When Time named John Green to its Time 100 list earlier this year, actress Shailene Woodley, who plays the lead in the recent blockbuster film adaptation of Green’s young adult anthem The Fault in Our Stars, wrote his tribute.
“He treats every human he meets as their own planet,” Woodley wrote, “rather than simply one of his moons.”
But what you may not know about Green is just how voluminous the planet that he and his brother Hank Green have created for themselves really is. Its orbit within popular and Internet culture is vast, and it exists in the galaxies of YouTube, publishing, and mainstream Hollywood culture simultaneously.
At its center is a message of community, grassroots evolution, and hope.
This week sees the fifth year of VidCon, the dual industry and community YouTube convention that the Green brothers created in order to help members of the YouTube vlogging community connect with one another and network within the burgeoning overlap between YouTube and Hollywood.
In its first year, VidCon hosted a sold-out crowd of 1,400. This year’s conference, which has YouTube as its official primary sponsor, will have 17,000 attendees and 10 times that many followers on Twitter. In just four short years, VidCon has become the kind of high-profile fan con and powerhouse industry convention that can attract keynote speakers like DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg and new YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki.
In the middle of it all, the Green brothers are an unlikely pair of industry insiders and power brokers. Since 2007, the Greens have steadily been riding the wave of a massive fanbase known as Nerdfighters toward national acclaim and recognition. They’ve been aided as well by their infectious—perhaps we should say viral-ready—love of YouTube, progressive politics, and communal creativity. The increasingly mainstream acceptance of both John Green’s brand of literary success and Hank Green’s brand of indie DIY-style iTunes hits hasn’t hurt, either.
Above all, the Green brothers have succeeded thanks to a tireless work ethic and innumerable projects, both on YouTube and off. The sheer scope of their many projects and side projects and one-off projects seems to touch nearly every corner of the entertainment industry, from publishing to PBS.
Now, in 2014, the Green brothers have played Carnegie Hall, hung out with their fanboy Barack Obama, seen The Fault in Our Stars open at No. 1 ahead of a Tom Cruise blockbuster, and turned “DFTBA” (Don’t Forget To Be Awesome) into an international catchphrase.
How did all this happen?
Illustration by Aja Romano and Jason Reed
Accio Harry Potter fanbase
LeakyCon, a mid-sized but ever-growing Harry Potter conference named after the popular HP news site Leaky Cauldron, may seem an unlikely conference to win annual recurring appearances from a major YouTube celebrity and one of the heavyweights of YA publishing. But no story of the Green brothers is complete without it—or without the Harry Potter fandom.
Hank Green dressed as the Tenth Doctor at LeakyCon 2012
Photo via Leaky Con
In 2007, the Harry Potter fandom was waning as fans prepared for the release of the seventh and final book and the end of an iconic era of fandom history. For most of its lifetime, HP fandom had centered around discussions of the books and related fan activities: cosplay, fanfic, and real life cons focused around the books. But in later years, a new flavor of HP fandom had emerged: sub-fandoms within the fandom. Wizard rock (“wrock”) had taken off as a new genre of music requiring love for Harry first, talent second. Bands with name like Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, The Weird Sisters, and The Remus Lupins were going on tours and amassing large crowds of fans.
Around the same time, John Green had just taken home the prestigious Printz award for his 2005 debut YA novel, Looking For Alaska. His brother, then-27-year-old Hank Green, was putting his degrees in biochemistry and environmental studies to good use as the editor of Eco Geek and as a noted environmental science writer. In between writing to change the world, the brothers starting sending video messages to each other every day for the duration of 2007, in a project they called “Brotherhood 2.0,” on the Vlogbrothers channel.
Brotherhood 2.0 had a small but loyal viewership that grew steadily, but it wasn’t ever really about the numbers. Rather, as John suggested after realizing that he and his brother hadn’t seen each other in person for over a year, it was an innovative new way to connect using the power of YouTube.
On July 18, just three days before the release of the seventh Harry Potter book, Hank sent his brother the usual daily message, this one about Harry Potter. In it, Hank sang a song called “Accio Deathly Hallows,” a catchy earworm that captured the excited, verklempt Harry Potter fandom on the eve of a huge milestone.
We need Harry Potter
Like a Grindylow needs water
And as the day approaches, our need grows
Oh, Accio Deathly Hallows!
For the Vlogbrothers, Hank’s little ditty would prove to be their own watershed moment. The video landed on YouTube’s front page and went viral, racking up over a million hits (currently it stands at 1.7 million). Moreover, it introduced the Greens to Harry Potter fandom, and to the growing number of fans who would morph gradually into the Vlogbrothers fandom, known simply as Nerdfighters. (At one point, they took time out to fanboy over Neil Gaiman, who would later become a close friend and a guest performer at the Greens’ sold-out evening at Carnegie Hall in 2013.) When 2007 ended, the Vlogbrothers decided to continue their vlog project, each posting once a week instead of every day.
By 2008 Hank Green was a fixture at Harry Potter cons like Terminus, rocking out alongside Harry and the Potters and participating in the communal album Wrock for Darfur. Meanwhile, the Nerdfighters were already an established sub-fandom and YouTube community of activist fans. The movement joined frequently with the Harry Potter Alliance, a separate but closely linked fandom activist group with ties to HP con culture.
The next year, John and Hank Green were both keynote speakers at LeakyCon, and John won an Edgar Award for his third novel, Paper Towns. He had begun writing bits and pieces of a new novel which he would later recycle parts of into his first full-fledged bestselling phenomenon. At earlier LeakyCons, the Greens had met Esther Earl, a Harry Potter fan who became a popular and well-known Nerdfighter. Esther was one of the members of the Effyeahnerdfighters community on Tumblr. In 2010, John Green and the Harry Potter fandom and Nerdfighters founded Esther Day, just weeks before Esther’s death from thyroid cancer. Before she died, she encouraged John to finish the novel he was working on. The novel, loosely based on Esther’s life, became The Fault in Our Stars, which would spend more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list.
Last month, Hank Green and his solo band, Hank Green and the Perfect Strangers, debuted yet another song dedicated to JK Rowling. Seven years later, the influence of Harry Potter fandom is still omnipresent: The song mentions the HP Alliance, and Green partners with Harry and the Potters frontman Joe DeGeorge.
He even helpfully put all his Harry Potter songs on one album—put out, of course, by the Greens' DFTBA record label.
Transforming the community
Throughout these years, the Green brothers were experimenting with new projects within their small but growing community. As the Vlogbrothers’ number of subscribers grew, the earmarks of Nerdfighteria developed: grassroots social justice, community sharing and charity, and progressive political education.
Above all, the Greens exercised Hank’s belief that “small groups of people change the world.” They put this mantra into practice early on. In 2007, the Vlogbrothers started Project for Awesome, a YouTube and Nerdfighter movement in which participants crowdfund donations for selected charities. Community members create vlog posts in support of their favorite charities and vote for their favorite videos. At the end of the frenzied fundraising period, the funds are divided between the charities with the most popular videos made on their behalf.
Project for Awesome was a success from the beginning. It also united the Nerdfighter community in a major way that the Green brothers would strive to repeat with the YouTube sphere in general.
In August 2008, the Green brothers held a Nerdfighter event in Chicago. Although it was a simple meeting of fans and friends, the day would prove to be a turning point for the duo.
“This is … where I realized I could sell my music and people would buy it, which … morphed into DFTBA Records,” Hank later recalled. “It was a big day for me.” His brother concurred:
This was also the first time … we really understood the power of nerdfighter gatherings, and it happened at the Chicago Public Library, one of the first places to get behind my novels in a big institution-wide way, and wow, what an important day in our lives.
Photo via fishingboatproceeds/Tumblr
This realization marked a point in the Greens' career trajectory when it officially turned toward what might best be described as a living embodiment of convergence culture—the term coined by media professor Henry Jenkins for a cross-platform, cross-genre way of engaging with Internet culture and using it to build community online and off-. The Green brothers began to actively branch out in multiple mediums: music, comedy, video and YouTube technology, in addition to their writing and charity work.
By May 2009, Hank had created DFTBA Records and released his first album, So Jokes. It landed in the Billboard Top 25. DFTBA Records quickly established itself as a burgeoning record label for YouTube artists hungry to expand their audience and take their careers to the next level. The DFTBA artist lineup swelled with major YouTube celebrities like Charlie McDonnell and Alex Day signing up, along with outlying members of the Green community like the Harry Potter Alliance. The more well-connected the Vlogbrothers brothers became within YouTube culture, the more DFTBA’s list of artists grew.
Expanding and evolving
The Greens, Hank in particular, were well-equipped and keen to network within YouTube, with the combined goals of boosting their Internet neighbors and uniting the community to do cool stuff. Over the course of 2009, the Greens developed the idea of an offline YouTube event that would bring members of the community together. As Hank described it in his December 2009 announcement, it was “news that will change Nerdfighteria, possibly all of YouTube, and maybe the entire world."
What this video reveals is Hank Green’s commitment to taking the principles of Nerdfighteria and spreading them throughout the YouTube community: Not only was YouTube his new vehicle through which to engage audiences; it was a way of expanding his mantra that change begins with small groups: After all, if the Nerdfighter movement had proven that one YouTube channel could promote grass-roots activism, then what could a whole host of YouTube channels coming together do?
The first VidCon was a roaring success, promptly selling out its 1,400 available tickets and promoting a constant expansion that saw the con move to Anaheim in 2013 and expand to 12,000, then 17,000 attendees. VidCon also seems to have had a direct impact on the Vlogbrothers’ ability to do things outside of their main YouTube channel: surrounded by a fully connected network of YouTubers, the Greens’ side projects exploded, improved in quality, and earned massive subscriber numbers.
Vlogbrothers YouTube projects: A timeline
2007: Project For Awesome
2008: DFTBA Records (YouTube performing artist label co-created by Hank Green)
2009: Truth or Fail/The Universe Is Pretty Cool
2010: Hank Games (Side-channel where Hank and John play a variety of real and simulated games)
2011: Crash Course (A co-hosted Green brothers channel initially funded by Google and YouTube)
2012: SciShow (Hosted by Hank Green; SciShowSpace launched 2014)
2012: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries/Pemberley Digital (Hank Green created and co-produced with Bernie Su)
2012: BrainScoop (Hosted by Emily Graslie of the Field Museum of Chicago)
2012: Decrease Worldsuck (Nerdfighter nonprofit connected to Project for Awesome)
2013: Mental Floss Video (John Green becomes host)
2013: Healthcare Triage (John co-hosted with Dr. Aaron Carroll)
2013: Sexplanations (Hosted by Dr. Lindsay Doe)
2013: Subbable (The Green brothers' subscription-based crowdfunding service for YouTube channels)
2014: The Art Assignment (PBS Digital Studios project hosted by Sarah Green and co-hosted by John Green)
2014: How to Adult (A Green brothers-produced life skills channel for Nerdfighters)
In 2011, Google unveiled its ambitious $100 million slate of specially curated YouTube channels. Among them was the Green brothers series Crash Course. Despite quickly gaining over a million subscribers and racking up a hundred million views, the funding eventually ran out, and the Greens, who had long-critiqued YouTube’s ad-based revenue system, began to seek other ways of funding. In 2013, this led to the creation of Subbable, a crowdfunded subscription service designed to help worthy YouTube channels succeed through the kindness and direct donations of YouTube audiences.
“[Subbable is] easily 10 times bigger (in terms of startup capital) than anything else we've ever funded,” Hank Green told the Daily Dot last year, “So it's scary and exciting, and I really hope it can sustain not just itself but a lot of amazing content.”
Ten months after its launch, Subbable remains a risky venture. Of the 22 current channels who’ve successfully applied to be hosted on the website, only eight are within 50 percent of their monthly goal, and only three are within 80 percent. Only one, popular YouTube channel C.G.P. Grey, is at 100 percent. And about those three with 80 percent funding? All of them—Crash Course, SciShow, and Sexplanations—are channels produced by the Green brothers.
Another recent project may have proven more profitable: Pemberley Digital, the transmedia webseries production company which sprang out of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a co-creation between Hank Green and writer/director Bernie Su. Not only was Lizzie Bennet so popular it spawned a series of similar Austen remakes, including the current Emma Approved, but it Kickstarted nearly half a million dollars from the fandom for a full DVD release, and encouraged PBS to partner with Pemberley in a digital adaptation of Frankenstein.
Oh, yeah, and it won an Emmy.
Too much influence?
In recent years, the Vlogbrothers seem to be into every corner of geek culture. Hank was a noted guest at W00tstock, the geek revue and variety show; John made pizza with Hannah Hart on My Drunk Kitchen. Hank did recaps of the Guild; John inspired the creation of an entire card game. Hank made Tumblr: The Musical; John made a special appearance at Tumblr headquarters for the premiere of TFIOS.
Although John Green’s success overshadows his brother’s, they both occupy cornerstone positions within two different sides of Internet culture. Hank Green is more actively involved in harnessing YouTube’s culture and translating communal energy into social action. John Green is a passionate, powerful voice for the Nerdfighter generation, and increasingly the voice of millions of YA readers. Hank is the scientist; John the historian. Hank is the musician; Hank is the writer. Hank appears to be, slightly, the more outgoing of the two; John sometimes seems to be struggling to accept his own rising level of fame and influence. Earlier this week, he stopped by a Reddit thread to assure a heartbroken fan that she had not had a disastrous and offensive interaction with him. Of the fan/creator relationship, he wrote:
[I]t's an inherently heightened and unnatural dynamic in which it's very difficult for either of us to imagine the other as a complicated human being going through all the things that complicated humans go through. … So you never really know someone else's experience, is I guess what I'm saying, but we're all doing our best.
At this year’s Book Expo, the publishing industry’s largest convention, John Green was a keynote speaker. The New York Times has even coined a term for his brand of emotional contemporary YA: GreenLit. But the concept has sparked controversy: Many within the YA blogosphere feel that the literary establishment has a tendency to elevate Green’s work above that of his female peers in the YA writer community. The pattern has been labeled “the John Green Effect.” John himself has said, responding to a Daily Dot article on the issue, that:
The idea that I'm responsible for female writers' success is INFURIATING... The gender issues in publishing don't come from temporary trends (like my books being popular)... and they aren't caused by individuals. They're systemic. So what I can do (and correct me if this seems wrong) is *not* run from labels "romance" or "YA" like some male authors who wish to be taken seriously, and then also celebrate fiction by women as good and valuable and try to spread the word about the stuff I like.
Meanwhile, DFTBA Records has recently come under fire for a much different reason: A string of YouTube stars have admitted to or been accused of engaging in underage relationships or inappropriate or predatory behavior. In 2012, Hank Green banned the YouTube artist Onision from VidCon after he made misogynistic comments toward his exes on his channel. That same year, one of DFTBA’s earliest artists, Mike Lombardo, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison on charges of child pornography. DFTBA pulled all of his records. The following year, YouTuber Eddplant admitted to coercing one of his fans into a sexual relationship and abusing her emotionally. Eddplant deleted his Tumblr, and once again DFTBA pulled his records.
Then, this year, Tumblr saw a string of explosive accusations over various DFTBA artists and their friends. Though not all of the allegations were substantiated, many were, and some led to confessions on the parts of the accused. Over the month of March, at least four DFTBA artists were accused and admitted to some level of inappropriate behavior. An underage fan accused popular performer Tom Milsom of pressuring her into a sexual relationship, a claim confirmed by multiple members of the community, including Hank Green himself, before the DFTBA label pulled Milsom’s records. Among the allegations that swirled in the wake of the Milsom scandal, bestselling YouTube phenomenon Alex Day also got hit with allegations. Day admitted to inappropriate behavior and acted himself to pull his records from the DFTBA label.
Speaking about the scandals in March, Hank Green wrote:
My only consolation is that I honestly believe these issues are coming to light in this community not because they are more common, but because we are more empowered to speak out and not hide from or cover them up.
And that’s excellent, because you cannot fix a problem if you do not face a problem.
But many people, including Day, criticized the interactive spaces of vloggers and their fans for encouraging inappropriate behavior and blurred lines between content creators and fans. This inevitably includes VidCon, which, despite having seen harassment occur in its history, had no actual harassment policy until after a public outcry over the issue last month. The convention's code of conduct was eventually updated to include a harassment policy.
However detrimental these scandals might be to the YouTubers whose names are attached, though, it seems that very little if anything can tarnish the Vlogbrothers’ reputations. DFTBA’s zero-tolerance policy toward its artists leaves Hank Green untouched. Even the John Green Effect isn’t actually about John Green. And while Green recently made a major flub by gushing, woefully inaccurately, that TFIOS had the first female-initiated kiss, he apologized, and the Internet moved on.
Meanwhile, the Green brothers’ influence continues to grow, and their progressive communal sunbeams continue to expand into new corners of the Internet. But if John and Hank now have dominion over everything the light touches, the need to acknowledge and be aware of that power is also important.
After all, while the Vlogbrothers may be a perfect counterpart to each other, when it comes to the rest of us, they’re twice as difficult to resist.
Photo via fishingboatproceeds/Tumblr