Voices: Why a four-hour YouTube video about a failed hotel has gripped Gen Z

Jenny Nicholson’s YouTube video essay ‘The Spectacular Failure of the Star Wars Hotel’ became the talk of Twitter this week (Jenny Nicholson/YouTube)
Jenny Nicholson’s YouTube video essay ‘The Spectacular Failure of the Star Wars Hotel’ became the talk of Twitter this week (Jenny Nicholson/YouTube)

These kids today, with their TokTiks and their YouToons and their ex-Twitter. They’re so overstimulated! Back when I was a kid, we had to entertain ourselves by hitting a bin with a stick we found, and that’s just the way we liked it. Not like now, when they can just reach into their pocket and pull out a little machine that shows them 15-second clips of Family Guy and people making pasta in the toilet.

The internet has really done a number on Gen Z’s attention spans. They’re so used to having access to a constant stream of “content” that they’re incapable of just sitting down and watching something from beginning to end. At least that’s what people keep telling me – so why are so many of them obsessed with ridiculously long video essays?

It seems that every couple of months a video will go viral despite having a runtime that would make Christopher Nolan sick with jealousy. The most recent example of this was YouTuber and theme park nerd Jenny Nicholson, whose video essay “The Spectacular Failure of the Star Wars Hotel” became the talk of Twitter this week despite clocking in at an eye-watering four hours and five minutes (and 38 seconds).

The video is Nicholson’s take on Disney’s now-defunct themed hotel Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, which billed itself as an immersive two-night experience where guests could live out their Star Wars-related fantasies (within reason). It largely consists of Nicholson talking to camera, interspersed with some promotional footage and Nicholson’s own recordings of the hotel. She also does a few Star Wars-themed costume changes to help liven things up, but this is very much just four hours of a person talking about a hotel that you’ve (statistically) never visited, and which doesn’t actually exist anymore.

I watched the entire thing.

A few months ago it was British YouTuber Harry Brewis, aka Hbomberguy, who set social media ablaze with his video “Plagiarism and You(Tube)” – a three-hour, 51-minute expose of prominent content creators who Brewis accuses of stealing content and repackaging it as their own. If the idea of YouTube drama makes you roll your eyes so hard you can see the back of your skull, I fully understand – which is why I waited an entire month before sitting down and bingeing the whole thing in one sitting.

So why are these videos so popular? More to the point why did I, an adult man with a job and a pension plan, gleefully watch them both?

The short, boring answer is that they’re really, really good. If you didn’t grow up with YouTube, you probably have a very particular, very unflattering idea of what a “YouTuber” is. While that might be warranted in some cases, it certainly isn’t here. I used to teach at a university level, and I can say with some authority that Nicholson puts more effort into her research than most postgrads do their dissertations. Her criticisms are laser focused, evidence-based and devastatingly convincing. She has clearly worked hard on what she intends to say, and has left little room for pushback. Ditto for Hbomberguy, whose argument was so thorough it caused several of the YouTubers he accused to go into hiding.

Of course, because they’re so meticulously researched, and because they’re the result of the effort of one person or a small team, these sorts of videos have become something of an event. These guys aren’t churning out four-hour video essays every week to satisfy the algorithm – we’ll be lucky to get another one out of either of them within the next six months.

And that’s a shame, because the other reason I watched them is because they are A-plus, vintage, prime gossip fodder. Part of the reason I even knew they existed was because they caused a huge scandal online. At one point it felt like they were all anybody was talking about – not just their content, but their wider implications.

Nicholson’s video, for example, forensically analyses all the issues not just with the hotel itself, but the wider institutional problems that Disney is currently experiencing, and which are causing it to fumble the multi-billion-dollar Star Wars IP. She explains how the company has moved towards a business model that incentivises cost-cutting, which is at odds with their customer-focused reputation; that their obsession with branding is undermining their brand; and that their desperate bandwagoning of new trends and technologies is causing them to waste billions of dollars on failed ventures.

Each point she raises could be another multi-hour video in itself, and makes for weeks of supplementary discussion. What she’s created isn’t just another YouTube video – it has real cultural value. She’s a genuinely smart, engaging entertainer – and more than that, like Brewis, she has something important to say.

Don’t get me wrong, there are other reasons younger people love these videos that have very little to do with their quality. One of the most popular reasons for watching a video of this sort of length is to have something on in the background while you do other stuff, like play video games or check your phone (which sort of flies in the face of the “gen Z are secretly the kings of paying attention” argument I’m trying to cultivate here). Likewise, not all of them are meticulously researched case studies – while researching this, I found one guy who makes eight-hour videos about the Nickelodeon show iCarly, which I can’t imagine are held to the same standards of academic rigour that Nicholson’s are.

But there’s some good stuff out there, and you shouldn’t be afraid to dive into a video just because it’s longer than a Netflix miniseries. After all, if the internet isn’t for watching videos about people complaining about Star Wars, then what is it for?