Katie and Cullen seemed like perfectly normal people when I met them six years ago.
They lived in an upscale neighborhood of a Birmingham suburb. She had been a child psychologist. He had been a software developer. But they had both left their secure, high-paying jobs. Why? They had become YouTube stars — and they were making enough money that they didn’t need jobs anymore.
I had a freelance photo assignment in March 2015 from a magazine to shoot pictures of the family for a cover story. They had nearly 100,000 subscribers on YouTube at the time and their popularity was rapidly growing. The story was all about their unlikely success.
They seemed like genuinely nice people. There was no air of pretentiousness about them. They didn’t even really seem that impressed with their sudden fame. I liked them.
But when I watched their YouTube channel — and read the comments from their adoring fans — I was absolutely baffled. I couldn’t figure out why anybody wanted to watch videos about their lives. Today, they have more than half a million subscribers to their channel, so I seem to be the odd one.
As I keep pondering whether there’s a media opportunity for me — on YouTube or something similar — I keep coming back to the puzzling realization that the public wants something which I don’t yet understand.
And how could I possibly be successful in a medium which I apparently don’t even understand?
For at least 15 years, I’ve had the peculiar feeling that I needed to publish some sort of video or audio content. I’ve talked about this in the past — and I even tried some podcasts last year — but I can’t say I’m any closer to resolving my dilemma.
My professional experience was in print — the old-fashioned kind which relied on us writing serious stories and making photos and then printing them on dead trees. Newspapers. That’s the industry which is almost dead by now. Although I had some minor interest in stage acting and public speaking when I was a teen-ager, I had never been interested in being a television or film performer.
As the old saying goes, I have a face for radio and a voice for print. I’d always been happy to write in my old-fashioned, newspaper-influenced style and leave video to others.
But I can’t escape the feeling that there is a tremendous opportunity for me on YouTube. Worse, I can’t escape the feeling that there’s something important that I need to say to the world — something which I won’t be able to say in any other way. And this baffles me.
I accumulated the equipment to allow me to make videos. I’ve even experimented with making and posting a few. But what I’ve made hasn’t been very good. I figure I can get better with practice, but I found it hard to convince myself to invest the time in learning how to make better content — and performing better on camera — if I didn’t know what I was trying to achieve.
(Here’s an example of one of those videos I made as an experiment a couple of years ago. After two years, it’s had something like 60 views — and I’m surprised that anybody actually watched it, if I’m being honest.)
I’m torn about video creation. Those who’ve been reading me for a long time know that I still have my heart set on filmmaking. My one short film — a political satire from about 15 years ago — was far more successful than it had any right to. It got into about 25 film festivals — smaller ones, of course — and it won a few awards. It’s been watched on YouTube more than 300,000 times.
So should I just try to make traditional films and stop listening to this ridiculous voice telling me to go after a different kind of modern video content? Honestly, that would relieve me, because I’m really uncomfortable trying to be a performer. And I do need to make some traditional-style films anyway. I guess it seems easier simply because I understand that format, even if I fear I’m to good enough at it.
But this peculiar feeling won’t leave me alone. Every time I decide to ignore the gut feeling that I need to pursue it, something draws me back to it. Every couple of months, I start obsessing about it again. I start thinking about how I can plan and produce some content that could actually find an audience — and then I find all sorts of excuses not to do it.
When I was a teen-ager and even when I was a young adult, nothing scared me. I plunged into whatever crazy idea I had. I was too arrogantly confident to consider that I might not be good at something, so I achieved things that I shouldn’t have been able to achieve.
Today, I’m far too conscious of my shortcomings. I’m far too apt to doubt myself. And I’m far too willing to let myself off the hook, even when I know I ought to plunge forward and ignore my fears.
In a perfect world, I would make a nice living writing articles and taking photos and designing pages, just as I did when I was a young newspaper editor. I’m still comfortable with all those skills. In a slightly scarier world, I would write and direct movies which allowed me to say the things I wanted to say, but which allowed me to remain on the other side of the camera.
But in the scariest version of the world, I would somehow figure out how to produce video content which can attract a substantial audience — with my own performance front and center.
That is a future which scares me — but it’s one which my gut tells me is what I really ought to do. For this week, though, I’ll find plenty of excuses to keep whistling past this particular graveyard.