Content Warning: This article discusses suicide and self-harm.
YouTuber Oliver Thorn, equipped with his philosophy and acting MAs, helps viewers make sense of the world— one earnest philosophy video at a time.
British YouTuber Oliver Thorn tells me he’s glad to do this interview. He’s glad to know people are paying attention; more importantly, he’s glad he is able to help people. Most importantly, Thorn is glad to be around—period. On September 28, 2018, he uploaded a video titled “Suic
Thorn delivers the final lines of the video through tears. “If you’re out there and you’re drifting in space, the one thing that I want to tell you […] is just the thing I wish someone had been there to tell me those two nights when I tried it,” he says. “It’s the simplest and it’s the most powerful phrase in the English language, I think: ‘I understand how you feel.’”
Five years ago, Thorn was a philosophy student at St. Andrews, where he’d eventually receive an MA (with honors). In response to the British government’s tuition hikes, which would inevitably mean many people lost out on access to education, he began Philosophy Tube as a means through which he could share what he learned with anyone willing to click and watch.
“When the government tripled tuition fees in my country, I was in the last year to pay the old fees,” he tells VICE via webcam. “I thought it was really unfair that they’d made the subject that I loved—philosophy—inaccessible to a lot of people. So I started filming myself in my bedroom, being like, ‘Hey, this is what I learned in my lectures today. And now you’ve learned it for free.’”
Thorn started by creating videos about textbook philosophical inquiries and ideas from names like Descartes and Kant. As time passed, his audience grew, with many followers beginning to engage with the work in ways which unsettled Thorn. “The more of a following I got, the more people started coming to me with bad philosophy,” he says, “and the more I started noticing bad philosophy in public.”
300,000 subscribers later, Thorn is now able to live with the help of his Patreon while he builds a difficult career as an actor. He realized that his channel could have a far more justicial purpose; that it could not only serve as a 101 lesson in philosophy, but a way in which he could challenge bad philosophies ingrained in society which often lead to harm towards innocent people.
One example of bad philosophy which Thorn has tackled is transphobia, a form of bigotry which has become pervasive in, among other places, the UK press. “It was the front page of the Telegraph the other day; they had a big thing on their front page saying ‘Men have been admitted to women’s wards.’ And, I was just like, they haven’t,” he says. “That’s just false. You’re talking about trans women. You’ve made a metaphysical error here.”
Philosophy Tube is not nearly the only channel tackling these issues. Thorn is part of a contingent of YouTubers often referred to as “LeftTube” (a name that Thorn can’t quite recall the origins of) which includes creators like ContraPoints and Hbomberguy a.k.a. Harris Brewis. Brewis recently hosted a Twitch marathon which raised over $340,000 for trans youth in the UK, drawing support from people like US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
ContraPoints, whose real name is Natalie Wynn, is perhaps the biggest star of the bunch; she’s amassed over 400,000 subscribers through her powerful videos on gender pronouns, Jordan Peterson, and capitalism. She and Thorn have connected over the past two years and worked on numerous collaborations, including a particularly popular video about incels and some (more lighthearted) livestreams.
“There is a fundamental kindness to Olly’s work,” Wynn tells VICE. “That really moves me. I think my sense of humor can be a little bit vicious. As a friend, Olly is always helping me to temper that and see the more positive side of people. That same quality is there in his videos, where there’s hardly ever a disparaging word spoken about someone.”
The pervasive growth of YouTube is often discussed in its effects on pop culture and business; stars of the platform gain massive followings despite being ignored by conventional press. One aspect of YouTube that’s overlooked is the platform’s ability to launch all sorts of public figures, including ideological ones—like the voices of LeftTube. “I started to get messages from people saying ‘You’ve changed my life. You’ve changed the way I look at things,’” Thorn says.
Part of the beauty of LeftTube, as evidenced by Brewis’s monumental livestream, is the growing community it fosters. It represents a corner of the internet bringing together and helping people who struggle to find peace in their world.
Thorn experienced some of this himself. He went to VidCon for the first time last year during a rough period in his life, which he’s not yet ready to speak about; consequently, YouTube had become less and less fulfilling for him. But the trip, and the experience of meeting creators like Wynn, changed the way Thorn thought about the platform. “Creators that I looked up to enormously suddenly regarded me as a peer,” he says. “It was one of the first times I’d felt part of a community on YouTube, rather than some weird gadfly who just made videos in his room.”
Thorn made sweeping changes to his channel to keep pace with the ingenuity of his peers. He started filming at a studio using a green screen, invested in costumes and makeup, developed characters, and began sharing deeply personal stories.
Often, Thorn hosts livestreams where he communicates directly with his community. In his most recent livestream, a mailbag opening with Brewis, fans sent letters marked “Dear Cosmonaut,” a reference to his video on suicide. Thorn was moved to tears on more than one occasion. “Did you think you’d have the effect you do on people at this point?” asked Brewis. “No,” said Thorn. “But it does make me want to make ‘Cosmonaut Part Two.’”
Thorn and I briefly discussed this theoretical video, which I am sworn to secrecy on to respect his privacy. It will, he admits, be extremely difficult, but as he tells his adulating community during the livestream: “It needs to be made.”
Learning and teaching are still at the core of Thorn’s philosophy practice. But more than ever, he’s committed to making sure his area of study is more than a privileged thought exercise. “Good philosophy can make or break someone’s life,” he says. “Sometimes, I can’t open the door for someone. But if I can just, like, knock, then they know that it’s there.”
From the beginning, Thorn merely wanted to bring value to others. He began doing so purely through sharing the knowledge and resources he’s attained; and he’s still quite good at that. But what he’s also become good at is sharing his vulnerabilities to give others the strength to overcome their own. He recognizes that it takes more than philosophy to change a person’s mind; it takes love, too.
“I hope it’s helping,” he confides during one of our video chats. I tell him that it is— that he’s, in fact, helped me as well. And he tells me he’s glad.
If you enjoyed this piece, please consider supporting Regeneration Magazine on Patreon and sharing with your networks and organizations. Our solidarity and thanks!