Osborn: You had the Home Brew Computer Club the Apple guys were part of. I think part of it is just that hardware has become sexy again. There was a period of time people who were passionate about it still did it, but it’s become of more trendy I think. It’s got a lot of attention.
Jones: If you asked me ten years ago, maybe fifteen years ago, “Has the elec- tronics hobbyist movement died?” And I’d say, “It’s pretty darn close to it.” It was in its death throes. It really was. All the old electronics magazines were folding. And online, nobody cared about it. All the kids cared about these days was playing video games and using their iPod or whatever consumer gadget. And then this hacker/maker movement started up again. As you said, it became trendy to hack something, take something apart, see how it works, modify it. It’s amazing. It has revived the whole electronics movement with it, right there up on the shoulders of the hacker maker movement now. It’s fantastic.
Osborn: There seem to be a lot of people like me who are engineers, pro- grammers who have been doing programming for maybe ten years, or even longer, and started to get into it just because they’re able to understand at a lower level, play with the hardware.
Jones: And it’s fun, because you get to control a robot or you get to flash some lights. There’s that—rather than just writing a line of code and some- thing appears on a screen that started with the early home computer move- ment back in the late seventies to mid eighties. Hardware has that tangible aspect to it. You can get a bit more satisfaction than just software. Not that you can’t get that same satisfaction out of writing good code and software and stuff like that. I’m sure you can. But hardware has its own unique feel to it as well.
Osborn: I think the satisfaction is not as immediate as writing code. A lot of time you have to spend an hour, say soldering something together. But part of why I think it’s so satisfying is that you’ve got that time invested and worked through it.
Jones: And you’re working with your hands. You’re physically building some- thing. I think there’s something innate in our nature, or innate in the nature of curious people, who have a natural feel for wanting to do this stuff. Physically holding and playing with something has a more tangible aspect to it than just writing some code and seeing something appear on a screen.
Osborn: What are some of the most popular blog episodes? Can you give me some examples of just one or two episodes that are just for some reason really popular?
Jones: If I blow something up, that gets views. That’s a cheap way. There are so many other channels out there that just blow stuff up, and they get hundreds of times more views than I do. If I was just after the views, then I’d be blowing more stuff up. But my most popular video is currently a soldering tutorial.
Osborn: I’ve seen that guy who blows up things with high voltage.
Jones: Andy is his name, he’s Photonicinduction on YouTube.1 He does high- voltage and blows up stuff.
Osborn: He’s just a bat-shit crazy bloke right? Blows up all kinds of stuff in entertaining ways?
Jones: Well, yeah, same with me, except he works on high-voltage stuff. I’m bat-shit crazy too, but I work on more electronics test equipment stuff. He actually quit at one stage, he threw in the towel. Now, in the blogging electronics industry, if you get so fed up with maintaining a blog audience, it’s called “doing a photonic induction.” He had ten million views, fifty thousand subscribers. He was going great guns. And all of a sudden, he just shut down his channel, removed all his videos, and said, “Bugger it, I’m not doing any of this anymore. I can’t take it.” and just wiped out his entire audience and all of his views overnight. Now he’s come back though. I don’t know if he’s regret- ting that decision, but he’s come back and set up a new channel from scratch, and he’s going into the whole thing again. But he got fed up with all the nega- tive comments and people saying what he does is dangerous and all that stuff, and he didn’t want anyone to get hurt. He thought if he keeps putting up these videos, people will get hurt. They’ll try to replicate the experiments, which are dangerous.
Osborn: Yeah, they’re dangerous.
Jones: So, yeah, that’s called “doing a photonic induction” now, where you get so fed up. And I can understand the pressure he’s under getting all the negative comments and things like that, and some people just can’t handle it. You really need a thick skin to do the kinds of stuff that we do to a large audience.
Osborn: YouTube comments are all just garbage.
Jones: Yes, so hateful, a lot of vitriolic garbage.
Osborn: People create YouTube commenter accounts to feel better about their terrible lives, I think.
Jones: I know. I think so. And it’s a real problem. It doesn’t matter how good your material is, it doesn’t matter what your intentions are, you put material out there and once you get that critical mass of enough viewers, you will get the haters. It’s inevitable. You will get the people who just want to comment to put you down and say you’re doing it wrong and blah, blah, blah. Sure, if you get one person who says that, it’s not a big deal. But if you start getting hundreds or thousands of people—if you’ve got a million subscribers, as some of the big channels do, they will get thousands of hateful, vitriolic comments every day. It really does take a tough mental stance to ignore that.
Osborn: Do you think it’s worth it to leave the comments open or does it hurt to just turn them off?
Jones: I was just talking about this to another guy the other day who’s from The Geek Group, another YouTube channel,2 and they do exactly that. They actually have to approve all comments. I mentioned in a reply to him on my forum that it’s almost tantamount to channel suicide if you do that. If you shut off comments or you monitor or you have to approve every comment before they go up, it can hurt your success.I don’t know any really successful channels that block comments like that. There probably are, but it’s the exception. Because by blocking off comments it does several things. The fewer comments you have on your videos, the lower your videos get ranked in the search engine, in the YouTube Google search engine. So the less snowballing effect you’re going to get on the suc- cess of your channel if you get fewer comments and fewer thumbs-up and thumbs-down and stuff. Just that general interaction, that plays a big part in your channel’s search results ranking. So right there, you’re just cutting your throat really if you want your channel to be a success.
Osborn: It’s a little ironic that hateful spewage helps raise your views.
Jones: Yes. It does help raise your video views because it’s a snowballing effect on YouTube: once one video gets ranked, then another one, and it all ties into some huge complex algorithm.
Osborn: And the more hateful the comments are, the more people want to laugh at it and post more comments.
Jones: Yeah, that’s the ironic nature of it. The more vitriolic comments you get, the greater the response and the more successful you are. It’s a double- edged sword, of course. Sadly, it’s effectively impossible to be a big success to a large audience and not get this sort of abuse or discouragement.
Osborn: It sounds like the recipe for getting a lot of views is blowing stuff up.
Jones: There are quite a few things that are popular. Blowing stuff up is one. Keeping to those rules I was talking about before about the attention-span limits. Those really do help. I’m limiting the success of my channel by having hour-long videos. But, hey, it’s my niche. I’m already number one. I can’t afford to spend more time to make shorter and more polished videos. And then if I do get them down, I’ll have all of my existing audience complain, “Oh no, you’re doing five-minute videos now instead of fifty. What’s going on? I sub- scribe because your videos are fifty minutes, not because they’re five. I love the detail.” So, you know, you can’t please everyone. There is an audience out there for short 5 min electronics videos, but that’s not what I go after.
Osborn: Besides videos where you blow stuff up, what tends to get a lot of views?
Jones: Surprisingly, I do a segment called mailbag, where I just open my mail.3
Osborn: Yeah, I actually have a question to ask you about that. 3
Jones: I tried it and thought, “No way anybody’s going to like this,” but I thought I’d just do it for a bit of fun, and it’s one of my most popular segments. People kept pestering me. “When’s the mailbag? When’s the mailbag? When’s the next one? When’s the next one?” And I’m not sure of the exact reason why it’s popular. It’s a bit like the opening of presents at Christmas. People have commented that they love it because there’s always something inter- esting in there that they would never have found otherwise. It’s that sort of random nature of—I open it up and I have no idea, and I’ll start ranting about anything people send in. So I’ll have twenty thousand people sit there for an hour watching me open my mail. It’s incredible. It’s just amazing.
Osborn: So people mail you random devices and then you take them apart? Jones: Then I take them apart or just talk about the stuff they send me. Osborn: What’s the strangest thing you’ve gotten in the mail?
Jones: Oh, I got some women’s lingerie. I’m not sure what they wanted me to do with it, but there it came, from an anonymous sender. I’m sure I’ll con- tinue to get weirder stuff. I guess a lot of people love to say, “Hey, Dave read my letter.” A lot of people just send a thank-you letter or a postcard, and I’ll read out their postcard on the video. People seem to like that. I was incredibly surprised by the success of that segment. It’s just amazing. It shows you there’s a niche audience for just entertainment, like opening your mail. And I guess it shows that once you’re a successful channel, people are watching because of you, because of the personality. I don’t think somebody else can come along and open that same stuff and get the same number of viewers, because people don’t have that connection with that person. So it’s a strange world.
Osborn: Besides the lingerie, can you give me an example of something you’re received in the mail and took apart on the show?
Jones: I can tell you something that I got a lot of complaints over. Most people love my mailbag shows, but there was one mailbag segment where I got so many thumbs-down and so many hater comments for it. I had my son, Sagan, on there. He’s only two years old. I let him open a couple of the packages. I thought, “Hey, that would be fun. Everyone likes Sagan.” I’ve had him on a few videos before. Then some guy in Australia sent me a whole bunch of old computer equipment. It was a secondhand video card, but apparently, it was a top-of-the-line, really kickass video card, and then, of course, Sagan pulled it out and tossed it onto the bench. And then he started poking it with a screw- driver and stuff. I didn’t let him damage it, but then I got all these computer nerds write, “Sacrilege! How dare you let your child poke at that! I would kill to have that video card! And here you are, letting your child play with it.”
And apparently, I didn’t recognize the value of this card he told me he was sending me. I thought, “Great, an old high-end video card. I might be able to use it for my video rendering.” But I had no idea it had a cult following, this video card. I got so much hate mail over that. It was unbelievable. It was an innocent thing like that. If it touches a nerve with people you really have to be careful. But I had no idea that that gear was so valuable to people. And he sent old, secondhand computer fans, and they had dust all over them, and they looked pretty crusty, and I had no idea they were the best silent fans in the business. All these computer nerds, they love their silent fans and their high- end video cards and their other stuff. I just insulted every one of them. Oops.