Exploring Tokenization on YouTube with F.D Signifier

We talked with the video essayist about how he's navigating newfound success on the platform

Illustration by Moy Zhong with photography by F.D Signifier

Over the last several years, video essayist F.D Signifier has become one of the most recognizable faces of “BreadTube”—a reference to an informal group of YouTube creators whose commentary videos argue in favor of left-wing ideas.

Scroll through Signifier’s channel, and you’ll find provocative titles (such as “Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ and White Liberal Performative Art”) mixed with hour-long run times. And it’s clearly connecting with viewers: The creator blew past 650,000 subscribers in 2023 while uploading just 12 videos.

Yet Signifier (who keeps his real identity private online) has found that success on YouTube comes with “unintended consequences”—specifically, tokenization and censorship—that almost forced him to quit. In his latest upload, he opened up on how critics have accused him of pandering to white audiences and described him with the word “c*on”...a word he can’t even say on YouTube without his videos being demonetized.

We spoke to F.D on how he got his start as a creator, balancing advocacy work with producing entertainment, and when we’ll see more traditional academics like him (a former PhD candidate in sociology) begin to share their ideas via YouTube video essays. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hey F.D! Appreciate you taking the time to chat today. I feel like your videos are always getting dropped in our Slack and really sparking conversations.

So I scrolled back to the first video on your channel, which is from 2020 and analyzes the hit play Hamilton. You have this great opening line: “It's probably an appropriate microcosm of all my flaws that I decided to make my foray into YouTube video essays by taking on a topic way out of my depth.”

Walk me through this statement and kind of where you were at when you first decided to upload on YouTube.

So I’m a long-standing consumer of YouTube. I’ve been watching YouTube more than normal TV since the early 2010s.

I was a big Channel Awesome guy, a big Red Letter Media guy. Of course, Lindsay Ellis, who is now a colleague of mine—which is always surreal, because I watched her for 10 years and then suddenly I was having a conversation with her about joining [creator-owned streaming startup] Nebula.

A lot of that influences my style and humor. And what I initially wanted to do was kind of like your classic media analysis type of stuff. But I guess it was doomed from the start because my first video’s goal was responding to (for lack of a better way of putting it) some of the cringe perspectives on the play Hamilton.

[The play] had finally come out on Disney+ and I was like, oh, this is actually really, really good. But also, everything that I had previously believed was bad about it was just as true as I had imagined. In fact, kind of worse.

This was at the very beginning of a lot of the uprisings [following George Floyd’s murder in 2020] if I'm not mistaken. I already had more time on my hands due to COVID, and I had been having some spirited Facebook conversations with people about, you know, why some of the responses that I was seeing were inadequate. And suddenly, talking about Hamilton seemed like a great way to engage with that dialogue a little bit.

I’d been wanting to make videos for years at that point and had no excuses. It was like, okay, I’m talking about Hamilton and live theater, even though I don’t really know anything about the genre or medium. But I know bulls**t when I see it—that was kind of the purpose of that opening line.

You mentioned you were an early consumer of YouTube, which I’ve heard you bring up in podcast interviews and your “How I made it as a Video Essayist” video. You tell your story in terms of being a teacher for 10 years, eventually pursuing a PhD in sociology.

At the same time, you were always a pop culture junkie, and you felt like you could really contribute something more in-depth to the conversation on YouTube. I think you had this line in an interview: “I’ve always believed that pop culture is just as valuable and depthful as Shakespeare and sh*t.”

What was the gap you saw in the video essay genre on YouTube—or YouTube as a whole?

It was, very explicitly, the absence of Black voices. 

The thing that people often don't know about Shakespeare is that he was pop culture. Like, his stuff wasn't considered high art when it was coming out, you know?

And similarly, Black media and pop culture is not just worthy of discussion, it’s happening. We talk about it all the time. There's entire prehistoric memes connected to The Dave Chappelle Show, or Coming to America—movies and television that people like me, “elder” millennials, grew up on.

Being a consumer of Lindsay Ellis and all these other video essays, I loved hearing them talk about freaking Phantom of the Opera, which I’ve never seen in any capacity. That passion that Lindsay has for that piece of work…I get that, which is why it was always awesome to hear her talk about it regardless of whether or not I had any contextual connection to that particular piece of work.

But I would also see pretty much no discussion of Black media or films or TV shows—definitely not some of the more insular works. And when I did, the discussion would be mid-to-not-great. Not in an offensive way, but just in a wow, you guys miss so much. There’s so many things that are subtextual to the Black experience that it would be very surprising if you did get them.

The overall goal [of creating videos] was, how do I make that type of content I feel like I’m missing when I watch YouTube.

Do you feel like you’re still playing that same role or filling that same gap?

In some ways, yes. In some ways, no.

I don’t know if I could take full credit, because YouTube is a complex creature. But some of the moves I’ve made as a member of the YouTube community to promote other Black creators…I didn’t see much of anything that looked like what I was looking for before I started making content, and now I see a whole lot more of it.

I’m also making that content myself. As far as I can tell, I’m the biggest person making this type of content. Which is, you know, on some level cool. But also, there’s a lot of pressure with that, and I hope that there will be more creators who can make it as big as I have doing this type of content.

We’ve talked with a lot of creators recently who have really been evaluating how they can best use their platform for advocacy work, or work tangentially related to advocacy.

You’ve commented on quite a wide variety of topics, but I remember when you put out your video on “Cop City” in Atlanta, and how that sparked a lot of conversation online.

I’m curious to hear about how you balance media analysis and, you know, cultural criticism with advocacy work—whether you directly refer to it as advocacy, or tangential to advocacy work—as your platform has grown.

So that’s an interesting thing that I’ve been working on since that video, and other commentary I’ve had about Cop City.

The magic, but also, like, the curse of content creation and influencer culture… the parasocial relationship kind of magnifies what you are, and what you are capable of. Because you appear on screen, you speak well and you have an artistic flair.

People kind of assign you not just traits, but characteristics and roles that you’re not really equipped for, or maybe not even interested in, you know?

And so my challenge has actually been trying to redirect the energy and accolades and ‘attaboys!’ that you get as a content creator towards actual causes when possible. Challenging my audience to break out of that type of relationship with my content—with anyone’s content.

To say, you watching this video is not advocacy. It’s not, you know, organizing, or protesting, or voting. It’s not any of those things. You’re watching my videos for entertainment, and in entertaining you, I have the explicit goal of educating you about certain ideologies and topics. My goal is for you to leave my content with certain understandings and opinions.


At the end of the day, this one-sided relationship is very passive, in comparison to the actual problems we’re seeing out there. And that’s something I didn’t think about early on because I didn’t think about any of this.

But if you understand the history of social movements, they probably shouldn’t be led by people who have social media platforms and personal gain to be had via the Internet. I make my money making videos, and that means I have limitations when it comes to what I want to do in my content because there’s consequences—YouTube doesn’t allow certain things. 

And there’s real life consequences too. After I did that Cop City video, I had people who said, Hey, there’s people talking about your video at the local city government meeting.

So I do want to balance, like, how do I educate people on these things, challenge them appropriately, while fulfilling my own selfish desires of being an artist and creating content? And, you know, take care of my family.

Everything you describe, what you’re grappling with as your platform has grown…you talk about the nuances of your success and the unintended consequences in your latest video, right? And how you almost quit YouTube last year, before you dive into an analysis of Spike Lee’s career and his 2000 film Bamboozled.

What was your approach in talking openly about this while also, as you kind of say now, working in the confines of the media analysis essay genre on YouTube—what your audience has come to expect from you?

There’s a couple different goals in mind.

One of the things that I was big on, even early on as I became successful, was making sure that I was never going to let my white audience slide off too easily. That every time they choose to click my videos, they understand that my goal is for them to think to themselves, Is this the video that’s going to make me really uncomfortable about something?

And with this video, it was like…I am now this grand statement, F.D Signifier. And thanks for doing that, that’s awesome.

But one of my favorite lines from that video is when I say how I don’t want to be the BreadTube equivalent of The Wire. There’s this meme that for guys who have never shared a space with Black people their entire lives, they get to college and think, I watch The Wire, so I understand Black issues and Black people.

I don’t want to contribute to that in any form or fashion. And that combined with, you know, the nice amount of money I get paid for doing this, and the fact that I do always have to keep in mind the sensibilities of YouTube and Google and a significant white portion of my audience…it’s a form of tokenization.

Performing for this audience is a compromise that I want the audience to know about. So that was a big part of, okay, how can I communicate to my audience how the sausage gets made? When I provide them with a video that entertains and educates them, and they provide me, you know, AdSense and Patreon dollars.

That makes sense, and I think that dynamic shines through in the video.

Something you talk about regarding one of the characters from Bamboozled, an actor named Manray, is the idea of replaceability. The white entertainment executive character played by Michael Rappaport has no problem firing Manray on the spot after the latter goes off-script during a live, taped performance.

You’ve said before how you view the YouTube algorithm as your boss, and a volatile one at that. How do you think about this idea of replaceability as a creator, specifically as you’re trying to build a sustainable career?

The artistic aspect, I don’t stress that at all. In the algorithmic, technical aspect…that is the monkey’s paw of YouTube success.

I started a podcast and side channel that is much lower effort, and I have less stress managing it compared to managing my main channel because video essays are high risk, high reward. Unlike certain creators, I can make one piece of content every month—or every couple of months—and eat off of that. A lot of YouTube’s built-in desires are aligned well with video essays.

At the same time, if one flops…suddenly I have a problem. That part of it, I think, is universal to all creators. I think one of my advantages is that I’m an adult with life responsibilities and kids, which gives me a disposition to see this as work and understand my bottom lines.

I don’t play around with this algorithm or medium where I’m gonna end up in a position where my numbers aren’t hitting what they need to hit.

In the video, you name how Nebula has been a really helpful secondary option, both from a business and creative perspective. You talk about how it enables you to sustain—and not censor—yourself to the same degree as YouTube.

For creators in our audience, what should they know about Nebula or any of these alternative “companion packs” to YouTube? I know you’re active on Patreon as well.

I’m ironically a really good company guy because Nebula has done right by me in a way I did not foresee when I first signed up.

I told [Nebula CEO Dave Wiskus] initially in our first meeting that I was kind of skeptical and distrusting. That half of these creators are a bunch of white people and y’all got, like, four Black people on the whole site. 

But I knew this was a good look—Lindsay Ellis was one of the people that talked me up for it, so I was like, okay, I gotta f**k with that. And they’ve just been extremely beneficial to me as a creator, because it’s just access to resources.

I can have a video that…I don’t know if it’s going to do well on the main channel. So I can put it on Nebula, and then promote it on the main channel to, you know, increase the direct compensation from that.

My thumbnails, a lot of them are made by people within Nebula. But the biggest thing is the collaboration and community, the ability to access the techie creators, the artsy people, the experts on YouTube’s functions and the people with significant presence in the game.

That’s been immensely useful for me. And being able to find really small, Black creators and give them all the major keys to the game that I didn’t have when I started out—that I’ve been learning from freaking, you know, [productivity creator] Tom Frank—is huge.

So, you know, Nebula isn’t a place you can kind of just wander into. They’re looking for specific people with specific things they think can add to the platform, and it’s also not a replacement for YouTube. But it does, as a creator, give you a wealth of benefits that are definitely appreciated on my end.

Looking ahead at 2024 and beyond…do you feel like YouTube has evolved to the point where there’s room for more, let’s say, traditional academic types? Where 10 years ago, maybe some of your peers in academia might have scoffed at the idea of uploading videos as a way to communicate ideas and theses.

But now, do you see more people taking that leap into making video essays like you did, or just videos in general?

I definitely think that’s gonna happen. So I came out of academia, and I still have people there— some of them even envy me.

I immediately had conflicts in academia because, you know, I thought I was smart. And then I got to grad school and realized I hadn’t read s**t. And I feel like that again because I got out of grad school and started connecting with people really in the intellectual game, and realized I still hadn’t read s**t.

But [in academia], I was like, oh my god, there’s so much important information that is not being disseminated to people. We have these big a** sociological journals that only we read—why isn’t this going to more people?

I got frustrated with the publishing industrial complex. To finish my PhD, I would have to publish all these papers, and I would send them to journals. They do all this stuff, and now I can be a PhD and get a tenured track position at a university so that I can continue to publish research in journals that nobody else will read except for other people who are trying to get their PhD.

But I’m talking about the most important s**t ever, right? And regular people aren’t gonna access it or read it. So I think plenty of academics, especially those who are into certain subjects for the value of social change, definitely have the goal of bringing that to the people. And a lot of them are doing that.

Further, just talking to people who are still in academia, you can’t really get as far as you used to without having a social media presence or platform. I know many professors who have podcasts, who have active Instagram accounts. And I think over time, that’s going to create a stronger, more significant pipeline of more rigorous creators popping up on YouTube.

Last question: Where do you plan to devote most of your energy this year? What are your biggest priorities?

My plan is to, you know, indulge in the blessing of being a professional artist. That’s hard.

People don’t get to do art and get paid for it…let alone get paid well for it…let alone do it on their own terms. That is really hard, and I’m blessed that the video essay genre is so viable, and that I have so many elements to my personality and experience and skills that make me good at it at a time when it’s so valuable.

And it might not be valuable next year. They might change the algorithm in 2025, and it’s all about dance TikToks and I’m f**ked—I better have that podcast going, you know.

Thanks again for taking the time to chat today, F.D! I really enjoyed it.

Appreciate the opportunity to talk shop, and I hope people have good 2024s. Peace and blessings.