After months of vlogs, Instagram Stories, and intense build up, YouTube stars Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau brought their closest friends, families, hundreds of strangers, thousands of online viewers, and a full MTV camera crew to Las Vegas on Sunday to watch the two controversial creators “get married.” The result is a troubling but inevitable forecast of what’s next for YouTube’s biggest personalities and the platform as a whole.
Their wedding was arguably the influencer event of the year, but set against the backdrop that it was all orchestrated for Mongeau’s MTV series, Tana Turns 21. There’s no proof the duo have legally wed, or evidence they’ll stay together beyond the lifetime of the schtick. Even Logan Paul, Jake’s older brother and fellow YouTuber, doesn’t believe it’s actually real. None of that matters to the more than 66,000 people who spent $50 on a live stream of the ceremony like it was a pay-per-view boxing match, but everything leading up to the big moment was a departure from what made YouTube work in the first place.
In 2019, authenticity has been replaced with pageantry, and relationships with viewers have been manipulated into making the audience care about something produced blatantly to turn a profit. Everything was supposed to seem real, but nothing did. Paul and Mongeau’s entire relationship has become the epitome of every reality show. It’s also the next step for YouTube creators.
Mongeau herself is willing to admit that traditional celebrity artifice is something she’s actively courting with her YouTube fame. “I remember being like 13 years old and literally when the Kardashians first aired, being like, ‘I am made for that shit. Like I am made for reality TV,’” Mongeau told Teen Vogue earlier this year.
Even though Mongeau told Teen Vogue that she’s fully transparent with her fans, adding she wants “to give them my most, like, raw authentic self,” it’s hard to tell how much of that is true when everything surrounding her relationship with Paul this month has felt fake. Mongeau and Paul can get away with it because their online selves have transformed into larger-than-life personalities. They have rebranded themselves as reality TV stars, and brought that energy to the broader YouTube community.
“What we’re seeing with Tana is her giving up some of that authenticity and freedom in order to work with MTV and grow bigger,” Christopher Boutté, a YouTube commentator and author of a new book about creators, told The Verge. “I think Jake Paul saw this opportunity with Tana crossing into the mainstream, and Jake Paul is trying to get in on that.”
It shouldn’t seem so unusual. YouTube’s community borrowed from reality TV’s most innovative narrative tool — confessionals — to create what the entire world now understands as modern vlogging. It worked extremely well. But as the vlogging format went out of style, creators are now looking for new and creative ways to remain relevant and catch people’s attention. For creators like Paul and Mongeau, that’s meant a return to the trappings of reality TV.
It’s not just marriage ceremonies and short engagements that are stealing from TLC, MTV, or E! shows, either. Kian and JC, two popular YouTube creators known for their elaborate series, recently started their own version of Big Brother. “Reality House” takes some of the most notable YouTubers working today — including iconic vlogger Trisha Paytas, who got her start on reality TV shows — and pits them against each other in a series of competitions. The winning contestant walks away with $25,000. Episodes are released every week, and it’s edited to feel like The Bachelor or The Real World.
One of the bigger issues facing the YouTube community, and one its biggest users have struggled with for years, is a feeling that mainstream networks are starting to dominate the platform and eclipse independent creators, Boutté argued. YouTubers like Mongeau feel like they have to join MTV to push their careers further, he said, while other YouTubers try to emulate bigger productions by hosting their own reality TV-style shows or putting on more elaborate productions.
Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson is a perfect example of YouTube’s new direction. Donaldson, who built a reputation giving large sums of money away to unsuspecting people and sometimes total strangers, brings in more viewers and subscribers by constantly raising the stakes. Digital marketing research group ScaleLab reported that Donaldson went from having roughly 20 million monthly views and 2 million subscribers at the beginning of 2018, but ended the year with 200 million monthly views and over 12 million subscribers.
“I think that while a lot of YouTubers are complaining about big productions coming in from traditional networks, and having to make their own big productions to keep up, they are making these videos because it’s something that people are coming in for,” Boutté said. “I think you have these people like Tana and Jake, and they’re just evolving the platform.”
“What we’re seeing with Tana is her giving up some of that authenticity and freedom in order to work with MTV and grow bigger.”
What’s happening right now, and what will continue to happen, is a deviation from the authenticity that defined YouTube creators for much of the last decade into more polished, but staged productions. Ironically, it’s reminiscent of what YouTube tried to previously do with YouTube Red originals, which would give its top creators money and space to make more “prestigious” shows.
It won’t happen across the board at once, but many of YouTube’s top creators will likely start to work with bigger networks, or produce their own high-end series that mimic more traditional TV shows. Even Paul himself referred to his own videos as WWE in an interview with The New York Times. “People know that’s fake, and it’s one of the biggest things of entertainment,” Paul said of professional wrestling.
Things are constantly changing on YouTube. New creators set off different trends, as other creators age out or go on to work on other projects unrelated to the platform. The only issue Boutté has with this current shift in YouTube culture is that while creators work to create more fictionalized or exaggerated videos based on their lives, younger viewers are left wondering what’s real and what's fake, harming the level of trust that underpins many of these parasocial relationships. That will change, he believes, but it’s going to take time for people used to YouTube’s past to catch up to its future, Boutté thinks.
“It’s going to take another decade before people realize that’s happening on YouTube.”