That Time I Got In Trouble With The Government

That Time I Got In Trouble With The Government


I got an email a couple of weeks ago, asking: how do you get started making stuff online? If you’re starting from scratch, if you have zero followers, zero subscribers, zero anything, how do you get an audience? How do you get popular on the internet? The first time I tried to answer that question, it was more than ten years ago. YouTube didn’t even exist back then, and I thought I knew it all. I didn’t, and I probably still don’t. But with another decade and a million subscribers
under my belt since then, I can at least tell you the rules that
I’ve worked by for the last 15 years or so, not just for YouTube, but for anywhere online. The short answer is: you just make stuff. The long answer… well, the best way to tell that does not start
on an incredibly rainy Scottish island. It starts down in London. Right. I’ve been making stuff for the internet
pretty much all my adult life. I had a few decent hits when I was younger, viral web pages and games and short videos that were forwarded on through email in the
days before social media. But those were one-off bolts from the blue, they were nothing you could base
any sort of career on. When I was 19, the British government mailed
a leaflet out to every home in the country. It was called Preparing for Emergencies, and it gave some pretty obvious advice on
what to do in the event of a disaster. There was a lot of cynicism about that leaflet, and while the intentions were good, it was mostly seen as a waste
of the taxpayers’ money. The government also put up preparingforemergencies.gov.uk. They forgot to register preparingforemergencies.co.uk, so I bought the domain, copied their web site, changed all the text to be really sarcastic, sent it off to a few friends,
and went to bed. That sort of joke was still
new and exciting in 2004. I’ll be honest,
it hasn’t aged well since then. This was before social media,
way before smartphones. Facebook had only just got its first round
of investment, and it was only open to a few US colleges. That joke was being forwarded by email from
person to person to person, because that’s how it worked back then. And the feedback that I was getting
was by email. Anyway, when I woke up the morning after, okay, I was a student, so it was
probably the afternoon after, but, I had some emails from friends saying
‘that’s quite funny’. And so I had some messages from people
I didn’t know saying ‘that’s quite funny’. And then there were some messages from
people whose email addresses ended in .gov.uk, saying, ‘that’s quite funny,
it’s doing the rounds of the civil servants’. And then there was a message from someone in the government department responsible
for the original leaflet, saying ‘take it down’. And I said no. And it turns out that while mocking
the government is a reasonably good gag, mocking the government and then
having the government not find it funny, that is a really good gag. At least in countries where
you can get away with it. That takedown request meant that
the news got interested, and this went all over the country, as in, national newspapers and local television coverage. And it was just a quick joke that I’d put
together in an hour or so because… well, because the alternative was not doing it. Preparing for Emergencies was the first
demonstration I had of a principle I now know and
have worked with for years: that the chances of a project succeeding
aren’t really coupled to how much time, effort and money
you’ve spent on it. And it can often seem like the opposite
is true. You’ll see people complain that the thing they’ve poured all their
heart and soul and effort and time into, that thing sank, but something quick and dirty that they
slapped together has become popular. And maybe that’s true,
maybe that is how it works sometimes. But I would bet that, like me,
anyone with that complaint has made loads and loads of
quick and dirty things. And most of those will have failed. It’s just that they didn’t care as much
about those quick and dirty things, they just don’t remember them as much, compared to that One Big Project. If you spent ten dollars and one hour
on an idea, it is likely to fail. But if you spend a million dollars and a year
on an idea, it is still likely to fail. There’s an old adage called Sturgeon’s Law:
“90% of everything is crap”. I realise that isn’t what Theodore Sturgeon
actually said, it’s been cut down a bit over the years,
but the idea holds. Sturgeon was a science fiction author, and his reply to the idea that “90% of science
fiction is crap”, was yes, it is, but only because
90% of everything is crap. Most things fail. And sure, something that’s spent
months being polished might have a slightly better
chance of survival: but the odds are still against you.
Instead of polishing, you could spend those months shoving out ten
or twenty or a hundred ideas, and each one of those projects is
a new roll of the dice. And each one of those projects is
something you learn from, something that helps make the next roll of
the dice just a little more likely to succeed. Of course, this is all assuming that your
definition of success involves being popular or getting paid for it. These days, I know that I could
probably make a lot more money and save a lot of effort if I just
stood in front of a green screen and monologued about “Incredible Facts
About Cartoon Series You Won’t Believe” or “Ancient Mysteries
‘They’ Don’t Want You To Know About”. But then, I wouldn’t be travelling so much, I wouldn’t be having so much fun and maybe I wouldn’t have kept going through
rough times. There are other definitions of success that
aren’t just about the numbers. More than a decade ago,
I came up with this graph. Across the bottom is effort,
and across the side is awesome. This is still the guiding principle
that I use to determine whether I’m going to do a project or not. And sure,what I consider ‘effort’ and
‘awesome’ have changed over the years, both in definition and in scale. Awesome doesn’t have to mean money,
or viewcount, it can mean getting to do something really cool
or working with someone you admire. You define your own success. Anyway. Naive me, at 19, thought
there was a chance of going right from Preparing for Emergencies
to a full-time job making weird stuff for a living. There wasn’t any chance of that. Obviously, in hindsight. Because the people looking at the site weren’t
going “oh, he’s good”, they were going “oh, that’s good”. There was no reason to stick around, no reason to do the 2004 equivalent to clicking
the subscribe button, which was clicking a subscribe button,
it just added an RSS feed to your reader. I miss RSS. Anyway, I got lots of lovely emails about
Preparing for Emergencies, I made a couple of contacts from it,
but that was all. I’d taken only the first step up the ladder, and I had no idea how long
that ladder would be. So I kept making stuff. But back then, I was missing a piece of the puzzle, and it’s a really important piece. But to explain that,
I need to start heading north.

Comments

  1. Post
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    Tom Scott

    This is the first of a trilogy! Part two is out on Wednesday, and part three on Friday. They're three different stories, with three different messages, in three different locations, but with one overarching story. Hopefully it's worth the effort!

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    depressed soul

    Sorry Tom, I am not interested in being famous on internet or anything, I only watch your videos because of your accent 😂😂

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    ShellShock794

    The best part of this video is that you refused to take the website down. The vast majority of people cave instantly when confronted and it drives me insane

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    David Krantz

    I also miss RSS, although RSS still exists and works although mostly superseded by Atom which serves the same purpose. Youtube supports RSS and as the subscription handling sucks nowadays I have resorted to using RSS for the channels I really want to follow. There are lots of RSS readers, Feedly is always one alternative.

    That said, RSS is not used as much as it merits. But then the Internet is being substituted by walled gardens like Facebook, Youtube et al. that are built mostly on internet technology but still proprietary and far from the free and optimistic Internet I worked with as a student.

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    Kenneth James

    The UK government didn't like being mocked back in '04? I'd of told em to sod off! The Canadian government is the same…but know when to heel…idiots on Ottawa sometimes I tell ya.

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    mikeportjogger1

    Interesting that after a year, about half your subscribers haven't actually watched this video. I'm not a subscriber but have, and give it a thumbs-up.

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    Needle Factory

    This is surprisingly good. I was expecting a long monologue about video editing or improving Twitter reach. Refreshingly humble.
    Thanks.

  38. Post
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    The Very Ground

    I'd hate to be popular. What the hell do ya wanna be popular for. One of the best things about my music is that it isn't popular at all. It's brilliant!

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    Howard SIX

    Modern day Spine Milligna.(read his book for explanation)
    Why is abbreviation such a long word.?
    Well done Tom, as always……………..Kudos m8.

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    REDxStep

    So from this video we learned, that quantity is always over quality, just because quality still has a chance of failing.

    Alright, alright, I get it that it's for people who are intentionally trying to get popular, I just find this statement funny in some way.

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    Tom Millard

    Should you really be looking at how to be popular on the internet just to fit in or should you say the truth wether it's popular or not ? 🤔

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    Fred Seeking Bible Truth

    Your popularity may have something to do with your voice. It sounds professional and new casters or documentary style. That is a compliment by the way. I have 2 youtube channels that I am trying to get off the ground. So this could help me, thank you.

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    The Guds Production

    Hi Tom, I'm your new subscriber from Indonesia. I enjoy watching your videos, you explain everything thing clearly and honestly.

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    Krzyzstof Polecat

    I remembered that leaflet vividly when it popped up, that was 15 years ago? Seems like it was about 5 years ago :/

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    Frazer Guest

    I enjoy your ‘shorts’ Each one about a different subject, almost always about something I didn’t know anything about.

    Your enthusiasm is infectious and inspires me to go off and learn more about the subjects of your videos.

    Many thanks.

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    admthrawnuru

    You should take that website down. A group I was in thought it was the real one and thus followed your advise to run during a T-Rex attack. Since their eyesight is based on movement, I was gmt only survivor.

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    Bourdeaux Photo

    YouTube’s been around more than 10 years. I remember it before it was bought by google and it’s gone downhill ever since. Also, social media was around way before Facebook. Xanga, Bebo, MySpace, etc.

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    Tolerated Code

    what do you mean youtube didnt exist 10 years ago?
    this video was uploded in 2018
    10 years before that is 2008
    youtube was greated in 2005

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    Connor & Crash

    I think what you said about each failure being something to learn from is hugely important, even aside from the context of improving your odds of success.
    I've started putting more time and effort into my projects not because I think I'll suddenly become successful, but because if I learn something new (or quite often multiple new things) with every project, then even if I never become successful, I'll still have gained valuable skills, and that is it's own kind of success.

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    Chris

    Things to remember
    If you are involved in any emergency it is important to:

    Run like hell, particularly if you caused the emergency.

    Trample all others in your desperate attempt to escape.

    Loot on the way out.

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    Hybrid

    YouTube was around 10 years ago. This video was uploaded a year ago from this video so 11 years for me but for you on this video 10 years would be 2008

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    gringochucha

    Black Sabbath's best known song? Paranoid — put together in about 20 minutes. And it's the same with tons of classic songs…

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