If you’ve ever searched on YouTube for a review of the latest iPhone or electric car, then you’ve probably encountered Marques Brownlee. Since he started his channel MKBHD as a teenager in 2009, Brownlee has amassed 15.8 million subscribers for his in-depth, yet approachable tech videos. He’s even scored interviews with Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and to top it all off, he’s a professional ultimate frisbee player (the former president even complimented his “unbelievable hops.”)
But perhaps Brownlee’s most impressive accomplishment is his ability to remain relevant over ten years into his online video career without losing his audience’s trust. And as short form video content becomes a necessity for any creator, Brownlee has seamlessly transitioned to TikTok, where he made one of the only good April Fools’ Day pranks.
We caught up with Brownlee at VidCon, where he was helping Discord promote the beta test of its server subscriptions (watch out, Patreon). In a conversation with perhaps the most well-known tech reviewer — sorry, other TechCrunch writers — the 28-year-old internet star told us about transitioning to TikTok, his views on the metaverse, and why Google Glass deserves a redemption arc.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
TC: It’s not easy to make TikToks or YouTube shorts when you made it big on YouTube with 20-ish-minute videos. How do you go about making shorter content on these new platforms?
MB: I think about this a lot. I see ways that I don’t like doing it, like people repurposing other content and turning it into short form content. I would much rather make native content for each platform. When we first started making shorts, it was a challenge. I was like, how do I really cut this down to 60 seconds or less? I think my first three shorts are 59.8 seconds long. We found that after specifically deciding to spend time on TikTok, then getting to know what works well, helped us make stuff native to the platform better.
With so many new creator programs across platforms, what does the pie chart of your income as a creator look like?
I’d say it’s about 50% YouTube’s built-in ad model, and 50% everything else — that includes our merch store, other deals we do, and things like that. But the bread and butter for so long has been the videos. It’s just a well-oiled machine. We don’t really think about overhead, we just know that videos can and will perform, which is… thanks, YouTube!
Even though short form video has become extremely popular, no one’s really figured out how to monetize it yet — do you have any thoughts on how that might work?
I don’t have an answer, and anyone who claims to have an answer is probably lying. It makes so much sense that short form video can explode. The numbers that we see are not the same as the numbers elsewhere. You know, 20 million views on TikTok is very different from 20 million views on YouTube. When we talk about monetizing videos, monetization on YouTube is tied to the video because you made the choice [to watch the video]. You saw the thumbnail, you spent time there, that was on you. That transaction works. But shorts are just totally different. I don’t know how to tie that together and make that a nice, neat monetization solution.
You’ve stayed relevant as a tech reviewer for over ten years — how do you balance staying true to your perspective while also remaining accessible?
I try to be as transparent as possible about what I like and don’t like. It’s subjective. But whether or not someone agrees with my preference in a piece of tech almost doesn’t matter. I try to put myself in the shoes of the viewer and say what I would want them to know if they were going to buy the thing.
What trends in technology are you most excited about?
I think AR/VR is one all of our eyes are on right now. It’s fun because for me, the most interesting beginnings of new tech are when you get a product that actually is supposed to help people or deliver a new experience, and I think we’re right about to start seeing products that are like, the killer app, like really interesting and bringing people in. We had Google Glass, we had crazy stuff in the past, but I think we’re about to see a bunch of cool stuff.
What do you think about the idea of the metaverse?
I get what people see in it. I get why Facebook — or, Meta — wants to have a big stake in it. But at the same time, it has to have a purpose. We have to want to do the new thing for a reason, and I’m still looking for that reason.
Yeah, playing video games in VR is one thing, but hanging out with friends in VR and going to work in VR is a harder sell.
There’s some “Ready Player One”-type vibes sometimes where it’s like, “what would it mean if we didn’t have to go to the meeting?” But it’s also not that hard to just do the thing we normally do. I’m looking for a reason to really want to try this stuff. I give new stuff a shot, because that’s my job. I give it a chance. But I think we’re maybe on the brink of getting a bunch more interesting answers to that question.
Meta’s VR hardware is fun to play with, but I don’t want to live in it.
It’s just another cool piece of tech to play with, and there’s a lot of cool tech to play with already. It’s not going to get that mass adoption that I’m sure Meta is hoping for.
Do you think AR will be more accessible to people than VR?
That’s where I find it easiest to see useful use cases. I remember the Google Glass days, and as crazy as that product was, having turn-by-turn navigation instructions just in the corner of your vision while you’re walking through an unfamiliar city is very useful. Little stuff like that, I actually found really functional, at its core. The hardware was old, and that’s 10 years ago, so obviously tech has gotten a lot better since then. But I think AR is easier for me to see as a future.
What companies do you think are doing AR well?
Obviously the iPhone and LiDAR. Functionally, it’s really good, but it doesn’t do anything useful. Yeah, I can put a couch in a room and see what it looks like, but I’m still looking for that “gotta have it” thing.
Is there any tech that you do think was useful, but didn’t make it?
Google Glass is the perfect answer. Ten years ago, walking into a bar with a camera on your face was insane, and now Snapchat just made a pair of glasses with the camera right on it. It’s way more acceptable.
There are a lot of privacy debates around wearable tech — do you have any ethical concerns around this kind of tech?
Well, you always hope it comes from a responsible company that does responsible things, which is why there is concern with Meta. That’s all I’ll say about that! But yeah, it’s the same as with your phone — if you’re doing important stuff on your phone, there will be a lot of important data there, so privacy will be important. We hope that the companies do the right thing with that data.
Is there any piece of tech that you think more people should be talking about?
Non-Tesla EVs. They’re almost there.