The Adverse Effects of Shane Dawson’s Popularity

Privilege is the lifeblood of YouTube celebrity.

Of all the YouTube creators to have survived the fierce winds of algorithmic change, Shane Dawson remains one of the most prolific. His docuseries format consistently rallies millions of viewers around the lives of YouTube’s most-controversial figures, picking their brands apart in a way no traditional media outlet truly manages to do–perhaps to a fault. With Shane Dawson’s usual round of docuseries, there comes the consideration of having exposed such a large audience to a skewed, and often sympathetic view of the subject at hand. It happened when Shane Dawson basically painted Jake Paul as a sociopath only to circle back around to a conclusion that amounts to “Maybe he’s not so bad after all,” and it continues to happen now, only with the subject of a former inquiry — Jeffree Star — poising to make a financial killing on the back of a newly-released beauty line.

The politics of Beauty YouTube are only tangentially related to the core problem with Jeffree managing to catapult his brand even further with Shane Dawson’s help–an unfortunate realization we’re all collectively having in the age of YouTube celebrity is that no one is quite ready to commit class treason to shine a light on its perils. Except for maybe MrBeast and PewDiePie, everyone at the very top of YouTube’s distributed share of the subscription pie does very little to self-reflect on the potential adverse effects they’re having on their audience by hooking them on a hefty dose of the parasocial relationships drug–Jacksepticeye infamously reflected on this aspect of his connection with his audience when he took a break from YouTube, citing creative burnout and audience attachment as the primary culprits. In contrast, it seems as though hitting above the dozen-million subscriber count has the unintended effect of shielding a creator from any amount of criticism, and it’s what Shane Dawson has grown accustomed to after sanitizing so many of YouTube’s serial gaffers for a living.

A cynical assessment of Shane Dawson’s YouTube presence is by no means rare. One of Dawson’s most-staunch critics is Verge’s Patricia Hernandez, and she argues that he didn’t do enough to address Team 10’s (Jake Paul’s clique of sorts) racist remarks when filming “The Mind of Jake Paul”, “often playing up how tricky it will be to strike a good balance between doing his job as a documentarian and wanting to be the Nice Guy that empathizes with Jake Paul.” That sense of false impartiality Dawson tries to impart upon the depiction of his guests often does a disservice to both their fans and critics–in Jake Paul’s case, fans now have something to point towards to discard concerns about his demeanor. Perhaps just as crucial if not more important, Jeffree Star who has been at the center of conversations surrounding anti-blackness and transphobia, now has those criticisms pushed to the wayside as they’ve now been overrun by an avalanche of artificially-crafted good PR that Dawson could’ve had an important hand in moderating, lest it washes Jeffree of any responsibility at all.

Equally-matched by Dawson’s toothless inquiry of his guests, is the ecosystem of internet culture critique that does little to challenge the status quo, entrapped by the new coat of paint that YouTube has given stardom in the digital age. Ex-Polygon writer Julia Alexander called Dawson’s format in its earlier days “an entirely new genre of video on YouTube that somehow makes it feel fresh all over again.” The thing is, while YouTube stars might seem more humane as a result, they’ve merely adapted to the design of their host platforms to accommodate for interactivity, something that’s very hard to do for television and film–it’s merely feeding gossip fodder that has next to no value beyond sheer entertainment. It is not a coincidence that we know more of YouTube’s inner workings than we know of cinema’s, but what slips through the cracks isn’t a fair characterization either–the feud of Tati Westbrook and James Charles illustrated this in perfect terms, wherein Charles who seemed so above the fire of criticism, had a significant portion of his following — notwithstanding the almost-immediate ensuing recovery — shaven when Westbrook disclosed contents of some unfortunate private correspondence. When the illusion of infallibility audiences project upon YouTube’s most notable figures shatters, it doesn’t take much for them to act upon it–that’s a scary prospect for everyone (including Shane Dawson) who would rather have their stock invested in the deriding of cancel culture than its advocacy.

That’s not to say whomever sits on a higher throne automatically deserves to get slighted for not adhering a form of much-needed intellectual sobriety–not at all. What’s required for YouTube’s ruling class to redeem itself aupres of masses, is to be cognizant of the wide-reaching effects it has not just on the YouTube community, but also neighboring spaces that often take YouTube’s reputation for “being real and authentic” for granted. Shane Dawson’s efforts in portraying popular creators under a different light are laudable, but he’s sure not to provide any cogent critique of their stature given that he himself is privileged through YouTube fame and is very much immune to any criticism that he, or his guests get. The veil of popularity — much like for Hollywood stars before them — has shifted their growth trajectory back to the first gear of an El Camino — the only scenario where Shane Dawson could conceivably receive any actionable backlash from anyone, is if it’s done from YouTube creators of his own caliber. The thing is, it takes a lot to commit class-betrayal, and it’s unlikely to happen now that Dawson solidified his position as the most powerful make-or-break YouTube critic.

It’s far too early to tell whether Dawson’s shtick is a temporary obsession for YouTube, or whether it will be the format to define his existence for the remainder of the platform’s lifetime. With the way that the YouTube discovery algorithm prioritizes clickthrough-rate and watchtime above any other metric, it’s very unlikely that Dawson will recede into oblivion anytime soon–however, he should keep his eyes peeled for imminent class rebellion. When that much power, reach and influence is split between such a small cluster of individuals, the least-privileged will find a way to retake the spoils for themselves no matter what. Dawson for now is feeding the YouTube gossip cycle pretty effectively, but at some point, viewers will decide the information they’re getting is grounds for upheaval and collective disgust, rather than mindless admiration.