How Brian David Gilbert plans to escape the internet
"The slow process of convincing people that I'm not a video game YouTuber is, I think, the real hardship"
Welcome to Extra Garbage Day! Every other week, I’ll be dropping a bonus Thursday issue just for paying subscribers. These are usually Q&As with interesting people I’ve been dying to interview.
At the end of last year, Brian David Gilbert left his job as a video producer for Polygon and decided to strike out on his own as a video creator. At Polygon, Gilbert had an honestly incredible run of videos. Here’s a very short, non-complete list of some of my favorites:
The videos that Gilbert has produced post-Polygon are definitely different, but no less inspired. But the major difference is a simple, but profound one: He isn’t really talking about video games anymore.
For those who aren’t aware, over the last decade there’s been a rise of video game-adjacent creators who managed to build not-quite-mainstream, yet undeniably intense fanbases online. And Polygon has been at the forefront of this. Before Gilbert started producing his Unraveled series, two of the site’s co-founders Griffin and Justin McElroy used it as a launchpad for their own mini-media empire, which includes podcasts like My Brother, My Brother, And Me and The Adventure Zone.
What Gilbert is doing now though is different from the McElroys, who haven’t veered too far away from their origins as goofy extremely online cultural critics. The videos Gilbert is putting out are closer to short films. Many of them are music videos. They remind me of the golden age of College Humor or Funny Or Die.
And I was surprised by our interview actually. I had assumed that Gilbert was planning on internet domination, maybe building himself out into one-man media brand of his own. It turns out he has his sights set on much more interesting goals. The following has been edited slightly for pacing and clarity.
When did you kind of decide like, “okay, I can do this on my own, and I'm going to become full time YouTube creator”?
The only good thing about the pandemic and being forced to really have to do everything on my own from home was that there was a point last year that I realized I was writing all of these things and I'm filming them and then I'm editing them. And, you know, I had great feedback from the people I was working with at Polygon, but I think there was a point where I was like, “I can't really do anything else right now. So I guess I can manage to actually make all of this stuff in my own space and have it turn out pretty okay.”
So I think that was kind of a realization sometime mid-last year where I was like, “if I'm going to only be able to work on my own for the next foreseeable future, maybe I should just do that. Maybe I should just be doing this on my own entirely. That way, I can choose the topics I want to talk about and kind of focus on the weird stuff a little bit.”
And so talk to me about the weird stuff. When you're going from working for a company, as a YouTube creator, to working for yourself as a YouTube creator, what's on the immediate bucket list of stuff that's just way too out of control to do for a company?
I guess the big thing is that when you're working for a company, you can't really burn any bridges. Even if you want to talk a little bit about certain things. Luckily, I was able to push things a little bit far at Polygon, but there really is an element of: now I can totally do things that have no references to anything if I want to, but also I can, if I want, go really dark with stuff.
The biggest thing for me and making my own stuff has always been wanting to keep making bigger and bigger things, which is difficult when it's really just me and Karen [Han] making stuff together. There's really a limit to how big I can get. But I think that was the the biggest draw for me. Not having to make something that required you to know a ton about Mario in order to enjoy it. So that was the biggest thing. I could make a stupid video about birdwatching and have it be totally not connected to anything whatsoever. And still, people would be willing to watch it, which is a very, very fortunate thing. I've realized there have been a few times that I've posted a video and been like, “this is going to be the one that makes everyone go away. This is going to be the one that finally makes people realize they should stop watching my channel.” But luckily, people keep coming back.
That’s great! One thing that I've become increasingly inspired by are people who can make a living on the internet without becoming Jake Paul or going insane. And it seems like you're one of those people. And I guess I would love to know how nerve-racking that has been. Like is it, “okay, I live and die by the YouTube algorithm now”? Is that something that weighs on you? Or is it still kind of like a fun?
I'm extremely fortunate that I have a lot of Patreon supporters. I think that's the thing. If I were to do this purely through YouTube ad revenue, I'd have to become a drama Channel. In order to survive, I'd have to start making 15-minute videos about fake fights that I have with other people online. But luckily, I have that backup. People who are willing to take the ride with me, I guess is the best way to put it. I will post a video and be like, “this next one's going to be about birdwatching.” And people are like, “Okay, sure.” And that Patreon support is, I think, the thing that I wasn't expecting.
Before I left Polygon, I kind of did the boring like, “here is the very base minimum that I need to make on Twitch and YouTube and Patreon in order to survive.” And I was lucky enough that within the first few weeks of starting my Patreon, I hit the amount that I needed from patrons, and then it continued to grow from there. That was the thing that really made me feel like, “oh, I can do this, I don't have to be on the grind to create something every week, at the very least in order to keep my name in people's memories.” But if it weren't for that really strong support network of people who appreciate the weird stuff that I do, I don't know if I would be able to keep doing this. I think we're in a very lucky sort of situation where people can support the people that they think are making interesting work. And you don't have to become a Jake Paul, where the entire first 10 minutes of your video is just you showing off your mansion in order to keep paying for that mansion.
So you aren’t doing any mansion tours anytime soon?
No, not not anytime soon. I haven't quite locked down the down payment on my first mansion. But I'm sure that's going to be right around the corner.
So what is the parasocial aspect to all of this? Is fan maintenance a thing?
It’s weird. I think it was a little bit harder when my persona was so tied to video games. That's a very common way to get big online, especially with video games and streaming and everything. Building a space where it's like, “yes, I'm your best friend.” But I've been pretty forthright about the fact that I'm not anyone's friend on the internet. I tried to make that as clear as possible. I have seen it occasionally kind of swing in the opposite direction where like suddenly — you know, stan culture, in general, is a curse. But I've seen some folks who are almost protective in a weird way where it's like, “Brian isn't your friend, stop saying weird things about him.” But then in that same sort of space, it's like, “no, but you also don't get to say that to these other people. Because you're also not my friend.”
So I don't know how to really put that delineation up. And I think that's kind of the the weird space that we are in right now with the internet. The last thing I want is to create a toxic fan base that is so into me that they are willing to go fight other people about what I make. It is okay, if people trash my shit, please do not attack those people. That's fine. People don't have to like my videos.
I don't ever want to get to the point where someone can be like, “Brian's last video was bad.” And then for them to have hundreds of comments being like, “Go fuck yourself,” right? I want to make sure that people know that that's another form of the parasocial relationship that I do not want to become a thing. It's tough.
I don't think it's a secret that I hope that this is more of like a stepping stone where I can use this to hopefully be able to get off the internet entirely. As soon as you can have someone else have your Twitter password and just retweet stuff for you, then you've know you've made it, but like I'm not there yet. And I dream of that moment at some point in the future.
It's interesting that you brought up video games as a quick way to popularity. I feel like there's some similarities and some differences between you and the McElroys. There is obviously the Polygon connection, but then also, more broadly, there’s this phenomenon of being extremely big to a very intense group of people. And this kind of hyper-compressed fandom is happening at the same time that nerd culture is bigger and more mainstream than ever. It’s a weird dynamic, right?
I think it was so simple for people in the 1980s to be able to stereotype it into jocks and nerds, right? And it was so easy to be like, “oh, the jocks are mean, and the nerds are oppressed.” And now the internet has become this space where all of those preconceived notions are thrown out the window in such a way that the Marvel nerds can sometimes be the worst kind of people to interact with online, but occasionally, they're also the nicest.
I'm sorry, I'm totally talking around your question right now. But the question that you were really asking, yeah, it's a very nice sort of passionate group of — not even like Tumblr anymore, I think like, even five years ago, you could be like, “Oh, it's just Tumblr people that are really into these people, but it's not that anymore…”
I don't even know how to describe it. I feel like I've aged out of it almost. I'm 27 and I still don't understand what internet cultures are anymore. Growing up and being on weird DIY forums for like, how to sew — that was what I was super into in middle school and high school. And that doesn't exist anymore, at least in the same sort of fashion. But there are Discords. And there are other weird pockets of the internet.
The best way I can kind of describe this whole phenomenon is there are people that I talk to, specifically like my cousins, that are like, “Brian, you're famous now.” And I'm like, “I don't — I'm not. I'm really big to 10 people. But outside of that pocket, no one knows who I am.” And that's, I think, the only way you can really describe it, but it's also kind of weird that you can be very niche now and still make your living doing that niche as long as the people that like you are willing to support you. It's a thing I've kind of been grappling with for the past six months and trying to come to terms with.
Yeah, I can imagine. And you're so right about how all of those people used to be penned into what we considered as “Tumblr.” And it was like the same people who were super into Welcome to Night Vale or something 10 years ago, and yet, I don't know where they live or exist online anymore, or even how they think of themselves.
Tacking on to that is that, again, the way that I grew up online is is so different. I also am, as a person, very —I wouldn't say introverted — but very much a homebody and I don't want to go to conventions and I don't want to interact with other people in those sort of pockets. I love to hang out with my friends and talk about those nerdy things, but I was not the kind of person who would go to a show that I would put on nowadays, right? And so it's very hard for me to kind of parse that space out. Because I'm appealing to an audience that I was not necessarily a part of growing up — or even now. But yeah, it's just a weird thing to kind of deal with.
You talked about like, connecting different services like Patreon to YouTube to Twitch. And I feel like right now, there's this moment where every single company wants to create a tip jar or whatever. And yet, they still don't seem to really understand that most creators who are doing this professionally don't seem to be looking for one solution, right? Like you're trying to do a bunch of different things. Or do you think there is like a situation where eventually you're like, “I'm all in on Twitter's paywall and that's me now”?
Yeah, full-on banking on being able to get my money through great tweets from here on out. But no, I think one of the blessings and curses of working in New York media is knowing that if YouTube or Facebook just doesn't end up having any ad revenue, hundreds of people's jobs will be lost.
I have seen firsthand layoffs and seen the backend of these spaces just basically fall out. Like Facebook Watch, where everyone pivoted to video and hired a bunch of video producers to make things for Facebook. And then Facebook was like, “oopsie, we don't have money.” And again, within two months of me starting to work for Vox Media, I saw just a massive layoff as a result of that. And that was extremely eye-opening to me because it was like, “yeah, my job is making content. But really, my job is working for YouTube.” And that company, I have no say over. And they could just change everything at any point in time. And then, suddenly, I don't have that money anymore. And so I think everyone in my demographic, my age range, that was trying to do online stuff, they realized that they can't just rely on YouTube, they can't just rely on TikTok, they can't just rely on Twitch. They have to have a little bit of everything, just in case, YouTube completely shuts down. And then they have to ride that raft over to Twitch and do stuff there. And again, my end goal in life is not to be an online content creator, I want to make TV or movies and stuff like that. But in order to get to that point, to stay afloat, for the time being, I do kind of have to know as much about everything as possible.
So to peel back the curtain, I guess, what’s your master plan for escaping the internet?
I'm figuring it out as I go along and it's not going so hot. But the big thing is, what I've always said to people is, the only reason I show up in my videos is because I'm the only person I can convince to be on in front of a camera for me and who's around at that point in time to do that. But I don't necessarily want to act or do any of that. I would love to just write for shows and do things like that. What I've kind of realized in the past six months is that although it might seem like my YouTube is doing really, really well, the things that have actually gotten me stuff outside of YouTube have always been the tiny, weird stuff that I haven't shown anyone, whether those are pilot scripts with my partner/writing partner, Karen Han. Those are the things that have been able to get us jobs outside of the internet. The slow process of convincing people that I'm not a video game YouTuber is, I think, the real hardship. I have a YouTube channel and I've gotten popular because I made video game videos, but I promise I'm not just that. I think that's going be the hardest sell to people.
Why do you think it is so difficult for the people who make like, entertainment for boomers, like TV and movies, to understand that for most people under the age of 30, TV is just one long YouTube channel. It seems very strange that there's all these talented people like yourself doing stuff on the internet who then have to fight tooth-and-nail to be taken seriously even though you're pulling in a million people per video.
A lot of the execs and the people who are in charge, what they have in terms of interaction with YouTubers and online content creators are the the articles that are like, “this YouTuber just came out as a white nationalist,” right? “This YouTuber burned down their house or whatever.”
If I were to go up and be like, “yeah, what I do is I'm a YouTuber,” the first thing that anyone who is over the age of 35 is going to think is, “oh, you're the person that filmed a dead body in the woods, right? That must be what you do.”
I think there's two things to this, which is one, recognizing that YouTube already is a legitimate service and does better than a lot of television at like recognizing that you can make really interesting cool content online. But also realizing that the culture hasn't really caught up with the fact that it can be something to take pride in and to be proud of. I think that's the hardest part. I am really happy with the videos that I've made. I don't know if an a TV exact would watch the birdwatching video and be like, “that's worthwhile. That's something that people enjoy.”
If you’ve been forwarded this email, welcome! You can check out a full list of the previous Extra Garbage Days here. And here’s a short list of who I’ve interviewed recently:
And finally, because we’ve talked a lot about the Polygon cinematic YouTube universe today, here’s my favorite Polygon video of all time:
***Typos in this email aren’t on purpose, but sometimes they happen***