2017’s “YouTube Rewind,” the end-of-year advertisement for the biggest trends and hottest creators on the platform, urges people to come together after an awful year. This heartfelt sentiment lasts about thirty seconds before the camera plunges back down to earth, where a rooftop party rages. Here, two blonde men look out at the horizon, squad in tow. They are the golden boys of YouTube, the hottest entertainers on the platform. Logan and Jake Paul.
YouTube is enormous enough that entire subcultures may never come into contact with one another, but the Paul brothers are different. They’ve blown up so much that other creators find excuses to write ‘Logan Paul’ or ‘Jake Paul’ into their video titles, hoping to pinch off some views from ardent fans. Appropriately, in the YouTube Rewind skit, creators surrounding the Paul brothers are in the middle of a paint ball fight that accidentally nicks Logan Paul in the face. At that moment, the entire party stops. They want to know what happens next. The joke, of course, is that Logan Paul thinks his brother is the culprit. Now in a fighting mood, the two men look ready to knock each other out. Their audience watches raptly, shocked faces in the background. Logan and Jake Paul then look directly at the camera and smile as if to say, ‘gotcha!’ They were never going to fight. They just wanted you to watch.
It’s that ethos that drove Logan Paul’s recent incursion into Japan’s “suicide forest,” and although mainstream media outlets have spent the past two days berating him for seemingly making light of a suicide victim, I’ve come away from this with one conclusion: It’s just going to make him even more popular.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the “suicide forest” incident. The entire thing is in bad taste: Paul finds a dead body, only to start joking around. Worse, he acts as if zooming into the body is some kind of landmark event for the entirety of YouTube. Even the way he walks into this somber place, as if he’s about pop a keg in a frat party, comes off horribly. Since then, other popular YouTubers and the mainstream media have condemned Logan Paul’s actions, and he took the video down. Folks are now discussing the state of YouTube, YouTube stars, and Japan’s troubles with mental illness. Seemingly everyone is disgusted. But the only thing I can think of is this: given the Paul brother’s reputation for stretching the truth and staging videos, was that body even real?
I don’t know. If it is, it still feels like I’ve fallen into a trap. The Paul brothers’ ascent on YouTube was tinged with notoriety from the get-go, when they started out uploading videos filled with terrible raps against one another. YouTubers would react to these videos and cringe, but it didn’t matter. Everything increased the Paul brothers’ viewership counts by the millions. While the Paul brothers got big by hyping up their adventurous lives, the gossip and mainstream media coverage painted a different picture of faked relationships, questionable assaults, staged beefs, staff bullying, and general obnoxiousness. And yet, no matter how gross any of this gets, Logan Paul still seems to benefit from all of it. It’s all content—even the apologies. Everyone, from the New York Times to perhaps your own mother is talking about him right now.
According to Social Blade, Logan Paul has gained over 100,000 subscribers since the Aokigahara video, all while devoted fans continue to rally support for him. On YouTube, the beast is never killed, only fed. Pewdiepie might have spent the last year mired in controversy, but his channel is still growing, and he says his fandom has a better sense of community now. Elsewhere, thousands of people are still watching the family that temporarily lost child custody due to abuse. For all the discussion around how YouTube needs to improve its moderation, it seems clear that some of the larger public wants to support their favorite YouTuber no matter what.
Our newest generation of celebrity has become an expert in keeping our attention, no matter what it takes to get it. With the help of algorithms, some creators have practically drilled that down to a science. YouTubers know exactly how long a video needs to be to get better placement on the platform, they know to make surprised and disgusted faces on thumbnails, and they write vague titles in all caps, often promising a tantalizing story or antic. Videos with “I almost died” in the title have millions of views, and fittingly, typing those words into the YouTube search bar leads to this autocomplete:
Often, these videos are lies or exaggerations, but by the time you’ve figured that out, it doesn’t matter. YouTube logged that you watched it. It will autoplay something similar for you right after the current video is over, and if you’re unlucky, it’ll continue to recommend similar garbage to you from there on out. We can’t help but look at car crashes, and platforms like YouTube reward that voyeurism by encouraging even more of it.
In the case of the Logan brothers, spectacle is always the directive. As Vox explains, the two brothers became famous doing stunts and pranks that crossed the line, and after the two moved on to YouTube, the line only continued to shift. But after the threat of losing your own life has lost its shock value, what—or who—is left?