In the days of mass media saturation and digital living, there are some stuffy old codgers who still read aging rags like The New York Review of Books—I’ll confess to being one of them, every now and then—but more and more people are turning somewhere else for their intellectual fix: that great archive, the end-all be-all of the digital era, you guessed it—YouTube. The video-sharing platform has seen a creative renaissance in recent years, as swarms of talking heads and social-media personalities followed in the wake of early trailblazers like Philip DiFranco and Jenna Marbles, most notably the vlogger-extraordinaire, viral megastar and filmmaker Casey Neistat.
Initially, many in this new generation just borrowed the approaches of those titans—they would mimic the stunts, the goofiness, or the transparent vulnerability of approaches used by more established stars. The last few years, however, have been pivotal to the development of content creators who are less personality-driven and more devoted to delivering content that helps viewers make sense of the 21st century’s wacky realities. Here are five remarkably intellectual YouTubers who will surely get your creative juices flowing.
This guy is one of the most versatile content creators currently on YouTube. Back in 2011, Nerdwriter was originally one of thousands of low-fi vloggers, without much to distinguish him beyond a certain idiosyncratic charm and a tendency to word-vomit happily on topics as varied and esoteric as Scientology, “Modern Art,” and early 19th century English poetry. In the intervening six years, his videos became more polished and his onscreen presence infinitely more self-assured, eventually garnering him a massive audience.
His videos—part-desktop vlogs, part-dreamlike audiovisual streams—explore a massive range of topics, often through case studies. These will usually focus on one aspect of something—be it a film, a work of art, a franchise, a genre, a comedian, or a political reality—and take the viewer through Nerdwriter’s thought process until his philosophical point has come full circle. Past video essays have examined how Louis C.K. tells a joke, how Donald Trump answers a question, how filmmaker David Lynch manipulates his audience, how to understand a Picasso, and much more.
Although it’s not his most popular, the vid-essay, “Atemporality: Our Relationship to History Has Changed,” may be one of the most lucid and insightful things created by anyone on this list. In it, he argues that we are moving into an era defined by the Internet, which has fundamentally changed how we interact with the world—no more “modernism” or “postmodernism,” but something else. Something new.
Kaptainkristian really cares about what he covers, and expresses a heartfelt fascination with every topic he covers that comes across in his videos. His detailed, often intimate video essays on subjects like Frank Ocean’s musical identity and the rise of the Adult Swim media empire are a pleasure to watch. His videos are beautifully curated flows of images and commentary with a unique, unifying aesthetic that qualifies them as works of art in their own right.
Don’t let the childishly simple cartoon-graphics deceive you—“In a Nutshell” is masterful at tackling topics as immensely complex as the European Union or the rise of the surveillance state and compressing them into colorful little segments. After watching a video from this channel, you may feel like you just had a month of college credit dumped into your skull—to boot, the narrator even has a ridiculously prim British accent.
Still, for all the ambition and range of this channel, the best thing about it may be the way that the simplicity of the visuals helps you understand what all that raw data really means. This is especially true when it comes to putting information into the proper context or proportion. The videos that communicate proportion are where this channel’s genius really comes across, rendering the true scale of problems like the Syrian refugee crisis, or the rapid growth of the massive and surprisingly ineffectual surveillance state. This channel packs a hell of a punch.
Lewis Criswell knows his films. Usually averaging somewhere between ten and twenty minutes, Criswell’s videos are longer than any of the other channels on this list—but for true cinephiles, it’s worth taking the time. His obvious devotion to the medium and exhaustive knowledge of his subjects makes this channel a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about the great directors and films of the last century, with extensive primers on visionaries like Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, and Denis Villeneuve, in addition to movies he believes do something particularly well, like The Social Network’s master-class in dialogue, or Seven Samurai’s use of action. Many other YouTubers do this kind of thing, but few go as lovingly in-depth as Criswell.
Anthony Fantano, who describes himself as “The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd,” has built this music-reviewing vlog into a cult favorite over the last eight years, complete with skits, running jokes, and a mustachioed alter-ego. Bald, bespectacled, and self-deprecating, Fantano may seem an unlikely candidate for Internet celebrity. Nonetheless, he’s garnered quite a reputation for his erudite vlog, in which he reviews and analyzes both new and classic music.
Artists have admitted to watching his reviews of their material—some come away offended, some mollified. Critically acclaimed experimental rapper Danny Brown has even said he watches theneedledrop obsessively, once joking that impressing Fantano is a goal he always tries to meet with projects. That’s not surprising, considering the honesty and depth of attention that Fantano gives to the music he reviews. The guy’s got a great ear, and his easy familiarity with such a wide variety of styles and genres—from pop and hip-hop, to jazz and avant-garde noise— makes him more than worthy of being called “The Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd.”
Even when he’s not a huge fan of an artist’s work, his reviews are poetic and constructive—though some flops do get the brunt of his desert-dry wit, triggering debates across his videos’ lively comment sections. With his command of YouTube and his endlessly eclectic taste, Fantano is the definitive music critic of the Digital Age.