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
“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
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