Our guest this past week on the GeekWire radio show and podcast was Matt Harding of WhereTheHellIsMatt.com.
He’s an internet sensation who as been around for a long time (his first video was posted in 2005). He travels around the world to exotic locations and does the most awkward, lovable dance you have ever seen in your life, then turns them into inspiring videos featuring people from countries and cultures around the world.
We discuss how this all started, his favorite moments and places, and how things have changed online since he first got into this whole YouTube thing. If you missed the show, or just prefer text, here are highlights from his conversation with GeekWire’s Todd Bishop and John Cook:
Tell us the story of how you got started. People love your videos, you get millions of views on YouTube, how did you get into this whole thing?
Harding: I started this in 2003 after just quitting my job as a videogame designer. I had done that for seven years and then realized, I’m not very good at this and I’m not getting much better. I figured I should find something new but I didn’t know what. So, I started traveling hoping that somewhere along the line I would think, “I know what I want to do!”
A couple months into that trip, a friend and former coworker from Australia said, “Why don’t you go stand on that corner and do your stupid dance and I’ll film it.” We were in Vietnam. It was just an office lunchtime thing where I would go up to people when it was time to go get food and hover over them doing this annoying dance until they got up and came with me. This was in 2003 when digital cameras were just everywhere all of a sudden, and you could get them really cheap, and just throw them in your pocket and grab them to shoot not just stills but videos too.
So I started recording those videos everywhere I went and that kind of just sat for a couple of years. I edited it together but there was nothing to do with it. I had put it on my website but that was about it. Then I found it in 2006 on YouTube and it had 600,000 views and this person had uploaded it under the name firstname.lastname@example.org and was asking for donations so that “he” could keep on traveling. I did track the guy down and said, “I don’t know who you are but pretty sure you’re not me, so knock it off,” and he wrote back to me and said “I’ve collected $235 in donations so far and I’d be willing to share 5 percent of it with you.” That was a rude awakening. From there I got to thinking, “Well, people seem to like this, I don’t know why, but I like doing it so I’ll keep on doing it but keep control over it so this doesn’t happen again.”
The first video you did was very much about you and the locations and not so much about the people around you. As this evolves, it has become much more about the people in those places. What is the effect you are looking for when you create one of these videos?
Harding: It seems to put people in a good mood. I don’t understand it entirely. Early on it was just me, I would do this stupid dance in all these different places, and people thought it was pretty funny. I thought “Oh wow, everybody likes watching me dance.” But, not really. It started getting old for me, as well as for people watching it.
While I was doing this round the world, Sphinx, Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu kind of trip (which was great fun) I went to Rwanda and couldn’t find anything to dance in front of. There weren’t any landmarks there that you want to get in front of and say, “Hey, look at me!” But there are people, and I danced with a bunch of kids in a village in Rwanda. That was the first time that I really danced with other people. It was by far the most interesting, most fun bit of that video. (This was back in 2006). So, I had gotten sponsored at that point to do this video by Stride gum, and then I came back to them afterwards and said, “I was doing it wrong the whole time. I need to be dancing with people. You need to send me around the world again to make a new video with people.” And they said OK and I got to do that 2008 one.
It’s continued to evolve from that. In the 2008 one it was still “Here I am doing this one little dance,” but there was one moment in that trip that set me on this new path. I was in India and I got some Bollywood dancers to teach me how to dance. They showed me a couple Bollywood moves, which at that point I figured I wasn’t going to be able to actually do, but what the hell I’ll try. I found it’s a lot more representative of what travel is about, or should be about, which is talking to people and engaging with people, and learning from people in the places that you go to. I thought that was a whole lot more interesting than doing the same thing in the places that I went to. So I made this 2012 video (below) where everywhere we go there’s some new dance being done.
So how many countries have you been in?
Harding: While I was making this 2012 one, I was still counting for a while but I remember when I broke 100 and I made the conscious decision to stop counting because it was getting ridiculous.
Do you have top places that you’ve danced?
Harding: I do! My favorite places are the places that I generally have no idea what it’s going to be like when I get there. Places that hold a lot of mystery and excite the travler part of my brain like Namibia, Mongolia, there’s a country called The Federated States of Micronesia (it’s a series of islands in the South Pacific and every one of them are different and fascinating, each in their own way.)
Any advice for someone else who wants to become an internet phenomenon to the point where they can quit their day job?
Harding: I think it’s a lot harder to do nowadays, in some part to the clutter and sheer volume. Everyone I talk to at YouTube is always lamenting how many number of hours of content that gets updated every minute, so it’s very hard to rise above that. Also, YouTube’s focus has shifted away from one-off videos. It’s a lot harder for them to monetize unpredictable videos that suddenly get 100 million views. They’re not able to capitalize that as easily as reliable videos that come out every week from the same creator and get a million views. I’m in that first category, and YouTube’s not particularly interested in content like mine. They’re putting all this funding into these channels.
You have actually turned this into your vocation. How do you treat this as part of your life? Do you feel like it’s a 9-5 job?
Harding: Well it’s definitely not 9-5. It’s sort of like April-June and then home changing diapers for a couple months. It comes in fits and spurts where I’ll go and travel, but it does consume my life. It is definitely my job, for lack of anything else. I’ve been doing it as a job for about seven years now. As far as making it make sense financially, in the very beginning sponsors came along. Those were sort of the Wild West Days where this thing called viral video was happening, social wasn’t really even a word yet in 2005-2006. Companies wanted in on it but they didn’t know how. If somebody had done it you could get sponsorships to do it, it wasn’t that hard. And then as the years went by “gurus” came in and you’d go into the same meetings and they’d have their social media guru and their viral marketing guru who are supposed to know how to do this stuff. You’d become a more threatening rogue element, so it’s changed. Monetization of YouTube videos has helped a lot. The fact that I can put ads on my content now, doesn’t pay as well, but it gives the creators a certain degree of independence.
Have you ever been tempted to make it more than what it is now? Maybe go into different verticals besides just doing the videos?
Harding: People sometimes say “Why don’t you do a travel show” or something like that, but that’s such a drag right? Having a camera there all the time. I really love what I do. I love travel and I get to travel in this way that allows me to connect with people in these places. I get to meet all these different people in all these different countries and they’re really really excited to be part of this thing. And afterwards I get to put a video out that makes people feel really good and gets people excited about traveling. I don’t want to change it, I love it.
What have you learned about humanity through this process?
Harding: Oh boy, it’s hard to answer that question without getting really corny. I try to answer it with the video. The video is an attempt to express something that, when tried to put into words, you sound like cut-rate Deepak Chopra. Due largely to technology, I think there’s a real longing for community. I think we all really want to feel a part of something and we feel really isolated as of now. I think there’s this exuberance and enthusiasm that I experience when people come out to these big mobs in Slovakia or South Korea, and they’re really excited to be part of this thing that connects them with people all over the world. I think that’s a really powerful and really positive thing that we all have. It’s great to find any way you can to cultivate that and make it into something worthwhile.
GeekWire airs on 97.3 KIRO-FM in Seattle at 7 a.m. every Saturday, and 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. every Sunday. The show runs every weekend on GeekWire.com. You can get every episode using this RSS feed, or by subscribing in iTunes or Zune. Also access the podcast archive on GeekWire.
Listen to the show with Matt below or directly via this MP3 file.