If you’re an academic and you’re not on YouTube, why not?

YouTube is emerging as one of the most important platforms around for providing free, accessible, and informed expert content. But for the most part, academics are incredibly bad at taking advantage of it.

In 2011, my then-teenage kids dragged me to VidCon in Los Angeles and kick-started a 10-year journey into exploring how academics can use YouTube more effectively.

VidCon was created by brothers Hank and John Green as a glorious mixing-pot of YouTube celebs, content creators, and exuberant fans. In 2011 it was in its second year, and still small enough (and chaotic enough) for attendees to rub shoulders with some of the world’s top YouTube superstars.

I was, I must confess, initially bemused by the whole experience. I remember waiting in line at Starbucks with my son for instance and being fascinated by him freaking out about who was in the queue in front of us—and being impressed as the two struck up a casual conversation. But this was nothing compared to the detailed instructions I received from my daughter on collecting video cameo-performances of various YouTube stars for her collaborative YouTube channel! (Being the dutiful father, I got a whole bunch of clips of people who were, so I’m told, a big deal.)

Despite the alternative-reality discombobulation I was exposed to over those few days though, the experience transformed how I thought about YouTube as a professor in a major research university. And this journey from VidCon to academic content-creator has just been captured in a new paper in the Journal Frontiers in Communication.

More than Cat Videos

After leaving VidCon in 2011, I became intrigued by the potential reach YouTube offers for connecting expertise with people who are actively looking for new knowledge and skills, but on their own terms rather than through conventional educational routes. I also began to appreciate what an appalling job most (not all) academics were doing in making use of the platform—including myself at the time.

Today, YouTube is purportedly the second-most visited website after Google. According to the latest figures, more than 2 billion users log in to YouTube each month, and viewers watch more than a billion hours of content on the website every day. And yet, with a few exceptions, academics either eschew the platform as being beneath them, post interminably boring videos that hardly anyone watches, or claim that they either have a) no time, b) no talent or c) are not rewarded appropriately for using YouTube to communicate what they know to others.

This would be fine if free access to knowledge and education didn’t matter. Why should we make the effort to make what we know publicly accessible if we’re content to restrict it to the wealthy and the privileged? Why give stuff away for free if we don’t believe that universal access to knowledge is necessary for personal and social as well as economic growth? And why should we worry about who fills the public knowledge-vacuum left by the absence of experts willing to share their expertise online?

Of course, I’m being provocatively rhetorical here. Free and widespread access to knowledge and information and training do matter. It’s pivotal to how people develop the skills and the understanding that enable them to build a better future for themselves and their communities. It empowers them to learn in their own way, and on their own terms. And increasingly, it’s where platforms like YouTube are ushering in a revolution in casual, or self-directed, learning.

Connecting Knowledge-Creators with Knowledge-Seekers

Given all this, and inspired by my experiences at VidCon, I set out to see what I could achieve as a time and talent-limited academic. The result was the YouTube channel Risk Bites, which launched in 2012.

As I describe in the paper, Risk Bites was (and still is) an experiment in how someone like me (plenty of expertise, but little talent) could use YouTube more effectively for making insights into understanding and addressing risk as accessible and useful to as many people as possible.

It’s been an interesting nine years since the channel launched, with plenty of frustrations and pointed learning experiences along the way. Risk Bites still a niche channel—it only gets around 2,000 views per day, equating to between 50 – 90 hours of viewing per day. And it has its fair share of clunkers in the 100+ videos that have been posted to date. Yet despite this, the channel has been successful in providing expert content in areas that are otherwise poorly served.

For instance, Risk Bites videos are consistently in the top returns for searches on topics that include Responsible Innovation, Nanotechnology, Epidemiology, AI Risk, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, The Precautionary Principle, Radon. And these are just some of the topics where the channel’s videos are meeting the needs of casual learners.

Much of this success is down to a meticulously developed and applied approach to video production, and one which aligns with just how tough a task this is for academics who have little time, marginal talent, and minimal training in video production. It’s an approach that’s both described in the paper and outlined in a series of online tutorials. It’s also due in part to careful attention to search engine optimization.

Beyond the underlying process though, the channel has been effective because we’ve focused less on overall numbers of views and subscribers, and more on whether a video is filling a need, even when there are relatively few people searching for that specific content.

For example, very few people search YouTube for videos on responsible innovation. But when they do, the first thing they see is a Risk Bites video.

Making Accessible the Previously Inaccessible

This, to me, is a critical insight gained from producing the channel. If there’s stuff we know as academics, and there are people who might benefit from this but who don’t otherwise have access to what we know, I believe we have a responsibility to make what we know as accessible and relevant as possible to them—even if we’re just talking about a handful of people. And this is where YouTube provides an incredibly powerful platform for making accessible what we know, even for content creators who have little time and limited ability.

And of course, while I’m focusing on academics here, this applies equally to anyone who has knowledge or expertise that others might benefit from.

Perhaps the most important takeaway for me though since I started down this road in 2011 is that, if we’re serious about empowering as many people as possible to play a role in building a more just, equitable and vibrant future, we need to use every avenue possible to achieve this. Including YouTube.

The paper “How to Succeed as an Academic on YouTube” can be accessed for free in the Journal Frontiers in Communication.