There once existed Charlemagne, Puyi, H.P Lovecraft, Oscar Wilde, Howard Hughes, John Lennon, Typhoid Mary, and the entirety of the German government during World War II. It’s a writer's dream that there’s a man willing to un-ironically converge these diverse fates into one phrase, “Things were about to get a whole lot worse.” Yet Simon Whistler of the YouTube channel Biographics regularly distills the stories of history's famous and infamous players into a generous glass of woe. And he does so in a chipper British accent, tapping into nostalgic shorthand for the sort of gentleman we assume must know everything or at least be distantly related to David Attenborough.
I’m a neophyte to the world of YouTube viewing known as “infotainment,” videos of a short duration on a subject narrated by one person filming themselves in a room with occasional on-screen graphics for illustration. These videos draw clear inspiration from traditional documentary films, a traditional arena for academics, scholars, and documentary crews who film in exotic locations. Having grown up on a steady documentary diet of PBS, NOVA, and pre-conspiracy theory History Channel, I believed the format was set in stone. That men with beards and bowties and women with inscrutable Mid-Atlantic accents alone held the keys to an understanding of history, science, religion, mathematics, philosophy and its winners seemed a universal constant.
In an average of 20 minutes per video, using nothing more than on-camera narration and a series of Photoshop images with the occasional Ken Burns zoom effect, Whistler delivers the story of a subject's life in alternating streaks of somber hues and subdued comedy. In one week, I’d watched dozens of videos covering the gamut from the world's richest man in the 1500s, the life of Charlie Chaplin, and the rise and fall of Stalin. Each one was charmingly delivered, strictly-paced, and filled with occasional obscure details. Overall they were entertaining, which is a disarming sentiment given that most of its subject's narratives inevitably get worse, often resulting in a feedback loop of morally questionable decisions.
There’s one particular Biographics video, which I won’t name due to its sinister descriptions, describing the life of a doctor at a German concentration camp who seemed born into the world for the sole purpose of shattering the human spirit. The video’s one of the most watched on the channel at over a million views. Though the comments section teems with viewers who express their disturbance, the majority of people overwhelmingly gave it a thumbs-up. Most surprisingly, I found no one asking a more probing question: at what cost are we to be entertained?
In further combing the comments of other Biographics videos on shady figures and despots, I found scant evidence of viewers questioning the purpose of what they were watching. It took the viewing of several videos before I began to feel any objection at having access to this free entertainment. Perhaps that is because a presentation made by a British man with a beard seems more educational than choosing to click on an un-boxing video or footage of a dog singing along to pop music. Why would I object to being educated for free? Aren't I living in the best of educational times? However, I find it hard to accept that what I viewed was fulfilling or even useful for a cocktail party icebreaker.
Biographics draws aggressively from the playbook of news media that fundamentally believes that there’s an inherent entertainment equivalence between charlatans, war criminals, captains of industry, and Bob Ross' evergreen perm.
Who are Arnaldo Teodorani, Steve Theunissen, Shannon Quinn and the man simply listed as Morris M.? They’re honorable mentions of authors credited by Biographics as scriptwriters. Yet I can’t find anything more on them other than that they seem to be freelance writers with no specific credentials in history or published books. What sources are the authors referencing? Isn’t it strange the biography of Vladimir Lenin is so riddled with basic factual errors that they’re discussed at length in the video's comments section? In another video it’s claimed that "The decline of Greece began when the Roman Emperor Maximus defeated Alexander the Great in the Greek city of Corinth in 146 BCE." In the scripts he contributed, did the author known as Morris obscure his last name because he was unwilling to associate himself with a shoddy gig riddled with inconsistencies and avoidable fact-checking blunders? Who fact checks the fact checkers? How does Biographics continue to expand its base of subscribers when its premise, historical fact, isn’t guaranteed?