In the context of the discussion on leftist strategy and tactics, online activism and the utilisation of cyberspace are unjustly neglected topic, which is something we have commented on previously. The slower pace at which LeftTube has been developing is affected by the standard issues of the left – the limits of academia, internal divisions and scepticism towards “alienating” and highly individualised media such as YouTube. Meanwhile, online right-wing propaganda is flourishing, with its potential for self-reproduction presenting an added danger. LeftTube, which is still evolving, is a good reminder of how the left can pave out a different course of action and be fun at the same time.
We are in conversation with Oliver Thorn, the owner and creator of Philosophy Tube, a YouTube channel concerned with teaching philosophy from a socially and politically conscious perspective.
Briefly introduce yourself and your channel – who are you and what is it that you do (both on and off YouTube), what are some of the topics you cover on your channel, what is your target audience, etc.
In 2010, the British government made the disastrous decision to triple the cost of attending university, which as an unintended side effect It’s taken even longer to actually reconcile myself to seeing YouTube more as artistic creation and allow myself to make what I want to make, rather than what might be expected from a more traditional educational channelcontributed to the radicalisation of an entire generation of students away from the morally bankrupt political stagnation of the last 30 years. I was one of those students. In those days, I had a different name and less clarity about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life; I was studying for an MA in philosophy, and decided to make videos in my bedroom about what I had learned in my lectures so that anybody anywhere in the world could learn what I was learning without paying for it. Today, miraculously, Philosophy Tube is still going! Twice a month I make videos that teach philosophy from a socially and politically conscious perspective to almost a quarter of a million subscribers all around the world! In that time, I have made Philosophy Tube my full-time job, moved to London, started a second parallel career as a professional actor, and chosen a new name, the one people know me by today – Oliver Thorn.
How did you initially get into making YouTube videos? Were you active in other YouTube communities prior to your current channel? If so, what prompted you to shift your focus to political issues?
I wasn’t very aware of the rest of YouTube when I started out. It took me several years to get the lie of the land and even more to establish myself in anything like a YouTube community; for a while I was just a weird gadfly of a creator making snarky videos from a bedroom in Scotland somewhere! It’s taken even longer to actually reconcile myself to seeing YouTube more as artistic creation and allow myself to make what I want to make, rather than what might be expected from a more traditional educational channel – the kind I started out as. I’m very lucky that my fans have supported me in that shift.
Over the past two years, it often seemed as if right-wing, neo-Nazi and white supremacist channels were able to attract an increasing number of viewers and subscribers. It did not take long for these trends to be met by a counter reaction from emerging leftist YouTubers. How would you describe the present situation on YouTube? Was this counterreaction successful?
Never mind the last two years, I remember what it was like before then! I’ve been at this game almost six years now; I spent the first few in the blasted wilderness YouTube became when the big Atheist YouTubers made their shift into anti-feminist content, the precursor to the politically reactionary position many of them occupy now. In those days I was more cautious about keeping my head down and ducking through the legs of these hulking colossi who could end careers with one reaction video. I could never have made something like The Philosophy of Antifa back It’s easy to make the same video again and again for the same audience, get the same positive feedback, and then all of a sudden find the climate has shifted and you’re yesterday’s newsthen. Many of those old channels are still prowling the landscape, though they don’t seem as threatening as they used to be: several are fading into the lone and level sands with nothing beside remaining except a pedestal that says, "DEBATE ME!" Maybe I feel that way because I’m more established now or maybe their star really has just waned. Leftist channels are in our ascendency for the moment, though not without hiccups and problems of our own.
In activist circles, the importance of an online presence is often underestimated. Organising, protesting, raising awareness, etc. in the "offline" world is seen as the primary goal, while online activities are only seen as supplementary. Furthermore, online activism is often associated with the caricature of the “Facebook revolutionary", i.e. a person whose participation in a political cause amounts to little more than “liking" the right posts and attending Facebook events, but failing to show up when real protests take place. In your opinion, is this a legitimate problem for creators of activist content to consider? Also, is there a danger of preaching to the choir, i.e. only being able to reach an audience that is already somewhat supportive of our views? What are the limits of online activism and can it also lead to alienation from actual struggles?
Preaching to the choir is certainly something I worry about. It’s easy to make the same video again and again for the same audience, get the same positive feedback, and then all of a sudden find the climate has shifted and you’re yesterday’s news. Maybe that’s what happened to a lot of those atheist creators. I don’t think that being extremely online is necessarily alienating from offline struggles though; I’ve actually become more aware and engaged with other struggles because of my work on YouTube. Offline I’m more active too: I’ve felt a need to practice what I preach even when the choir isn’t there.
Conversely, what are the advantages of online activism, especially in the context of YouTube? Why should the left invest in maintaining an online presence?
One of the great things we can do online is catch people before they get radicalised the wrong way and invite them to get curious about other ideas. The right does a lot of their work in online space, especially YouTube, so we can be there making it harder for them if we do our jobs well. I’ve even seen some right-wing creators themselves come in from the cold, their reformations glitt’ring o’er their faults! The opportunity for genuine emotional solidarity with people who are struggling isn’t to be underestimated either: a lot has been (rightly) said about the potential I get far less flak coming at me than most so I can use that relative shelter to create work that fulfils a social need, and to amplify other voices where I cantoxicity or exploitation of parasocial relationships, but I’ve met people whose awakenings, political and personal, have been because of YouTubers – whether it’s me or someone else. I used to doubt the power of a YouTube video to change someone’s life but I get messages every day now from people who say they see the world differently, or even whose lives have been saved, because of something I or other creators I work with have made.
To sum up the previous two questions, where do you see opportunities for convergence between offline and online activism? Can YouTube videos actually motivate people enough to create or join, for example, a radical trade union, a leftist organisation, etc., seeing that this would imply leaving the relative safety and comfort of being a passive consumer of YouTube content?
If the fan mail I receive is anything to go by, yes, they certainly can!
If one considers the worrying political developments of our time, it comes as no surprise that the Internet has also become a more dangerous place. Harassment, cyberbullying, hacking and stealing of personal information are all too common – have you had any such negative experiences and what is your advice for dealing with such situations? Conversely, is there a positive experience you would like to highlight?
I have, though as an abled, cis, white man, I get far less than creators who make similar work but aren’t as privileged. I’ve had death threats, identity theft, abuse, sexual harassment, Neo-Nazis spreading propaganda and trying to recruit under my videos…
In the past I pre-empted a lot of it by making my content deliberately more difficult than it needed to be: I thought that if I created in such a way that only the very keen would even bother to watch I’d be able to limit the backlash. Not only did that turn out to be false, I now realise that for a man with my privilege it was downright cowardly: I get far less flak coming at me than most so I can use that relative shelter to create work that fulfils a social need, and to amplify other voices where I can. These days I wear my heart on my sleeve for daws to peck at, both in terms of my political leanings and my personal life.
The negative pales in comparison to the positive, however. My channel only exists because of crowdfunding – my rent, my food, my bills, my whole life is made possible by the generosity of strangers, many of whom give me just two dollars a month. The tiny miseries that come with YouTube are nothing beside the material reality made real by virtual interactions. Whether I’m giving lectures at The Hague or spending time with incredible, lovely people I’ve met through YouTube, I frequently stop and think “I never thought making videos in bedroom would take me here!"
Sadly, there seems to be a lack of similar content in languages other than English. Do you have any advice for those who might be interested in starting their own political channel?
Enable community subtitle contributions! People beyond the Anglosphere are keen to watch your stuff, so let them subtitle it! It’s easy to do – there’s a ‘Subtitles’ tab in the Creator Studio you can access; just tick the box in there.
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