If you’ve ever searched YouTube for a review of the latest iPhone or electric car, you’ve probably come across Marques Brownlee. Since he started his channel SMEHD as a teenager in 2009, Brownlee has amassed 15.8 million subscribers for his in-depth yet accessible technical videos. He even scored interviews with Elon Musk† Mark Zuckerberg† Bill Gates and Barack Obamaand to top it all off, he’s a professional ultimate frisbee player (the former president even complimented his “incredible hop”).
But perhaps Brownlee’s most impressive achievement is his ability to stay relevant in his online video career for 10 years without losing the trust of his audience. And as short video content becomes a necessity for every creator, Brownlee has seamlessly transitioned to TikTok, where he is one of the few good April 1 jokes†
We spoke to Brownlee at VidCon, where he helped Discord promote beta testing of its server subscriptions (beware, Patreon). Speaking to arguably the most well-known tech critic — sorry, other todaybusinessupdates.com writers — the 28-year-old internet star told us about the move to TikTok, his take on the metaverse, and why Google Glass deserves a redemption arc.
This interview has been abbreviated for clarity.
TC: It’s not easy to make TikToks or YouTube shorts when you’ve grown up on YouTube with twenty-minute videos. How do you create shorter content on these new platforms?
MB: I think about this a lot. I see ways I don’t like doing it, like people repurpose other content and turn it into short content. I would much rather create native content for any platform. When we first started making shorts, it was a challenge. I was like, how should I? For real shorten this to 60 seconds or less? I think my first three shorts are 59.8 seconds long. We found that after we specifically decided to spend time on TikTok and then know what works well, we could make things that fit the platform better.
With so many new creator programs on different platforms, what does your creator income pie chart look like?
I’d say it’s about 50% of YouTube’s built-in advertising model and 50% of everything else – including our merch store, other deals we do and stuff like that. But the bread and butter has been the videos for so long. It’s just a well-oiled machine. We don’t really think about overhead, we just know that videos can and will perform, which is…thanks, YouTube!
While short videos have become very popular, no one has really figured out how to monetize them yet. Do you have any idea how that might work?
I don’t have an answer, and anyone who claims to have an answer is probably lying. It makes so much sense that video can explode in short form. The numbers we see are not the same as the numbers elsewhere. You know, 20 million views on TikTok is very different from 20 million views on YouTube. When we talk about monetizing videos, monetization on YouTube is linked to the video because you made the choice [to watch the video]† You saw the thumbnail, you spent time there, that was up to you. That transaction works. But shorts are just completely different. I don’t know how to tie that together and make it a nice neat monetization solution.
You’ve been relevant as a tech critic for over 10 years – how do you ensure you stay true to your perspective while remaining accessible?
I try to be as transparent as possible about what I like and don’t like. It’s subjective. But whether someone agrees with my preference in a piece of technology hardly matters. I try to put myself in the viewer’s shoes and say what I wish they would know if they bought the thing.
What trends in technology are you most excited about?
I think AR/VR is one that all our eyes are on right now. It’s fun, because to me the most interesting beginning of new technology is when you get a product that’s actually meant to help people or provide a new experience, and I think we’re right to see products that are similar to, the killer app, like really interesting and bring people in. We had Google Glass, we had some crazy stuff in the past, but I think we’re about to see a lot of cool stuff.
What do you think of the idea of the metaverse?
I understand what people see in it. I understand why Facebook – or Meta – wants a big stake in it. But at the same time it must have a purpose. We have to want to do the new for a reason, and I’m still looking for that reason.
Yes, playing video games in VR is one thing, but hanging out with friends in VR and going to work in VR is a harder sell.
There are some “Ready Player One” kind of vibes sometimes where it’s like, “what would it mean if we didn’t have to go to the meeting?” But it’s also not that hard to just do what we normally do. I’m looking for a reason to really want to try this stuff. I give new things a chance, because that’s my job. I’ll give it a shot. But I think we might be about to get some more interesting answers to that question.
Meta’s VR hardware is fun to play with, but I don’t want that live in the.
It’s just another cool piece of technology to play with, and there’s a lot of cool technology out there already. It won’t get that mass adoption that Meta is definitely hoping for.
Do you think AR will be more accessible to people than VR?
That’s where I find it easiest to see useful use cases. I remember the days of Google Glass, and as crazy as that product was, having turn-by-turn navigation instructions in the corner of your view as you walk through an unfamiliar city is very useful. I actually found those kinds of little things to be very functional, at the core. The hardware was old, and that was 10 years ago, so obviously the technology has gotten a lot better since then. But I think AR is easier for me to see as the future.
Which companies do you think are doing AR well?
Of course the iPhone and lidar. Functionally, it’s really good, but it doesn’t do anything useful. Yes, I can put a couch in a room and see what it looks like, but I’m still looking for that “must have” thing.
Is there technology that you think was useful but didn’t make it?
Google Glass is the perfect answer. Ten years ago it was insane to walk into a bar with a camera on your face, and now Snapchat just made glasses with the camera on them. It’s much more acceptable.
There are many privacy debates about wearable technology – do you have any ethical concerns about this type of technology?
Well, you always hope it comes from a responsible company that does responsible things, which is why there is concern about Meta. That’s all I’ll say about it! But hey, it’s the same as with your phone – if you do important things on your phone, there will be a lot of important data there, so privacy will be important. We hope the companies do the right thing with that data.
Is there a piece of technology that you think more people should be talking about?
Non-Tesla EVs. They’re almost there.