YouTube can be home to sensational videos, feuds among creators, and a litany of more disturbing content, but creators like Shane Dawson are demonstrating what YouTube could be like if people used their platforms to act more responsibly.
His newest video is a one-hour documentary on fellow YouTuber Eugenia Cooney, a creator who left fans concerned when she announced in February that she was taking time away from the internet to work on her health. While Cooney never openly talked about her hiatus, fans voiced their concerns about her weight, with many people asking if she had an eating disorder. She opened up about it for the first time with Dawson, who discussed his own history with an eating disorder. It’s an emotional, revealing, and ultimately respectful profile that offers an intimate look into the lives of two beloved, popular personalities.
“This to me feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Dawson says in the video. “It feels very much like, ‘I don’t want to fuck this up.’ I want to do this right.”
Unlike previous docuseries that Dawson has produced, talking to someone with mental health issues requires a heightened level of professionalism and sensitivity. The way he approached this video likely mattered to the more than 21 million people who watched it, and his influence on the community means it could shape the way other YouTubers approach similar topics in the future. It was an acknowledgment that there’s a difference between using the platform to elevate himself — as many other popular vloggers do by flaunting wealth, vlogging about exotic weekend trips, or participating in the latest feud — and actually using the platform to do good within the community.
It’s a level of responsibility that took Dawson years to achieve. Prior to embarking on a quest to become YouTube’s Ken Burns, Dawson was a controversial figure. His early sketches were accused of appropriating black culture, and it took years for him to apologize for his offensive jokes and use of blackface in some videos. A few years later, other offensive jokes about pedophilia and bestiality that he made on podcasts resurfaced, leading to another apology. He’s spent time cultivating a new presence that investigates, explores, and, oftentimes, redeems other controversial YouTube creators through multipart series.
Other YouTubers have tried to replicate Dawson’s technique. It’s a successful format, and it’s a stark alternative to what’s currently available on YouTube. Sensationalist tactics and clickbait titles currently dominate the ecosystem, but Dawson takes time to invest in his subjects and showcases how empathy can drive an audience, too.
His 60-minute special on Cooney is similar to series he’s published in the past with Tana Mongeau, Jake Paul, and Jeffree Star. The videos work, in large part, because Dawson approaches each of these divisive personalities with a level of empathy that other creators, who often use figures like Mongeau and Paul as punchlines, don’t. His time with Cooney goes one step further, removing the sensationalism of his early work and producing an honest conversation about a difficult and important subject.
“Dawson’s current YouTube brand is honest, self-deprecating and empathetic,” Abby Ohlheiser wrote at The Washington Post. “He’s good at getting his peers to open up. Dawson’s documentaries on other YouTubers often feature sit-down moments in which Dawson and his subject talk about difficult issues and hug it out.”
Dawson’s responsibility — to YouTube, his fans, and other creators — has largely been forced upon him as his audience and influence grew. Up until very recently, he never really accepted it. Arguably, he didn’t know how: he’s not exceptionally young (he just turned 31), but he was experiencing the celebrity of being a YouTube creator that few had gone through before. As Ohlheiser pointed out, “When Dawson became famous, there was no playbook for how to be a YouTube celebrity. He is writing it, in real time, in front of us.”
His work with Cooney feels like more evidence that Dawson has recognized the power he has on YouTube and the influence he wields. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki even took a meeting with him. Dawson has gone against the typical YouTuber grind, slowing his work down to produce longer-form interview series that shine a light on what it means to work on YouTube and embracing the humanity of fellow creators.