Until a few weeks ago, Dan Olson had a pretty comfortable—if niche—thing going on YouTube. In the vein of other popular vloggers like ContraPoints and Lindsay Ellis, Olson is a lynchpin of YouTube’s burgeoning video essay genre, creating longform lecture performances on the intersection of pop culture and philosophy. No material is beneath his contemplation, which is thorough, to say the least: Like an enthusiastic professor, Olson deconstructs anything, from 50 Shades of Grey and Detective Pikachu to the conspiracies of flat-Earth truthers, with charitable nerdiness, electrified by sincerity. Over the past six years, he’s steadily grown his audience to some 640,000 subscribers.
On Jan. 21, Olson finally posted a video that he’d been editing since April 2021, marking a significant departure from his playful takes on the film and gaming industries. An impassioned 13-part essay on cryptocurrency and its many failings, “Line Goes Up – The Problem with NFTs” is Olson’s longest piece yet, clocking in at two hours and 18 minutes. Longer than The Big Short, it’s a big ask for YouTube viewers, particularly for a video that centrally and almost exclusively features one white man lecturing at a desk.
But the video hit a nerve. Crypto is a confusing topic, and Olson’s solemn yet sardonic delivery—plus his stream of screenshotted citations—positioned him as an authority for the uninitiated. It certainly didn’t hurt that the crypto market tanked the same day Olson posted his video, a coincidence but an extremely fortuitous one. “The Problem with NFTs” was soon trending on Twitter. A week later, as Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton prattled on about their Bored Apes, Olson’s video was patiently waiting to explain WTF was going on. It’s currently sitting at around 5 million views, his highest to date.
If $100,000 JPEGs are a confounding new phenomenon, so is the longform independent YouTube documentary, a bold contradiction to the idea that social media has eroded attention spans. VICE chatted with Olson about his life making documentaries, scarcity in the attention economy, and daydreams for a liberated internet.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Let’s start off easy: What’s your name, where do you live, and what's your day job?
I'm Dan Olson. I live in Calgary, Alberta, and my day job is—[pause] YouTuber, I guess.
Why the hesitation?
Well, there's always this hesitation: What exactly do I call myself? Is “YouTuber” a word that humans want to say out loud?
I’m also in a transitional stage in my career. With my last two big videos, I feel like I'm gravitating toward something more conventional. Bigger scale, a more rigorous documentary style, which I'm doing on purpose. There’s a temptation to call myself a documentarian, but have I achieved that? That's why I kind of trip over it.
Tell me a little bit about your earliest relationship to the internet.
My first time online was 1991, when I was 9. Alberta had a program called Freenet, and I did all of the things that you would expect a 9-year-old and his brothers to do as a hyperactive horde of dumb boys. We would go trolling. We would join chat rooms and make up fake identities. The evolution of social media happened largely in my adulthood. I wasn't really into Myspace, because I was already active on Blogger, ICQ, and IRC, and I had all of my friends on MSN Messenger.
When did you join YouTube?
My first job out of film school was working in a high school, where I had to turn lectures into well-written, snappy videos. I would get gabbing with students and had a bunch of ideas for videos that weren’t really classwork lectures, but I still liked them as ideas for videos. I was watching a lot of online videos at the time: Lindsay Ellis, Nostalgia Critic, Todd in the Shadows, Brows Held High. There was a lot of alchemy going on in my brain with that.
When I wound up leaving the job in 2010, online video looked like it would be a perfectly valid new arm of the film and television industry. I thought: I'm a loner. I'm a homebody. I've got all sorts of anxiety problems, I've got health issues that limit my ability to do on-set work. As much as I love working on-set, in the back of my mind, I knew if I became a lamp operator, it would destroy my body. I made my first video in 2010, but I didn’t start making videos on a schedule until mid-2011.
Would you say that you’ve carried through a desire to teach in your videos?
One hundred percent, and with intent. My channel is edutainment, absolutely. I believe that only rarely and in very trivial cases should accuracy take a backseat to a joke. If a joke is going to make something inaccurate, it's not a good joke.
What inspired the making of “Line Goes Up” specifically?
Frustration and anger. In 2011 or 2012, I was a young, tech-savvy white guy, tenuously middle-class, anxious about my financial situation and my financial future, angry over the 2008 subprime crash, angry about the Iraq war and the war on terror and 9/11—feeling like my adulthood had been stolen from me before I even got a chance to do anything with it. A lot of the frustrations of my generation that have allowed so many of my peers to be recruited by literal goddamn Nazis.
Bitcoin had a pitch: anti-government, anti-big banks, “digital gold.” We can return to the Gold Standard without needing to actually literally go back to the Gold Standard. We can build our own Gold Standard with hookers, blackjack, and cocaine that you can buy on Silk Road.
Everybody was talking about how Bitcoin would reach mass adoption any day now, but having actually used Bitcoin, I knew that the technology was so far from being actually functional. The only reason to engage with it is that the price, for some reason, just kept going up. And I knew: That's not gonna shake out well. Since then, I've been keeping my thumb on what's going on in crypto. By and large, it's been the story of the evolution of fraud.
“Part of the reason why I call bullshit is because it’s like, new wave same as the old wave. It's all the same old overpromising.”
Then, of course, in 2021, NFTs became unavoidable. We got this wave of hypebeasts, crypto influencers, and tech influencers who started showing up on social media to be insufferable turds, saying, “You're all just spreading FUD about this new technology. We're going to create a more perfect version of the internet based on cryptocurrency, and we're going to do away with the petrodollar, and we're gonna solve world peace and fix world hunger.”
I've heard all of this before. Venezuela has been on the cusp of switching to Bitcoin for how many years now? Ethereum has been on the cusp of switching to proof of stake for years, and it never happens. You have to start questioning: Is anybody actually working on those, or are those just hypothetical things that could happen?
Part of the reason why I call bullshit is because it’s like, new wave same as the old wave. It's all the same old overpromising. They'll take a hypothetical application that doesn't exist, that no one's working on and might not even be possible, and treat it as though it's already happening. Give themselves a gold star for having already done it, when no one's even started.
How long were you working on “Line Goes Up”?
I started writing it in April 2021, but I’m a slow writer, and it was taking too long. Things were changing way too fast. I would write a page and then, two days later, I was basically talking about ancient history.
I wound up shelving it until the fall. Even by the standards of Ethereum, April and May 2021 were extremely chaotic, whereas this year's crash has been a lot slower. It started tenuously around the new year, and finally hit the breaking point the night before the video came out [January 20th].
That night, Tether's attempts to stabilize Bitcoin and Ether proved insufficient, and they hit a bunch of critical sell orders. And then, Friday morning, bam. By Monday—what are they saying? A trillion dollars? [Ed. note: the market shriveled by $1.4 trillion following the January crash.]
I’m glad we’re talking about this, because I have in my notes: "The crypto market tumbled 30% right around when you released the video. Is there something you're not telling us?"
No. I knew that that was coming. Crypto typically has a small crash in the new year: You get a little sell off in early December from investors who want extra pocket cash for holidays. Then, between Christmas and New Year, you get people who got some extra cash for the holidays and are gonna use that to buy crypto. These guys end up creating a small influx of liquidity in the market that whales can reliably use about two weeks into January to cash out. Not always, because sometimes other things happen.
But I'd been watching it, quivering, since New Year’s, sitting there, like, “Please don't completely explode before the video comes out. I can't believe I'm rooting for crypto, but – please Ethereum, please Tether, don't go out of business before I finish this video.” I finished the video four hours before prices started tumbling, and then posted the video that morning.
Let’s talk about metrics. This video is long.
It is long.
Does the average viewer watch the video all the way through? What’s engagement like?
The average viewer doesn't finish it. People aren't watching it in its entirety; people are jumping around a lot. A lot of people are skipping straight to chapter three or chapter four. A huge number of people are watching the prologue, and then they're skipping straight to the epilogue, chapter 13. But of people who commit to watching more than the first minute, retention is pretty good. It's about fifty-five percent.
Is there a reason you decided to make the video so long?
Necessity. It's shorter than I wanted it to be. Well—it's longer than I wanted it to be; it contains less than I wanted it to. I cut a lot. I couldn't tighten anything up; it's over two hours long because it had to be, to cover the subject matter.
How do you reconcile your growing YouTube platform with your antipathy towards Big Tech? Do you see those things as being in conflict with one another?
Probably? [laughs] This is one of the criticisms that came back from the NFT space that I find comprehensible. I reject it because it involves a level of compartmentalization that I'm empathetic with, because the crypto ecosystem is so convoluted that there’s an emotional instinct to aggressively compartmentalize it. Ethereum as a development environment sucks in all of the same ways that YouTube sucks. But YouTube isn't also, simultaneously, trying to create a horrifically inequitable, brand-new parasite economy. [laughs]
Alphabet [YouTube and Google’s parent company] is absolutely doing what they can to undermine social services and civil infrastructure, but they're not trying to destabilize the very mechanism by which individuals interact with the economy. If you have to weigh crypto and YouTube or Alphabet against each other, you're digging in this slop for, like, kernels of corn; your reward out of all of this. [sarcastically] Great. I love it here.
“Alphabet [YouTube and Google’s parent company] is absolutely doing what they can to undermine social services and civil infrastructure, but they're not trying to destabilize the very mechanism by which individuals interact with the economy.”
My ideal environment from which to do my stuff is a fantasy. It couldn't exist in reality. I can’t say: I want a healthy network effect, I want good moderation tools, I want it to be frictionless for my viewers, and I also want it to keep up with changes in technology, and I don't want to have to spend hundreds of hours implementing that myself. I want to be able to focus on my stuff, which is writing; which is making videos I don't want to worry about hosting, and I want it all to be free of Big Tech, and I want it to be free of the decision making of some nebulous assholes.
That doesn’t exist and can’t. It's impossible. You have to make compromises in order to align your wants with what is physically realistic.
If there’s one big takeaway about NFTs that you really want to make sure people know, what would that be?
Deflationary economies are a poverty trap that are built to recreate serfdom. That’s what cryptocurrency is built for. If you're constantly hearing people tell you that you're going to regret not getting in early, that's your number one sign that getting in late is a trap. You have to ask: What are the power dynamics of a system like that? What does this look like to somebody who didn't have the option to buy in earlier? What does this look like in five, ten, fifteen years?
You have to think about things in terms of human lifespans. So much of it treats the world as a frictionless, perfectly smooth sphere of uniform density populated entirely by bearded tech bros from San Francisco. It leaves so many holes, and not just local holes for exploitation and fraud. It leaves tremendous pitfalls for long-term, deep inequalities that are far worse versions of what we already have.
Thinking about “buying in early”—YouTube has changed dramatically since you’ve started your channel. Would it be impossible for a 20-year-old today to replicate your success on YouTube in the same way that it’s impossible for a 20-year-old to reap the greatest rewards of Bitcoin?
Bitcoin works explicitly off of fixed supply. That's part of their whole pitch: There will be a finite number of Bitcoins someday. Either twenty years from now or eighty years from now, the last Bitcoin will be mined. These cryptocurrencies are by design deflationary; they are, by design, bound to strict, finite supplies. Scarcity is a thing that they philosophically consider to be good.
Scarcity does not exist on YouTube in remotely the same way. Logan Paul isn't hoarding subscribers. Subscribership, viewership, is not something that you can hoard in any meaningful way, even if you command a very substantial chunk of the audience's watch time. PewDiePie can absolutely, through nothing of his own doing, just fade away and just stop being relevant; he can just stop being popular because people get bored of him. The deflationary incentives that are baked into cryptocurrencies, the hoarding, the “you've got to get in now, because down the road, it's going to be harder and worse to get in, because whatever you get later is going to be, by definition, worth substantially less”—that economic layer of how cryptocurrency functions is very different from the structure of an attention economy, where hoarding is just literally impossible.
I don't think it’s harder for creators to get a foothold on YouTube now because I think it's always been difficult. The way YouTube has changed for creators isn’t at all comparable to the “buy in early” rhetoric surrounding Bitcoin, because Bitcoin is very mathematical. It’s not, like, "You should get in early on TikTok, because people who post TikToks in the first year are going to make 7,000 times more than people who post on TikTok five years from now." That's not how these platforms function.
Why should you get in early on Ethereum? Why should you get in early on Bitcoin? Well, because it's going to go to the moon. If you don't buy Bitcoin at $4, you're gonna end up buying it at $400 or $4000. You've got to get in early because the mathematical rewards are astronomical. Getting in early on YouTube is not remotely similar. People who had success on YouTube ten years ago aren't making 80,000 times more than new creators. If you got a million subs ten years ago, and have just coasted with that, your views today are not worth orders of magnitude more than anyone else's. You're still dealing with linear economics; you don't end up with these like logarithmic reward curves that you see in crypto.
Do you think that, in 2022, there’s still the possibility of a “free internet”; something decentralized and radical, that realizes the Wild West” vision of the internet that people have been talking about for so long?
I think there's possibilities for the existence of a decorporatized version of the internet. It's not going to come out of cryptocurrency, because that space is built off of financial incentives. The crypto space has a dire lack of imagination.
I think we can, as a society, build a weird internet again. The problems with the internet and how centralized it’s become have nothing to do with server or database structure. Hosting costs are still too expensive for individuals, and the tools are too complicated. That’s why the old web went away: the only people who could afford to participate on the internet at audience scale, let alone mass market scale, were businesses and wealthy individuals.
The reasons for the old web going away are very pragmatic: what does it cost to run a website? Based on those costs, where do things gravitate towards? These are simple questions that are not going to be solved by cryptocurrency or brute force decentralization. If you're not solving those problems, then you're resetting the clock to the current status quo.
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