YouTube is known for creating Internet sensations-makeup gurus, live-action gamers, teenage heartthrobs, and now, poets. With more than 100 million overall page views, 13 million of them on his poem "OCD," Neil Hilborn is the most-watched poet on YouTube.
Hilborn's career started with an ending. In 2013, he was a creative writing student at Macalester College in Minnesota, where he competed in slam poetry events. "OCD," a poem describing love lost to the effects of mental illness, had been a slam-performance staple for Hilborn, but after reciting the poem hundreds of times he felt it was falling flat. He wanted to retire the poem. His friend Dylan Garity, founder of the slam poetry production group Button Poetry, wanted to record it. Hilborn thought it would be his last performance.
"I was so wrong," Hilborn says now.
Overnight, the video got more than one million page views via Reddit. Hilborn still doesn't know who posted it. Button Poetry later posted the video on its own YouTube page, where views continued to rise. "OCD" suddenly went from being a pain to being popular.
"When you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, you don't really get quiet moments. . . .
Usually, when I obsess over things, I see germs sneaking into my skin.
I see myself crushed by an endless succession of cars."
But the poem's real success was how Hilborn was able to share his personal experience with OCD millions of times to millions of different users. The poem is personal and heartbreaking. It's not some teenager in his basement building a Minecraft utopia, or some bright-eyed girl with a brush showing you how to contour. It has a strong effect on viewers. "'How can it be wrong when I don't have to wash my hands after I touch her?' I've suffered from severe OCD for 24 years," writes YouTube commenter Dr. Fobik, "and that quote nearly made me break down. Lived that quote."
Hilborn released his book Our Numbered Days with Button Poetry in 2015. He now spends months at a time on tour, like a rock star. His show at the Beat Kitchen last November sold out within days.
"All I've ever tried to do as a writer and performer is just try to be as open and genuine as possible," he says.
When Hilborn performs, his voice booms, his arms flail desperately, and his face contorts with each line. YouTube helps transform his poetry from words on paper to miniature spoken-word one-acts.
"What's most helpful for me is when I can take those thoughts or feelings and literally externalize them," says Hilborn. "When I can put that on a piece of paper in front of me, suddenly it's not this huge, terrifying thing."
Hilborn supports social media as an avenue for art. After all, it did start his career. Social media is like layman's PR: free and far-reaching.
"People, especially young people like me, need this avenue to express themselves, and poetry is the cheapest art form," says Hilborn. "All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, and you can steal those things." v