Internet Cultured: Shane Dawson’s docu-dramas legitimize YouTube content

Jessie Chang | Daily Trojan

Shane Dawson’s newest eight-part docu-drama “The Mind of Jake Paul” has taken the internet by storm in this past week. In addition to commentary on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing and moth and lamp memes, my Twitter feed has been flooded with hype surrounding Dawson’s new series — and for good reason.

Dawson, often thought of as one of the “grandfathers” of YouTube, is known for conspiracy theory videos, challenges, weird products, tests and skits, content that has fluctuated in popularity among his 17 million subscribers. However, in the past few months, Dawson has revitalized his 13-year-old channel by creating exposés on Jeffree Star and Tana Mongeau’s catastrophic “Tanacon,” with each video garnering over 10 million views. Digging into the life of the infamous Jake Paul might just be his most successful act yet.

To try and explain why Paul is such an interesting choice of subject could be reserved for a column of its own, so I’ll keep it simple. In a snapshot, Paul is a 21-year-old influencer who started on Vine (R.I.P.) and has now amassed over 17 million subscribers on YouTube. He lives with a group of other influencers known as “Team 10” in a house they rent for $17,500 a month, where Paul is known to make crazy challenge videos — including lighting things on fire, bringing lions into his front yard, nearly getting hit by cars and other shenanigans. Paul’s risky actions have frequently put himself and members of Team 10 in harm’s way, and his lack of concern has led some to accuse Paul of being a sociopath. Also, remember how YouTuber Logan Paul kicked off 2018 internet controversies by filming a dead body inside of Japan’s Suicide Forest? Yeah, this is his younger brother.

Some may question how Dawson’s video can be so significant. After all, with 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it’s expected that Dawson’s video would just get lost among those of every other narcissistic internet personality clamoring for attention.

Dawson’s series, however, is more than a mere collection of videos exposing controversial YouTubers. Since pioneering what it means to have a full-time career as a YouTuber, Dawson’s content has been pivotal in shaping the culture of YouTube itself and also influencing how users have created content. As YouTube has grown, so has the range of content — alongside an exponential rise in production value. Dawson’s docu-dramas capitalize on both unique subjects and quality content, highlighting his mastery of content creation while establishing new media platforms like YouTube as legitimate sources for real content — not just meme videos.

Essentially, Dawson has created a new genre of internet content that has further blurred the line between traditional and new media. This, my fellow internet addicts, is huge. There’s always been a professional divide between the two media, with traditional forms like film and television considered “the real deal” and new media like YouTube considered “introductory.” But that divide is now under serious scrutiny.

Granted, I recognize some may disagree with me about the professionalism of YouTube given that Dawson does not cover hard-hitting, real-world news. I contend, though, that Dawson investing as many hours and resources as he has creating these docu-dramas demonstrates that YouTube deserves to be discussed critically. As an undergraduate journalism student, I see Dawson’s docu-dramas and his aim to expose these YouTubers in an objective light as a new sector of investigative journalism. This will be fascinating to watch evolve as other content creators inevitably incorporate Dawson’s ideas into their own content.

Still, it’s a bit of a stretch to call Dawson’s content “journalism.” True, Dawson has already received acclaim for his series on Paul in accordance with his attempt to face his challenging subject with an open mind. In the second installment, “The Dark Side of Jake Paul,” Dawson interviews psychologist and YouTuber Kati Morton about sociopaths, ultimately asking if certain YouTubers, specifically Paul, are sociopaths. Critics have pointed out that the horror-like editing style surrounding Morton’s interview lacks sensitivity and stigmatizes sociopathy, a very real mental illness that, according to the video, affects approximately one in 25 people. In response, Dawson tweeted that he was thankful for the criticism and now aims to make the conversation better and less dramatized. It’s a step in the right direction, but clearly there are still many more leaps to be taken before content like Dawson’s docu-dramas are legitimized as investigative journalism.

Nonetheless, Dawson is one of the most genuine, innovative content creators out there. His ability to be transparent with his loyal audience, receive criticism well and adapt his content as needed has permitted him to stay relevant over the years, which is increasingly difficult given the behemoth YouTube has become. As a long time Shane Dawson fan (though I probably should not have been watching his videos when I was 11), I applaud his continued efforts to redefine an industry that typically relies on shallow clickbait and ephemeral trends to go viral and make bank. It’s extremely hard to create something fresh and real in this greedy online environment, but Dawson has done just that.

Rowan Born is a sophomore majoring in journalism and law, history and culture. She is also the social media editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Internet Cultured,” runs every other Tuesday.