YouTube’s algorithm is designed to keep your eyeballs glued to video after video (after video, after video…). The dangers of this rabbit hole are well-documented. However, for every ideological radicalization enabled by YouTube, I like to think there’s at least one innocent, newfound pop culture obsession discovered at 3 a.m. via the greatest medium of our time: the Video Essay.
The genre of YouTube video essays is more interesting than it sounds. Sure, any piece of video content that advances a central thesis could be considered a “video essay.” But there are key components of video essays that elevate the genre into so much more than simply a YouTube version of a written article. Over the past few years, the term “YouTube video essay” has grown to evoke connotations of niche fascination and discovery. For creators, the field is highly competitive with strong personalities trying to get eyes on extremely in-depth analysis of a wide range of topics. The “niche” factor is especially important here. Ultimately, the hallmark of a good video essay is its ability to captivate you into watching hours of content about a subject matter you would have never expected to care about in the first place. Scary? Maybe. Fun? Definitely.
Whether you’re skeptical about the power of video essays, or you’re an existing fan looking for your next niche obsession, I’ve rounded up some of my personal favorite YouTube video essays for you to lean in and watch. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, and it largely reflects what the algorithm thinks (knows) I personally want to watch.
Other factors that influenced my selection process: The video essays needed to have a strong, surprising thesis—something other than a creator saying “this thing good” or “this thing bad.” These videos also stood out to me due to their sheer amount of thorough, hard-hitting evidence, as well as the dedication on the behalf of the YouTubers who chose to share with us hours upon hours of research into these topics.
And yes, I have watched all the hours of content featured here. I’m a professional.