The first in a regular series, Social Media Rockstars profiles success stories in reaching a wide audience via social media channels, and asks them what they’ve learned about creating impact and building communities in the digital world.
This week’s feature is on Belgian internet activist Reese Leysen. Reese is a self-described self-development activist, a co-founder of the I Power Project, a longtime Net Neutrality activist, and co-producer of the YouTube channel AtheneWins. A mostly game-themed channel, AtheneWins has generated nearly 375,000 subscribers, 24 million channel views and more than a quarter of a billion total upload views.
I’ve been following Reeses’ work for several years, and recently interviewed him about his work, future plans, and lessons learned.
First, how would you describe what you do to someone who isn’t a follower of your internet work?
Reese: When I get this question asked at any sort of situation where people aren’t very interested and want a quick short answer, I usually say something like “I work for YouTube”, which is true in the sense that I’m a YouTube partner and make a living from that.
An elaborate way to answer that question would be to talk about how I work together with my closest friends, Chiren, Tania and my brother Dean on online entertainment in order to grab the attention of a very large audience so that part of this audience takes an interest in what we’re really about, which is ‘self-development activism’. We run an online community/social network called I Power and our main goal with this project is to inspire and create the best environment possible for people to exchange ideas, find others to collaborate with and just generally ‘get serious’ about being open-minded and pro-active in their lives.
But a very simple answer to this question would just be: I try to make a positive difference in the best way that I can. In the end, I Power is just a means to an end, I just want to make the world a better place and I’m always open to bigger and better ways to do it. But at the moment, working on an approach where we can, over the years, perhaps have a huge impact on how ‘self-help’ is perceived and help move that whole sphere to a more concrete form of it (what we call ‘self-development activism’) seems to be the absolute best thing I can do.
You say you could be described as someone who works for YouTube. What’s a normal workday?
Reese: I’d say 50%-60% of my ‘work time’ is spent editing, the rest is spent shooting, answering mails and interacting, working out planning with Chiren, and keeping an eye on I Power and moderating the site a bit. The reason why a lot of time is spent editing is because the Athene videos are almost pure improv and the continuity or ‘story’ is created in editing.
That makes editing a huge part of the creative process, rather than just consisting of ‘putting the best takes together’. I have different types of work days, many of them are just spent editing all day long, luckily a lot of them are also very social (when Chiren & Dean and I are shooting and throwing around ideas) and one day a week or so I spend just by myself thinking about what we’re doing, re-evaluating things and possibly shooting and editing a vlog as well.
What was the path that brought you to ‘self-development activism’, and how do you differentiate it from mainstream approaches to ‘self-help’?
Reese: As a group of close friends who would often debate about philosophy, ethics, morality, politics etc, we initially became known as political activists with our Belgian ‘NEE’ project six years ago. What we learned from this is that we were able to make a difference just by being creative, even without having much budget or means to do it with.
This was huge to us because we had often debated about whether or not a tiny group of people could somehow contribute on a ‘large’ scale to somehow making the world a better place. With this knowledge and experience, we asked ourselves: what is the best thing we can do? If we want to make things better, what’s the best way to go about it? It didn’t take long for us to all agree on the answer: if we can inspire people to be more open-minded and pro-active, we would be addressing the root of most of the problems that all societies face. The idea for I Power (including the name!) was born long before we even started ‘Athene’, but we knew we had a long way to go before we would have enough of a following to launch it in a significant way.
Self-development activism makes more sense to us as a term, rather than ‘self-help’. People who achieve satisfying levels of emotional balance and clarity of mind tend to have a very positive impact on their environment and the most the most effective practices of self-development seem to be aligned with our brains’ evolutionary inclination towards contribution and altruism. Self-help practices tend to focus on nothing more than temporary and shallow quick-fix approaches when they are disconnected from this, and we wanted to give it a label that clearly communicates that that’s not what we’re about.
Looking at your current YouTube videos, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection to your self-development work. What is your strategy to connect the Athene character videos with your larger aim of encouraging more contribution and altruism?
Reese: To answer this fully I have to go over the evolution of how we’ve approached Athene and I Power. It’s obvious that, in the beginning, we were just doing Athene and other projects to gain subscribers and establish an audience, and then at a certain point we launched I Power and for a while we used AtheneWins for all I Power videos and announcements. I think it was around half a year later that we reached sort of a tipping point: we had a community that was really into SDA on one hand and on the other hand we had a huge audience with Athene of which most are not interested in I Power. Not only did this make things difficult in the sense that we got much more complaints than support whenever we’d put an I Power vid on AtheneWins, but it also created serious problems for the community: angry Athene fans coming to I Power to troll everyone is something that we really had to work on (and still have to be careful with to avoid today).
Since then, we kept things mostly separated (AtheneWins & IPowerChannel etc). Though whenever we’re doing something really huge, whether it being an urgent net neutrality thing or the release of the AToE documentary, we do at least announce it on AtheneWins. I think, in the past, the way we experimented with ‘gaming the system’ on YouTube took its toll on our fanbase in the sense that it made them intolerant towards anything we would throw at them that would be non-Athene (they felt they were being ‘tricked’ into things).
Here’s what’s happening now: we’ve come back from a long Athene hiatus and I Power has moved from being a side-project to an important priority to us, as we had always planned would happen one day. Much of our fanbase has both grown up a little bit more and has also become more flexible in the sense that the days of us pulling annoying tricks on them to gain more subscribers are long gone and it’s now very clear to everyone that AtheneWins is a combination of entertainment as well as glimpses into what we’re really about. With a very successful Athene comeback, we’re now experimenting with a bunch of different things to achieve our goals: as I type this I’m about to edit what could be a really funny but also very insightful Athene SDA-oriented video, as well as a related video for Chiren’s new personal channel that we’re about to launch and that will undoubtedly attract tons of fans who are really into his ‘persona’ and get more people interested in our ‘serious’ side. Putting SDA stuff into Athene videos and Chiren having a non-Athene channel are just a few of the things we will be doing to bring I Power to a bigger audience as it has now become a bigger focus of ours. There’s tons of ideas on our list and I’m really excited about em!
Obviously there’s a problem with not pleasing anyone if you’re trying to reach a mass audience, but there’s an alternate trap if you orient yourself too much towards pleasing the crowd. How do you maintain a balance between entertaining and communicating what you feel is important?
Reese: We’ve always looked at things in a very long-term frame and for the most part of our projects we have been much more focused on entertainment than activism. This way we can keep a large crowd interested and at the same time have a lot of impact when we take action. We’ve noticed in the past that the community and the fanbase can grow tired of us quickly if we focus too much on the activism but they become huge supporters if we balance it the right way. However, the main plan is actually to expand the team and go about this much more efficiently in the future. This is something we’ll be making videos about in the near future, we’re looking for people to join us in our projects, not just as supporters but as equals, meaning they contribute ideas and if they make more sense then we go with those instead of our initial ones etc. We’ve come a long way but we’re only in the very early starting phases of the I Power project. It’s a learning process and we’re now trying to figure out how we go about expanding the team, how we go about optimizing things so we can keep the AtheneWins channel growing and reaching even bigger audiences while at the same time we turn I Power into a much bigger priority of ours.
So what advice would you give to someone who wants to become a social media rockstar?
Reese: What we’ve learned and are really starting to take to heart now in how we do things is that these seem to be the key ingredients:
Use YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail etc to really interact and not just ‘announce’. Have as much ‘conversation’ with your audience as possible. This is especially important when your audience is small or even tiny (like one or two people maybe when you’re just starting out). What’s really crucial in this is that you view everyone as being really important to you. For example: even if I get the most ridiculous hate-filled troll comment on a vlog, I often try to respond to that with genuine caring. I think having the ability to say “maybe you’re right, I’m sorry that this or that annoyed or disappointed you, please let me know what you think I should change/improve” is one of the most underrated things ever when dealing with controversy or ‘haters’ in your audience. And toward people who love you: same thing, realize how big of a deal that it is that there are people checking out your shit, even if it’s one or two guys, and express it. Most powerful way of doing this is individual responses to each comment, people never forget it when you do that.
This works best when you really know what you’re doing and/or have a big following and can often be the opposite of the ‘caring’ approach but both approaches have their place. When you look at people who have a big following online, whether it’s Gary Vaynerchuk or in self-development Tony Robbins or in our case, ‘Athene’, so much is often attributed to how they ‘don’t give a shit’, how they seem to know what they’re doing and are relentlessly driven in how they do it. If you can express that in what you do, it can be incredibly inspiring and can often be even more important than caring in certain areas. As I’m typing this I just now realize that the Athene/Chiren duality can actually be boiled down to confidence/care and that’s probably a big reason why that has worked so well thus far.
– adapt but persist
Very delicate balance, things take time to grow but at the same time figuring out what works, what goes viral and what connects people has been a learning process for us and we haven’t always made the right calls in when to adapt and when to persist. The road we’ve traveled has taught us a lot in that. The most legendary call we ever made in this is when we started doing Athene: we were extremely determined, working hardcore every day on a movie project that we thought was going to get us awards and make us huge and give us the platform we needed. While doing this, we played around with making these ‘Athene’ videos and, while we were so immersed and passionate about our movie project… After the first few Athene vids we had to face reality: the chances that the movie was gonna become as big as Athene was promising to become were slim. So we adapted to that fact and… It’s a good thing we did.