How YouTubers Vsauce Became the Biggest Name in Science
What would happen if you were hit by Captain America’s shield? Or if everyone on earth jumped up and down at once? Or if the Kool-Aid man actually burst through a wall? Since launching in 2010, the YouTube network Vsauce has amassed more than 18 million worldwide subscribers by exploring such questions. Videos on the channel offer peppy, informative explorations of science that present complex scientific topics in a casual, conversational tone that appeal to both children and adults. It’s a tried and true recipe but by executing it so well, the personalities behind the program — creator Michael Stevens as well as hosts Kevin Lieber and Jake Roper — earn the unofficial title as the internet’s favorite science teachers. In fact, all three members have gotten seals of approval from the likes of Neil Degrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Planet Earth host Sir David Attenborough all of whom have appeared in episodes.
Vsauce videos regularly receive millions of views. And there are no signs of the Vsauce brand slowing down. The trio recently launched a subscription science mailer, the Curiosity Box, which sends a hand-picked, random array of science goodies to your door. They also created a fourth variety-themed YouTube channel, a variety themed one called D.O.N.G, where they interact with fans and cover topics beyond science. Fatherly chatted with Stevens, Lieber, and Roper about creating viral science sensations, becoming Bill Nye for a new generation, and why the Kool-Aid Man could truly burst through a brick wall and not shatter.
How did Vsauce get started?
Michael Stevens: Vsauce started technically as a video game “comedy channel.” And I say that with quotes because I’m not funny and not really into video games. But I was forced to do three videos a week, so I learned how to talk to an audience through social media. My background is in neuroscience, literature, and psychology. And, with the channel, I thought I could combine my theater experience with science. So I started with a video about how deep is the deepest hole on earth. And I knew I had made it when my mom shared that video on Facebook.
Now, your videos receive million of views. Do you feel a responsibility to teach people content they may not have access to elsewhere?
MS: I don’t like calling myself a teacher, but I definitely teach. Actual teachers have a much harder job, they have to be somewhere every morning. I can wake up whenever I want. Their students have to be there because it’s the law. Our viewers are already in love with the topics we cover. But I still feel a huge responsibility to be accurate and always be careful on how things should be worded. Like, I’m not a scientist reporting my results. I celebrate what real scientists have done.
And you present what they’ve done in such a breezy, easy-to-digest fashion.
MS: I see myself as a perpetual layman. I approach my videos from the same level as my audience would. So I remember the path that I took to learn my topic and the questions I asked myself from the beginning. That’s how I write the episode. That’s why a lot of academics have a hard time connecting with an audience.
Jake Roper: CGP Grey has a great quote that I’m going to paraphrase: ‘You talk to the audience like they’re geniuses, but with a limited vocabulary.’ For me, if I can’t explain a topic clearly, then I don’t understand it. So the way that we’re presenting our videos is the way how we came to understand it. We’re regurgitating it to you.
It’s socially acceptable to be a science nerd today. What changed between now and when you guys were growing up?
JR When we were kids, we had access to a television and the television was programmed by other people. They dictated what was important for us to see and what wasn’t. So the reason why you got nerds was because you had to actively seek out the things that were engaging to you. Now the term nerd is no longer derogatory. It just means you’re into science.
MS: When I was a kid, there was only one science book on the shelf in my library. It wasn’t as easy for everyone to enter that space. But now if you want to learn about the fourth dimension, there are voices talking about it in different ways. You can learn it. Now everyone can have that scientific literacy, which is awesome.
Kevin Lieber: I think having a smartphone in your pocket has changed what it means to know information in such a dramatic way. Having people like us who take the time to boil down these topics in a conversational way where you can understand them there’s an audience for that. There’s so much information, some people don’t know where to start. Okay, so we’ll tell you. I just spent the last few weeks diving for the internet pearl at the bottom of the ocean and I’m surfacing with it and I’m sharing it with you but in an entertaining way.
How long does it take to boil down a subject for an average Vsauce video?
MS: It takes weeks, at least. That’s because I’m starting from,“What? How is that true?” to, “Now we can explain this to people.”
JR: It’s usually about a month for me. When the topic is about one object, like I did one on Captain America’s shield, it doesn’t snowball as much. There was a video that literally took a year. It depends on the topic.
One of our favorite videos, in addition to Captain America’s shield, is when you explore the booby traps of Home Alone.
JR: I’ve been wanting to do that video for two years. It’s funny because I had met with Lowes, and they’re like, we would love it if you made a video about home improvement. And I was like, well, what if we recreated the Home Alone traps? There’s really only one video that I can think of that came from a Twitter comment. Someone had made a joke about the Kool-Aid man breaking through the wall and I said, ‘I bet you he can break through the wall and not break.’
So, would the Kool-Aid man break coming through a wall?
JR: He wouldn’t break, but he would have a lot of stress fractures. Plus, you have to think about the debris that went into the open lid. Kool-Aid loved that video.
Given that you tackle science through such topics, it gives you the unique opportunity to reach all ages.
JR: Our audience is kind of like the Pixar audience. Kids will watch us, but parents like it too. The best example was a few years ago at VidCon. A 50-year-old dad with his kids approached us. The kids had no idea who we were. The dad put down his pizza to meet us. He was so stoked.
MS: We don’t think of structure like we’re making a science show for ages 8-12. Anyone can watch. If you’re young, you might hear about entropy for the first time, but if you’re a grad student, you might love that I’m defining entropy in some new ways that’ll make it more intuitive. Once I heard from a physicist at the University of Nottingham that when I explained entropy as energy spreading out he said that was a great way to answer entropy. We’re not just for newbies. We’re not just for experts.
How has the success affected how you create?
MS: We approach it as we’re making goofy videos for our friends. In the long run, I hope that people who grow up watching us and are more into being curious.
JR: At the end of the day, for me, it’s did I give you the best possible experience? To mirror what Michael said, are you more curious. To me that’s the most valuable thing to give after the video is done.
KL: For me, it’s more about: Did you find more meaning today than yesterday? I’m just passionate about making people feel okay about being on this planet.