The Mess of Jake Paul

by thethreepennyguignol

So, in case you missed it, let me catch you up on the current drama consuming Youtube and the surrounding social media platforms right now: Shane Dawson, a thirty-year-old Youtube monarch with eighteen million followers, has recently turned his hand to making series surrounding controversial Youtubers (including Jefferee Starr and Tara Mongeau). These videos, investigating the motivations, histories, and businesses of these creators, have proved incredibly popular and often offer redemption for creators consumed by the controversy surrounding them, put forth as documentaries (even though they lack any real journalistic bite).

Enter Jake Paul: one-time Disney actor turned Vine superstar turned Youtuber with a seventeen-million strong following, twenty-one-year-old Paul has frequently earned derision and hate for his bro-ish, douchey,sometimes outright mean prank videos – you might remember him from earlier this year, when his brother, fellow Youtuber Logan Paul, was caught in a backlash against his video showing the body of a suicide victim in Japan. As well as his prank videos, Jake Paul is also the man behind Team 10, a group of ever-shifting collaborative Youtubers and creators who live in an enormous house in LA together. Ex-members of Team 10 have accused Paul of bullying, with an ex-girlfriend and fellow Youtuber releasing a video that appeared to accuse Paul of physical abuse.

A few weeks ago, Dawson announced that he would be releasing an eight-part series titled The Mind of Jake Paul, purporting to expose the truth behind Jake Paul, his business, his controversies, everything. I must admit, I’m a follower of neither creator, but I am interested in the way Youtube as a platform is developing (as I wrote earlier this year). So I decided to watch this series (which is now five episodes in). And…wow.

It’s been hard to miss the controversy that almost immediately sprang up around the series. With the second episode, Dawson interviewed Kati Morton (a counsellor and Youtuber), and the two of them shared a conversation speculating over the possibility that Jake Paul and Logan Paul could be sociopaths, offering thin disclaimers as they appeared to diagnose them via videos and social media, while Morton described people who suffered from these symptoms as making her feel “icky” and “gross”. Within hours, the internet had exploded with anger: declaring that Dawson was stigmatising Anti-Social Personality Disorder (the disorder often correlated with the symptoms they were discussing) and mental illness at large, that the series was exploitative and beholden to clickbaity Youtube mores, that taking the angle of his sociopathy was ridiculous when compared with the more compelling parts of his history.

In following episodes, Dawson had Morton pose as his producer to secretly accompany him to a meeting with Paul, during which he would sneak off with Morton and discuss Paul’s actions and how they might relate to his potential mental state. What followed was Dawson responding to these criticisms on social media – including discussing his own history with mental illness – and apparently editing the series in response to these reactions. The whole thing is a huge mess, but a fascinating one, so let’s get into it.

I think the thing that stood out most to me watching this series is how frantic it seems. Not that it’s fast-paced or lean – five forty-plus-minute episodes could easily have fit into half the time – but the sheer level of panic that appears to be going on behind the scenes. From the third video onwards, the series was peppered with disclaimers and what appeared to be semi-snarky clapbacks to criticisms thrown at the previous episode.

On Twitter and in Youtube comment sections, Shane Dawson can be found doing damage control, episode by episode, reacting to the backlash in real-time. The release date of the series has been pushed back more than once, as Dawson and his production team apparently partially rework their originally-intended content to try and get ahead of the potential criticism before it comes. In some ways, this reminds me of the chaos with Adam Wingard and his Death Note movie last year – except instead of just reacting to the reactions, Dawson is going in and editing the story based on what people are criticising him for.

On the one hand, this is a profoundly strange phenomenon, especially with regards to the documentary (or documentary-adjacent) format: having a creator respond to the reactions to their work in real-time is something that’s almost exclusive to Youtube and similair social media platforms. And in some ways, this is arguably a good thing: did we really want to watch eight episodes of Dawson and company speculating wildly on the mental health of Jake Paul and those around him?

Watching him gasp over “gross” sociopaths was bad enough for one episode, but at least the backlash has reduced it down to brief – if frequently unflattering and stigmatizing – references across the rest of the series so far. Dawson is a creator with an almost unfathomably enormous platform, and anything that allows him to discontinue fostering stigma against a certain group of people who often find themselves at the wrong end of societal acceptance of their illness is surely a good thing. Obviously, it should never have gotten this far in the first place, but at least the real-time backlash has allowed the producers to cut down on churning out more misinformation than they already have. I’ve found a lot of the attempts to right the apparent wrongs in their depiction of ASPD pretty hand-wavey and sometimes downright snarky, but at least the furore around his depiction of mental illness has all but forced some reflection and restraint.

But at the same time, there’s a reason that documentary makers (and again, I’m not really putting Dawson up there with Louis Theroux or Bart Layton) don’t give themselves the option of going back and reworking their story as its released depending on the audience reaction. Productions like Making a Murderer or Serial are wildly controversial and highly watched because they took a stance and ran with it: if Making a Murderer had looped back around on itself after realizing that a lot of the audience base believed that Steven Avery totally did it, it would be an almost pointless endeavour of a piece of storytelling. They set out to prove that he was falsely imprisoned after being framed from a murder, and the people who didn’t believe that have little to no impact on the way the narrative is formed.

It’s only by stating a definitive opinion that you have people debate you on that opinion, and undercutting your story with backtracks and social media disclaimers leaves no room for that debate. Thus far, with the five episodes released, Dawson has created an unwieldy behemoth that requires engagement with media beyond the episodes released (from response videos to contextual tweets to defenses from his collaborators) to fully comprehend what the hell is going on.

I’ve found the chaos surrounding the Jake Paul series really interesting, because it’s raising a lot of questions about the viability of using a platform like Youtube for long-form, independent, documentary-style content such as this. On the one hand, it allows for a greater connection and reaction to criticism which, with a show like this one which has represented a mental illness with such a lack of regard, seems important. But on the other, it’s really undermined any coherent story that Dawson might have told about Jake Paul and his life at large, as Dawson and his team try to backtrack into something that won’t be so controversial by steamrollering over much of the first act of their series.

For now, the situating of the series on Youtube from a creator so ingrained in the platform has undermined what this could have been, as the responses and real-time reworkings have rendered the series confused, messy, and indulgent.  And, most importantly, it’s this interactivity that has really consumed The Mind of Jake Paul: everything that surrounds it has swallowed whatever the series actually is in a gulp of Youtube drama and passionate social media debate.

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(header image courtesy of Out.com)

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