Shane Dawson’s coronation as the king of YouTube in 2018 is undeniable: whenever he uploads a documentary on a personality, it’s like the internet stops. Even if you dislike Shane’s style or approach, his investigations produce top-tier online gossip that no traditional media outlet — or YouTuber, for that matter — has been able to crack.
While his current eight-part documentaryMind of Jake Paul has primarily billed itself as an exploration of Jake Paul’s potential sociopathy, at its heart lies a much more troubling question: is the perpetual shitshow of YouTube a result of its design, or is there something fundamentally wrong with top entertainers on the platform?
In terms of headlines, YouTube has had a rough few years. Parents worry that the social media site feeds kids disturbing garbage, the system perpetually recommends extremist right-wing content, conspiracy theories proliferate faster than real news, and the most visible stars on the platform keep performing morally questionable (if not outright dangerous) stunts in the name of views. Meanwhile, many of the people who make a living on the platform swear that YouTube doesn’t care about their interests or well-being, only profit.
Some of these issues lie squarely on the shoulders of YouTube as a company, but others have left the community reeling. Controversial incidents involving creators like Pewdiepie, Tana Mongeau, FouseyTube, or the Paul brothers have painted the platform as a whole in a negative light, and creators are being forced to reckon with that stigma. There are many explanations, but most focus on YouTube as a system, rather than the people on the platform. In his documentary, Dawson raises another question: is there a fundamental problem with the type of person that YouTube attracts in the first place?
He says this contemplation kicked off his latest documentary, and he ponders it throughout his series almost in passing. “I’ve been wanting to do some type of video about the idea that YouTubers have to have some kind of personality disorder, something right, to do what we do,” Shane says in his firstMind of Jake Paulvideo, which he uploaded late last month. “Putting ourselves on camera all the time, being so open on camera all the time, having conventions with our name in it. There has to be something,” he says over footage of YouTubers doing everything from crying on camera to announcing a pregnancy.
For many, the things YouTubers do for their audiences would cross a personal privacy line. Most people wouldn’t announce a breakup with a six-minute video, for example. YouTube audiences expect that kind of access to their entertainers, though, meaning that anyone who operates within that space has to play the game. Maybe you don’t tell your fans about who you’re dating, but you’ll tell them a childhood story, or you’ll be honest about a fear or insecurity that you have.
Whatever the morsel, the point is that people want to feel like you’re a human being, and letting them in is the easiest way to do that. In the case of vlogs, which chronicle a person’s life, letting your audience in practically becomes a job. It’s not a job that everyone can stomach, which is why YouTubers are so notable in the first place. By this metric alone, YouTube does attract a specific type of person.
“As somebody who’s been hated for a long time, it’s taken me years, years,” Shane says. “People now are nice to me, but back then?” The comparisons don’t stop there. Later on, Jake’s girlfriend, Erika Costell tells Shane, “You guys are like very similar, in a weird way. It’s like, creepy.” Shane agrees that “it’s like looking in a mirror.”
Shane’s appeal in 2018 is that he’s the relatable everyman who doesn’t quite have himself together. Making fun of himself is part of his shtick. And if Shane Dawson can see himself in Jake Paul, the viewer probably can, too. Jake is sad, the documentary suggests, because he’s surrounded by yes-men who end up betraying him. Or: Jake ended up the way he did because his family was dysfunctional. And: Jake Paul is Jake Paul because he’s always striving for more. You get that, right? Jake Paul is all of us — and for creators on the platform, that narrative proposition is terrifying.
The crisis at the center of YouTube is not only that everyone is capable of making a bad decision or two that can turn into a Jake Paul-worthy headline, but everyone islikelyto fall into a similar trap when the thing motivating most successful YouTubers is the sheer ambition to capture eyeballs.
“Most YouTubers are attention-seekers. We want attention. We thrive off of it,” says YouTube’s leading gossip reporter Keemstar in the latest episode of Shane’s documentary. “And the best way to get attention, and to especially get new people to pay attention, is drama.”
Shane’s documentary ends this week, and while it may not claim to answer the focal question of whether Jake Paul is a sociopath, the prognosis, ill-advised as it may be, is beside the point. If YouTube is suffering a malady right now, it’s largely an amorphous one that the community can’t seem to wrap its hands around. “Sociopath” may not be the appropriate word for it, but acknowledging that there’s a problem at the center of YouTube could be the beginning of a better conversation. When things are named, they can be understood and tamed and perhaps, eventually, conquered.