Dressed in a witch’s hat and wand, surrounded by candles and endowed with a wry sense of humor, YouTuber counterpoints she began Video essay on transphobic comments by JK Rowling. Stylistic video essays, such as those produced by ContraPoints, are a vast subgenre of informative Internet content, encompassing everything from film analysis to dense philosophical treatises. The explosion in popularity of this medium, with the aforementioned video garnering nearly six million views, has sparked a discussion on how the internet has changed education and access, for better or for worse.
Alexandra Romanyshyn, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Seattle University, discussed how the contemporary themes analyzed in many video essays contribute to their appeal.
“There can definitely be a notion that science, and philosophy in particular, just exists in their ivory towers and isn’t really in touch with the world,” Romanyshyn said. “If we look at ContraPoints, much of their work focuses on connecting these philosophical themes with contemporary issues like transphobia. It’s a format that’s accessible to a wide audience, and historically philosophers haven’t been very good at it.”
As tuition fees at universities continue to rise, the need for accessible and debt-free education has increased. Ella Ohlsen, a freshman major in international studies, explained that video essays helped her decide which major to major in college.
“I watch video essays on a lot of different topics. I’m a huge Harry Styles fan, so I’ve seen a lot about him. Last night I saw one about nutritional science, and the night before about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This interdisciplinary way of learning really made me realize that I wanted to study something that gave me an academic basis and wasn’t very specific,” Ohlsen said.
Jason Wirth, Professor and Chair of Philosophy, believes that generating an initial interest is critical to academic development.
“At the universities we work with people who know the flame of thought,” said Wirth. “The fire is already burning and we will help them start it. Where it ignites, it ignites. To the extent that the internet, or more specifically video essays, decentralizes knowledge and takes it out of the hands of the profiteers, they are good.”
Both Romanyshyn and Wirth expressed hope that people who consume video essays or other online educational content will find something that sparks a desire to learn. They see this content as part of a larger process, not the end goal of education. Ideally, viewers would be pushed beyond the secondary sources and encouraged to delve deeper into the topics that pique their interest.
The Internet has also brought with it considerable challenges when it comes to imparting knowledge. The rise of infotainment has made it easier than ever to spread misinformation, Wirth points out.
“The reduction of video to pure infotainment is not the fault of the video, but of those who create the content,” said Wirth. “Infotainment is a serious problem that goes far beyond the realm of philosophy. Reducing economic debates, political debates, and serious reporting is one way to avoid this altogether. The problem isn’t that it’s on TV or video, the problem is when those media are used to decimate intellectualism.”
Video essays aren’t necessarily forms of infotainment, Romanyshyn says, but rather a facet of an increasingly visual culture.
“People will consume entertainment media no matter what we do,” Romanyshyn said. “We can rant so much about the problems of the internet, but it’s here to stay whether we like it or not, so we might as well have it on our side.”
Video essays and the internet as a whole have fundamentally changed the way we access, interact with and create educational content. They have the potential to influence the areas that students choose in higher education and introduce them to new ones through contemporary themes. Professors such as Romanyshyn and Wirth emphasize the importance of not just relying on internet content such as videos from ContraPoints or blog posts on philosophy forums, but to expand one’s understanding through further reading and academic development.