By Erik Jones
This is the first part in a series about learning on YouTube. Stay tuned for the rest.
Brothers John and Hank Green provide the perfect starting point for understanding how great the educational slice of YouTube can be.
They’ve been around since the early days and are among the most influential of this new generation of online educators with an attentive classroom of millions. Since their first video in 2007, these siblings have steadily created an empire so vast that it has taken me weeks to fully wrap my head around it.
Collectively, they have put out more than three thousand videos, have more than 10 million subscribers to their channels, and have amassed over 1.25 billion views.
So clearly, there is a lot to check out to become acclimated with their creative output, so this post is an attempt to provide a broad outline of all the awesome stuff they’ve done and the best places to start. I encourage a deep dive into their little world because I was consistently impressed by the thoughtfulness, knowledge, and humor that permeates through everything they do.
WHO THEY ARE IN A NUTSHELL
Their story basically goes like this: At the end of 2006, John and Hank wanted to become closer as brothers by doing a public back and forth video blog (vlog) on YouTube (influenced by Ze Frank). They launched this endeavor as “Brotherhood 2.0” on Jan 1, 2007 and set up some rules for each other. They could only communicate to one another through these videos, they had to be under 4 minutes, and they would set up punishments for each other if either missed their day. This fun little online experiment quickly resonated with hundreds and then thousands of instant fans.
Their popularity went to the next level and shot up dramatically after being featured on the front page of YouTube. By end of the year, they decided to keep it going as “vlogbrothers” indefinitely and to use their fame to build the interesting and educational things you’ll see further down.
Of the two, Hank is the science/analytical minded one and the younger brother. He has created more of the channels than John and spends his time on many projects outside of making videos. A whole separate post could be written as a entrepreneurship case study about Hank because this man seems to have his hand in a thousand things. His endeavors include: the CEO of Vidcon, co-owner of DFTBA records, singer/songwriter, inventor of 2D glasses, and creator of Wizard School. He also co-created Subbable, a crowdfunding platform for creators that was eventually bought by Patreon. He also has a healthy and vocal obsession with Mars.
If Hank is the science guy, John is definitely the humanities guy. One pretty big fact about John I haven’t mentioned yet is that he is also a NY Times bestselling author of young adult fiction. His books include two that have been made into movies, The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns. Along with his YouTube videos, he is vice president of DFTBA records and Vidcon as well as President for the charity, The Foundation to Decrease World Suck. Not to be outdone by his brother’s obsession with Mars, John has an even bigger obsession with an obscure 4th tier soccer team in England, AFC Wimbledon. I thought this was a joke at first, but oh no, he is seriously, seriously into them. His unending passion will make you actually start caring about them too.
Leader of nerds
Starting with vlogbrothers, the community that has sprung up around the Green brothers started calling themselves “nerdfighters“. If you watch their videos, you are an automatic member of this special group, whose mission is to “decrease world suck” and whose motto is DFTBA (don’t forget to be awesome). I’ll let John and Hank explain further. The cool thing about this community that I noticed immediately is the lack of negativity. Seriously, the like/dislike ratio and overall positivity will make you question if you’re really on YouTube.
THE YOUTUBE EMPIRE
In true vlog fashion, they simply do whatever they want in front of a webcam, including performing music, making jokes, or taking a moment to dive into an interesting subject.
Out of all their channels, this one takes the most effort to fully appreciate. The other ones are pretty straight forward, but vlogbrothers has years of inside jokes and references to catch up on. If you don’t care about understanding their subculture and simply want to learn interesting things, by all means jump right to their handy playlists of DFTBA University and John and Hank EXPLAIN! where they curated their best examples of tackling specific topics. But if you want a concentrated dose of vlogbrother lore to help catch up on all the fun, here is a playlist of 25 essential videos to get you started. If you become a fan, don’t worry, there are only 1400 (and counting) to go.
This is also where they built their serious camera chops. Just check out the difference between Hank’s first video and a recent one of him discussing the famous “Florida Man” meme. Practice makes perfect. Also, John has his comedic timing from the beginning, as you can see in his first video, but compare it to the extra polish of his Star Wars review.
They really have the fast talking, snappily edited, and information dense video down. You can tell they simply love to learn and to teach, even when they have the platform to do whatever they want with these videos.
As the vlogbrothers channel started having more and more explaining things in the world type videos, they had many behind the scenes discussions about creating proper educational content. As luck would have it, Google approached them to see if they had any ideas in the educational arena they could help create, and Crash Course was born.
I would describe the videos as supplements to classic school curriculum that assertive students can seek out on their own or teachers can use to show in class when they are hungover. Basically, Crash Course is the new Bill Nye the Science Guy, but not just for science.
An equally useful purpose for Crash Course in my opinion is simply learning for the sake of it. For anyone like me who was good at tests in school but terrible at long term retention, all of these videos are great when enough distance from school has passed and learning becomes it’s own reward, and not simply a means to a grade.
Whatever your reason for checking out Crash Course, it delivers remarkably well on its premise. You get an excellent introductory overview of large and complicated subjects and you gain context that can help inform any deeper dive into the subject.
Hank, John and all the people they bring in to help with some of the newer courses are seriously great teachers (with help from smart script writers), and almost every video has some comment like, “wow, I wish you had taught my class!”. The videos tend to hit the 8-14 minute sweet spot and I highly recommend clicking on the name of each one below to check out what’s in the full playlist.
Hank’s courses- aka the sciencey stuff
Hank will help you realize how our amazing bodies win the “under appreciated miracle of daily life” award. Start with the intro to allow Hank to sell you on this notion.
There are lots of great videos in this series, but perhaps the most useful for everyday knowledge are the ones on evolution and natural selection. These are some of the most important foundations on the study of life that are widely misunderstood and needlessly controversial in certain parts of the U.S.
As a 12 episode addition to biology, this Crash Course explores the relationship between humans and our planet. Why not start with the intro?
This series best demonstrates the power of Crash Course as a supplement to students currently taking or about to take the topic. These condensed videos get right to the point with a ton of information and Hank is a great communicator of anything technical. Boy do I wish I had these in high school. But even now, just a few minutes of this mini section on organic chemistry was pretty useful to a lay person like me.
It’s fun to play arm chair psychologist, and doubly so with at least a foundation of knowledge in the subject. Check out this video that tackles everything from intelligence testing bias to nature vs nurture. On a side note, if human biases and psychology are in your wheelhouse, be sure to check out the podcast You Are Not So Smart (and this post for more awesome podcast recommendations).
Hank’s newest Crash Course is one that has been requested across pretty much all of their other channels in the comment section. Check out the unique spin Hank and his team put on learning philosophy and on how to make practical use of it in the real world.
John’s courses- aka the humanities stuff
A sweeping view of major world events since recorded history, condensed into 42 short episodes. After getting obsessed with Hardcore History’s Wrath of the Khans podcast, I have to suggest the Mongol episode of this Crash Course because they are just so fascinating. And this episode is 11 minutes and not 8 hours like Wrath of the Khans (no joke) so it definitely has that going for it.
The first world history series focused mainly on the traditional historical events like the fall of Rome but these 30 episodes tackle the biggest themes and conflicts from history that have shaped our world. Totally non-heated topics like the conflict in Israel and Palestine or Islam and politics. His brother Hank really has it easy with the cut and dry science stuff.
John kicks off this 10 episode series that goes way beyond the history of civilization and attempts to condense down the history of everything, as in starting all the way at the big bang. He shares hosting duties with Hank and Emily Graslie (see The Brain Scoop below).
It works out pretty perfect for the Green brothers that they can cover a great deal of topics when you combine their opposite passions. This dynamic works out handily for this series, with John being a real author and all. Time and time again I’ve seen comments of people getting their mind blown that this John Green from Crash Course is the same John Green who wrote their favorite book.
These 48 videos cover the highlights all the way up to Obama’s presidency. Why not start at the beginning before there was even an America?
The excellent Phil Plait from Slate’s The Bad Astronomer column writes and narrates this series. All the ones I’ve checked out have been excellent, but for pure awesomeness of the cosmos type info, check out black holes, gamma ray bursts, dark matter, and dark energy to finally get a grasp on all these terms that are all the rage in science pop culture.
Taught by Craig Benzine. A great example of a topic I couldn’t care less about in high school but have a recent interest in actually learning. You know, the whole, it’s pretty embarrassing to not know this stuff as an adult kind of thing. The videos on Freedom of the press, of religion, and of speech were highlights for me. Also, in perfect timing of my recent confusion on what the heck a circuit court is, I came across this video that talks about exactly that.
Taught by high school economics teacher Jacob Clifford and journalist Adrienne Hill. Out of all the Crash Course topics, the typical YouTube crazies show up a little in these comments, and check out the video on the different economic schools of thought where they address some of the negativity.
Stan Muller will lead you through a quick seven episode Crash Course on the ins and outs of things like copyright and fair use.
This Hank created YouTube show focuses on all things science. There are four short episodes a week, shifting between interviews, questions sent from the audience, quiz shows, and deep dives into science related news or phenomena.
Hank share’s cohosting duties with fellow vlogger and local friend, Michael Aranda.
What I love about SciShow is that it has a playful nature to it while also providing top notch fact checked science communication.
Some specific shows that might give you a feel for what SciShow is all about: Why We Haven’t Cured Cancer and 5 of the World’s Most Dangerous Chemicals. In their quiz show and talk show episodes, they regularly include other hosts from some of the other Hank produced channels listed below.
SHOWS EXECUTIVE PRODUCED BY HANK OR JOHN
Hosted by Emily Graslie, staff at The Field Museum in Chicago. She got this gig by being so passionate in this video on vlogbrothers. It’s a pretty crazy story exemplifying the notion of preparation + opportunity = luck. Her take on being a female science communicator is a great introduction to her humorous and insightful style . This channel is perfect for anyone interested in hands on biology. Produced by Hank.
Hosted by Emma Mills and T. Michael Martin. Geared more towards high school or college kids, but a few of the videos were interesting to me. Like How to Make New Friends as an Adult. I was just talking to my wife about the fact that once you get out of college, it’s basically impossible to make friends who aren’t coworkers, neighbors or parents of other kids. How to get Your Dream Job is Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop making a guest appearance explaining how to replicate her luck. Also, Hank contributed to the channel with a video on how to be productive with a lot on your plate, How to do all the things. Produced by both Hank and John.
Host Dr. Lindsey Doe is a doctor of human sexuality, which makes her a bona fide sexologist (WHAT?!). She sets out to educate around any and all topics dealing with human sexuality. There are videos on pretty much all the things you’d expect, but something that simply blew my mind was polyamory. Produced by Hank.
This channel provides quick, well researched stories about healthcare policy and medicine and is hosted by Dr Aaron Carroll. The channel’s most popular video is called Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism. Being the parent of young children, I have followed this whole argument around vaccines pretty closely, so I was not at all surprised to see the comment section full of people outside the nerdfighteria community.
Hosted by John’s wife, Sarah. An interesting concept for people into creativity and all forms of art. She visits well known artists and has them give the audience a project to complete. I’m a big fan of Son Lux’s music and found his assignment to be a great starting point of understanding this channel. Be sure to check out the Soundcloud link below the video and the fascinating responses/collaborations in this playlist. They team up with PBS digital studios on this one.
Hank lives in Montana and here is another channel about animals that he helped put together. Hosted by Jessi Knudsen Castañeda who runs the exotic animal rescue and educational center called Animal Wonders Montana. She was a special guest on the first talk show episode of SciShow where she quickly became a regular guest. This frequent collaboration lead to Hank roping her into the Green brother universe. These two videos are before the channel became more polished, but check out this oddly adorable porcupine and this Kangaroo rat thing.
This is geared specifically for 5th grade teachers to use in the classroom to supplement their science related topics and is hosted by Sabrina Cruz. It’s perfect to watch with curious kids at home, but I even found videos like What is an Engineer? to be pretty helpful.
This spinoff puts out two shows a week about news and interesting things related to space. Check out The Fermi Paradox and Our Search for Alien Life.
Hosted by Jessi from the Animal Wonders Montana channel. This is geared towards a younger audience but most of the videos I watched were plenty educational for me (not ashamed!). Odd facts about Sloths was a favorite, simply because I’ve been obsessed with sloths after seeing them listed as the number one laziest animals on an Animal Planet count down show like ten years ago. And I’ll be honest, I finally understand now what the deal is with leaves changing color in the fall. Produced by Hank.
They also have a weekly podcast called Dear Hank and John where they answer questions from the audience. This show is now part of my must listen list and the great chemistry the two have together is half the fun.
The questions they answer from the audience range from silly to thoughtful, but the humor and intelligence the brothers approach their answers with usually leave me with at least one or two interesting things to think on. You will also get to hear Hank’s obsession with Mars and John’s obsession with AFC Wimbledon at the end of each episode, accompanied by the disdain they have for the other’s favorite subject.
I suggest checking out the first two episodes for context on their personalities and the overall premise, and then jumping around to whichever episodes look interesting.
If you’re unsure about the whole podcast thing, check out this post that will guide you through how to listen to them and what else to check out.
Ep 12: Tree Climbing Strategies– Every episode starts with John reading a short poem but in this one Hank admits he doesn’t really get or care about poetry. I’m in Hank’s camp when it comes to poetry but John’s responses had me understanding it’s purpose just a little bit better. Shel Silverstein is pretty much the only poet I’ve read more than one poem from. Still the best.
Ep 24: The Great Finger Licking Debate– This episode contains a question around the 5:50 mark about how to learn as an adult. Great responses from both Hank and John around how they approach learning.
Man, these are some productive brothers that will make most mortals wonder what they’ve done with their life lately. They show no signs of slowing down on their mission to share the joy of learning in a way that is free for everyone (with internet access).
Hopefully there is something listed above that will give you a good entrance into the ever expanding universe created by Hank and John Green. After getting a broad sampling of everything they do, I really believe more students of school and of life would benefit by binge watching their content.
Please share below any favorite videos and stay tuned for more posts on the who’s who of YouTube learning.
And of course, don’t forget to be awesome.
There is a podcast called Ear Biscuits, from online personalities Rhett and Link that I so wish I discovered before writing this post. They have excellent separate interviews with Hank and John that you should check out.
Pretty great TED Talk from John
If you happen to be a fan of Pride and Prejudice, Hank created an Emmy winning web series called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries that is a modern take on the story.
Another great speech from John– this talk was given at his Alma Mater (the first audience question at 34:50 makes the whole video worth it.)
Mental Floss- If you can’t get enough John Green, he also does hosting duty on the Wednesday episode of the Mental Floss YouTube show. Check out all his videos on the site here.
Nerdfighteria– a website for all things Hank and John, including their newsletter and dedicated wiki.
Project for Awesome is a fundraiser Hank and John run every year that most recently brought in over $1.5 million. They do a marathon live stream and their influence on the vlogger community helps coordinate a massive push to get people to spread the word. Half the money goes to charities chosen ahead of time and half go to charities voted on by the community. It usually takes place mid December so put it on your calendar!
Patreon– One additional thing I really respect about the Green brothers is their commitment to making all their stuff work with no or minimal advertising. Patreon allows you to give directly to creators you want to support and both Hank and John heavily prefer this type of system. Here are links to Green brother related Patreon pages to help pay for hosts, writers, music, and animation: Crash Course, SciShow, Dear John and Hank, Sexplanations, How to Adult, Healthcare Triage.