing work on YouTube. 

“I started making YouTube videos without there being a way to monetise them. The fact that I get to do it for a living is a happy accident,” he says. “There are still times that I feel worn down by the fact that a lot of people in my life don’t understand how cool this is, and I do think this campaign helps legitimise that.” 

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