Mike Rugnetta is a man of many interests. On any given day you might find him giving a live presentation on memes or editing his podcast about sound, but he's most well known as the host of PBS Idea Channel, a YouTube show that draws connections between pop culture, the internet, philosophy, psychology and more. Rugnetta takes on far flung topics, from Bronies' relationship to masculinity to whether Super Mario counts as surrealist art. You could call him a 21st century philosopher, using rapid-fire GIFs and cultural illusions to tackle age-old ideas about what it means to be human.

Hopes&Fears sat down with the YouTube empresario to discuss his process, his (failed) attempt to improve arguing online, and "decreasing world suck."

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 1.

Sophie Weiner

Author

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 2.

Eric Helgas

Photographer

 

 

 

 

Adventure Time and nostalgia

 

 

 

 

H&F: Why do you take pop culture and internet culture so seriously?

MR: You interact with it every day, right? There are all these jokes about, when am I ever going to use calculus? When am I ever going to use, you know, the stuff that kids don't want to learn in high school? But it makes you more powerful to understand it. I think that the same thing is true for culture studies, for media studies, for philosophy. It allows you to view the world from a more powerful place.

H&F: I feel like a very prominent feature of your show is the constant GIFs and sight gags on the screen as you're talking. Do you think about that when you're actually writing or is that something that comes afterward?

MR: Little bit of both. If I have a really strong idea, then I will write in the script, "We need this," or if I'm making a direct reference to something. A lot of it comes directly from Morgan, my director, and Ian the editor. It's them responding almost as audience members to the things that I'm saying and trying to extend or respond to the meaning by adding that stuff. I kind of like it because—I mean, I don't kind of like it, I love it—because it's not all me. I like that it's an additional layer of reaction that's not entirely my sense of humor.

H&F: Your videos are very subjective because it's just you on camera talking. It's not you going out and asking other people, "What do you think about this?" It's you drawing on different sources, and that, in some ways, sort of limits the subject matter that you can cover. 

MR: It absolutely does. And my authority is really confusing to people. When you're speaking on camera to millions, people want you to have an authority. People want you to say things that are true or acceptable facts. 

Idea Channel is about starting conversations and me being like, "I don't know, I had this idea. Let's just talk this through. Do you agree? Do you disagree?" I'm perfectly willing the next week in the comment response video to be like, "Well, nope. Looks like the answer is no. Looks like we were pretty off." or, "Oh man, I missed this whole really important part of this thing that I didn't even know about."

 

 

 

There are people who want the truth and people who want the answers and people who are interested in objectivity. Then there are people who are interested in why humans behave the way they do, why we create our culture in certain images, how our feedback loop of media works, and who care much less about the objective, hard facts.

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 3.

 

 

 

H&F: What has the response to the show been like? Who would you say your audience is?

MR: I'm a big non-believer in demographics and metrics and analytics. I think it's my liberal arts background that makes me immediately skeptical of numbers in a spreadsheet. I know generally that our audience is pretty even across the 13 to 35 age range. Depending upon the episode, we swing either slightly to mostly male or really mostly male, which is weird because the stuff that we do—cultural theory, cultural criticism, fandom studies—is all very heavily, as far as academia is concerned, female. The group of people that study this stuff is largely female.

I try really hard to interact one on one with as many people in the audience as I can, whether it's via Twitter or via Tumblr. I don't want the abstracted demographic—where they live, where their income bracket is, stuff like that. I think when you do that you get a very inaccurate picture. It's people who really just want to have conversations about the kinds of things that they like, and they want to treat them with a kind of perspective or, not carefulness, but ...

H&F: Rigor?

MR: Yeah. Something like that. Rigor, but fun. I think my audience wants to figure out what the unannounced assumptions about things are. 

I think that it's been interesting to make something that is culture- related or theory-related at a time when STEM is getting all kinds of love, and rightfully so. There's a divide between these things that unfortunately exists. There are people who want the truth, and people who want the answers, and people who are interested in objectivity. Then there are people who are interested in why humans behave the way they do, why we create our culture in certain images, how our feedback loop of media works, and who care much less about the objective, hard facts. I think—less so now—but when I started Idea Channel it was one of the few places on YouTube that was trying really hard to have that kind of conversation. Now I think it's one of many places, which is really exciting. 

 

 

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 4.

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 5.

 

 

H&F: I feel like a lot of the other media online examining the interactions between culture and tech is largely very, very negative and very depressing. I feel like Idea Channel has less of a dystopian aura around it than a lot of the other stuff that I see. 

MR: I think of Idea Channel as almost the opposite of something like The New Inquiry. The New Inquiry is very critical. It has a very serious tone to it, as it should. It's about Marxist, post-Marxist takes on the current situation, which is not a great one. You can get that read on that kind of thing very easily from a lot of places. 

One of John Green's mottos is to decrease "world suck". So, Andrew proposed that the goal of Idea Channel would be to reduce "world snark". The idea is that we would approach things very earnestly and we would try to celebrate stuff. Even the things that were hard to celebrate, we tried to find what about them could be hopeful for.

Again, I want to stress I am a subscriber to The New Inquiry. I see absolutely the worth in being upset, getting mad, shouting, yelling. It's just that's not what Idea Channel is for. 

Hopes & Fears: What qualifies as an idea for the PBS Idea Channel?

Mike Rugnetta: Number one on the list is it's got to be exciting. I want to talk about stuff that I can see myself—when I run into someone for whom it is the most important thing in the world—we can have a ten-minute long conversation that I'm excited to have. 

Some things happen fully formed. We have an episode about Metal Gear Solid in the works. The newest Metal Gear Solid game opens with an epigraph about language from a Romanian philosopher. I'm like, all right, the work is done for me. I'm very excited to talk about how this game relates to this epigraph, and relates to larger ideas.

We're working on this other one on X-Files right now. It's tough. So many things have been said about the X-Files, what could I possibly say that's interesting? So I'm reading about aliens, about X-Files, about conspiracy theories, about what Chris Carter thought about the show when he first put it together, about the historical situation in the '90s. Then, just sitting down and writing until something starts to make sense. Which, I'm hoping eventually it has to, so it will.

H&F: I want to talk a little bit about your series of videos on logical fallacies. How did you get inspired to make those videos, and what kind of reactions did you get to them?

MR: Here's the thing about the fallacies videos: I don't regret making them. I'm glad that we made them, I'm glad they exist. But if I had not made them at that point, and the idea to make them dawned on me today, I would not go through with it.

 

 

 

 

The five fallacies

 

 

 

 

The reason we made them is because I identified a widespread misunderstanding of what good arguments were. Part of that was people shouting about fallacies at one another. Being like, "Your argument's bad because of this fallacy." The idea was to make two sets of videos, eventually working our way towards this point that even if an argument has a fallacy it doesn't mean it's wrong.

We were like, "We're doing the internet a service." Really, what it did was just encourage people to look for more fallacies. It did not encourage better arguments or better conversation, it just reinforced in people's minds the idea that fallacies are a thing, and that they make arguments bad. It accomplished essentially the opposite of what I wanted to. In the wake of those videos, I think much more carefully about what the potential effects of getting involved in a conversation will be and how we can maximize the good and reduce, and not contribute to, the snark.

H&F: It sounds like you're being kind of hard on yourself. I mean, I don't think you really made the internet worse through those videos. 

MR: All right, but I didn't make it better. 

H&F: Is there anything that you would really like to make a video about, but for any reason you feel like you shouldn't, or you can't?

MR: Actually, yeah, a bunch. My impostor syndrome is pretty strong. There are a lot of things where I'm like, "I can't talk about that. I'm not that qualified to talk about that." 

 

 

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 6.

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 7.

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 8.

 

 

Idea Channel has done no real heavy, digging deep episodes about race. With the exception of our assistant editor, Kristen, everyone who spends a significant amount of time on the show is a white man. I struggle with trying to figure out, one, what I can bring to the table, and two, whether I should even bring anything. If I decide to do that, wouldn't it just be better for me to point to other people who are not like me?

A friend of mine who is an anthropologist just asked me the other day whether or not we had done any videos on disability. That's another one. I think about the situations in which we would talk about disability and I'm like, I just don't know how to approach that topic as myself, even from a place of being really clear that I know that I'm not an authority.

H&F: Have you guys thought about ever making the show more than just you? Having more than one person actually on camera in the show?

MR: No, but we have talked about having research assistants or a writers' room kind of thing where we can talk about things that fit into the show, but are things that I have no expertise in or don't have enough formulated opinion about or just plain don't know about.

This is going to come across as severe egoism. I think it's important that it's one subjectivity that is, if not consistent, then consistently changing, so people can see the progression and tell it's really clear where we're coming from. When it starts to become a kind of hydra, it's harder to know from an audience perspective where everything stands. We've been doing the show for four years now. There are still some people who are like, "Wait. Is this guy really liberal?"

 

 

Rigorous fun: A conversation with PBS Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta . Image 9.

Idea Channel is about starting conversations and me being like, 'I don't know, I had this idea. Let's just talk this through. Do you agree? Do you disagree?'

 

 

H&F: You also have a podcast about sound. What kinds of stuff do you guys talk about on there?

MR: Before I came here I was writing the next episode, which is going to be the Halloween episode about screaming. Like what is a scream? How does it work? What does it mean? It starts with punk rock. I read a really interesting paper about punk rockers in Mexico City and the use of the scream as a way of advertising the labor of their subculture. The scream is about work. Our subgroup can't get work so we are in the band, we work here in this way because the economy for our community is so shit we can't do it in other places. Which, right, is super powerful. 

Then, transitioning to the scream in movies. Talking about how there's the shout, the yell, the scream, the blood-curdling screams. They all have different meanings. Two of the most famous sound effects are male screams, but arguably the most used and the most effective scream in the movies is the female scream in a horror film. 

H&F: It sounds like the show is sort of similar to something you might do on Idea Channel but mostly relating to sound?

MR: It's mostly relating to sound and the episodes are anywhere between 20 and 30 minutes. Heavy on the digression, heavy on detail. Not really discussion based. It's kind of just like picking up this one thing and then trying to get as almost purposefully esoteric as possible. It's a lot slower than Idea Channel.

H&F: What are you really excited about right now?

MR: Let's work from specific to very general. I'll just give you a broad range of things. 

I'm building a modular synthesizer which I'm very excited about. It's a long, in progress thing. Sometimes I just burn a hundred dollar bill and just put it inside it. It's a very expensive hobby, but very fun. Making music with it has been really fun.

I'm really excited about the future of the podcast. We just started a Patreon. It got some five-second reads on national radio over the last week or so. That's really exciting. I really, really enjoy making it because it's the thing that I get to do every week that most resembles making music. I get to stand in front of Pro Tools and edit audio which is my weird, happy place.

I think most generally I'm really excited about the kind of ongoing credibility or import that's given to online communities, online interaction. There's a real developing understanding of what fandom is, what online community is, how they work, why they're important and the things that they can do to shift larger cultural understanding. I especially am excited and curious to see what happens to those communities as they relate to video games, because video games are always a very tumultuous subject, clearly. But right now we're starting to realize that there are people in that community that don't fit into the very homogeneous picture that we have had for up until even a couple of years ago.