Opening Keynote, Michael Stevens: All Change? – Report

Posted on: Thursday 02 July 2015 1:25am by Simon Bor

Sheffield’s world-famous Crucible Theatre hosted the CMC’s Opening Keynote on Weds 1 July 2015.

M Stevens 2015YouTube video star Michael Stevens, creator of the hugely successful Vsauce educational channels entertained and challenged a 750 strong audience of children’s media makers with his views on engagement, authenticity and the YouTube “revolution”.


Take aways

  • Vsauce has notched over 15 million subscribers and over a billion views.
  • Overestimate the intelligence of the audience and underestimate their vocabulary.
  • YouTubers are challenging the conventions for production and delivery.
  • YouTubers are building new forms of engagement, by keeping close to their audience through direct feedback, by offering authentic voices entirely crafted – or apparently entirely crafted – by one authorial voice, with subjects that emerge directly from that person’s experience or passions.

Sue Nott 2015As Chair of the CMC Advisory Committee, CBBC’s Sue Nott opened the 12th annual Children’s Media Conference with its record 1,100 delegates and introduced the founder of Vsauce, Michael Stevens.

Vsauce is the online service that answers the maths, science and other questions about the universe we didn’t realise we wanted the answers to. It has covered subjects as diverse as “Why is your bottom in the middle?” and “Why is the sky blue?” to “Why did it take so long for human’s to be good at art?” and “How much money is there in the world?”

The biggest question from the CMC crowd came right at the end of the session, when Michael was asked about the title. Was the title of the session (and theme of the Conference) essentially correct?  Was the YouTube and maker phenomenon really “All Change?” The question mark in the title suggested that there could be some doubt about this, and so did Michael’s reply. To Michael, nothing has changed, he continues to work the way he always has. He “grew up” as a practitioner on YouTube.  He  realised early in the process that there were conventions to production and delivery that he, and other YouTubers, were challenging and that much of this was centred on new ways of building engagement with audiences. But in the end he felt that change happens all the time. It didn’t need to be characterised as revolution.

A YouTuber since 2008, Michael’s three platforms, Vsauce 1, Vsauce 2 and Vsauce 3 now have over 15 million subscribers and have notched up over a billion views; a goal that was celebrated by hosting a party and inviting Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein look-a-likes for fans to take selfies with.

M  Stevens2 2015Michael gave an energetic performance. It was interesting that he chose not to show examples of his work, other than one of his earliest pieces for YouTube when he still practised editing on stock or news footage, with some sound effects thrown in.  “Does Hilary Clinton Fart?” was far from educational – and none of his videos were when he started.  But they were hugely popular – that one clocking up 7 million views. And Michael said he was no less proud of them because he knew they regularly made people happy. – which he learned from contact with his audience through YouTube’s social media functions – rather than through research or focus groups.  He also showed the work of other YouTubers to illustrate his point that the much-discussed YouTube asset “authenticity” could be real, or a construct, but was basically about the appearance of there being a single voice behind the content, a single vision driving the topics of the videos – i.e. an experience highly personal to him as the Maker.

This creates a much more effective, direct form of engagement with the audience because they treat the maker as a friend, not a performer, or reporter.  It is the tone of voice they hear when chatting to their mates.

This direct contact was in some ways the most fascinating part of his talk,.  He described the uses people put videos like his to – as essentially social capital.  By sharing and recommending his, and other, YouTube content, then his subscribers were either saying something about their own “credentials”, were making an emotionally resonant gift, or were passing on information.

Michael had a few audience questions to answer.

Michael Stevens 2015When asked why he set up his company in London, rather than LA, he replied that he liked the people there, and added that UK educational channels are the best in the world.

On the trickier question of how YouTube deals with younger children in their audience, he admitted that there was plenty on the internet that was disturbing and that while YouTube registered users all had to be 13 and over, he knew there were many younger kids in his audience.  He admitted to the occasional error of judgement in some content he had produced, which younger children had found disturbing and which had upset parents – but thought that parents had to take some responsibility for what their kids watch.

He certainly intends to continue Vsauce, his questioning of everything around us, and his programme of education by stealth through providing people of all ages with entertaining, thought-provoking and stretching videos on a vast array of topics.

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Simon Bor

About the author

Simon Bor


I studied Animation at Farnham, and, more recently, I have been awarded an MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University. I set up Honeycomb Animation with Sara Bor and have been involved in children’s television since the mid eighties. As a writer, I have co written and created several shows… Read more