The Hamster Wheel Scales

A YouTube controversy around one of its largest channels reflects the complexity of maintaining editorial standards, or even integrity, when you’re producing with quantity in mind.

By Ernie Smith

One of the reasons I started moving my newsletter to this more frequent but shorter format was because I was very concerned about burnout.

Publishing two massive newsletters twice a week worked well for years, but I don’t have the boundless energy I did when I was in my mid-20s and could publish 10 or 15 short blog posts a day. And honestly, this new approach I’m taking is working for me. I’m optimistic that it will continue to do so.

We need to be willing to shift gears, even if it means making decisions that are technically less. A story that floated up from YouTube-land this week makes me realize that this is not just a problem for individuals.

The massive YouTube channel Linus Tech Tips, which has nearly the reach of fellow tech channel MKBHD with a much larger team, has long published daily videos on multiple platforms, often about quite technical topics. However, it’s becoming obvious to some that the approach of doing 20+ videos per week is starting to catch up with the team, as high-profile errors are starting to emerge.

Steve Burke of the channel Gamers Nexus, a popular channel that nonetheless works at a much smaller scale, raised these concerns in a 45-minute video that took the channel and its parent company to task for its ethical and business failings. Burke, who has gained a reputation as a tech YouTuber who is not afraid to hold feet to fire (having taken on NewEgg for their refurbishing practices in a series of videos last year), took a methodical approach to pointing out that LTT’s bruising schedule was likely leading to lower quality clips, where obvious benchmarking errors were landing in the videos, never to be corrected. When your channel is known for benchmarking, that’s a problem.

Burke runs a largish competitor of Linus Tech Tips; he has something to gain if it declines. But having watched the video, I know the work of someone trying to be objective and audience-focused when I see it. (Kudos, Steve.)

Linus Media Group, a company that admittedly publishes everything from long-form consumer-minded Mac videos to meme content, has a business apparatus large enough at this point to support the careers of more than 100 people. However, it also publishes every single day, no breaks, and often it is covering topics that don’t lend themselves to tight turnarounds, often covering technical topics that require in-depth analysis. It’s MrBeast-level resourcing for B2B and enthusiast technology.

(LMG responded to Burke’s claims, but it didn’t go well.)

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Quality over quantity

Thus far, Linus Media’s approach has essentially been to throw people at the problem and scale up. But mistakes are becoming increasingly common—Burke pointed towards an unboxing where a mouse was poorly reviewed because the reviewer forgot to take the protective plastic off the feet—and the schedule is so bruising that there is basically no room for reshoots, ever, leading to corrections being placed in text above the video. People watch these videos when doing other things. Odds are, they’ll miss that text.

The mindset is anti-reshoot: Burke pointed to a clip of founder Linus Sebastian discussing the cost of doing a potential reshoot of something in the cost per hour of each person being in the room—which, honestly, gave me echoes of a recent tech product a CFO devised, a calculator developed by Shopify that determines how much an individual meeting will cost the company. (Ironically, Sebastian said this on a freewheeling weekly podcast that frequently tops the four-hour mark, but I digress.)

Most YouTube creators do not think in terms of how much it will cost to run a production studio, because it’s inherently a creative product—so this kind of conversation feels foreign.

An unacceptable “grindset”

While a lot of the attention Burke drew to Linus Media Group has been focused on its handling of a specific startup’s prototype and the ethical gray areas Sebastian works within as an large-scale investor in the company Framework, I honestly think the bruising schedules are a much bigger deal.

From a creative standpoint, Linus Tech Tips is very light, easy-to-watch technology content for millions of people, and people are potentially being presented misinformation at scale because of a bruising turnaround. Editorial standards are losing out to the grind. It’s not as egregious as “fake news,” but clearly, they can do better.

And then there are the people involved. A video from earlier this year that lacked Sebastian’s direct involvement tried to offer an employee perspective on the issue of working environment. In light of the Gamers Nexus reporting, it hits different.

Screenshot 2023 08 16 at 9 13 01 AM

But that perspective may be missing some voices. Last night, a former employee, Madison Reeve, described how the “grindset” of the work environment brought her to the breaking point, how sick days and slightly delayed email replies were held against her, and that she had been misled on what the role would require of her. In a long Twitter thread, she detailed the mistreatment she felt in an environment that was almost entirely male—including incidents of grabbing that she reported to HR, that ultimately led her to not appear in publicly facing videos. Given that Reeve had been hired on the strength of an extremely popular appearance in a Linus Tech Tips video, this was obviously a blow.

She made clear, however, that many of LMG’s staff members are good, hard-working people. But scale is getting to them.

“There ARE GENUINELY amazing, compassionate, and incredibly intelligent people who work at this company and are driven to just share the cool tech they love,” Reeve wrote. “It sucks that ego and a bottom line are slowly destroying some of them, and hurting the entire reputation of the company.”

That is something Linus Media Group will have to answer to. It is at the center of a huge ecosystem. The whole thing is at risk. Linus Media Group appears to realize this, because they posted a contrite video in response to all this just this morning.

Endless hamster wheels sink companies

I will admit that part of the reason why I am shifting my publish schedule to some degree is that I’m starting to realize that I’m not putting my best foot forward when I’m cranking like a machine. Creative work is inherently different from machinery; we should treat it that way.

The internet is a hamster wheel. It will keep taking and taking and taking and taking as long as we let it. There is nothing wrong with all that taking as long as we can keep up, but the second we can’t—the second we decide to take a vacation—the machine threatens to break down and leave our creations needlessly shattered. What I didn’t realize until I saw this story is that the high-stress hamster wheel scales.

It does not need to be like this. Linus Media Group can afford to slow down slightly—it already owns its audience. It will be better off with a renewed focus on quality and conduct.

This is an important discussion; feel free to share it with others. Hopefully it sparks something important.

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Editor’s note: This was edited since publish time to add a video from LMG that was posted as I was writing.

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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