The YouTube algorithm is a mixed bag. At worst, it will suggest something you’ve already watched before or is currently trending and completely unrelated to your subscriptions or political beliefs. At best, however, it will strike gold and suggest a video that’s right up your alley—something that shows the website knows your tastes and interests better than you do yourself.
Surely this has happened to you at one point. It has to me. More than once, actually. Every now and then, YouTube unexpectedly pushes me down rabbit holes I never even knew existed but am pretty glad to have discovered. I’m talking about entire subculture communities revolving around things as specific as “illegal” Lego techniques, finding the tiniest apartments in central Tokyo or amateur fossil hunting.
The videos that make up these rabbit holes are entertaining enough on their own, but the thing that really excites me about them is the notion that I have accidentally stumbled across a secret world hidden on the internet. It’s sort of the online equivalent of accidentally walking into a really cool speakeasy or bookstore; they’re cool precisely because nobody knows about them.
Anyway, here’s a guide to some of these rabbit holes.
The traditional Japanese (originally Chinese) art of bonsai cultivation has gained a sizeable global following in recent years, so much so that you’ll find no shortage of YouTube channels of (mostly white) guys making videos on how to turn neglected little shrubs into aesthetically pleasing trees. The practical goal of bonsai cultivation is to make a young plant look like an old, mature one. Its spiritual significance is the calm and patience you develop sculpting living materials that have minds of their own. Even if you don’t really care for the underlying philosophy, they’re some of the most satisfying before-and-after videos out there. And if you really want to be wowed, you should check out demonstrations from the masters themselves.
Everybody knows Bob Ross – fuzzy afro, soothing voice, devil-beating brush – but did you know he is only the tip of the iceberg as far as televised painting goes? Ross wasn’t the first to artist to become a television instructor, nor was he the last. His teacher, a big, booming German guy called Bill Alexander, is considered the OG. Born in East Prussia, he came to the America to escape from the Second World War, tried to make a living as a traditional painter, failed, then found decent success on PBS with The Magic of Oil Painting. Ross, who started out as one of his employees, not only stole his format, but also many of the sayings and mannerisms we now associate with The Joy of Painting. For such a famously chill media personality, there was a whole lot of drama going on behind the scenes—drama you can learn all about on YouTube.
Theme park history
This one can be a bit of a minefield. Stray off the path and you’ll find yourself surrounded by Disney adults wearing Minnie Mouse headbands ranking their favorite Magic Kingdom attractions or giving tips on how to get the best parking spot. Really, you want to stick with one channel and that channel is called Defunctland. Run by a dude named Kevin Perjurer, it specializes in publishing insanely well-researched documentaries about theme parks and the ambitious but often incompetent businessmen in charge of them. Topics range from Walt Disney’s embittered battle with his unionizing animators to all the debauched things that ever took place on New York’s Coney Island. Their best video, by a long shot, is a 2-hour-long documentary about the logistical nightmares caused by Disney’s Fast Pass system, which I guarantee is one of the most outrageous things you will ever watch in your entire life.
Ever since the release of Free Solo, it seems like bouldering gyms have started popping up everywhere in the U.S. Honestly, I get it. Watching the Oscar-winning documentary, in which Alex Honnold scales El Capitan in Yosemite National Park sans rope, you’re guaranteed to walk away with a newfound appreciation for the art and athleticism of rock climbing. You also become convinced that Honnold must be the greatest rock climber of all time, but that’s not the case. He’s definitely the bravest, but the best? Believe it or not, but in the world of the sport, El Cap is actually considered a fairly easy route—easy enough for Honnold to attempt it without equipment and stand a good chance of surviving, anyway. If you want to see some truly insane climbing, you should check out the YouTube channels of people like Adam Ondra, who perform climbs so technically challenging that nobody, not even Honnold, would ever attempt them without getting geared up first.
As a backpacker, I pride myself on traveling to destinations most of my friends and family members would not visit unless someone forced them. As far as the backpacking subculture goes, however, I’m still somewhat of a newbie. My idol is a YouTuber called Bald and Bankrupt, who goes to places so remote or dangerous that the people there are genuinely baffled when they run into him. A tall British man who speaks fluent Russian, he spent years travelling in and around Russia. Specifically, to small villages in the countryside struggling with brain drain—i.e. all the young people leaving for the big cities and never coming back. He was in Ukraine when war broke out, and joined refugees on a train to safety. He then turned around and went back into Russia, but was arrested and banned from reentering the country. I haven’t watched his videos in a while, but last I saw he was in the Middle East traveling through Taliban-controlled territory.
The algorithm seems to like this one a lot so you may have seen some of these videos on your feed before. Basically, they’re about people that try to create entire ecosystems enclosed inside aquariums, terrariums, or even small bottles. By the time they’re done, their creations look like something straight out of a David Attenborough nature documentary. My favorite thing about these videos is the style, though. I’m not sure who started it, but many channels make their videos in the same way, with relaxing piano music and text instead of dialogue. It’s ridiculously relaxing.
Last but not least, this isn’t a rabbit hole or subculture so much as it is a community of artists that deserve much more attention than they’re currently getting. Over the years, YouTube has started functioning as a platform where entertainers who are unable to find work in “the industry” can share their creative output and grow an audience. Sometimes, in case of Felix Colgrave—who creates insanely trippy animated videos that, in hindsight, should have been included in my trippiest animated movies article—their work becomes so popular they don’t even need “the industry” anymore. In other cases, like the Dungeons and Dragons-inspired series Doraleous & Associates, their efforts remain criminally underrated. Is this a long-winded way for me to tell you to go check out Doraleous & Associates? Maybe. But really, go check it out. You can finish it in a day, and you won’t regret it.