Within Theatre and Performance Studies, terms like “liveness” or “(co-)presence” are keywords that encapsulate entire debates within the discipline that have played out over time; negotiations of meaning enacted through academic, performative usage. I want to examine the medium of YouTube (2005+) and, more specifically, Shane Dawson’s YouTube video documentary, The Mind of Jake Paul (September 25, 2018–October 18, 2018). I assert that in attempting to psychoanalyze fellow YouTube star Jake Paul—and answer the (de facto) question, “Is Jake Paul a sociopath?” (perhaps a timely question in the age of Trump)—Dawson somewhat unwittingly gives us a meta-analysis of YouTube’s “authenticity” obsession, a subtle critique of performance-labor and a warning about the perils of engaging with a digital platform that demands the continuous production of novelty. YouTube presents a bit of a paradox: it is a medium that is profoundly mediated and performative, yet one where users desire (and often demand) the absolute authenticity of their social media icons.
Keywords: authenticity, performative, YouTube, online, mediated
In recent years, authenticity has emerged as the keyword in discussions of online media like YouTube (see Wang and Skovira 2017; Gaden and Dumitrica 2015; Cunningham and Craig 2017; Somdahl-Sands and Finn 2015). Raymond Williams notes that keywords act as categories that occupy a privileged position in matters of academic discourse. He describes such terms as being:
significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretation; they are significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought. . . . Certain other uses seemed to me to open up issues and problems, in the same general area, of which we all needed to be very much more conscious.Williams 15
That is, keywords often entangled with the very problems that aim to discuss, so foundational and context-specific to a particular discourse as they are; they often end up acting as a form of cultural shorthand for entire academic arguments or epistemologies. Within Theatre and Performance Studies, terms like “liveness” (Phelan 1993; Auslander 1999) or “(co-)presence” (Fischer-Lichte 2008; Zhao 2006) are exactly such keywords: encapsulating as they do entire debates within the discipline that have played out over time; negotiations of meaning enacted through academic, performative usage.
Part of what I want to examine here is the medium of YouTube itself (2005+) and, more specifically, Shane Dawson’s YouTube documentary video documentary, The Mind of Jake Paul (September 25, 2018–October 18, 2018). The object of study might seem like a bit of an odd choice; the series is not exactly high art . . . as sincere as is it might be. Importantly though, what the series highlights is the paradox of “being yourself” while being watched by an audience—a conundrum germane to Performance Studies (or perhaps, more specifically, to some traditions of Performance Art). Certainly since many theatre artists distribute performance teasers, disseminate artifacts or have channels on YouTube, I think it is important to have a sense of how YouTube works and more importantly: what people want from it as a medium—both as the producers and consumers of content.
I assert that in attempting to psychoanalyze fellow YouTube star Jake Paul—and answer the (de facto) question, “Is Jake Paul a sociopath?” (perhaps a timely question in the age of Trump)—Dawson somewhat unwittingly gives us a meta-analysis of YouTube‘s “authenticity” obsession, a subtle critique of performance-labor and a warning about the perils of engaging with a digital platform that demands the continuous production of novelty. By the end of the series, the mental state of Jake Paul is a moot point; rather, what the show throws into sharp relief is the madness late (algorithmic) capitalism and the byzantine—often precarious—nature of online authenticity. YouTube presents a bit of a paradox: it is a medium that is profoundly mediated and performative, yet one where users desire (and often demand) the absolute authenticity of their social media icons (Cunningham and Craig 74).
Part of this paradox may derive from the fact that YouTube—as a medium—inherits as much from early webcam culture as it does from being a digital remediation of television. The ur-example of this hybridity is JenniCam (1996–2003), which literally involved a college student who decided to livestream her entire life onto the web; it is a precursor to things like YouTube channels, Facebook Live streaming and the rise of influencer culture (BBC 2016). As technologist Anil Dash has noted—in an era of social media, “We are now all Jennicam” (Digg 2015).
In Shane Dawson’s Mind of Jake Paul, we have an instance of the medium interrogating one of its own—or reflecting on itself—in the wake of increasing scrutiny. Jake’s brother, Logan, had infamously streamed his discovery of a body in Japan’s “Suicide Forest” and was rightly criticized for exploiting tragedy for clicks and views (December 31, 2017). The incident shone an unflattering media spotlight on YouTube and its high-profile influencers (PewDiePie’s borderline racist antics would be another prominent example). Early in The Mind of, Dawson admits that Jake Paul might only be a convenient stand-in, a kind of proxy for YouTubers as a whole:
Shane: I’ve been wanting to do some type of video about the idea that Youtubers have to have some kind of personality disorder or something to do what we do: 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 . . . and I want to know the psychology of a YouTuber. [turns to fiancé]. Do you think to be a YouTuber there has to be something off?The Mind of I, 12:46
Ryland: I think, like, 90% of people are at least a narcissist . . . I mean you have to make videos about yourself weekly; I think that’s the majority of YouTubers.
There is somewhat of a realization regarding the strangeness—and perhaps psychological unhealthiness—of people living like Jenny Ringley of JenniCam fame. But while Dawson is actively curious about this, Jake Paul is fairly oblivious to it until the very end of the series—when a manner of intervention occurs—and he agrees to take some time off to re-evaluate things.
As far as Internet personalities go, Dawson and Paul couldn’t be more different: Shane Dawson began his career on YouTube at 19, doing music videos and film trailer parodies, comedy skits, interviews with pop culture figures . . . eventually producing long-form documentaries. He is known for having an affable, if somewhat melodramatic style; for collaborating extensively with other YouTube stars; and working through his and other people’s traumas—at one point in The Mind of he jokes: “Not every video can be me sitting in a bed with someone, crying about their childhood. I wish, that’s my favorite thing to do. [But] I don’t think this is going to be that” (I, 11:15). Despite some occasional lapses in judgement—and there have been more than a few—he has gradually made a transition from a Howard Stern, “shock jock” style of interviewing to being a kind of social media, Oprah figure.
Brothers Jake (22) and Logan Paul (24), on the other hand, are known for stunts, pranks and general Jackass-like behaviour. They began making 20-second comedy shorts for Vine, then graduated to longer, more elaborate pranks involving their entourage, Team 10. Logan, the older of the two, has largely been considered toxic since his visit to Asia, where he streamed his discovery of a dead body in Japan’s “Suicide Forest.” Jake, conversely, tends to be the brains of the operation, known for setting up elaborate—and frequently sadistic—practical jokes on the people around him. The two often seem to be interchangeable: at one point, Dawson remarks, “I didn’t know they were different people!” (The Mind of I, 07:12). People are either entertained by them or completely despise them; Jake’s rap video, “It’s Everyday, Bro” is the third most disliked video in YouTube history, which, considering the amount of content on the site, is saying a lot. Logan’s Japan video has made him a virtual pariah, both on and offline.
While much about YouTube might seem vacuous or problematic, it is also big business: Jake Paul made $21.5 million in 2018 and Shane Dawson made $6.2 million (Robehmed and Berg 2018). One is encouraged to “be yourself”; yet, at the same time, the algorithmic, capitalist system of YouTube—based on “clicks and likes”—demands constant content-creation and ever-increasing novelty in order to drive popularity (or just to stay afloat). On both YouTube and Instagram, the stories of influencer burnout and nervous breakdowns are legion (Alexander 2018). On one hand, you have YouTube and Instagram users wanting to see influencers being “real” people, who are “living their best lives”; on the other, this construction of “realness” online is a performed persona that comes down to brand-management.
One of Dawson’s interviewees (iNabber) contributes that:
I don’t think Jake Paul is a totally awful person. I think he’s somebody that has reached this level of fame and he doesn’t want to lose it. I think the whole thing with being popular for a lot of people on YouTube—especially for a lot of newer [people] is that you have to remove morals because the website has become so saturated. If you don’t have popularity from four years ago, and you’re at a thousand subscribers now and you’re wanting a million subs in a year, you’ve got to do something crazy. That’s happened so many times with them (Jake and Logan); [really] I’m surprised they’re not dead.The Mind of I, 30:42–32:55
The pressures of this type of performance-labour are compounded when one’s own brand becomes an industry in itself. Sitting outside a California mansion, Jake’s girlfriend at the time, Erica Costell, tells Dawson that everyone he has seen over the course of his visit to this sprawling Team 10 estate lives there: Jake, herself, friends, the chef, trainer, manger, Jake’s dad, Logan and other hangers-on. When Shane asks about Jake’s mental health given these circumstances, she replies:
I think it’s the pressure of everyone relying on him; when you wake up in the morning and everyone’s relying on you to live, whether you realize it or not . . . that’s a lot of energy being taken from you; that’s a lot of pressure on somebody.The Mind of VI, 22:32
Dawson reacts that “THIS IS NOT A NORMAL LIFE!” and encourages them to get out of the estate, a place which has become some combination of frat house, cult, magnet for grifters, merchandise store and production studio… but rarely a home. The whole scene is about what you would expect if you gave a 21-year-old $21 million per year.
The quiet exchange with Erica, and a later one-on-one with Jake, highlights one of the more interesting things about the series: the juxtaposition of Dawson’s concerned, occasionally awkward, very personal conversations with the people surrounding Jake Paul, contrasted with the absolutely insane goings on at the Team 10 House and beyond. It seems Dawson and Paul have approached not only the crisis of masculinity, but also the problem of authenticity from radically different angles. Bruhn (et al.) defines brand authenticity as the perceived genuineness of a brand that is manifested in terms of its stability and consistency (that is, continuity), uniqueness (originality), ability to keep its promises (reliability) and unaffectedness (naturalness) (Fritz et al. 2017). The issue of continuity is particularly important since audience’ desires for authenticity are especially strong in times of change and uncertainty, when individuals search for something to rely on, as a form of touchstone (Turner and Manning 1988).
By the end of the series, Jake faces some of his demons, perhaps for the first time, saying, “I’ve just never talked about that stuff” (Part VIII). He discusses his dysfunctional family dynamics, his brother’s betrayals, the pressures of fame, burnout and the possibility of getting further help. He agrees to take a step back, take a vacation and re-evaluate things upon his return. Shane Dawson gets his Oprah moment; Jake Paul gets some level of redemption, plus a vindication that he is not, in fact, a sociopath. (The jury is still out on Logan.)
Problematically, we also discover along the way that although the Brothers Paul believe their main audience to be late teens, their actual demographic is 8–14-year-olds. As others have noted (De Veirman et al. 2019), part of the reason why advertising money has flowed so freely to YouTube and Instagram influencers is because doing so short-circuits the normal advertising restrictions that target kids (a problem recently highlighted by the controversy surrounding Juul e-cigs and their online marketing campaigns targeting teens).
Another revelation that emerges is that all of the Paul Brother’s pranks have been staged. It’s Reality TV . . . something they would never admit to their fans, and likely never will. It’s a reveal that threatens to throw the entire documentary into doubt, through a process of recursion: if everything the Pauls did was staged, and everyone was just doing it for the clicks, popularity and money, what about these interviewees? Why did they agree to do this? Are they just trying to get new subscribers? Likewise, what if this entire documentary is staged and scripted like one of Jake Paul’s pranks? Wherefore authenticity?
Which brings me to my final point. The dynamics of desire and lack, destabilization and alienation—that make us crave authenticity—can give rise to either the quick-fix of Jake Paul’s devil-may-care, jackass antics or the earnest over-sharing of a Shane Dawson. But our desire for authenticity as a thing-in-itself—like the artisanal wood counters of every hipster coffee shop—is inevitably a desire for a kind of ontological certainty (or a strong sense of nostalgic affect) in an increasingly chaotic world. And that is not necessarily a bad thing—in that it can provide a (social) supplement, succor, a sense of groundedness, or perhaps just the ability to choose this not that. If anything, being thrust into the digital world in toto can create a stronger desire to connect in actuality, to choose community over isolation and opt for authentic relationships rather than mere identities.
Despite its somewhat illusory nature, authenticity does have its functions, as long as we keep in mind that it is not an ontological absolute; it tends to be performative, and as such is highly iterative—you have to work at it. Authenticity is much more of a doing than a being, and, as such, our performances of ourselves for others do not reveal the “ground” of our identities but rather one that is continuously being produced in our relations with others. Its current prominence as keyword is likely more about what we want from authenticity—what is gained or lost by “buying into” it, or what cultural desires it reveals (as a proxy). Finally, if (as Benjamin points out) authenticity—or the sense of affect it provides—is derived from aura, ritual and tradition (Rickly-Boyd 2012), then perhaps the sense of connection, community and production of meaning that those things can provide (Knudsen et al, 2016) might be better sought—or better yet actively, performatively produced—in the real world.
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*Chris Eaket is a Digital Humanities scholar and Performance and Media theorist living in Ottawa, Canada. He divides his time teaching English, Drama and DH at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. He has previously written for CTR, Cartographica and the ATM Digital Library.
Copyright © 2020 Chris Eaket
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