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Figuring It Out

On YouTube, watch John Fish grow

September-October 2019

Photograph of John Fish

In “Taking Time Off When I’m Most Inspired,” Fish explains the benefits of rest to his nearly 600,000 followers.

Courtesy of John Fish


In “Taking Time Off When I’m Most Inspired,” Fish explains the benefits of rest to his nearly 600,000 followers.

Courtesy of John Fish

The first two years of college were a time of adjustments for John Fish ’21. Like any other student, he made mistakes, contemplated new ideas, and tried to best manage his time. But most students don’t go through this process in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands. Fish does.

During his senior year of high school in Waterloo, Canada, Fish started making daily video blogs (vlogs) and posting them on YouTube. Much in the style of one of the site’s most popular video-makers, Casey Neistat, he shared stylized summaries of his everyday life, filming his daily routine. Those interested could watch him spend time with friends, cook, and prepare for track meets.

A few days into that daily vlogging, a distracted driver blind-sided Fish’s car (the immediate aftermath of which is on YouTube). His vehicle was crushed, and even though his injuries weren’t major, doctors told him to rest. Confined to his house and unable to take viewers—to the extent there were any—out and about with him, he decided to make a video exploring a popular YouTube topic: college admissions. His first college-related video, “HOW I GOT INTO HARVARD,” detailed his test scores, running accolades, and athletic recruitment. The 10-minute opus brought him hundreds of thousands of views.

On YouTube, the Harvard name is powerful. Search for it, and you’ll find dozens of popular videos in which students (or accepted students) discuss how they got in, vlog through a typical college day, or discuss an aspect of campus culture, like the dating or party scenes. In the “college decision” category, for which people record their joyful or subdued reactions to an acceptance, waitlist, or rejection, Harvard videos are especially in demand.

Often, though, Harvard-centric videos are one-hit wonders. Someone being swarmed by classmates moments after getting accepted might generate a few hundred thousand views (or an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show), but in the competitive world of YouTube, it doesn’t guarantee a sustained audience. The few handfuls of Harvard students who’ve tried building a following usually receive only a fraction of their peak viewership for non-Harvard material, and often struggle to maintain an audience after graduation, when making a video recollecting Harvard parties seems strange.

Nevertheless, Fish, like many who taste YouTube fame, began obsessing over his views and likes. When he reached 100,000 subscribers—people notified when he posts something new—in a month, he felt compelled to roll his success over to the next, churning out crowd-pleasing videos. “HOW TO GET INTO HARVARD,” “HOW IVY LEAGUE RECRUITING WORKS,” and others drew thousands of viewers to his channel. Even on his non-college videos, commenters requested tours of his dorm, a review of the computer-science concentration, and general inside looks into the alluring world of Harvard.

When he finally arrived in Cambridge, the potential for YouTube growth was undeniable. A sharply edited daily vlog from a Harvard student would likely work wonders. But Fish realized that attracting a huge audience wasn’t why he’d started making YouTube videos in the first place. “Making a video a week was fun for me,” he said recently. “But then over the summer, it kind of progressed into something that I was doing for external pressures.” Making videos had been a creative challenge. Now it was a burden. During that first September and October, as his viewers requested and expected a number of College-related videos, Fish’s account went silent.

When he reappeared in December, his tone was different. Standing on the Science Center roof, with the campus sprawled out behind him, he looked into his camera and confessed: “Things might be a bit different because taking a few months off YouTube made me realize that I put on a bit of a persona on camera. People here were kind of surprised when we met because I was a completely different person, so I want to change that.”

Instead of talking about how he got something—a college acceptance, a coding internship—he began focusing more on the day-in, day-out work that helped him achieve his goals, hoping others would find his perspective useful. Soon he didn’t have to include “Harvard” in his titles to draw an audience. “How I Fight Unproductivity” received hundreds of thousands of views; “Reading a Book a Week Is Changing My Life” drew millions.

Fish has a distinct confessional style in his videos, mostly sitting on a chair in his bedroom and addressing viewers directly. He speaks animatedly from a script, but leaves room for improvisation. One could argue he fits into the YouTube world of self-help, but he tries to show the process behind his decisionmaking, rather than dole out inspirational quotes and promises. He explains, for example, why he decided to read one book a week (not a day, like other gurus), how the wide variety of books has changed his thinking, and how he remembers what he’s read. The “hidden secret” that he tries to express, he says, “is that everything in the self-improvement niche is going to change a lot based on what you want, who you are, and why you’re doing this.” In a note-taking video, he presents studies that convinced him to take notes by hand, but acknowledges that typing may work better for others: the particular mechanism is less important than the process as a whole. Fish often stresses that he’s just figuring out his life, too.

High school and college students across the world likely relate most to his videos, but for those outside that group, his channel provides a look inside the head of a highly motivated student trying to do his best. Viewers can watch how he dealt with heartbreak, mental health, or a creative lull, and then click a later video to see how his thinking has evolved. His personal website lists every book he’s read for the past year and a half, and which he plans to read. The growth that Fish focuses on is what’s most fascinating to observe.

“There are some videos that I look back at and I cringe and I go, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe that I did that,’ but it’s all genuine, right? It’s all real,” he said. “So, if it’s cringy to me now, that just means I’ve grown and that I am a different person than I was then.”

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