Hank Green on dad emails, the business of scicomm, and the value of niche

Tiny Matters

Maybe you know Hank Green from Vlogbrothers or CrashCourse. Maybe he taught you something on TikTok. Maybe you’ve read one of his books. Or maybe you know him from about a dozen other things. Hank does a lot, so Sam and Deboki were psyched to get a chance to chat with him.

Transcript of this Episode

Deboki: Hi, it's Deboki. I'm very excited that you've tuned in for today's episode, which is an interview that Sam and I did with Hank Green. There's a lot of places that you might know Hank from. Personally, I go way back with the Vlogbrothers, a YouTube series he started with his brother, the author John Green, in 2007. But you might also know him for YouTube shows produced via their company Complexly, like SciShow and Crash Course. Complexly also recently announced a program with Arizona State University and Google to help students earn college credit through their YouTube series, Study Hall, which I bet is something a lot of us wish we could have done in college. And if you don't know Hank from that or from podcasts like Dear Hank and John or SciShow Tangents, you might know him from TikTok.

Honestly, there are a lot of places to know Hank from, which is why I'm really excited for this episode. I've been Hank's editorial assistant since 2019, which means I've gotten to experience a small fraction of just how many different ways that Hank has explored using media to make the complexities of science accessible. In the course of working for Hank, I've listened to a lot of interviews that he's done so that I can understand who I'm working for a little better, which is kind of a fun, strange thing to get to do when it comes to your boss. But it was even more fun and strange to do one of those interviews myself, and with Sam, to talk more about his journey as a science communicator. All right, enjoy.

Hello, Hank. How are you doing today?

Hank Green: Ah, I'm good. Busy.

Deboki: Welcome to Tiny Matters.

Hank Green: Thanks.

Sam: I'm Sam. It's nice to meet you.

Hank Green: It's nice to meet you too.

Thanks for being here.

Hank Green: You have a very big closet.

Sam: Oh, it's amazing. It's like a closet, but also storage. It's a multi-purpose space. It's amazing.

Hank Green: And a podcast studio, yeah.

Sam: Exactly.

So Hank, you and your brother, John Green, you guys were some of the earliest, I think, to the educational YouTube scene, maybe even to YouTube overall. And over that time, you guys have created a lot of free educational content. So we were wondering what were you doing before you were a Vlogbrother? What was your identity, your life? And then what was the inspiration for you to go into YouTube, especially when it was so early?

Hank Green: When I first started Vlogbrothers, at that time I had many different jobs. I worked at a TV station doing camera operation and filming city council meetings. The community access station in Missoula. I was doing a bunch of stuff for nonprofits, helping them with their internet strategy, which at that point was very basic, and also doing web design and database development stuff for them. Then I had my own blog that actually probably the majority of my income came from that, which was pretty cool. It was called EcoGeek and it talked about technological human centered solutions to environmental problems.

Now, looking back, it was sort of a push against a lot of, we didn't have a word for then, but would now call degrowth that I heard a lot among my... Because when I started that I was in an environmental studies program at the University of Montana. And now that's a controversy that people talk about. But at the time it was almost like all those things were kind of mixed together into a pot and hadn't defined themselves as oppositional camps, which they aren't and shouldn't be, is my opinion of that. Not that we're talking about that.

So I was already kind of an internet creator of a kind at that point. I wrote and got paid to write for various places like Yahoo News and Tree Hugger and National Geographic Online, stuff like that. And then I had my own thing where I monetized it myself. It was kind of similar to being a YouTuber in some weird ways, except there was no video. And I kept doing that for years after starting Vlogbrothers. And it was a really weird thing to make a video on the internet in 2007. But it was also not that weird for me, mostly because I had always been obsessed with the internet and making stuff on it since I was in high school and had had several different things that I'd created that had gotten noticed more than they should have and ever would have if there had been anyone else doing stuff. And so when John said, "Hey, I've been watching these YouTube videos, I think that it would be really fun to try it out." I just said yes. And it worked, I guess, in the long term.

Well, that was the next thing actually that we were going to ask you about. So do you remember maybe the first moment or one of the first moments where you felt like, "Hey, this is actually succeeding."? Did you go into this thinking, "I'm going to reach millions of children and adults one day and teach them about everything from ancient civilizations to organic chemistry."? Or what do you remember about that time?

Hank Green: There were definitely lots of individual times where it felt like, "Ah, this is becoming a bigger deal." At that point, EcoGeek was still my full-time job. I was kind of wrapping up a lot of freelance WebDev clients, trying to work less and less on that stuff and just do EcoGeek and Vlogbrothers full-time. And it was very incremental. And it was the same thing with blogging where sometimes you'd have a story go big and you'd know that you were going to make $500 that day and that was going to keep the lights on. Whereas on YouTube, there was no money in it for at least the first 12 months we were doing it, there wasn't a way to monetize. And we didn't even really think about that.

It was, and I think that this remains a thing for people who start creating on the internet, it's the attention. It's the inspiration. It's the feeling of having your work be appreciated. And we had several of those moments. People we'd never heard of and a bunch of them coming in or people we had heard of and respected saying that they liked our content. Or my dad sending an email and being like, "This was a really good one. You really did a good a job. You really understood."

Sam: I love dad. Dad emails are the best. Yes, yes.

Hank Green: And then when we got invited into the partner program, we were like, "Oh, maybe there will be some money in this." But I don't ever really remember it being strategic, and I have never really been a strategic person for long term. I'm like two months strategic. I'm thinking about the meeting that I'm going to have tomorrow and what might be being said in it, and I'm ready for the various things that might be said in that meeting that I have tomorrow. But I've only very recently had to think more on longer term scales because that's important when you have a bunch of employees who need to still have a job a year from now.

Sam: Yes.

So in terms of things that were going on early on, were there things that you thought would be more successful in your early days of making stuff for the internet that just didn't land the way that you expected it to?

Hank Green: Sure. Yeah, it's almost like the slot machine effect of it. It's like it keeps you stuck. It keeps you doing it because the rewards are randomized. Sometimes I think that nowadays platforms actually design the rewards to be randomized. I'd be very interested to know if TikTok does that because it seems like it does. But also it's a stochastic world and system of initial activation energy and how it interfaces with algorithms, whether or not algorithms exist, the person who is in charge of the thing that day is different. And so, yeah, lots of times when I thought I was going to have a video that would do really well, that didn't do really well. But I think I'm actually pretty good at predicting which ones are going to do well and also that they're going to do different work. I think this is a thing that creators always need to know is that different things do different work. And if you're only designing every single video to be viral, then you're going to have... Maybe you're building a really tall skinny tower. And I oftentimes think it's better to make sure that you're building that there's more to it than just the reach. You've got to build deeper as well.

Deboki: Yeah. So it sounds like a little bit of what you're describing are different ways of succeeding. How much of that was stuff that you realized from the beginning or how much of that did you have to figure out as you were going along and building out the different types of projects you were doing?

Hank Green: I think that that's going to have to come down to a definition of success, which I think is really important to interface with. And really, it's things that feel good in a moment. And it's also, unfortunately, not a thing you get to put on your shelf and be like, "I did it. Look, here is success. And whenever anybody wants to be mean to me, I still have this and it will make me feel good no matter what else is going on right now." You don't get that. I have now managed people a bunch, and what becomes very clear is that different people are not me, and they think that different things are exciting and feel like different things are successful. So the things that I personally feel make me happy and feel like I did a good are they're limited to my own hangups and passions and curiosities.

So early on Neil Gaiman blogged about Brotherhood 2.0, which was what we called it the first year, and that felt so freaking good. Because I think that year I'd gone to see him and been in his signing line and waited through the whole signing line. And then I got to the front and I got really nervous, and then he was talking about my videos. So it's so weird the difference between having someone say something very nice about you and someone whose books you enjoy say something very nice about you. And there's a big difference between making a video and seeing 60,000 people watched it and being on a stage and seeing 2,000 people in the room with you. Then also, your brain gets desensitized to it, and then it doesn't feel like success anymore. A 2,000 person room feels like a huge success to me. But I bet if Taylor Swift suddenly could only fill up a 2,000 person room, everybody would be like, "I can't believe what's happened to Taylor Swift. Terrible thing has happened."

Deboki: Yeah, I would still frantically be trying to get tickets though.

Yeah, I'd be really hoping to be one of those 2,000 people.

Hank Green: Yeah, yeah.

Sam: So you just kind of touched on this, but your role has changed a lot over the last decade. So you have a lot to manage, a lot of people who you manage. How do you balance management with creativity? Because you also still create a lot of things.

Hank Green:
Yeah, I mean not well. The reality is that I don't know if this is a brain thing, I'm not great at focus, and running a business requires a lot of focus. And also, I have this thing over here that is the Hank Green creative stuff, whether I want to be writing a book, which I do, or making TikToks or coming up with some new thing that doesn't already exist. And so that's very fun for me. I'm constantly concentrating on that and I think that that creates problems for the people who work for me honestly. I think that oftentimes I am a bottleneck and that's not how I want to be. I haven't found a solution to that problem, though.

I see the problem and I often will talk about there are problems that are rivers and problems that are rain clouds, where some problems you're like, "That's a problem and we can build a bridge over it. We can fix that problem." And sometimes it's just raining. So I think a little bit that that's just the weather to some extent, where it is a thing that I currently am just living with. And I hope I inspire my team enough to be honest with me that when I am truly leaving an obligation unmet in a way that is really negatively impacting people that the voices get loud. And they do. They do get loud. And I tend to prioritize obligations pretty highly. But it's hard. It's also been a huge learning process, and I am better at it now than I was five years ago. But I'm still not great at it. It's very creative work and building teams and building consensus and finding the thing that everybody wants to do and that motivates everyone is tricky. But it's one of the most interesting puzzles I have ever engaged with.

Deboki: So along I guess that line of questioning, I work for you. Sam has written for SciShow. I think Complexly has become kind of a stop for a lot of science writers and science communicators as they're building their skills or building their resume or their portfolio. So how do you think about your role in shaping the careers of the communicators who work on Complexly content?

Hank Green: I think about that internally and externally. I think that there is more of a world for it now. Here's what I think. I think that it's fractured a bunch. And I think that this is a consequence of a lot of different kinds of influence fracturing where sometimes someone will say, "Who's going to be the new Bill Nye or new Carl Sagan or new Neil deGrasse Tyson?" Which is weird because two of those people are actively still working. So I don't know why they're talking about the new one. I was raised on Mr. Wizard because I'm that old and a little bit of Beakman. I just missed Bill Nye as a kid. And the idea now that there would be a Bill Nye is ridiculous, right? Just go on TikTok, start following science communicators, and they just continue to flow. They can niche into their specific thing. There's archeology TikTok, and there's ichthyology people, and there's lots of astrophysics and space folks. And that's really exciting to me.

The main thing that I want is for there to be a system through which those people can actually make money with their work, which is really hard. It's extremely hard when you're independent. So figuring out those systems is something that I think about a lot. And it's also hard when you're freelancing. Freelancers, they're running their own business, and I did it for a long time, and the work of not just finding the work, but finding the work that you can do in the amount of time that the pay will justify. That's self-management 101 through 501. That's some really advanced stuff at a certain point. So I'm very glad to whatever extent Complexly is a part of people's careers. And oftentimes, I wish we could do it better.

At Crash Course we are doing a lot of really, really deep stuff. But I wish we could be doing bigger things sometimes. But I also really love doing a what might look like a sort of clickbaity listicle that actually goes really deep into some weird stuff. You start out with the title looks like it's just designed for everybody to click on it, but you actually just pack it full of weird stuff about the universe. Did one recently, I couldn't tell you who the writer is, unfortunately, that was The 5 Biggest Magnets Humans Have Ever Created or something like that. And I was like oh, actually this is really weird and complicated physics. And it sounds like that sounds like a clickbait listicle where you're just going to talk about neodymium fridge magnets. But all of them are different kinds of bizarre intense electromagnets that are used for mostly just research, not even practical research just, "How hard can we push?" Kind of research. "What happens to the universe when you create a magnetic field this strong?" And then some of it's more practical or this very advanced MRIs. It was a cool episode.

Sam: That is really cool. I'm going to need to go look for that after we talk now. So I'm curious, how do you see Complexly shaping the sort of general science conversation versus, I guess we can start with that, but I also want to know, separate from Complexly, how do you see yourself as Hank Green, well-known science communicator, shaping the conversation surrounding science?

Hank Green: That first part I feel very much, and maybe with the second part as well, very much just part of the things that are happening rather than influencing the things that are happening. And that's never actually true. Everyone is always, in both ways, part of the thing that's happening. Both in that you are just sort of doing what the thing is and you are defining what the thing is. Everybody's always doing that, that's how culture works. And it's kind of difficult to tease out what the difference between those two things is. But to some extent, I think that Complexly is isn't really necessarily pushing a lot of stuff forward right now. I think that that's mostly happening in short form on TikTok with individuals. And what Complexly is is more like, "What does it look like when you have a team?" And that's going to change more slowly and it's going to look very different than what happens when it's just one person or a couple of people.

I think that the things that Complexly is defining that's like most new are business models for how to actually fund it. Because you can't do this just on YouTube ads alone. You certainly can't do it on TikTok ads alone. So trying to figure that out I think is really good. And I've seen others with strange ways of actually making it work. One of those strange things that we find at Complexly is that individual shows make money very different ways. The pie charts look very different from show to show. Whereas SciShow is almost all ad funded with a big sliced from Patreon. Crash Course is a lot of grants and a lot of crowdfunding and very little ad funding because we ask for a lot of money and don't get it usually. We have our show, Bizarre Beasts is a lot of merch funded because it has a pin subscription and it's just weird how it all falls out. And I know that that's true for other YouTubers as well where their businesses look quite different from ours. So I think that there's, there hasn't been a settled way to figure it out yet.

But anyway, I hope that what we are doing is influential. I can't tell if and when it is. I do feel more like that is the case with TikTok. But I will say I came on to TikTok and I was like, "I don't think that you could do science communication on TikTok." And then I signed up, watched some TikToks, it very quickly identified me as a big nerd and started showing me science TikToks, and I was like, "Ah, I am so wrong and need to apologize. I need to email anyone I said that to and apologize." And it was very inspiring to see the ways that people were, because at that point, I think that TikToks were mostly limited to one minute long, the ways that people were getting useful amounts of context and information and actually building knowledge, not just sharing facts, but building knowledge in less than a minute.

Deboki: What was it you thought about TikTok that wouldn't work well for science communication?

Hank Green: I mean, initially I thought that you can't do it that fast.

Deboki: Even compared to a tweet?

Hank Green: Well, I kind of think that you can't do it in a tweet.

Deboki: Yeah, fair.

Hank Green: I think that you can do it in a thread because I don't think that knowledge gets built by facts. I think it gets built by the relationships between true things is really what knowledge is. It's not the true thing, it's the commonalities that they share, it's the causality between them. And that actually is a story you have to tell to understand why this thing is related to this thing or how this story progressed. And you understand blood types a lot better when you find out that the first person who tried to do blood transfusions was like, "Sometimes this works great, and sometimes things just die and we don't really know why. And I've put a lot of different people's blood into me. And when I put Susan's blood into me, it's great. When I put Jeffrey's blood into me, I get very sick." That's so much more interesting than being, "There are blood types." It's like, "Well, what happens? I hear you saying that, but what happens if I'm A+ and I put B+ blood in me?"

Deboki: So what I'm hearing is you're going to make a video where you do this? You're going to get the wrong blood and we're going to find out.

Hank Green: "All right, everybody. We're going to find out we're going to do a high budget one where the true cost is the medical bills."

Sam: I was going to say, that's a lot of ads, a lot of crowdfunding to help you out of that.

Insurance alone.

Hank Green: Yeah, we used to have a Patreon, now we have a GoFundMe.

Sam: Outside of Complexly, obviously sometimes the content that you might cover, I think there's a lot of overlap with what shows on Complexly would cover, but there are also things, maybe bits of misinformation, some other stuff that Complexly might not go after but you as an individual might decide to go after. How do you make that decision?

Hank Green: Oh, it's really based on whether I think I have something interesting to say. And one of the things that doesn't get said a lot in science communication and that we don't do a lot at Complexly, but I do a fair amount on TikTok is say, "We don't know." Not, "I don't know." Not, "You and I don't know." But, "Humanity doesn't know the answer to that question. And we have some guesses." And I think that that's a part of science communication that needs to be leaned into more. I see it. It's not like it's not out there. But I think that leaning into that is actually really great. Another thing that I've done occasionally is invited people into the process where it's like I got asked a question, I know a couple of things about that that's going to help me Google well. I know enough about that that I have a search term and that's it.

So now I'm doing a search, I'm trying to find primary research. I'm trying to read some titles to papers. I'm probably not going to read the whole paper, but I'm going to read that abstract. But if that abstract's really interesting, and I'm like, "Oh, this methodology is actually really weird." You don't know where you're going to get led. And so walking people through the process of, "I'm going to tell you..." In a normal video, I'll just tell you the interesting story, the most interesting part of the story that I found out. But actually saying, "I don't know the answer to that question. Let's try and figure it out together.", I think that's really cool and those videos actually do really well. Then people are grateful for them. They feel like they're not just sort of a stupid person being talked to by a smart person, that actually all of us are just trying to figure things out. It's also modeling good internet media literacy, which we need as much of as we can get.

So yeah, in general, I'm choosing things where I'm like, "I think that I know a way to get at this question in a way that's weird." And sometimes it's just like, "Well, this one's not going to be that good. But I do need to make a TikTok right now." Because at this point I'm kind of a professional toker and I have an assistant who runs my TikTok and she texts me regularly and is like, "Here's the TikToks we have. What do you want to go up today?" And if that's one TikTok, I start to get kind of sweaty. Crank some of these out. And that pressure is actually really inspiring. It's like, "Well, I don't know how to make a good video about battery powered light bulbs, but I guess I will."

Deboki: I guess kind of on that TikTok train, I want to ask you a predictive question.

Hank Green: Oh, sure yeah. Please. I love predicting stuff about the internet.

Deboki: If you could guess what would be the most popular form of science communication five years from now, what do you think it is? Do you think it's something that already exists, something that's new? We just don't know how to imagine it yet? What do you think?

Hank Green: I think that the most popular form of science communication five years from now will probably... Well, at the moment, I don't actually know the answer to that question today. What is it? It's probably YouTube videos. It's probably YouTube videos. And I would venture that it will be YouTube videos then as well. And the things that will have changed, I think that people will be watching TikToks on YouTube more than they are now. So TikToks, to do some internet media business inside baseball.

Deboki: Go for it.

Hank Green: Like any business, you're looking at, "What's their moat? What's the thing that's prevents competitors from competing with them?" And I think TikTok's biggest moat by far is that it's cool and YouTube and Instagram aren't cool. And that's a bad moat because cool is fleeting. And like MTV isn't cool anymore and it was once. And Snapchat, I guess it's kind of still cool, but YouTube isn't cool anymore. YouTube used to be so freaking cool and YouTube is kind of boring now. It's just like media, it's just like TV, and it does not have that really cool spark of cool that TikTok really definitely had a year or two ago and has less now, but still has a lot of.

Now TikTok has other moats, just transferring audience is a big one. So creators will not want to switch if they're going from a million to zero. So that is a thing. TikTok's video editor is also very good, and that's a pretty big mode. And even Google Money hasn't gotten YouTube as good as TikTok yet, but I think that's a solvable problem. But I think that TikTok's moats are getting weaker, and I think that YouTube has some really big ones that are going to be really attractive to creators. But I don't know. It might be that these things just should be nichey and there should be different groups of people on each one, and you can make hunting for all of them.

Anyway, I think the big thing that is more different now that we are not paying attention to yet is streaming services that are specific to interests. And so Curiosity Stream is a science and documentary-specific streaming service. Nebula is a science and informational streaming service that's built by and owned by YouTube creators. I think that that's really interesting, and I think that that's sort of the thing that's most new, that's least thought about. And I think it's actually really interesting and will probably be a lot more important five years from now than it currently is.

Deboki: Do you think that's because people will be seeking out those niches or is there some other advantage to having the niches there?

Hank Green: Yeah, I think that it used to be that Netflix was the everything streaming platform. And now everything doesn't feel that good. I don't want everything.

Sam: It's too much.

Hank Green: I want to open up and I want to see 20 shows I want to watch. I want to see 25 shows, 20 of which I want to watch, not 200 shows, 20 of which I want to watch, or 2,000 or 20,000. I don't know how many shows Netflix has. Or even six shows, five of which I want to watch and paying $5 a month for that because I only watch five shows on Netflix. I don't, I watch less than that. And I'm paying $19 a month for it or whatever. I think that that seems to be the inevitable consequence of the internet is that stuff fractures. And I think that streaming will fracture. And those platforms might be looking for weird, cheap, good stuff. And when I say cheap, I mean a lot more expensive than a YouTube video, but a lot cheaper than a Netflix show, which is a huge gap. Which there is nothing. There's nothing that takes that space up right now. So that seems like a big hole to me.

Deboki: This is making me think about how I just got a Peacock subscription because I was like, "I need my Bravo shows." I only got it for Real Housewives.

Hank Green: I got that Discovery+ and people are like, "Yeah, yeah, because you're a science guy." I'm like, "Yeah, because I'm a science guy. It's not Rehab Addict at all. It's not the Property Brothers. It's definitely the science stuff."

Sam: So Hank, if Deboki and I told you right now that you had to delete all but one social media platforms, this is YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, anything to communicate science to the public, which one would you choose? And would you choose it because you like it or because you think it's most effective?

Hank Green:
I mean, it's extra easy because I think that I like YouTube the most and I think YouTube is the most effective. And I think there's a lot of audience that you miss on YouTube. So it's not going to not hurt. The reason that this is hard is that my audience on YouTube is, I think on Hank's channel, which was like my TikTok channel, is like 70% male, and my audience on TikTok is 70% female. And is that a platform difference? Or is that an audience difference? The demographics of the platform are just different? Or is YouTube just worse at showing science content to people who enjoy it but happen to not fit into what the algorithm thinks they want?

Sam: Yeah, that's what I'm curious about because I feel like I watch a ton of science content on YouTube and was even on a science YouTube series for two and a half years. And I still get fed a lot of stuff where I'm like, "I don't want to see this." But it's very specifically for a woman. I'm putting this in air quotes. So I don't know where that's coming from.

Hank Green: Well, I'll tell you what, I do not get content that is for women, and my YouTube channel is me and my brother share it, so it's like boxing, football and microscopes. I'm like, "What? Who is this person who YouTube thinks we are as one?"

Sam: So funny.

Hank Green: Yeah, it feels like a problem that YouTube needs to be... I know that they're aware of it, I've talked to them about it. And I know that the video algorithm affects the YouTube shorts algorithm, and I kind of wish it was just siloed to allow for other things to happen and not be influenced by the existing audience on YouTube. Because algorithms are built out, the only inputs they have are human decisions. The structures they have are coded, but the inputs they have are you and me making choices. And I think that when you have an existing audience, it can kind of bias that algorithm really heavily to think that one kind of content is related to another kind of content when it's not.

Deboki: And I guess another thing that I was thinking about when you were talking about that is the difference in the communities just comments wise. Do you notice differences in communities on TikTok versus YouTube?

Hank Green: Oh yeah, especially on science stuff. TikTok science videos get comments more like what I'm used to on Vlogbrothers. Whereas YouTube shorts science stuff gets comments more like what I'm used to on SciShow, which are just meaner on average. I'm not saying every comment is mean, but I'd say that SciShow comments are 10% mean, and Vlogbrothers and TikTok comments are like 3% mean. Well, TikTok is probably 3%, and Vlogbrothers is like 0.05% mean because who's finding Vlogbrothers from scratch? It's not actually a big YouTube channel. It's just an important one. For me.

Deboki: You'd be surprised. I feel like sometimes YouTube is vintage Vlogbrothers.

Hank Green: Yeah, no, they'll do that to me sometimes and I'll be like, "Oh no."

Deboki: I guess it's different when it's your own video.

Hank Green: Yeah, they're like, "Oh gosh." I mean, it wasn't that long ago that my vocal affectation was so different that I find it cringey.

Deboki: How long ago?

Sam: Let's bring up the clips.

I'm going to go back. Now, I'm going to click around and be like, "This is the one. This is when you started."

Hank Green: Yeah, you won't have a hard time identifying me being over the top trying to be a character.

Deboki: So we talked about science and different platforms online, but you also write fiction. Is there a way that you think about science in science fiction books that's different or even maybe related to the way you think about science when you're trying to think of explaining it for an audience in a YouTube video and something educational?

Hank Green: Yeah, the thing about books and novels in particular is that you have so much time. On Vlogbrothers, which is the majority of the videos I've ever made, we have a four-minute time limit, and that means just really cramming it in. And TikTok, I feel like I trained my whole internet career for TikTok because TikTok has a one minute and then eventually three minute time limit. And so I'm just good at that. I know how to do that. But with a novel, the majority of the thing that you're trying to do is... Well, this is how I feel. Majority of it is character and plot. You want the people to care about these people. You want to care about these people. You want them to care about each other. You want them to hate each other or love each other or whatever. And you want them to be in situations that are tense and meaningful. Then I think that theme is very important, but does take a little bit of a backseat to those things, and that's kind of what I'm trying to say.

And with the first two books I wrote, which are the only ones that are out, that gets pretty on the page because the main character is an internet creator. So she says stuff to her audience. And the science fiction that I have written so far is not really about science, it's more speculative, like it's a different future. The second book, I did get to do some science in it, which is very good, but the majority of what I'm trying to say is things about our society as it exists now and about the impact that a communications revolution has on a society. And we've not been through that many of those.

There was writing. Well, the first one was speech, which was slow, but important and pretty revolutionary. Everybody talks... I haven't talked to enough people who study prehistoric people yet about this, but I've gotten really caught up in the idea that the majority of innovation in human history has been language. We don't have a grasp on that at all because it's all lost. But it just feels like such an important, unique thing, the bandwidth of the tongue. And I often hear people I don't love saying, "We spent 200,000 years with the same technologies, and then something happened. There was a spark." And I'm like, "Actually, probably, it was pretty different. At least millennia to millennia, probably generation to generation. I bet stuff was changing that whole time and you just can't see it very well." But anyway, I-

It's hard to have perspective on millennia.

Hank Green: Especially to history that's entirely lost and that we know through 12 archeological sites on earth. So the number of communications revolutions that our species has been through is relatively small. You got the printing press and you got radio and TV, and you got the sort of many to many thing that we're doing now. And I think that we're bad at it. And I think that we need to think about it a lot to get better at it, but we don't think about thinking about it. We just kind of do it. And that's been the cause of some problems. So I more wanted to write about that, which is amateur sociology more than anything.

Sam: That's really interesting. So Hank, you're a very busy person. We don't want to keep you too long.

Hank Green: Yeah, I do have some tweets about giant butternut squashes that I need to get to.

Sam: Okay. No, that sounds very important. So-

Deboki: This is what the communication revolution was about.

Sam: Yes, butternut squash tweets. So I guess my final question for you is you are now kind of a lot of people's Neil Gaiman, right? You started off with this story about standing in line, waiting for him to sign a book for you. And then when he talked about a Vlogbrothers video, it was like that was a moment where you felt like, "Oh, this feels like success. This is a taste of success." So when you look back, what is something that you are proud of or maybe what are you most proud of?

Hank Green: Great question. I really do think that, and this is a lesson that I need to learn, but I think that I'm most proud of the times when I helped other people. And not just like I help you learn science, but times when I've been able to help people with their careers, give people some insight that they needed or a connection that they needed or an opportunity that they needed. And I don't think about hiring that way because that's not the mindset I can be in. But I do think about that when I'm seeing new talent, just amazing people who know more and are better than me. There is an instinct to be protective of the sort of gathered influence. You don't get a bunch of followers on Twitter and TikTok without being a little bit ambitious and interested in gathering influence. Let's be honest about me.

But that's not really the thing that feels good, and that is not really the thing that I'm proud of. The thing that I'm proud of is seeing people whose careers started off with some help and that are grateful to me for that help. For many years, we've taken half of the advertising revenue from Vlogbrothers and given it to small educational creators, new educational creators. A wild number of those people now have more than a million subscribers on YouTube. And I don't think that the $5,000 that we gave them that year is the thing that did it, but it helped. And I would like to do more stuff like that. And I sort of like to see my future be more like that because it's actually the thing that makes me feel good.

Yeah, absolutely.

Hank Green: I like to feel good.

Deboki: Thank you so much for being here with us. This was a lot of fun.

Sam: Yeah, thank you, Hank. Is there anything that you feel like we didn't ask you that you feel like, "I have to mention it. I got to say it."?

Hank Green: I have no idea. It's so funny when you're in question answering mode and someone asks you to have a thought that's not related to a previous thought. You're like, "Oh, literally my head is empty. Currently, I am not a being that exists. I'm just sort of an AI fact machine that responds, but cannot act without some input." I have no idea.

Well, maybe that means we kind of sort of did our job. So I guess that's-

Hank Green: Yeah.

Sam: Well, thank you so much, Hank. This was really fun. It's nice to, I don't know if I can say meet you, but see you and talk with you. It was a lot of fun.

Hank Green: Yeah, I hope we get to meet in the real world soon.

Sam: Thanks for tuning in to this week's episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society, a nonprofit scientific organization based in Washington, DC.

Deboki: Thanks so much to Hank Green for joining us today. If you have thoughts, questions, ideas about future Tiny Matters episodes, send us an email at tinymatters@acs.org. You can find me on Twitter @okidoki_boki, and Instagram @okidokiboki.

Sam: And you can find me on social @SamJScience. See you next time.