Exposing the YouTube Algorithm & How We're Using it Wrong

If you make anything for any online platform, and even if you don’t, you’ve likely heard of this all powerful entity known as “The Algorithm”. The bane of many creators’ existence, the algorithm has the power to literally make or break what you’re trying to build.

Or does it?

Please don’t get the wrong impression, I’m not trying to become the next “YouTube Guru”– but I am trying to combat a trend I’ve noticed. A trend that I think is doing a lot more harm than good. 

Go to YouTube and search for “YouTube Algorithm”. You’ll be bombarded with video after video trying to explain the secrets, hacks, and inner workings of this mysterious beast. Oh, and it’s constantly changing, so there’s a new wave of these videos every 3 months.

And I mean, who DOESN’T want to grow their audience? I sure do. Making things is tremendously rewarding, but honestly, it sucks to work really hard on something and have no one see it. 

Algorithms aren’t good or bad, they just are. The YouTube algorithm has one goal: to keep you watching YouTube. Out of the nearly 500 hours of content uploaded every single minute of every single day, the algorithm tries to figure out what you’re most likely to click on to keep you watching. 

And don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen first hand how the algorithm giveth and the algorithm taketh away. The most popular video on my channel at the moment is an Apple Watch comparison. In the week after I made it, it was getting over 10,000 views per day, and then literally overnight dropped to a few hundred, and then drifted lower. Interest wanes over time, but this isn’t a natural drop-off: this is the algorithm picking up and then dumping a video. 

But regardless of stories like that, when it comes to explaining the algorithm, there’s the most important reality that all of these guides miss: We’re using the algorithm wrong. Yes, certain titles, tags, and descriptions make can make a difference, but there’s not reliable way to “hack” the algorithm or find its deep dark secrets. 

The algorithm is essentially a machine designed to think like people. In trying to “hack” the algorithm, we become people trying to think like a machine that’s trying to think like people.

And I think that’s crazy. 

The second most popular video on my channel is a Procreate tutorial for the iPad. This video sat around for six months, barely earning more than 100 views. Then one day I changed the thumbnail (literally nothing else, I just added a nicer, more interesting image), and it quickly jumped to 30,000 views and keeps growing. 

The algorithm probably didn’t know that one thumbnail was prettier than the other, but it probably DID notice that when that video popped up in search results after I made the change, more people were starting to click on it, which meant that the algorithm started showing it to more people who’s viewing habits were similar. 

Virtually everyone I know who’s had a video take off in some way says the same thing: “the videos you spend forever on get no views and the ones you put together without thinking get really popular”. 

That Procreate video was filmed in about 90 minutes as part of a 30 day upload challenge I was doing at the time.

And that Apple Watch video– the most popular video on my channel– I didn’t even intend to make it. I was actually in the middle of filming a different video when my Apple Watch got delivered and I thought it’d be fun to compare the new one against the old one. From the time I had the idea to the time it was uploaded was less than two hours. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put effort into your work. Both the videos I mentioned are still well made, and offer value to the viewer. But the main takeaway is that they’re very human. I wasn’t trying to predict what an algorithm would want or evaluate analytics and trends. I just made something I thought would be interesting, and put it together in a way where I would want to click on it if I saw it. 

And that’s the key. So here’s my proposition to any creators who are struggling with the algorithm: don’t. Don’t try and think like a machine that’s trying to think like you. Just be you. Make what you want and share it. 

For me, this idea is the best possible solution to the algorithm issue:

It gives credit to the smart people who made the algorithm in the first place. Instead of trying to “hack” it, just let it do what it was designed to do.

It takes the burden of off the people who make stuff and lets us make what we want.

And finally, it assumes the best intentions for all involved. Yes, I know that might be a bit naive, but at the end of the day, I’d rather assume the best in others than the worst. 

So what I hope you take a way from this video, is maybe a bit of confidence. Confidence to make the things you want to make, share them the best you can, and then move on to making the next thing. 

Go ahead and change thumbnails when you need to, make sure you’ve got good keywords, but don’t go overboard. Just make the thing. Then make the next thing. 

Top Notch Top Down Shots!

If you make videos with any sort of regularity, at one time or another, you’ve probably wanted to film a top-down, overhead angle. But if you’ve ever tried to film an overhead shot, you know that it can be pretty frustrating…

Overhead camera angles are beautiful in their simplicity, but more often than not, they can be a total pain to set up. Last year I found a really cool piece of equipment that I’ve been using for my overhead shots, but before we get to that, let’s start out with something that most of us already have: a tripod.

The simplest way to film an overhead angle with a tripod is to just put the tripod over your subject and tilt the camera down. The tricky part, however, is trying NOT to get the tripod legs in the shot while still being able to achieve the framing you’re going for. Depending on the size of your tripod and filming surface, you may be able to place the tripod directly on the surface itself (but in my case, the table I use is too narrow to fit a tripod).

More advanced tripods often have the option to extend and reposition the center column horizontally for an overhead shot. Doing this does make the tripod much easier to tip over, so it’s a good idea to add some weight to the back, or to make sure the tripod’s legs are firmly against your table to keep it steady. It’s also usually easiest to position the tripod on the opposite side of your table from you, and then rotate the footage in your editing software (since it will likely be upside down from this angle). 

Depending on your setup, you may be able to position two of the tripod’s legs on your table, with the third on the floor for additional support. This is ideal because it makes it easier to position the camera exactly where you want it. 

Now, if you’re like me and you film a lot of overhead shots, it’s probably worth investing in a dedicated piece of gear to help you get the job done. Last year I found this Glide Gear overhead rig on B&H Photo for $200. This is in no way a sponsored video, but I’ve been using this for a while, and I think it’s really awesome– I actually look for excuses to use it because I like it so much.

This overhead rig lets you mount your camera directly above what you’re filming, and gets all of the other mess out of the way. It’s super sturdy and the entire thing is made with metal construction. The base has holes in it which allow you to permanently mount the stand directly onto your filming surface, but I’ve found that it’s plenty sturdy on its own, and I like the freedom to move it to different locations if needed. Mine hangs out in the corner when I’m not using it, and then I can easily move it around when I need it.

For this video I’ve been using my Sony RX100 as a “prop” camera to show how the rig works, but I usually use my Canon 6D Mark II when filming with this stand, and it’s never had any issues supporting the weight of a full size DSLR and lens. I sometimes have the camera’s battery grip attached too and still haven’t had any issues with the weight. Of course you could attach a ballhead or other mount to add even more versatility, but I’ve just been sticking with the simple 1/4 20 mount that came with the stand. 

Aside from the fact that it works like a dream, the best part of this stand is its insane versatility. There are 1/4 20 mounts EVERYWHERE! On both of the side supports and all across the main top piece. These give you a ton of options to mount not only your camera, but lights, monitors, audio, and more.  Basically, it makes it really easy to get exactly the style you’re going for.

All in all, if you only film top-down angles once in a while, then a little effort with the tripod you already have will probably get the job done. But if you incorporate a lot of overhead shots into your work, then I think it’s definitely worth investing in a dedicated stand like this Glide Gear overhead rig. I’m recommending this stand specifically because I’ve had such a good experience with it, and also because I haven’t really seen anything else like it. 

Plus it’s built to last forever, and the headaches/time it’ll save you are more than worth the price. 

Shrink Your World With Tilt Shift Photos and Videos!

My last video showed you how to make a scale model look life-size, and now we’re going to make life-size objects look like scale models- why? Because we can. And because I borrowed a tilt-shift lens.

Many of us are familiar with “tilt shift” filters in different software apps like Instagram and Snapseed, but the technique was originally developed for traditional film photography almost 50 years ago.

I borrowed a 24mm Rokinon tilt shift lens for this video, and it seems to be pretty decent, but it’s also the only tilt shift lens I’ve ever used. My goal in making this video isn’t to talk about or review specific pieces of gear, but to explore techniques and effects that are fun to learn.

Tilt shift lenses do two things: tilt and shift (shocking, I know). These small changes make a BIG impact by changing the angle of the plane between the lens to the camera’s sensor.

There are a lot of instances when tilt shift can come in handy. Tilt shift lenses let you take architectural photos without any distortion, you can become extremely selective with focus to direct the viewers attention to a specific part of an image, and even do some pretty unique effects like giving the appearance of filming directly in front of a mirror. (in this instance the camera was positioned just outside of the mirror’s view and shifted to give the perspective of looking into the mirror).

Of course the most commonly seen use of tilt shift photography is using the altered plane of focus to affect the scale of your subject. When photographed from from a distance, and especially from a high angle, people, buildings, and even entire towns begin to look like pieces of a scale model diorama.

Where tilt shift photography takes on a whole new dynamic beyond still photography is the fact that most cameras made now are capable of shooting photos AND video. Tilt shift video adds an entirely new layer of creative options to your work, and even though you definitely don’t want to overuse it, it is an incredible tool to have at the ready. You can see this technique used by professional filmmakers like David Fincher in The Social Network.

I’m not suggesting you run out and spend money on a tilt shift lens, but it is neat to see where the technique originated and how it can be used to achieve specific results.

In all honesty, software filters can do a great job of replicating the tilt shift effect, and they’re SUPER easy to use. So there’s no reason NOT to just use your phone to take a photo, play around with tilt shift, and then shrink your world to look like a scale model.

Ultimately, learning to use a traditional tilt shift lens can just help you build your skills as a photographer or filmmaker, and it’s also just a lot of fun. Fun is good.

It's the End of Summer- Let the Madness Begin!

It's the end of my summer vacation and I'm freaking out.

Don't get me wrong, I'm super excited to get back to work and do all of the crazy and fun stuff I'm lucky enough to be able to do every day. BUT, this has been the absolute greatest summer of my entire life, by far.

I've had the opportunity to grow and create in ways I never have before, and I don't want that to end. So, in response, I've decided to challenge myself starting today to upload something to YouTube every single day. What does this mean exactly? I don't really know, but that's part of the fun, right? I'm hoping to figure that out as I go along. 

It will definitely be a challenge to balance a commitment like this on top of everything else I normally have to try and fit into a single day, but I have a feeling that if I manage to stick with it, it can be incredibly rewarding. 

How to Kill Your Creative Voice

I’ve got a problem:

I have a terrific job that is both rewarding and creative. 

Wait– that’s not the problem, that’s fantastic. Here’s the problem:

It’s killed my creative voice.

This is an issue I didn’t discover until I started trying to create more original work on my own, outside of my work life. My job is wonderful. I teach/coordinate a high school digital media pathway. Not only do I get to help students in a thousand different ways every day, I also get to work in creative environments, meet interesting people, and take on a wide variety of challenges. 

Over the years I’ve created and helped to create countless projects that have been well received, earned awards, and even been shown in theaters and on television. However, this has all been done under my position as an educator in the public school system. 

Understandably, the public school system seeks to avoid controversy at all costs. When developing creative work under the name of a public education entity, remaining objective and removing any remotely questionable content is critical; and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. Public education is funded with public money and needs to serve everybody equally. 

What I didn’t realize was that this style had overtaken my own creative voice. When developing projects for my job, they have to take on a certain polish and tone that ultimately comes off as generic. After 6 years of this, when I began to try and regularly create more of my own original content, I found that my personal work took on this same (uninteresting) tone. 

This was both terrifying and hugely helpful. 

At first I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to escape this beige dilemma, but I quickly realized that it was an opportunity to understand why this had happened and to find a way to figure out how to overcome it. 

So with that being said (and speaking from a solid background of firsthand experience), I present to you 5 Tips for How to Kill Your Creative Voice! 

Origin Story Time!

Circa 2007- There's a lot happening here. 

Every journey starts somewhere.

For me, the beginnings of what would eventually become The Enthusiasm Project began during college in 2007. I was an English major, and during one class we had to read and respond to an essay titled “The View from 81”, in which the author looked back on his life after reaching the summit of a metaphorical mountain.

While I can’t link to the essay since it’s not available online anywhere, I can say that it was interesting, eye-opening, and most importantly for me- humorous. This old guy was reflecting on what he’d learned over the course of a long life. He sprinkled in some good bits of (dark) humor, and I loved it. My problem, however, was that while he was at the top of the mountain, at 21 years old, I was barely at the bottom.

So, for my assignment I wrote a response essay that I was very proud of, and much to my shock, was pretty well received when presented. I hoped that this would be my mission statement as I headed off into my 20’s, guiding me along the way (the finer points of how that worked out are a story for another day…).

Even though it’s on the longer side, I thought it’d be a good idea to share this writing now as a way of contextualizing the purpose and philosophy behind The Enthusiasm Project.

Let me just say, it’s extremely tempting to go back and revise old writing before posting it, but I can assure you, this is the original...for better or worse.

 

The View From Twenty-One (2007)

So, they say life is a journey. Now, I’m not as adept at metaphors as Dr. House M.D., but I guess it’s true. After all, life has a beginning, middle, and end, and most journeys have these things too, unless something goes horrible, horribly awry. After living for more than two decades, maybe I’m past the beginning of my journey, but not by much. If you want to get real technical, I guess we could say maybe I’m fifteen minutes or so down the trail. Or I’m walking out of the sporting goods store with a shiny new backpack and a fresh pair of Birkenstocks. Except that I don’t wear Birkenstocks because they’re really, really tacky, and it’s 2007. Come on, get with the times. I think these metaphors are getting awfully hazy right about now, so it’s probably time to move on.

I guess it’s safe to say that everything so far in my life has been leading up to this point in time. Of course, this is an argument that could also be made for any given point in a person’s life, but if you’ll be so kind as to politely suspend your disbelief for a moment, I’d like to suggest that it’s especially true for people in their early twenties. We’ve spent our whole lives preparing for “adulthood”, and now it’s finally here. As children, how mayn times were we asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As teenagers, we were constantly bombarded with, “Where do you want to go to school? What are your career plans?”

The beauty, and the flaw, of these questions is that we’re allowed to answer them without consequence. Our answers can changes each time we’re asked the question and it makes no difference. If I had to commit to “what I wanted to be when I grew up” at eight years old, I’d be a bus-driver astronaut right now. Unfortunately, however, things have begun to change.

Decisions about the direction in which we want our lives to go aren’t just fanciful daydreams anymore; they’re the foundation for actual plans. The past 7,300-9,000 or so days of our lives have been preparing us to be where we are right now: embarking on the journey– and it’s freaking terrifying.

Growing up, I always had a vision in my mind of the person I wanted to become as an adult. I wanted to be confident, smart, successful, loving, kind, and ambitious. I wanted to be someone who had a positive impact on the world in some way. As a quiet, shy, overweight, and easily unnoticeable child with many interests but no clear direction, skills, or ambitions, this future-self seemed a far cry from who I felt I was.

I didn’t worry though. I had years and years before I would be “grown-up”. Surely that would be plenty of time for some miraculous caterpillar to butterfly-like transformation to take place. Not that I particularly cared to be a butterfly, but you get the picture. The thing is, here I am: “grown up”. Yet I feel pretty much the same as that insecure twelve year old. Although I do have a driver’s license now, plus I can see R rated movies and buy cigars, and that’s pretty neat. Except that I don’t smoke. That’s not the point though. The real point is– I’m scared. I’m scared of the future, scared of letting go, scared of making wrong decisions. I’m scared of settling for less than what I dream of, and I’m scared of wasting the time that I have. And it’s those last two that are the big ones for me.

I don’t want to look back down the road of my life and feel like I didn’t do what I could have, fully aware that by that point, it’s too late. You can only go forward, never back.

So, how can we be sure we’re not wasting our time? I ask this question a lot, but I don’t know the answer. It reminds me of something I found after my grandmother died and I was going through her things. I came across a little bundle of clipping from various newspapers and magazines, the kind that are only kept by grandmas for some reason that nobody really knows, but we all just blindly accept. It turned out to be a collection of musing written by various authors. I can only remember one of them. It was a bit cheesy and perhaps a tad mushy, but I’ve never been able to forget it.

It was a short story about two girls sitting by a pond watching some ducks. After a while one of the girls stood up to leave and said to the other, “Come on, let’s go. Quit wasting time!” The other girl just looked at her and said, “I’m not wasting time, I’m watching the ducks.”

Now I have no way of knowing for sure, but I’m almost positive it would be a very awful feeling to reach the end of the journey and realize that I never took time to watch the ducks along the way. But how much duck-watching should there be? Should we all have a specific monthly budget for duck-watching, or maybe some type of duck-watching calculator? No, we shouldn’t. At least I don’t think we should, and I could be wrong (and if that’s the case, I apologize for everything beyond this point).

I think that instead of allotting specific time to “watch the ducks”, the key is to constantly be duck-watching. So, how should we go about doing this? As tempting as it may be to take a trip to the local pond, it’s not necessary. That’s not where you’ll find the answer.

As cliche and graduation speech-esque as it may sound, I believe the answer lies in dreams. Not the ones that come during sleep and can be quite awesome, but the ones that come during waking hours and are even more awesome– the ones that can make the jump from dream to reality if given the chance.

We can’t be afraid to chase our dreams. Sounds simple enough, right? But for me, and I’m guessing for most people, it’s not. I don’t even know exactly what my dreams are, let alone what I should do to follow them, but I think that if I just trust in myself, I’ll find the answer. Somewhere deep inside we already know the answers to all of these questions. The hard part is listening.

There have already been far too many instances in my life where I’ve felt that sinking feeling from deep inside that comes with making a wrong decision or doing something that isn’t true to myself. The feeling that something inside is screaming out as loud as it can in protest, but its cries are falling on deaf ears. I hate that feeling. I don’t dislike, despise, loathe, or lament it. I hate it.

It’s the feeling that I’m failing at life, that I’m not listening to myself. I want to do everything in my power to avoid that feeling. If we spend our whole lives putting our dreams on the proverbial shelf, I have no doubt that our journeys will consists of nothing except this foul feeling. So we have to “follow our dreams”. It’s obligatory. And why not? Think about it, this time is all there is, and there’s not very much of it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. Forever.

Now that I’ve made such a big stink about following dreams, it’s worth noting that even though the idea of chasing after dreams might sound great on paper, believe it or not, it’s actually a very difficult thing to do. Dreams won’t always pay the bills, and I don’t know anyone who enjoys the pangs of hunger or longs to live in a van down by the river.

So maybe it’s a bit naive to think that all of life should be spent chasing dreams. If that’s the case, fine. I can accept that, but I still say that we can never allow ourselves to forget our dreams altogether.

To forget dreams is to fall victim to the enemy of all dreams: mediocrity.

All the uncertainty and anxiety about the future boil down to mediocrity and the compromise that must be made in deciding how much of it to allow in life.

What is mediocrity? Mediocrity is settling. It’s taking the safe way or the easy way, which is seldom the way of the heart. Mediocrity sneaks up on you and allows you to bury yourself in it. Mediocrity is easy. It starts by tricking you into sacrificing a little tiny part of a dream...then another part, and another after that. Eventually your entire existence turns into the exact opposite of what you dreamt.

Dreams are the key to avoiding mediocrity. It takes courage to follow a dream, to venture off the well-worn path, but I know it just has to be worth it. I don’t know how I know, I just know. We all know. The ability to dream is fundamentally human. If we ignore our dreams, we ignore who we are. If we can find the courage within ourselves to follow our dreams, then not only will we reach the destination of our journeys, we’ll be content with the road we took to get there.

I understand that I’m not guaranteed a long life. In fact, no matter how long my life is, it won’t be long enough. But that doesn’t matter. We don’t need to be a century old to reap the rewards of our journeys. As long as we have the courage to follow our hearts, we’re already there. As nice as it would be to achieve our dreams, it’s the act of striving for them that makes all the difference. It’s one thing to fail, but it’s another to never try. And that’s all I have to say about that.

The Project Begins!

Hi!

My name is Tom and this is the Enthusiasm Project– the end result of an idea I’ve been kicking around for the better part of a decade. As much as I've wanted to do this for many years, it was always easy to find plenty of reasons not to (there’s no time, I don’t have the resources, what if everyone thinks it’s stupid and makes fun of me and it’s middle school all over again, etc), but I couldn’t escape a very important and stark realization:

Life is short. Time is limited.

This thought is both terrifying and thrilling. I may not know a lot, but what I know for sure is that I don’t want to reach a point in my journey where I look back and wonder “if only” knowing full well that I’m at a point where it’s too late to do anything about it.

Before we go any further, here are a few ground rules to get us started…


What The Enthusiasm Project is NOT:

PERFECTION
My goal is not to bombard you with stories from myself and others who’ve “got it all figured out” as they reminisce on their journey and make all of us feel lesser-than for being at a different point in our own journeys. Everybody struggles. The goal here is to share stories and ideas that inspire others to make the best possible use of their limited time on this little floating speck of a planet. The story profile process is also a good opportunity for the subject to reflect on their journey and passion and perhaps gain a better sense of understanding.

ADVERTISING
There are no ulterior motives here. My goal is not to lure you in with shiny and inspiring ideas in the hopes that you’ll purchase a product or sign up for a subscription of some kind. There are no paid endorsements or products covertly placed into anything here...which leads me to the last thing that The Enthusiasm Project is NOT…

A SOURCE OF INCOME
Rest assured, I am gainfully employed outside of this endeavor. This is purely a passion project for me, and while it may be nice to be able to recoup some of the operating costs one day, that’s not the goal. I promise you right now on day one to keep this project pure. As an added bonus, not relying on advertising or income from The Enthusiasm Project means that I can remain in total control (cue evil laugh), helping to ensure that it provides as much value to the community as possible.

Ok, so what IS The Enthusiasm Project?

GENUINE
Everything here and everything connected to it comes from a genuine place. There are no ulterior motives or false pretenses. The ideas behind this project are values that I strongly believe in and feel are worth sharing. So whatever the subject, format, project, or story, please know that what you see is what you get.

POSITIVE
It’s easy to criticize and tear down, but everything here originates from a place of positivity. There are many reasons to feel jaded and stressed by the world and all of its tragedies and struggles, but my goal is to provide an outlet from those feelings– a place to embrace a carpe diem-esque mentality while sharing and experiencing fun, creativity, and positivity. Hooray!

DECIDEDLY EXPERIMENTAL
Walt Disney once said that Disneyland would never be complete. Much in the same spirit, my goal here to work at creating new, fun, and innovative ways of sharing these ideas while connecting with anyone and everyone who wants to be a part of it. There’s also just something genuinely exciting about freedom of experimentation that comes with a do-it-yourself attitude.


And finally, whether this is a hugely beneficial thing for many people, or a massive train wreck of a failure, I promise that I will always be ridiculously enthusiastic about it, and I hope you will too! Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Work hard, be kind, and have fun.

-Tom