2023 was a wild year for YouTube. From MrBeast explosions to the blow-up of Colleen Ballinger’s career, it’s been a never-ending cavalcade of chaos and calamity. Focusing on the headlines and drama might be easy. However, it’s important to remember that YouTube is still a video hosting platform, full of the best analysts and deep thinkers with an internet connection.
The video essay, where someone spews about a topic for a few minutes to eight hours, had a renaissance of a year, full of thought-provoking insights on culture and the internet. But with hundreds of hours of introspections on dank memes, there’s a chance quite a few of these videos fall through the cracks on your “Watch Later” playlist.
So, using my ability to stay inside for long periods and binge-watch content, I’ve compiled a list of my five favorite video essays released in 2023.
1. “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” – ContraPoints
Natalie Wynn is one of the most important video essayists on YouTube, with her talks on the alt-right and cancelation still wringing in my ear years after I’ve watched them. Though she had a fairly quiet year, the one two-hour video essay she did put out was a rollercoaster from start to finish. It covers her experience being interviewed for a podcast about J.K. Rowling, where she was clearly misled about the interviewer’s intentions (which to me, is pretty unethical). It’s a good reminder that you should always be wary of any interview opportunities, even when you expect them to be in good faith.
2. “Why YouTubers Hold Microphones Now” – Tom Nicholas
As vast amounts of company capital and advertising bucks flowed into YouTube, content creation evolved. Gone are the days of scrappy emo-haired boys writing sketches filmed on their mom’s camcorder because big budgets and a professional aesthetic have replaced them. The British creator Tom Nicholas does a fantastic deep dive into how that transition happened with the most benign of framing devices: the microphone.
3. “Everything Is Content Now” – Patrick (H) Willems
I made a recent tweet using the phrase “everyone who consumes content,” and the comments were flooded with people who despised using the “C-word.” And I agree that art, movies, music, animation, and every individual medium is so much more than just “content.” But thanks to YouTube and the constant need to fill every second of our day with entertainment, the dreaded term has snuck its way into every facet of our lives. Willems does some of the best video essays on media criticism, including another banger on what killed cinema. In one of my favorite essays from the year, he breaks down how the term “content” came to be all-consuming — and what we can do to stop it.
4. “How SunnyV2 Ruined Video Essays” – Pinely
I’ve been following Orr Piamenta, known as “Pinely,” since he was still just an avatar of a cardboard box. This year, he released some truly inspirational content and collaborations. My favorite has to be his takedown of low-effort content farms parading around as video essayists. Because YouTube can be such a good place to make money, these creators have essentially perfected the ability to churn out videos with low amounts of research to maximize watch time. From his rooftop, Piamenta breaks down one of the most egregious channels and discusses why this style of content is making it harder for other video essayists.
5. “Plagiarism and You(Tube)” – Hbomberguy
Chances are you are probably already one of the 10 million viewers to watch Harris Brewis’s 4-hour opus discussing YouTube’s plagiarism problem. It made waves in the creation space in ways that normal videos normally don’t, essentially leading James Somerton, one of the main plagiarists exposed in the video, to go into virtual hiding. Despite the length, the video is worth watching all the way through, even if you have to put it on double speed just to make sure you have the time to finish it. Plus, we got to speak with Brewis about the impact of his video, which is a sick bonus.
What were your favorite video essays of the year? Email [email protected] to send us your suggestions.