Kevin Sun

My first video

I once made a video about a card trick, and here's a post reflecting on my experience.

August 21, 2021

I recently posted my first YouTube video: it's my favorite mathematical card trick. I often fantasize about running an educational YouTube channel, especially since in recent years, I've enjoyed my experience as a teaching assistant and instructor in discrete math and algorithms.

But I've never felt that posting on YouTube was worth the cost, until I stumbled upon "The Summer of Math Exposition" contest, hosted by Grant Sanderson and James Schloss. Anyone can submit a math-related explanation, and the winners get featured in one of Grant's videos. (He has over 3.8 million subscribers.) In his video about the contest, Grant says the following:

I think there's a lot of people out there who would be really good at doing this... and who might even be thinking about doing it... but you just never really got around to it... My hope is that by dangling the tiniest carrot that I can provide — just mentioning good work when it exists — that maybe that gets a couple more people over this hump, who might otherwise not have made something, and then actually make it.

When I heard this, I thought, "That sounds like me!" So I created my video for this contest.

His video already has 26K likes and 500K views, so I understand that my probability of winning is very low. But in terms of his goal of getting people "over this hump," I'd say he succeeded with me, and I feel good about myself too. Because of this contest, there's now a video of mine that's freely available online, I think it teaches something interesting, and I've had the experience itself of making this video.

The most surprising challenge I had was simply reading aloud. After making the slides and writing the script, I thought I was basically done, because all I had to do was record myself reading the script. Since PowerPoint records audio on a per-slide basis, I usually had to read for less than 1 minute straight. This was much more difficult than I had anticipated. In a prerecorded presentation, even a slight slip or hesitation is often jarring enough to justify a retake. On top of that, while reading aloud, I'd catch written typos or make edits to the script, which further slowed down the process. Finally, as we all know, listening to your own voice is a fairly unpleasant experience.

I'm somewhat tempted to spend a more time on a thumbnail and title, but I'm not sure where to begin. Clickbait certainly works, and if I truly feel like people gain utility from my video, then in some sense, I'm morally obligated to please the YouTube algorithm gods. But it also feels kind of icky. I suspect this ickiness is common among new folks like me. Getting more views is the clearest way of defining success, so am I basically saying that I don't want to succeed? Well that sounds weird and self-sabotaging. I'm still not sure how to reconcile this.

Deep down, I probably think that my video isn't even worth promoting, because the production quality isn't stellar. (Poor me.) But there are tons of channels that have really evolved over the years. Here are a few examples, all featuring the letter M.

Of course, a big reason the newer videos are better is simply because of better equipment. But even beyond that, I think there are obvious improvements, and I imagine that over the years, they improved their process of creating videos too. This is quite inspiring.

But even if we ignore the video quality, I think there's a bigger issue that I'll face if I decide to post more videos. As I mentioned, I've enjoyed my experience teaching in a college classroom, and I thought this would translate naturally to making videos. I'm not implying that I can make a living off YouTube, but at the very least, posting videos might scratch an itch that my eventual career might not scratch. However, I realized that my favorite part of teaching is the casual relationship I have with my students. For the most part, they're required to learn from me (for their degree), and I recognize this, so I strive to be somewhat entertaining. But making a video feels more like giving a talk, which audience members attend voluntarily, so I don't need to entertain them. In fact, when I'm trying to learn something, I often don't appreciate jokes or tangents made by the speaker. My gut feeling, which I hope is incorrect, is that the average viewer of my YouTube video feels similarly. So how do I make an educational video, in which I also try to make things fun? This, like the clickbait stuff, is also something I have to reconcile.

Finally, there's the whole mess of YouTube analytics. I was vaguely aware of the kind of things I'd see, since I already use Google Analytics for this website. But YouTube analytics seem to be more detailed (and thus, creepy, but in an enticing way). The main one that sticks out is the average view duration: the "estimated average minutes watched per view." My video is about 16 minutes long, and currently, the average view duration is less than 2 minutes. Maybe that's a little bit disheartening, but I surf through videos all the time, so I don't think this should be surprising.

Anyway, will I make more videos? I don't know. But even if I don't, this was a good learning experience. Thanks for reading to the end. (I have no way of telling.)