New York Times bestselling author John Green shared his thoughts on creativity and community in his Connections 2014 Main Stage keynote. In this interview, I asked John about connecting with an audience, millennial observations, reading in an age of technological distractions, and the journey that led him where he is today.
Heike: How do you answer the question, “What do you do?”
John: I usually just say I’m a writer and video blogger. Or, if it’s someone I don’t particularly want to talk to, I say I make educational videos. That usually shuts it down.
Heike: Event planning is a huge part of marketing. What are the challenges of organizing Vidcon?
John: Event planning is the hardest thing I’ve done in my career. Project management on that large of a scale is intense and challenging, and people who do it well are impressive to me. The number one thing I’ve learned is that I should surround myself with people who do it well, because I don’t. I’m fortunate to work with the smart, organized people who make Vidcon successful. If Vidcon were run by only me and my brother, it would probably be a disaster.
We started the event in a hotel basement with 1,200 people, and that’s what I thought it should be at the time. I never imagined that VidCon or YouTube would be such a big deal. I never thought all these YouTube and Vine stars would exist. Mostly while I’m at Vidcon, I just marvel at the scope of it.
Heike: Did you ever expect that, outside of your literature, you’d build the kind of responsive audience you have today?
John: I never thought of what I do as building an audience for my books. I’ve always just liked the internet, insofar as the internet is about connection and community. I enjoy being part of communities online, and I like to lead them. This has taken both small and big forms. In 1992, I was one of the assistant system operators on the CompuServe student net, and that was awesome. With nerdfighteria and the other stuff I make today, it’s a much different form-but I still think of it less in terms of building an audience, and more of building a community that I’m proud to be part of.
Heike: What’s your sense of responsibility to that community?
John: I trust them and they trust me. That’s the foundation of our community. If I violate their trust or they violate my trust, that loss is incalculable. It’s not something you can think about in terms of dollars. I try not to be a dick on the internet, and I also try not to be a dick off of the internet.
Heike: You’ve talked before about the contract between a writer and a reader. Does part of that contract involve the use of technology? Is it important to reduce technological distractions while reading?
John: I don’t want to judge others too much on how they read, but I do think as readers, we have a responsibility to what we’re reading. We’re responsible to read both generously and purposefully. It’s not fair for me to say I hated The Great Gatsby if I only read 30 pages of it. That makes me look stupid, and it’s not fair to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I do think we have a responsibility to read purposefully, but I don’t want to be too prescriptive about how people do that. Maybe someone likes to read on his or her phone and switch to Flappy Bird, then switch back to reading. I don’t know what people’s relationships will be like with story in the future, and I don’t want to be a stodgy old man saying get off my lawn and read my way. It’s important for people to figure out how to integrate technology into their own lives.
Heike: As someone who does live a pretty connected life, how do you integrate technology into your life?
John: I’m not particularly good at turning off the internet. It was fine until I had email on my phone. For the last seven years or so with email on my phone, it’s made me accessible in a way that I sort of wish I weren’t. I feel a responsibility to that inbox, which can be distracting at times. I do think it’s bad for your brain not to unplug.
Heike: You produce videos that are created quickly, receiving instant feedback. You also write books that take many years to create and share. How do these pieces touch people differently?
John: We have a very different relationship with videos or TV shows than we have with books. Very rarely do I remember the experience of watching a TV show in the way that I remember the experience of reading a book. There’s a depth and quality to that connection that you don’t get from other media. That connection is one of the things I love about books, and I never want to give it up. It’s why I enjoy writing even though it takes years, and many times within those years are not very fun. The reward for me, as a writer, is being so deeply engaged in a story and caring about it so much.
Heike: How did you know it was time to use a separate Twitter handle just for sports?
John: I don’t like to spam on Twitter unless everyone else is. For example, if all of Twitter is having a conversation about the Academy Awards, that’s one thing. But not everyone on Twitter is having a conversation about Liverpool Football Club. That’s a niche audience. My regular Twitter audience is so broad that I began to feel that I couldn’t be myself all the way. I wanted a place on Twitter where I could be more like the version of myself who goes to a bar and watches a Liverpool game.
Heike: You’re well connected with the millennial audience. What observations do you have for marketers trying to reach that audience?
John: Don’t lie to millennials. Don’t lie to anyone, but particularly don’t lie to millennials. They just know. They can smell it. Be yourself: if you’re old, be old. If you don’t know anything about pop culture, don’t pretend to know anything about pop culture. I didn’t know what teenagers liked when I was a teenager myself. I don’t know their music; I can’t name any of the boys in One Direction. And I don’t know what 5 Seconds of Summer is. But my audience knows and accepts that as part of me. The shared commonality is in emotional truths, and that connection remains and survives. I think when you credit teenagers with intelligence and emotional sophistication, they respond intelligently and with emotional sophistication.
Heike: In your experience, what’s the preferred millennial channel for communication?
John: Tumblr. But once we go to Tumblr, they’ll go somewhere else-in fact, they probably talk somewhere else now. Snapchat, maybe? Group chats will be an important part of the way we communicate in the future, and so will private chats. But despite the popularity of private channels, we can’t underestimate the desire of creators to have an audience. Creators will always want a public audience. I think young people today are more conscious of their public lives, which is a good and positive development. But creative people are still having conversations with each other and replying to their creations with other stuff.
Mashup culture is important to me, and it’s a core value of the internet. The internet is necessarily public. It can be filtered-public or censored-public, but it necessarily has to be open and available.
Heike: You’re creating a lot of content these days. How do you find a balance of creating enough content to satisfy people?
John: I’m not interested in getting the most possible viewers or having the broadest possible audience. I’m interested in making things that people will truly love and care about. My brother and I try to focus on opportunities that allow us to create that kind of content, content that’s really transformative for people, which for us increasingly means educational content. We enjoy figuring out ways to make educational materials that are good, nuanced, complicated, and not boring.
Heike: What’s the future of educational materials?
John: Crash Course is not an attempt to erase the classroom. My opinion is that attempts to replace the classroom will fail. Materials that succeed will enhance or jumpstart the classroom experience. I may be wrong about this, but I really don’t see a future where we’re all taught by robots. I think the real life, physical experience of being in a classroom and having conversations with knowledgeable people is immeasurably valuable and irreplaceable. I hope that the videos and other materials we make around Crash Course can jumpstart those conversations and give them a bit of structure.
Heike: What’s a tech innovation you’d like to see develop?
John: I wish I could watch YouTube on my TV without it being incredibly difficult. I wish that while I watched TV or YouTube, I were also connected to a Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram feed of related content made by my friends or people who might be my friends, but I just don’t know them yet. I’m excited for a time when I watch media and I don’t have to look at my phone to read the tweets; it’s just all part of the experience.
Heike: In your journey to where you are today, what was a time when you felt distinct confirmation that you were on the right path?
John: In March 2007, my brother and I had been making videos for about 3 months and had about 300 regular viewers. It was a little discouraging because we had made 40 or 50 videos, but the audience didn’t get bigger. Our viewers liked what we were producing, yet that group wasn’t growing. Around this time, I had to go to the hospital with an infection behind my eye. When I was in the hospital, Hank asked people to take pictures of themselves putting stuff on their heads to cheer me up. Of our 300 regular viewers, 275 people sent in pictures of themselves with stuff on heads. That’s a pretty good conversion rate. Admittedly, we weren’t asking for money, but it was a clear call to action that many people acted upon. This was a wonder to me, and I thought we could get people to do things beyond putting stuff on their heads, which ultimately led to our philanthropic work. This moment was when I realized we were doing things the right way.
Heike: How have nerdfighters changed you as a person?
John: I think of myself as a nerdfighter now, and I suspect I probably will for the rest of my life. The community’s core values are inclusivity and celebrating intellectualism, which have become much more important to me than they were before. The ideas of directing attention outward, trying to imagine other people complexly, trying not to see myself as the center of the universe-these concepts have become even more important to me, and I hope they’re at work in my life on a minute-by-minute basis.
Heike: How would you explain Indianapolis to an alien from another planet?
John: I’m not from Indianapolis, but I like living in Indianapolis. If I were to explain it, I’d tell someone to imagine a city that perfectly captures the best and the worst of America. Imagine the truly American city, because that’s what it is. That’s what I love about it as a writer. As a husband and parent, it’s easy and cheap, which is actually what I want in a place. And I like my friends here.