What makes Tom Scott so good

, 10 minutes to read, 360 views

If you haven’t seen a Tom Scott video, I am a bit jealous. You have before you a wonderful journey into one of the nerdiest YouTube channels, looking at the beautifully strange things in life. To be honest, it’s hard to describe Scott’s channel, but chances are you will enjoy it.

Recently, I was scrolling through Mastodon when I came across this post by Matt Gray:

Releasing videos to a schedule is one thing, but releasing videos to a weekly schedule non-stop for a decade is something else entirely.

Raise a glass to Tom Scott
Enjoy your rest, you deserve it!


YouTube After ten years, it's time to stop making videos. By Tom Scott

Matt Gray, apart from being a YouTube creator in his own right, is also known for hosting many programs together with Tom Scott. I think they are friends in real life. And me finding the video on Mastodon instead of YouTube (or another social media) is perhaps also a comment on the state of social media.

Tom Scott is pausing his YouTube Channel

Tom Scott announced in the video, that he is taking a break of unspecified length from his YouTube channel. After having uploaded weekly for 10 years, this is well-earned, in my opinion. Scott’s videos have a certain special draw to them that is really hard to explain. Somehow, in the time of the attention economy, Scott managed to stay successful by creating high-quality videos instead of the generic – pardon my French – crap that many other successful channels produce1.

And somehow, therefore, it feels very much justified that Scott is taking a break; it feels like he deserves it.

Early magic

Tom Scott has been on YouTube for a very long time. And as a testament to the quality (well, the quality of the content of the videos, not the video quality), the old videos are still good; they have stood the test of time.

Probably one of the best videos to start off with Scott is the following (which, incidentally, also includes Matt Gray). It’s really a stupid joke, but the stupid joke is executed practically to perfection. Also, the laugh when it works is so heartfelt and hearty that it’s hard not to enjoy the humour of it.

Another one that is a classic, in my opinion, is the toaster video. Anyone who has ever used a toaster knows that they are truly mysterious devices. Somehow, you can leave them on the same setting, and some toasts will not be enough; others will be too much. Truly confusing. The structure of this video is just so well done, and the payoff is incredible. Leave it to Scott to make a truly amazing video about toasters.

After the first couple of years, there is a clear trend towards more professional video production. For me, the content stays the same, albeit with more on-location access to interesting stuff and better production quality. But the videos truly keep their charm and a certain eye for detail that is so very enjoyable.

Nerdy stuff

Probably one of my favourites is the video of Scott explaining the concepts of APIs and bots using what I consider to be the best form of clickbait I have ever seen. A video with an auto-updating title that lists the number of views that the video has is just such a genius idea2. The entire video is very entertaining and, perhaps a bit sadly, also shows we can’t have nice stuff.

Not that I understand a lot about video production, but I have also struggled through video encoding problems. This video about confetti is such a good illustration of a technology most people understand nothing whatsoever, but one that also most people use every single day. And, in my opinion, also truly a visual masterpiece.

And in a very similar vein also goes this video about the compression and its artefacts of dark video. Again, an explanation of a very complex topic in a way that is understandable for most people, even having no experience of the topic. And again, this is a visual and animation masterclass. I would like to draw special attention to the transition between the green screen and then having a background, which is just such a delightful illustration of actually removing the background of the green screen.

Local mentions

As someone living in Switzerland, I also always enjoy seeing Switzerland in one of Scott’s videos. This is especially enjoyable, when it is about a place I have visited before, but never paid enough attention and I can still learn something from Scott through his video, about a place that is pretty close to me.

A great example of this is the video about the Br├╝nnlisau shooting range. I have never actually been there, but have often driven on the road that is below the trajectory of the shooting range (no really, they are shooting above a road that is being driven on). I have never really questioned it much, it just has always been that way, and it kinda made sense to me. Again, an excellent and explanatory video.

Also, very interesting is this automatic detection system in Brienz, which was used to automatically turn the lights red for the road that was in danger of being hit by descending rocks. This story has been gripping the Swiss Zeitgeist a lot and most people were paying attention when people in the village were evacuated, the landmasses descended the mountain and mostly missed the village and relatively little damage was done. In fact, residents were allowed to return to the village shortly afterwards. Scott’s video just looks at one aspect of this story but also highlights a genius technical solution to a very much non-technical problem.

Finally, perhaps something that makes a lot of sense in Swiss minds, not a lot of sense for anyone else. The Swiss Air force, sometimes a bit of a laughingstock (especially in Switzerland itself) is often integrated quite normally in to civilian life. Given that there is not that much space in Switzerland anyway, easy and practical solutions have to be found. This is a fascination to me because when I was a kid, there still was a red light that blocked a road from going through the starting runway of the airport near us. I would consider this quite an efficient use of space (especially since planes won’t be starting or landing all the time) and generally another nice Swiss speciality.

Long form content (ish)

Scott’s longer form content is typically where it gets fantastic. Well researched and presented excellently, these videos are more of long form essays in video form than anything else. And as always, they are very entertaining to watch.

Not that I care about Dasani water in any way (in fact, I’m pretty sure I have never had any Dasani water to the best of my knowledge); the video about it is interesting, gripping and also a video presentation masterpiece by Scott. One single take for an almost 10-minute video is simply beyond impressive.

Advertising online is often a special annoyance in my life. I would say that (and this is very much a subjective statement) advertising has become much more annoying. A particular annoyance is the embedded advertising, where someone is endorsing a product, they have never actually used before, and it is a paid endorsement3. Typically, you can easily tell because the endorsement is integrated so badly, but it is still a major annoyance. Scott explains masterfully the nuances and problems that do exist with the advertising. I’m an especially big fan of the small little parodies in between mocking some of the most abhorrent forms of advertising commonly seen on social media.

Finally, an absolute masterpiece is the video on copyright. With copyright, there really is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it serves as a vital incentive for creators, offering them legal protection for their original work, therefore encouraging effort to create new content. However, on the other hand, copyright can also act as a barrier to the remixing and reimagining of existing ideas. By restricting the use of existing works, copyright can slow down the process of innovation. This tension is masterfully explained in this long video4 about copyright.

So what’s the magic ingredient?

Scott doesn’t have a magic ingredient to make videos interesting to watch. Sure, Scott covers a wide range of topics, from science and technology to linguistics and geography. His choice of subjects is often unique and intriguing. And he has a talent for explaining complex subjects in a simple and understandable way. His ability to distil complicated topics into digestible content is beyond description. Scott’s enthusiasm for the subjects he covers is evident in his videos, and this passion is infectious. The quality of the videos is high, often using very well though out visual elements. Scott also makes us feel like we are learning something through watching his videos5. Sure, he is skilled at storytelling, which keeps us engaged throughout the video. The way he structures his content, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, makes his videos compelling. And finally, there is the consistency: Over the years, Scott has maintained a consistent level of quality in his videos, which helps in building a loyal audience base.

So there is really no magic ingredient, just well-structured, well produced, interesting, well presented high-quality videos that follow a consistent upload schedule and keep the quality consistently high. As with everything, it’s not magic, but rather quality work. Work Scott has certainly put into his videos, which clearly shows when watching them.

Finally, if you haven’t seen Scott’s goodbye-but-not-really-goodbye video, you should definitely watch it, it is well worth it.

Have a nice break, Tom6.

  1. This is not all of them, but there is a large part of Vloggers and similar types that seem to favour quantity over quality, making long videos just for the sake of being long and gaming the algorithm on YouTube. ↩︎

  2. Perhaps even funnier, is that the way I’m embedding the video means the title of the video displayed on this site is only updated when the site is being rebuilt. This is only done when a new post appears or something is changed/removed. As such, the title on this page might be different from the title on YouTube if you open the video, and the number mentioned in either of those titles might be off from the actual number count as well. (Well, on this page it is more likely to be off, just because of caching and delay effects. This page will also run behind the YouTube video, as this site is, of course, not receiving any updates from Scott’s code, but rather periodically clones the title from YouTube’s website.) ↩︎

  3. A paid endorsement is, in fact, not an endorsement, but rather a paid ad. If you endorse a product because you are paid for saying so, your endorsement immediately becomes valueless; I would argue you further hurt your credibility when making factual statements about other products, being paid for it or not. ↩︎

  4. I think it’s a bit unfair to make such a captivating video about a topic that sounds so boring at first. ↩︎

  5. If what we are learning is actually useful is an entirely different question. I would, in fact, argue that learning something less or not useful is so much more enjoyable anyway. ↩︎

  6. I don’t know Tom Scott, even though I have a feeling of knowing his character a little through watching countless videos. It felt strange to refer to him as Tom, so I mentioned the full name for the first mention in a subsection and followed the approach of The Oxford Style Guide and referred to the person by their last name. While this approach feels a bit outdated in the times of the internet, it felt right to me. Also, I broke my own rule for this sentence here. ↩︎

Tags: Mastodon, Popular Culture, YouTube