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Internet sensation Hank Green aims to decrease ‘worldsuck’ one nerd at a time
“Success” is a word that fits on entrepreneur Hank Green as neatly as his black-rimmed glasses and the wide-eyed, gawky grin he beams around the world every week via YouTube.
From his Internet platform, he has launched a fusillade of imaginative and popular multimedia ventures. They crackle with his ideas on the environment, technology, space exploration, sexual health, philanthropy, how to cure headaches at 3-D movies, and songs about Harry Potter. To broadcast his omnivorous fascinationism, he stands before cameras and rants, sings, dances, lectures, and pontificates. This work has earned millions of dollars, and many millions of fans.
Yet, at one thing, he is starting to fail: staying anonymous in his adopted hometown.
“I do worry about getting more popular inside of Missoula,” says Green, “because I function as a normal human here.”
Though Green, thirty-four, shies away from speaking to large crowds and keeps a humble home in the Lower Rattlesnake, reverential things happen when he steps out in Missoula. A stranger pays his restaurant bill. A teen takes his ticket at a water park and gushes about his new songs. A young lady at the public library shows him her tattoo of something he said.
“He’s just Hank to us—our goofy, creative, smart friend,” says journalist Courtney Lowery Cowgill, who has known Green for almost a decade. “But he’s a total celebrity to everyone else.”
Green’s efforts to steer away from the fame that comes with prodigious Internet exposure are a deviation from his usual relationship with fate. Both his appearance in Missoula and his achievements stemmed from him simply having gone where life led him and, once there, having followed his curiosity and sense of wonder.
“I’m the kind of person who takes the world as it presents itself,” Green says. “I could do the thing I do from anywhere, but I like it here.”
He was born in Alabama, the second of two sons to Mike and Sydney Green. While still a newborn, his family moved to Orlando, Fla., when his father took a job as Florida state director for The Nature Conservancy. Raised in close proximity to Disney World, manatees, and NASA, Green drifted apart from his older brother, John Green, who went away to boarding school.
“After grade school, I was pretty much an only child,” Green says.
In lieu of brotherly bonding, Green filled his teenage years with science books and a newfound love—performing. He took to dancing in public in front of his high school’s marching band.
“I became that nerd who dances to the marching band and everyone is like, ‘What a nerd,’ but at the same time, ‘At least he’s got the guts to do it,’” Green says. “I’m terrified of performing, but addicted to the adrenaline of that fear.”
He studied biochemistry at college in Florida in the early 2000s and afterward settled into a job at an Orlando lab that made a fungicide to keep mold off of oranges. The notion that he might offer the world more than fuzz-free fruit had just come to him when his girlfriend of several years announced that she was accepted into graduate school at the University of Montana.
“I came out to Missoula,” he says, “basically because it was just a thing to do.”
Moving from the Epcot-style artifice of Orlando to a Montana town where wild trout rivers merge beneath pine-covered mountains sent Green’s sense of astonishment into hyperdrive.
“I remember the first winter just being amazed. I’d go down to Rattlesnake Creek and be like, ‘There’s ice!’ and ‘Snowflakes are actually shaped like snowflakes—they’re actually a thing,’” he says.
“The world is amazing and marvelous.”
But he found Missoula’s job market less than superlative, as well as its glut of overeducated candidates for seemingly every job at any lab. So he enrolled in an environmental studies master’s degree program at UM.
There, two key things happened. First, in 2006, he took a class from a journalism professor named Jonathan Weber called “How to Start a Magazine.”[Green calls this class “my ticket to jobiness.”] Weber, who helped found a now-defunct online newspaper in Missoula called New West, told his students to choose a subject about which they felt passionate. Keen on science and the environment, Green started a blog called EcoGeek.
“The great irony of the situation is his venture was ultimately more successful than my own,” Weber says from San Francisco, where he now edits an online journal of technology called The Information. “But I’m really happy for him that he found that kind of success. What he’s pulled off—a combination of self-depreciating nerd sensibility combined with his other talents—hit a sweet spot in the Internet zeitgeist.”
Second, Green reconnected with his brother. Starting when he was an undergrad in Florida, he began to have long chats with John over the Internet via instant messenger. In 2007, Green went in on an idea of John’s to make their talks public by posting themselves regularly on YouTube, speaking as though facing each other but actually performing in front of a camera.
“Our relationship has always been, ‘I’m trying to make you laugh, and I’m trying to seem cool to you,’” Hank Green says. “EcoGeek was doing well, so I didn’t have to worry about having a job. We didn’t think about money—there was a thought that maybe it would help John sell books. Looking back, that was the best possible strategy.”
They called themselves the “VlogBrothers,” a nickname based on the new thing they were making, a video blog. They coined their own catchphrase [Don’t forget to be awesome!], made up a cross-armed salute, and set a goal: to decrease humanity’s share of general woe, something they call “worldsuck.”
“It’s a difficult thing to quantify,” Green explains, “but if you look at the data, worldsuck is decreasing pretty dramatically. This decade has had fewer deaths per person than any decade ever so far in recorded human history.”
This enterprising optimism—couched in giddy tirades sprinkled with silly humor—earned the Greens scores of fans, most of them in their teens and twenties. This young army took the name “Nerdfighters.” Today, Nerdfighters have viewed videos made by the Greens more than 700 million times. They also made an immediate best-seller of the 2012 novel, released this year as a feature film, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.
In addition, the brothers began to host a new educational series on YouTube called CrashCourse, and they started a conference for online videographers called VidCon. Also, they used their platforms to tout a philanthropic organization they founded called “The Foundation to Decrease Worldsuck.” It reportedly so far raised more than $1.5 million for charity.
“In late 2007, I calculated that people had watched our videos for the amount of time it takes the average human to live their entire life. I feel a little bit of guilt there, like, if you’re going to be using up somebody’s entire lifetime, you should be doing something useful with it,” Green says.
“That was early on. We’ve killed, like, seventy-five people now.”
Branching away from his brother, Hank started a music label, in part to release songs he wrote about Harry Potter. He named it DFTBA Records [an acronym for their catchphrase]. It made millions. He then began a trio of new series on YouTube: one where he hosts science videos, another where an expert answers questions about healthy sexuality, and a third that is based on the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice. He even opened an online store for an invention—glasses that turn 3-D movies into 2-D movies. He first made them for someone who suffered headaches at 3-D movies—his wife, Katherine—the girl he followed to Missoula.
“I didn’t know what direction Hank would go, and I certainly could not have predicted all his specific accomplishments, but I had a strong sense he would be innovative,” says Phil Condon, Green’s thesis adviser at UM. “The cliché is ‘thinking outside the box,’ but my sense of Hank was and is that he didn’t see the box in the first place.”
As the VlogBrothers project took off, YouTube gave the Greens a grant to buy better gear, rent studio space, and hire writers, directors, editors, and animators. For a moment, Green wondered if he might be more successful if he relocated to Los Angeles, a place with more film professionals. Then he searched Missoula.
“Finding good people has not been that hard, especially because a lot of what we look for isn’t, ‘Have you worked on a major motion picture?’ it’s, ‘Do you think the entire world should be smarter?’” he says. “If we moved to L.A., it could’ve been harder to find people whose values align with ours.”
Colin Hickey, a musician and event promoter who is one of around twenty people now working for Green in Missoula, calls his boss amazing.
“It’s great to work for someone who is changing the world for the better,” he says.
Bryan von Lossberg, who studied with Green at UM before being elected to the Missoula City Council, shares that sentiment.
“I see and use the expression ‘economic development’ quite a bit. Hank is economic development in Missoula,” he says. “Hank brings an almost frenetic energy to the community that infects, in a good way, everything he touches.”
What stirs Green about his cottage industry is its ability to make opportunity for other people to earn their living by being creative.
“I would love for there to be a world where there is just a thousand times more professional creators,” he says. “That’s the dream I have.”
And so, in Missoula, where he has enough good friends to feel content, but not yet so many fans as to feel smothered, the dreamer from the Florida flatlands where space shuttles lift off has built his own mission control, and from it flies earth-circling online rockets of awesome in his war against worldsuck.
“I’m really lucky to have that job,” he says. “And I’m pretty good at it now.”
Nate Schweber is a freelance journalist who graduated from UM’s School of Journalism in 2001. His work appears regularly in The New York Times, and he is the author of Fly Fishing Yellowstone National Park: An Insider’s Guide to the 50 Best Places. He lives in Brooklyn and sings in a band called the New Heathens.