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Shane Dawson’s Jake Paul series is really about YouTube’s broken heart

Shane Dawson’s Jake Paul series is really about YouTube’s broken heart

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YouTube’s creators do some soul-searching

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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 documentary “Mind 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 first “Mind of Jake Paul” video, 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.

“Do you think to be a YouTuber you have to have something off?”

“I want to know the psychology of a YouTuber... do you think, to be a YouTuber, you have to have something off?” Shane ponders. It’s a personal question for Shane, given that his year has been defined via videos where he shares touching personal moments with other big YouTubers. What, he wonders, makes him want to be so vulnerable like that in front of a camera?

As the series progresses, the focus primarily shifts to exploring whether Jake Paul’s dangerous antics, such as lighting an entire pool on fire or his seeming disregard for his own safety, are markers of sociopathy. But even then, you see flashes of what’s really troubling Shane. In the second episode, when the YouTuber visits a licensed therapist, he tells her that the series was originally going to be about whether or not something needs to be wrong with you in order to want to be a YouTuber. At one point, he asks the therapist to categorize him because he can’t figure out why his life has turned out the way that it has. He says that he knows nobody wants him to cover Jake Paul, but that he feels that he needs to do it in order to come to terms with himself.

This is not a series about cracking Jake Paul or rehabilitating him — not really. This is Shane Dawson staring into the abyss, knowing full well that he’ll find something familiar lurking in the shadows. Maybe all YouTubers do, on some level. “No matter what somebody thinks about your videos or whatever, everyone can agree how much work it is ... having to come up with the craziest shit every time,” Shane says to Jake Paul at one point during the series.

Jake agrees, saying that he feels like he has to top himself with every subsequent upload. “I think that’s where a lot of madness and craziness comes in,” Paul says. This sentiment — the idea that you have to keep going, that the next thing always has to be bigger and better — is at the heart of why so many YouTubers end up feeling burned out.

Not all YouTubers follow precisely in the Paul brothers’ footsteps, but the blond brothers are intense iterations of the culture and conventions that YouTube has built over the years, from uploading consistently to generating extreme reactions and situations. That’s why most YouTubers can watch a Paul video and see merit in it, as Shane suggests. That same drive is why Shane decided to cover Jake Paul in the first place. He says he felt like he had to be more ambitious after his last two documentaries — and what could be more ambitious than taking on YouTube’s most hated personality?

As the series goes on, Shane reveals that he sees a lot of himself in Jake Paul. In episode 6, Shane remarks that they’re practically the same person as they share stories about how both stars grew up with divorced parents that forced them into construction work. “This is so weird. This is weird,” Shane says. “I knew I had so many things in common with you, I just had this weird gut feeling.” These hardships, both men say, pushed them to be creative during troubling times.

Later, in an episode titled “The Secrets of Jake Paul,” the younger Paul brother says that he once went to a YouTube event and felt ostracized by the community. Shane says that he understands that feeling completely, likely in reference to some of the alienation he felt after being criticized for things like wearing blackface.

“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 is likely to 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.