The YouTube video has been long maligned for being a worthless, stupefying form of media, guilty of dumbing down America one cat video at a time. I’m not here to fight the statement – Top Ten videos and Let’s Plays may very well be the new opium of the people. But for those seeking depth and analysis in the digital universe, there is a new form of digital video on the rise.

You might have never heard the term “video essay,” but you’ve definitely seen a few. Many of the videos produced by Vox, NowThis, and Buzzfeed can be categorized as video essays. The problem is that even creators struggle to define what exactly a video essay is.

Filmmaker Magazine recently compared video essays to pornography, being that, “as the saying goes, you know it when you see it.” The brand of the video essay initially described the work of film aficionados who would recut footage from existing films, providing a fresh look, and sometimes producing a new film altogether. The supercut and fan remix are descendants of this kind of video essay.

The term is now being used to cover a much wider spectrum of content. Video essays can look like vlogs, animation, documentary, news, or something else entirely. They are a product decisively endemic to the digital environment, where any and all influences are welcome.

The only commonality seems to be a thesis-driven focus that aims to provide a critical look into a given topic. The only other requirements is that a creator be passionate about the subject —since there is no guarantee that the videos will result in any kind of revenue.

As their own researchers, writers, editors, narrators and producers, the currency of video essayists is their obsession. Lewis Bond, the movie supergeek behind Channel Criswell, travelled hundreds of miles and spent days poring over the materials at the Stanley Kubrick exhibit in the London, in preparation for a thirty-minute essay entitled “Stanley Kubrick – The Cinematic Experience.”

In many ways, the video essay is a symbol for the coming-of-age of online video. The first few years of any new medium are largely spent attempting to pull off products meant for other media—like how early television spent years imitating theater and radio. Similarly, informational YouTube videos spent many years imitating documentaries and TV news pieces, but the medium has evolved into something entirely of itself.

Matching form to content – a prime directive for many essay creators—accounts in good measure for the unique style of the video essay. When done right, no two video essays will be alike, since their look, pacing, structure, and overall tone will be dictated by their respective subject matter. many other formats in an attempt to find the best way to explore a topic. “One of the most interesting things about this particular form is that there aren’t any rules,” said Max Winter, Editor-in-Chief of Press Play, in an interview for Filmmaker Magazine, “the video essayists tend to make up the rules as they go along.

This pursuit of uniqueness in each individual video stands in sharp contrast to film and television, media wherein rules and repetitive formulas are sought out as a way of lowering production costs. The rejection of systematization drove Evan Puschak, creator of “The Nerdwriter,” into the self-governed world of online video.

Before becoming the Nerdwriter full-time, Puschak wrote and produced for “Seeker Daily,” a show for Discovery Digital Networks, until he abandoned the project to produce video essays on his own terms. In a Q&A video, he explained his reasons for leaving DDN. “The structures of producing one video a day means that everything had to be templetized,” says Puschak, “everything had to look the same every day, and we sort of slaughtered the script into this b-roll formula that wasn’t interesting to me.”

Part of what allows video essayists to follow their creative fixations is that they are often disconnected from any kind of business interests. Many high-subscriber essayists are crowdfunded by their subscribers, using Patreon, a service which allows patrons to donate an amount for each video released (with a monthly limit, to prevent abuse). The Nerdwriter Patreon yields $3,337 dollars per video, and Tony Zhou’s “Every Frame a Painting” makes $6,913 dollars per video.

Patreon allows for upscaling, with some video essay channels essentially running a small video production business. Kurzgesagt, a German video-essay group, creates educational videos featuring slick, professional animation. They currently receive $19,586 dollars each month, which helps fund their team of researchers, writers, and animators.

Video essayists are a valuable part of the online ecosystem. As liberated, crowdfunded auteurs, they are raising the bar for what we can expect of online video and their style is in turn influencing documentary and other media. So the next time a video essay pops up on your Facebook feed, take a moment to appreciate the creator’s tenacity and dedication. Or you could, you know, take a break and watch a few cat videos.