On April 24, 2018, a moderator of the subreddit r/chomsky (a discussion board for Noam Chomsky enthusiasts) created a new subreddit, one intended as a home for the rising tide of leftist video essays on YouTube [Alex Gekker, et al., “Slicing BreadTube” (Amsterdam: Digital Methods Summer School, Digital Methods Initiative, 2019), 10.] The subreddit was titled “BreadTube,” and the term “BreadTube” (or the less cryptic “LeftTube”) is still used to describe a loose network of YouTube channels that viewers perceive as sharing leftist political views alongside a common aesthetic and rhetorical style. The term has to some extent fallen out of style—many of the creators commonly cited as “BreadTube” have disavowed the label, describing it as a “clique” and a “fake group with arbitrary, membership.” Despite it being fairly awkward in practice, I find “BreadTube” useful as shorthand for referring to this loose genre of video, so I will be using it throughout this essay, still taking into account the reality that most “BreadTubers” do not think of themselves as such.
In the early 2010s, political commentary on YouTube was dominated by the right, who criticized (or, to put it less charitably, bullied) “SJWs” (“social justice warriors”), believing them to be hysterical ideologues with laughable political commitments. Anti-feminist content was particularly prevalent, reaching its apotheosis in 2014-2015 with “Gamergate,” a hate movement targeting women working in the video game industry. Around the midpoint of the decade, the seeds for a dramatic shift in YouTube culture were planted when a growing number of content creators began directly targeting conservatism on the platform. Natalie Wynn, still one of the most popular BreadTubers today, began posting videos to her “ContraPoints” channel in 2016. The channel name was an explicit reference to her intention to provide “contra” arguments to popular right-wing talking points. Harry Brewis, another key figure, first posted to his “hbomberguy” channel in 2014 with a video making fun of right-wing commentator Davis Aurini and his crowdfunding campaign for an anti-feminist documentary. YouTube was not devoid of left-wing content before these creators, but it was marginal; channels like ContraPoints and hbomberguy represented a sea change in the culture. Anti-social justice content gradually faded in prominence, replaced in part by a legion of left-leaning video essayists riding the wave of popularity earlier channels helped create for the genre. Five years after the creation of the subreddit, there is still a thriving scene for this content.
I want to lay my cards on the table from the outset. I watch a lot of YouTube videos in my free time, and much of what I watch would be considered BreadTube. With a few exceptions, I have been a fan of all the most prominent BreadTubers for several years now. Spending as much time as I have following these creators has had a significant impact on my politics, which is part of the reason I would like to examine the BreadTube phenomenon now. It seems to me that the genre is a valuable tool for distributing timely, sophisticated leftist critique to a wide audience. There are few other places one can find such a potent combination of widespread popularity and genuinely complex and controversial political ideas. I want to examine to what extent my sense of BreadTube’s importance is accurate: to what extent can video essays be an effective form of leftist critique? There are many reasons to praise BreadTube—it is a space with very few gatekeepers, and it is a popular format with an engaged audience, unlike, say, much of academia. I want to investigate its unique power in addition to its limitations.
The Democratization of Critique
One of the primary appeals of YouTube as a space for critique is, as I noted, its apparent lack of gatekeepers. In this section, I would like to examine this claim more closely: to what extent does a platform like YouTube democratize critique?
The first limitation is simply the difficulty involved in making a video essay. The leftist channel BadEmpanada uploaded a video titled “BreadTube Getting Started Guide [LEFTISTS ONLY]” in 2019, guiding viewers through some of the basic steps he had taken in starting his channel. “This is a lot harder than it looks,” he warns viewers, saying that for him, “each video takes at least 50 hours of work between all the different phases of the process.” He notes initial equipment costs —microphones can be relatively inexpensive, but even entry-level cameras cost at least hundreds of dollars. [BadEmpanada, “BreadTube Getting Started Guide,” timestamp 0:34 and 3:05.] Video editing software can also be prohibitively expensive; there are free options, but they are often clunky and time-consuming.
Already we have significant barriers to entry. An aspiring video essayist must have free time and disposable income, immediately disqualifying most minimum-wage workers and others living in poverty—the waiter working double shifts to make that month’s rent simply does not have the time, energy, or money required to even semi-regularly produce video essays. Potential BreadTubers must also be comfortable appearing on camera (or at least recording their voice as narration). This may seem like a trivial observation, but I bring it up because there are many demographics who may, for good reason, feel more reluctance toward putting themselves online: namely, women, queer people (especially trans or non-binary people with gender nonconforming appearances), and racial minorities, all of whom are often subjected to harassment on a level incomparable to harassment directed toward straight, white men. To the extent that YouTube democratizes critique, it only does so in a way that privileges those already in power. This is clearly a problem for leftist critique on the platform.
The BreadTube genre also poses some more specific limitations. The format is most often characterized by complex argumentation with reference to political theory, media theory, and philosophy most individuals are only exposed to in college. This is not a style all people can use, nor is it the only form I can imagine leftist critique taking. For example, I can imagine a more casual vlog format in which a minimum-wage worker talks into the camera about the hardships of the exploitative labor they are subjected to, commiserating with viewers in similar situations and demonstrating to those in more privileged economic positions the reality of working-class life. Such a format may even already exist—I did a cursory search for “working class vlogs” and did not find anything along the lines of what I’m conceptualizing, but perhaps there is someone making videos like this, and they simply have not seen any success on the platform yet.
Many BreadTubers themselves are former academics. Wynn began making videos soon after quitting pursuing a PhD in philosophy and describes herself as an “ex-philosopher” on the ContraPoints channel description. Abigail Thorn, another prominent BreadTuber, has an MA in Philosophy and describes her YouTube channel “Philosophy Tube” as “giving away a philosophy degree for free.” To a certain extent, the customs of academia (i.e. complex analysis, citation of authorities) inform and help legitimate the rhetoric of BreadTubers. I can personally attest to citing videos by BreadTubers in my own limited experience writing as an undergraduate—I feel comfortable doing so because I do not see a wide distinction between their work and the work of more traditional scholars. This is significant because it means that the same institutions that have functioned as gatekeepers in the past—namely, colleges and universities—have not been disrupted as much as one might assume. Certainly, YouTube has allowed far more access into this space, both for creators and viewers, but BreadTube is largely a collaborator with academia, rather than a competitor. I do not necessarily see this as a negative.
Autonomy from the Market
The elephant in the room is YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. It is largely responsible for the invention of BreadTube and its popularization. To see why this is the case, it will be useful to examine in more detail why most of the so-called “BreadTubers” dislike the term so much.
In “I’m Kinda Over This Whole ‘LeftTube’ Thing,” the creator T1J talks about some of the reasons he is uncomfortable being included under the label. He observes that the channels commonly labeled as BreadTube do not, in reality, share much in common. For example, Dan Olson’s channel “Folding Ideas” and Lindsay Ellis are both commonly thought of as BreadTube, in spite of the fact that neither typically make videos about leftism or even about politics in general, instead focusing on media and pop culture analysis. He brings up a number of criteria viewers seem to have invented semi-arbitrarily—for example, that a channel needs to be left-wing “enough” to be considered BreadTube, which he correctly dismisses as useless gatekeeping. [T1J, “I’m Kinda Over This Whole ‘LeftTube’ Thing,” timestamp 5:03, 5:56. 12:47]
An especially glaring problem is the relative lack of Black creators considered to be BreadTube. T1J notes that many people of color with videos “very similar to other LeftTube stuff but with a specific focus on racial and cultural videos” are almost never included under the label. “The difference really,” he says, “is those videos made by people of color aren’t really made for white people.” T1J is not the first to point this out—many Black creators have made similar videos, and T1J specifically cites Kat Blaque’s “Why Is LeftTube So White?” as one of the first to criticize this aspect of BreadTube.
The tension here comes from the reality that BreadTube is less a description of a specific type of video or channel, and much more a description of what a particular audience wants to see in a video. The commonalities are not in the contents of the videos themselves, but in the viewership. [T1J, “I’m Kinda Over This Whole ‘LeftTube’ Thing,” timestamp 13:14.] YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is the primary agent responsible for drawing out these commonalities. It discovered that users who click on and watch videos by, say, ContraPoints, will likely also click on and watch videos by T1J, hbomberguy, Philosophy Tube, etc., despite none of these creators having any consciously shared ideology or style. This audience, as it happens, is primarily white. T1J is a Black creator, but as he uncomfortably shares in the video, “my audience is nevertheless overwhelmingly white, and I know this because I survey my audience every year.” A bar graph appears on-screen, showing his audience to be almost 80% white, Black viewers only making up around 6% of the remaining viewership. While I do not have rigorous data to back this up, I speculate that the viewership shares more in common than race. I would describe the demographic as: young (high school to 35, let’s say), white, educated, a little (or very) lonely, perpetually online, and still in the process of forming their identities and politics, which are inextricably linked to each other. BreadTube is less a genre than it is a taste or sensibility this demographic shares: a taste for a particular kind of video.
This spells a serious problem for the notion of leftist critique on YouTube—if BreadTube is defined by this nebulous viewership, which was ultimately created through the mechanism of a capricious social media algorithm controlled by one of the most powerful corporations in the world, how can video essays be autonomous enough to serve as critique? The capitalist market, however indirectly, is what is responsible for BreadTube—YouTube profits from its users spending more time on the platform, so it is all too happy to supply a stream of leftist content if it means someone will spend hours watching videos that day. If BreadTubers are merely supplying a product to consumers, is legitimate critique possible?
My tentative answer is that BreadTube critique can still be effective, but it must be understood as inherently limited in this sense. YouTube is indeed the primary beneficiary in the short-term, but in helping form this loose genre of leftist video essay, there is also the creation of a genuine political consciousness. BreadTube unites like-minded viewers—the existence of BreadTube proves there is a substantial contingent of the population who shares leftist sentiment. On the BreadTube subreddit and elsewhere, these like-minded viewers are better able to find each other and form coalitions. Dmitry Kuznetsov and Milan Ismangil make a similar argument in “YouTube as Praxis? On BreadTube and the Digital Propagation of Socialist Thought,” writing that BreadTube helps subvert “the normalcy of our capitalist world order,” laying the necessary ideological foundation for a socialist revolution by bringing critique of ideology into mainstream discourse. [Dmitry Kuznetsov and Milan Ismangil, “YouTube as Praxis? On BreadTube and the Digital Propagation of Socialist Thought,” TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique, Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 18 no. 1, 2020, p. 206.]
I would advocate not for the abandonment of the YouTube video essay as hopelessly entangled with the consumerist market, but instead for the recognition of BreadTube as a powerful tool for “consciously building up a foundation of socialism inside of capitalism,” as Kuznetsov and Ismangil put it (206). My fear is that this may simply lead to a concentration of YouTube’s power, the BreadTube audience never feeling motivated enough to advocate for change offline, instead consoling themselves with a stream of impotent leftist voices. However, I believe such a pessimistic outlook is not ultimately useful—we need to use whatever tools we have at hand while recognizing how they may play into the enemy’s hands, always ready to change strategy when the situation calls for it.
Parasocial Relationships and Political Persuasion
In this section, I would like to examine what gives the BreadTube style its unique strength in political persuasion: its ability to cultivate “parasocial relationships.”
The term “parasocial relationship” was first coined in an extraordinarily prescient 1956 journal article by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl: “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance.” [Psychiatry 19.3, Aug. 1, 1956, p. 215-229.] Shannon Strucci of “StrucciMovies” is largely responsible for the term’s contemporary popularization, applying it to the relationship between viewers of YouTube videos and the creators of those videos in her two-part series “FAKE FRIENDS.” A “parasocial relationship” is the one-sided relationship a spectator has with a performer in a mass media context; Horton and Wohl examine the relationships spectators in the 1950s felt they had with the performers they knew from television or radio, but their observations apply equally as well to the relationship a typical YouTube viewer has with their favorite creators.
The role of the spectator, they argue, is not merely one of passive consumption, but of active imaginative involvement in the program being presented—they see what is happening on-screen and take it at face value, believing on some subconscious level that the performers are interacting with them personally. Mike Rugnetta puts it succinctly in a video essay on the “suspension of judgment” apparently required for involvement in a fictional narrative:
I’m not saying that you think Iron Man or Thanos actually, physically exist, and that one of them could just snap a finger and poof, there goes your favorite barista (or, if you’re lucky, your landlord). It’s more like, while watching a story about Thanos, you conceive of him as a type of real. He’s in there, in a world on the other side of the screen… You’re not thinking: “this isn’t real, but that’s okay.” You’re thinking: “There’s Thanos!”
The same holds equally well for the “non-fictional” personae of BreadTubers. Watching the videos, viewers feel, on some level, the sense of the commentator being “there” in a powerfully intimate sense. I can speak to the power of this phenomenon from experience. Horton and Wohl describe how viewers come to “‘know’ such a persona in somewhat the same way they know their chosen friends: through direct observation and interpretation of his appearance, his gestures and voice, his conversation and conduct in a variety of situations (216),” and I admit, with some hesitation, that this is precisely why I am so drawn to “BreadTube.” This is why I made the claim earlier that the demographic for these videos is “a little (or very) lonely;” the primary appeal is the illusion of friendship and intimacy.
BreadTube actively cultivates these relationships as a political strategy. This marked a clear break from the left-wing content on the platform during the anti-social justice era, especially what Wynn describes in one of her videos as “a network of besieged feminist vloggers.” These feminists did not directly engage viewers; I might describe their rhetoric in general as moralistic, frequently oversimplified, gratingly cutesy, and largely humorless. This might be an unfair characterization, and I recognize how it aligns with stereotypes of the “angry feminist,” but I believe this is why feminists’ attempts at online political persuasion were mostly unsuccessful in the early 2010s, and why they were such easy targets for conservative commentators.
In a video on “The Death of YouTube Skepticism” (referring to the New Atheist “skeptic” community popular in the early 2010s), creator “Big Joel” analyzes the shift from anti-religious to anti-social justice commentary many New Atheist channels made during the early right-wing era of YouTube. He argues that the explanation lies in how religious zealots and feminists both failed to communicate effectively to online audiences. Evangelical Christians are not known for their internet savvy, so when they would attempt to make an argument online, it would often come across as fumbling and awkward. Watching their videos, it “feels like they’re talking to no one, like their videos are not meant to be engaged with,” unlike those by the “Amazing Atheist,” wherein he “looks at his audience, makes jokes and seems at ease on the platform.”[“The Death of YouTube Skepticism,” timestamp 6:14]. In other words, the Amazing Atheist could cultivate a genuine sense of intimacy with his audience, seeing him as a trusted voice and perhaps even as a “friend,” as opposed to the comparatively alien fundamentalists.
Feminist videos during this era felt similarly alien to the Amazing Atheist’s largely male audience, so the transition was only natural. For example, Anita Sarkeesian, one of the primary targets of the Gamergate hate campaign, was known for her video essay series on sexist tropes in video games, “Women vs Tropes in Video Games.” Her tone in these videos, Big Joel notes, is “far more similar to a college lecture than it ever was to bonafide YouTube content,” and she disabled the comment section, further distancing the viewership [timestamp 13:01]. She did not appear as a “friend” to the audience—in fact, she often appeared as the enemy to the ever-growing contingent of men radicalized by more personable right-wing commentators.
Early BreadTubers recognized the ground being ceded to the right with the lack of content specifically directed to conservative or centrist viewers. ContraPoints, I believe, should largely be credited with this shift. Her early videos intentionally appropriated right-wing vocabulary, as in “How I Became a Feminist SJW,” posted in 2016. The title alone marks a shift from typical feminist content on the platform in that it uses the derogatory term “SJW” (“social justice warrior”); this is a key move because it signals to conservative or conservative-leaning viewers that she’s savvy to their slang. It also serves as a form of “algorithm hijacking,” as Kevin Roose describes it in a 2019 New York Times article on BreadTube. Conservatives are much more likely to search the term “SJW” than they are to search the term “feminist,” so ContraPoints’ video would be more likely to appear alongside conservative videos in searches and recommendations. In the video, she jokes about how she used to see “SJWs” as “the kind of person who writes angry Facebook posts because a white guy at a university two thousand miles away has a culturally appropriative hairstyle” and about how the critical theory she read in college “looked like a bunch of namby-pamby leftist gibberish” to her initially. She also relates an early experience being called out for ogling a woman’s legs on the street (this is prior to her gender transition, so she was still presenting as a man). This is all clearly designed to appeal to right-leaning viewers. Viewers are more likely to trust her because they can relate to her, seeing her as a “friend” in the same way as their favorite right-wing commentators. This is a Trojan Horse strategy—get people in the door by cultivating a parasocial relationship (with i.e. vulgar humor and personal stories) and sneak some social justice on the side.
Parasocial relationships are particularly important as political persuasion in that they accustom viewers to identities they might not normally be exposed to in their daily social life. Horton and Wohl observe that in parasocial interaction, “the spectator is instructed variously in the behaviors of the opposite sex, of people of higher and lower status, of people in particular professions.” In identifying those on-screen as “friends” (222) whom the viewer can relate to, they are trained in how to interact in a more diverse social sphere.
This may be the most important aspect of the para-social experience, if only because each person’s roles are relatively few, while those of the others in his social worlds are very numerous. In this culture, it is evident that to be prepared to meet all the exigencies of a changing social situation, no matter how limited it may be, could—and often does—require a great stream of plays and stories, advice columns and social how-to-do-it books.
Watching a ContraPoints video, viewers who do not personally know any trans people can understand (on an admittedly superficial level) what it would feel like to be friends with a trans person, and in this parasocial interaction, they realize that trans people are not an “other,” an enemy to be feared, but instead just people with many of the same foibles as themselves. Wynn opens one of her more recent videos: “Hello again, the gays! Straight people, you’re of course welcome too, provided you’re emotionally damaged!” Who isn’t emotionally damaged? In this we see a genuine expansion of community feelings across divisions in identity.
A Final Exemplar
I would like to conclude with an exemplar of leftist critique on the platform: Dan Olson’s “Line Goes Up: The Problem with NFTs.” Olson takes the viewer through a wide-ranging, insightful narrative connecting the 2008 financial crisis to the rise of anarcho-capitalist movements pushing for the widespread adoption of cryptocurrency and finally to the rise of the “non-fungible token,” a tool Olson aptly describes as one intended to “financialize everything.” The video is a white-hot attack on the grifters pushing NFTs and on capitalism in general. Incredibly, for an over two-hour-long video entirely consisting of Olson’s no-nonsense, complex analysis, “Line Goes Up” has received over 10 million views as of writing. The video came during their peak of relevancy and is now often credited with helping to burst the NFT bubble. This video demonstrates that leftist critique on YouTube, especially in the hands of a writer as powerful as Olson, is urgent and necessary.