Hank Green remembers the first time he saw his company's motto, "Don't Forget to be Awesome," or "DFTBA," tattooed on a stranger. It was at a Harry Potter fan convention. The woman had it tattooed inside her bottom lip.
"It appeared that she'd been waiting there for me," says the 31-year-old Green.
Green's messy blond hair makes him look boyish; his dark-rimmed glasses, nerdy. But he's no ordinary geek. He's a "Nerdfighter."
The Nerdfighting meme grew out of an online video blog Green launched in 2007 with his Indianapolis-based author and brother, John Green. Among the Nerdfighters' guiding tenets is to "increase awesome" and "decrease world suck." That's where DFTBA comes in. "It's just a cool, secular way to say, 'I just want to be a good person,'" Hank explains.
- Photo by Chad Harder
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DFTBA is central to a value system shared by the following that Hank and John Green, known as the Vlogbrothers, have cultivated in the past five years. There are more than 75,000 Nerdfighters across the globe, they say, including in California, the UK and the Philippines.
The meme, coupled with the Green brothers' seemingly ceaseless energy, quick wit and, at times, childish sense of humor, has led to online success. Earlier this year, YouTube gave the brothers a grant that enabled Hank to move their western headquarters from his Missoula home into the Radio Central Building on East Main Street.
The new digs feel like a start-up. There's an espresso maker next to a dorm-sized refrigerator on the floor not far from the office's front door. Another coffee maker sits on a table above. The grant also has enabled the Greens to hire a cast of writers, editors, producers and other creative types. The Vlogbrothers now employ nine people in Missoula, including Hank and his wife Katherine, who oversees social media.
"I'm the buffer," she says.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Hank sits cross-legged in a white chair in his new office, not far from what's left of lunch from the Pita Pit, and talks about how it feels to be among the forefathers of a quickly evolving new-media movement.
It started on Jan. 1, 2007, when Hank and John replaced email and text with video blog, or "vlog," chats posted on YouTube. The experiment, called "Brotherhood 2.0," became a near-instant sensation. Brotherhood 2.0 videos have now been viewed more than 40 million times.
In 2010, Hank and John founded VidCon, a video blogger convention akin to Comic-Con. Last year's VidCon sold out L.A.'s Hyatt Regency Century City with more than 2,400 attendees. Green says roughly 5,000 convention goers are signed up for this year's event in June at the Anaheim Convention Center.
The Greens' YouTube channel has more than 680,000 subscribers. One vlog, in which Hank tells 51 jokes in four minutes, garnered 3.7 million views. The brothers have been featured on National Public Radio and in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.
The YouTube grant—Hank declines to specify its amount—is funding their creation of content for the video-sharing website, including their Vlogbrother programs, Crash Course and the SciShow. John hosts Crash Course, which is about history, covering everything from the roots of Islam to the fall of the Roman Empire. Hank, who has a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana, stars in SciShow, which tackles biology and physics and includes discussions such as "How Weed Works," "Homophobia and Consumerism" and "Why Water is Awesome." Crash Course and SciShow episodes have drawn anywhere from 50,000 to 280,000 views.
"It's educational content that young people are intentionally going after," Hank says. "We're not forcing it down their throats. They're coming to us."
Industry experts call the Greens' programming style "lean forward." Vlogbrothers productions are fast and direct. Episodes last less than 14 minutes. The hosts engage viewers directly. Hank says their approach contrasts with television's lackadaisical pace and the way people watch it. "It's a completely different way of engaging with content," he says. "When you talk about watching an episode of 'Bones' ... you're maybe going to be playing solitaire and looking at the news and knitting and picking your nose at the same time. Whereas when you watch a five-minute episode of Crash Course or SciShow, the idea is you're sitting in a chair. You're sitting up. You're sitting at a desk. It's very active."
YouTube is banking on lean-forward content. The grant to the Missoula-based company comes as the Google-owned video platform is trying to woo even more viewers. It announced last spring that it would roll out dozens of new channels airing original, high-quality programming. Notables like Madonna, skateboard legend Tony Hawk and spiritual luminary Deepak Chopra are slated to air programs on YouTube in coming months. YouTube has remained mum on many of the specifics, but The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets report that the company intends to invest up to $100 million in the new content.
Hank's already working on the Vlogbrothers' next project: a vlog-based adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
"No one knows exactly how it's supposed to be done," he says. "We get to make up all of our own rules."