There’s a solid chance you have clicked on this post with absolutely no idea who the two people in the headline are. I wouldn’t blame you. To be honest, I really only know who they are through cultural osmosis and a fascination with internet celebrity. Yet, to a generation of young people, Shane Dawson and Jake Paul are idols of insurmountable fame in the same way boybands and movie-stars were to us as teens. Paul’s YouTube channel has over 5 billion views, while Dawson’s trails behind with around 4.3 billion. Both have done extensive work outside of YouTube, from books to T.V. shows to tours and much more. Forbes estimated Paul’s fortune at around $11.5m in 2017. You may know him better as the vlogger who became infamous for being a dick on his local news station when they reported on neighbours’ complaints about his wild parties. Or you might be more familiar with his older brother Logan, who garnered controversy after shooting a vlog in Japan’s Aoikagahara and showing a suicide victim. The odds are these people make you feel irritated, exhausted, perhaps much older than desired. They’re decidedly not for you because you’re probably not an 11-year-old whose entire life is defined by YouTube.
It’s easy to dismiss YouTube or downplay its immeasurable impact on modern pop culture and politics. We wave our hands at alt-right conspiracy theorists polluting the site but ignore how their ridiculous algorithms can lead to radicalizing impressionable young people. We roll our eyes at the notion of internet celebrities being as big a deal as ‘real’ celebrities then seem shocked when we discover how much money can be made from it. Even I, someone who tries very hard to understand this confusing ecosystem, was flabbergasted by the sudden media interest that surrounded Shane Dawson’s new evolution in his career: The documentarian turned YouTube celebrity life coach.
Shane Dawson was one of the early stars of the YouTube era, having signed onto the site in 2008 when he was 19. He got big through sketch comedy videos and pop culture pastiches before moving onto conspiracy theory material. He’s collaborated with some of the site’s biggest names and had outlasted many of its former kings and queens. He’s also a controversial figure himself, with a history of using blackface in his work. A film he made as part of a Starz reality series, The Chair, was deemed ‘deeply offensive’ and ‘tasteless’ by the show’s producer Zachary Quinto, and he even pulled his name from the film in protest. Where so many of his contemporaries have fallen into obscurity, become entangled in scandals or been crushed by their own egos, Dawson has endured.
The latest phase of his career has been as the unofficial archivist of YouTube celebrity, and in only four months, he’s become bigger than ever as a result. In June of this year, he uploaded a three-part documentary series about TanaCon, an alternative to VidCon organized by Tana Mongeau that quickly descended into a Fyre Festival level disaster. Dawson’s three-part epic on the event, which included interviews with Mongeau and others involved, quickly garnered tens of millions of views. IndieWire, one of the most prominent film and television sites online, called it ‘compelling as hell’. And it is.
So is his follow-up, a five-part series on Jeffree Star, the original MySpace celebrity turned make-up guru who has a long and nasty history of racism, among other things. In its first two weeks, the series got around 70m views. More people watched this thing in its opening week than most major movies opening worldwide.
His current series is all about Jake Paul and it seeks to apply the same approach and intent to someone who may be hated more than Mongeau and Star combined. So far, it’s doing similar business. The first video has almost 20m views as of the writing of this post. The BBC are covering it, as are Teen Vogue, Polygon, the Metro and the Radio Times. The Fine Brothers have done reaction videos to it. The BBC theorized that he could be making around $2m a month from the series (Dawson has since denied this). So far, the videos have covered a lot of the same ground as earlier series as Dawson tries to uncover what makes Paul tick and why he’s so easy to hate. However, Dawson’s ultimate objective is a far trickier issue: Shane Dawson wants to figure out if Jake Paul is a sociopath.
Drama reports on YouTube are nothing new. The web of scandal and its reporting is very similar to that of traditional media, only now it’s quicker to access and doesn’t go through a journalistic middleman. Someone can talk trash, the other person will almost always reply within 24 hours and there will be a gaggle of videos dissecting every detail. It’s like a ’90s rap battle without the bars or the wit. Most of this will be utterly indecipherable to the outside world. Traditional celebrity gossip is its own difficult swamp to tread through: How much tougher does that get when the vernacular is new, ever-changing and dominated by fans whose average age is about 14?
Dawson has been savvy enough to know that not only is there a captive audience for his strange documentaries but a demographic of outsiders who want their own primer on how to approach this enigma. If you have no idea who Jeffree Star or Jake Paul are, his work is actually reasonably accessible in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or hopelessly out of touch. The archivist has to be a fan for the coverage to work, and Dawson wholeheartedly believes in his medium.
He’s also savvy to pop culture at large and what’s got the most eyeballs on it at any given time. His elasticity with his chosen focuses over the decade are partly why he’s endured where many of his contemporaries faded into nothingness. True crime documentaries are in a period of high visibility and critical legitimacy. While Dawson isn’t out there making The Jinx, he’s still savvy in his use of the tools available to him to evoke that sensation in viewers. His documentaries are cut, scored and paced like a Netflix series, demanding you binge-watch hours of them in one sitting. They’re pompous in their stylistic directions - every musical cue is straight out of Forensic Files, I swear - but it lends further mystery to the material. He’s taking it 100% seriously and he knows a big chunk of his audience won’t. Dawson gives YouTube drama the grandiosity it’s never entirely earned, but hey, someone had to.
This doesn’t work to great effect for a lot of his Jake Paul investigation. As many have already criticized him for, he cuts and scores his ‘investigation’ like a horror movie. He talks to a licenced therapist on the medical details of sociopathy and intersperses her words with film clips, YouTube drama and other unusual videos to illustrate her points. Even though he puts a disclaimer before all this ensuring everyone that he’s not drawing conclusions with these clips, it’s hard for everyone else not to do so. A note on how sociopaths are inclined towards violence is immediately followed with a news clip reporting on Cardi B throwing a shoe at Nicki Minaj. Of course, Jake Paul’s own videos feature prominently here because that’s the whole point. Dawson wants to diagnose him and yet he doesn’t seem to get the ethical quandary that puts him in.
Jake Paul became very successful with a simple shtick: Being a massive arsehole. He’s a jacked up bro who pulls increasingly dangerous pranks, screams more than he talks, wails bad white boy rap, and essentially lives as the human manifestation of cheap aftershave sprinkled in a jockstrap. When people who hate YouTube but never watch it think of YouTube stars, he’s probably what they imagine. His content is loud, monotonous and fear-inducing. There’s only so many times you can watch videos of him ‘pranking’ people with flamethrowers, jumping around in traffic and committing acts of casual arson before you too start to wonder if he truly is a sociopath. If you watch enough of these YouTube stars who all talk the same, act the same and share the same utter disregard for basic safety then it’s tempting to become your own armchair psychologist. It’s not tough to see why Dawson, a person clearly fascinated with fixing people, would see Jake Paul as the ultimate project.
Of course, he’s not a project. He’s an immensely rich and famous 21 year old man who has been at the centre of internet celebrity since he was 16 and he’s probably just a major arsehole. Is he a sociopath? Dawson desperately wants to believe so and is keen for you to come to the same conclusions through his crafting of the narrative. Moments of Dawson watching Paul’s parents on their own YouTube channels, a scene that is mostly cringe-worthy, is given pure serial killer treatment with the music choices, editing and cut-backs to Dawson’s terrified expression. Indeed, much of the series is Dawson looking shocked, concerned or pensive. His face takes up as much room in the thumbnails as Paul’s or others involved. This isn’t just an ethically messy attempt to diagnose a stranger as a sociopath: It’s a rebranding opportunity for Shane Dawson to be YouTube’s life coach in chief.
And yet I watched it. It didn’t get any better or all that informative and I felt pretty dirty doing so but I still watched it. There’s an undeniably addictive quality to the series, made by someone who knows exactly what to do to appeal to the biggest audience possible. It’s a messy balance between professional polish and vlogger spontaneity and somehow it works as a purely enjoyment based experience. But it’s not just that. It’s a series that wants to be more made by a YouTube star who wants to be more than your basic ‘influencer’.
The series works best as a microcosm into the artifice of YouTube as well as its personality industrial complex. The things revealed about Paul aren’t especially surprising - many of his scary pranks are faked, his father became increasingly involved and controlling of Paul’s business affairs, he remains far too competitive in all aspects of his life with his brother Logan - but they’re as much a part of the fabric of YouTube celebrity as the vlogs themselves. Paul’s popular persona relies on pranks - although that term has become more commonly associated with acts of borderline psychosis than genuine jokes - and he must consistently top his last stunt to keep his subscriber numbers up. That does not excuse the terrifying reality that pretending to use tasers on your family and friends is ‘good content’ but it is a sign of how endless this cycle is for all involved. Neither option is particularly appealing: Either he is a sociopath or he’s pretending to be one for the clicks. When Nora Ephron said everything is copy, this probably wasn’t what she had in mind but it feels like that ideology’s most logical conclusion.
That quandary has proved beneficial for Dawson too. If YouTube is an industry of personalities then he is simply the one who knows how to navigate it the best. He knows how the real-time nature of YouTube works and is shifting his focus accordingly, adding new details, apologies and updates to each video in a way that traditional documentaries never could. As the drama of YouTube becomes further fodder for an unknowledgeable media to be confused by, Dawson seeks to be the insider who can translate his world for the outsiders.
Sociopathy is an outdated term for antisocial personality disorder, the preferred diagnosis for modern medical experts, but it’s clearly less ‘cool’ sounding than that thing you hear on every network crime procedural. You can’t make a Netflix-style documentary about a 21 year old who may have trouble forming emotional attachments with others and hope to get tens of millions of views for it. Shane Dawson is a talented storyteller using it for wildly irresponsible means. It’s what YouTube has always done.
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