The Great American Road Trip – through time!

Miranda and I took a road trip over Labor Day, up from The City (yes, the City, capital-C) through Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. So many states! So many roads! So many deer and not a single moose! It was truly a great time. Our goal for that trip was to stop at “touristy” roadside attractions, which we normally skip – we’re growing up! No longer are we “too good” for the “Corn Palaces”1 of the world. Heck yeah we’ll stop in Bennington, Vermont, for a big ol’ tower! We’ll go out of our way to go to Salem, Massachusetts, to pay our respects to the victims of the witch hanging craze!

The northernmost stop of the trip was Portland, Maine, because we have connections there. Not shady ones, though. Just regular ones. Regular people.

One of those people was one of my former collaborators on the Island of Awesome YouTube channel. Having never met in anything more than 480p, it was frankly a little surreal to meet someone IRL that I used to spend a lot of time talking to through videos.

One of the things we talked about was how much less common collab channels are now, which is definitely true. YouTubers are a totally different breed now than they were back in ~2011. Several people uploading videos each week to the same YouTube channel, using it as a medium to communicate with each other? Absolute craziness!

Perhaps these things still exist, but I just don’t watch them like I did back then. I was lonely, pretty awkward, and incurably 16 years old; these people were my influencers before being an influencer was cool. Can you blame me, then, for wanting to jump in myself? A webcam was given to me for Christmas in 2010 and on January 8th, 2011, I responded to a post on the Nerdfighter Ning2 calling for collaborators.

The first video I made was, honestly, quite terrible. Here, watch it. I’ll wait.

What did you think? Not great right? Don’t worry, it’s been almost 9 years now so it doesn’t sting quite as bad for me as it does for you right now.

It’s funny, looking back at the video quality. My high school computer was a ~2006-era Compaq Presario with a single core (!!) AMD Sempron processor. You know, definitely optimized for video editing. I would stuff my choppy 720p webcam video into Windows Movie Maker for editing. Who says you need a Mac for creative stuff! All I needed was a crappy computer and my trademark Rysavy DIY ethic.

Technology aside, the first real hurdle to overcome was having to look at my own face. It’s weird recording yourself and then going back and watching your face make the same movements, your lips make the same sounds, again and again as you cut the video down to the requisite four minutes or shorter.3 But eventually, I got past this. In doing so I gained a lot of self-confidence, because who wouldn’t after putting a very vulnerable part of themselves up for the world (of four to ten people) to see and having it received well?

The second hurdle was balancing real life and the Internet. During the first year of Island of Awesome, I kept it mostly a secret. Certainly my family knew that I was making some sort of video, but they didn’t ask for details. A handful of my friends were into similar YouTubers and I told them as well. It was kind of fun having a secret project! But then, it also wasn’t secret: the thing I was hiding from my family and friends was something I was also sharing with four other real, actual people.

So what actually happened on the Island of Awesome? Each week we roughly tried to pick a theme – this was only loosely obeyed at best and most of our videos were just about our lives. We had an intro, at least: one Saturday afternoon I took a sheet of notebook paper and filmed a stop-motion, indie movie-ish animation.

I won’t pretend that we made ground-breaking content or that our discussions aren’t, as it was described last weekend, “retroactive humiliation,” but we talked frankly with each other about a lot of pretty deep stuff: death, religion, education… as well as just our high schools, our friends, movies, TV, books. Pretty much what you’d expect high schoolers to talk about.

For myself, since I was living a sort of “double life,” I was able to express myself in a way that I had a lot of trouble doing outside of YouTube. The year I start the channel was also the first year I had tried to start learning guitar, a fact you will find painfully obvious if you watch any videos of that period. Although I will be honest and say that I’m not much better now than I was at 16, so there’s that.

No, even then I didn’t think I was very good, but I had a lot of fun!
I read part of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” for some reason that seemed important at the time.

After a while, I gained enough confidence to bring a camera outside of my room and start filming outside… and that was the third hurdle. Have you ever tried to film yourself on a camcorder while walking without a viewfinder? It’s not easy. Nowadays there are front-facing cameras on phones, so it’s less weird, but I didn’t have a phone then. Even just filming myself walking around town, and it’s a quiet town, made me very uncomfortable. I did it though, and eventually I worked myself up to including my friends (and brother! Hi Cody) in my videos. This freedom of expression that I felt – that was new. That was something I had not felt before, and it would become very important to me in later friendships as well.

The Island of Awesome spanned 2011 to 2013, which was a great transitional period in all of our lives – high school graduation and moving to college. At the time I had a tricky relationship with high school – I liked it, but looking back, it wasn’t the best. The Island of Awesome was a great escape for me, and it was honestly the first time I made any friends on the Internet.

Oh yeah, I had a goatee too. I still don’t think it looks that bad, but Miranda… thinks it’s hilarious.

Once I got to UMD, I kept up my videos by waiting for my roommate to leave the dorm for his lunch hour and filming a quick video then. Between classes, exploring Duluth, and making other new friends there, it eventually it became difficult to keep up with, and we decided to stop.

When I finally, after 8 years, met one of my former collaborators in person, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our “glory days” of 4:3 webcam videos and poor lighting, but the subject did come up. The secret life, the Internet friendship, the escape from a banal high school existence – these were things we had in common, and it meant a lot to me to hear in person that they were reciprocated.

If you have an hour or so to kill, I made a playlist of my “greatest hits” back in 2013 after it all ended. I can’t promise you’ll enjoy it… so I won’t.

  1. Yes, that’s a thing. Welcome to South Dakota. I still haven’t been there.
  2. Nerdfighter: a follower of the “vlogbrothers,” the original YouTube collab team who are still around and now control a small media empire.
    Ning: a now defunct social network platform.
  3. The 4-minute-long video was a vlogbrothers convention, and one I still believe in – the idea was that anything longer was just too long.

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