After writing this blog post, I am coming back to add three very important notes here at the top that you should read before continuing:
1. The following blog post contains content pertaining to suicide. No graphic depiction is included, but the topic of suicide is discussed. If this triggers suicidal thoughts or anxiety for you, I urge you to stop reading now. If you are currently wrestling with thoughts of hurting yourself, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
2. If your children or young people you know watch Jake and/or Logan Paul, please do everything in your power to stop them. Jake and Logan Paul, under the guise of positivity, produce content around themes that should not be consumed by anyone under the age of 17 or 18. On a related note, some of the content of this post should not be consumed by children.
3. I have not written this post to trash Logan Paul for my own gain. Logan Paul is getting enough hate from other people. He has apologized for his actions and has said he is taking some time to reflect. His remorse may or may not be genuine, but regardless, my post here is less about trashing Logan Paul and more about raising awareness of a serious issue with YouTube and social media entertainment in general.
Ok, now onto the post.
On YouTube, and really in the world of social media in general, the year 2017 belonged to two brothers who compete for the attention of same audience (preteen-to-teen boys and girls): Jake and Logan Paul.
A Brief Pauline Primer
Jake (age 20) and Logan (age 22) Paul are from outside of Cleveland, OH. They gained social media fame on the now-defunct app Vine. Here’s a compilation of some of Jake’s Vines, many of which feature Logan:
Around 2014, the Pauls moved to Los Angeles, California, which is the YouTube/Vine capital of the world.
Being in L.A. offers a number of benefits for YouTubers like collaborating with other social media creators and celebrities. Also, both Logan and Jake wanted to pursue careers in more traditional media outlets alongside their digital outlets. Until last summer, Jake Paul starred in the Disney show Bizaardvark (more on that later).
The brothers are friendly with one another, but they, like most brothers, are very competitive. From instances in which they appear in each others’ videos, their relationship seems close but definitely tense because of their competition. They are fighting for the same demographic audience, so this intensifies the conflict.
Honestly, Jake Paul is more interesting to me than Logan Paul. While Logan has more subscribers than Jake, he had a significant head start on him on YouTube, and Jake’s influence has grown much faster. Until now, Jake has been much more edgy and problematic than Logan.
Both brothers make about one million dollars per month from YouTube ads alone. Both of them have plenty of other means of income as well including lines of merchandise that they promote endlessly to their preteen audience, often guilting them into begging their parents to buy $100 backpacks and the like.
(Side note: the way Logan and Jake Paul advertise to kids is so manipulative that I cannot believe it’s legal. There are laws about advertising to kids on TV, and it seems those don’t apply to YouTube creator merch.)
Perception of the Pauls
Until the last few days, Jake Paul has been widely seen as the “wacky little brother,” and Logan as the more balanced, mature older brother. I was aware of Jake Paul before July 2017, but I started watching his videos almost daily when this story came to my attention:
This stunt got Jake Paul kicked off his Disney show.
I came away from that video thinking Jake Paul was the biggest jerk in the world. Like, the embodiment of the popular high school kid who bullies everyone not as cool as he is. But, I knew he was exploding in popularity, and I wanted to learn about him and how he is running his operation. So I started watching him almost daily.
It’s remarkable, honestly. He wants to be the first billionaire to make his fortune on social media. He is the head of a social media talent agency called Team 10—for 10 digits in $1,000,000,000—and they all live together in a house in L.A. You can learn more about Jake in this six minute HBO documentary.
But, we’re not here to talk about Jake Paul. That’s another post for another day. We’re here to talk about Logan Paul and what his latest stunt reveals to us about YouTube and social media entertainment.
Logan Paul, in contrast to Jake, has often been seen as the more “family friendly” of the two creators. The older, “wiser” brother who, though goofy himself, wasn’t quite as shocking or edgy as his younger brother Jake.
Amusing Ourselves With Death: Logan Paul Visits Aokigahara
On December 31, 2017, Logan Paul uploaded his daily vlog like he has the last 450+ days. Logan Paul and some friends were visiting Japan and had already published a few videos from the country. Before he posted the video, he tweeted:
tomorrow’s vlog will be the craziest and most real video I’ve ever uploaded
— Logan Paul (@LoganPaul) December 31, 2017
Well, he wasn’t wrong.
So what happened?
In short, Logan Paul and his band of beautiful vlog pals came across the body of a man who had recently hanged himself from the branches of one of the many trees that make up Aokigahara, known colloquially as the Japanese “suicide forest” at the foot of Mount Fuji.
Instead of gasping in horror, shutting off their cameras, leaving, and reflecting on their experience in a later video. Logan Paul and his pals continued filming, approached the body, showing it repeatedly, and did not stop filming or edit out clips of the actual dead body. They even included it in the thumbnail (preview image) of the video.
It is common YouTuber practice to make your most click-inducing, seductive scene your thumbnail. YouTube encourages such a practice. Logan and his team knew it was shocking and pushing the limits.
Logan Paul was not the first, or likely the last, YouTuber to visit Aokigahara.
It is sort of a meme, a trend, among YouTubers to visit the forest and make it into a sort of “horror” vlog. This is what Logan Paul planned on doing, it seems.
He got more than he bargained for and, instead of handling it like an adult, he handled it like a 21st century social media superstar.
He leveraged a suicide for content. For attention. For views.
What Logan Paul did was messed up, no doubt, but what Logan Paul did is simply a single strain of a much larger, multi-faceted disease.
Logan Paul’s suicide video stunt exposed the world to a major problem with YouTube and a major problem with social media entertainment in general.
The YouTube Problem
Logan Paul’s vlog was uploaded on December 31, 2017, and it capped off what was a difficult year for YouTube as a platform.
In the spring of 2017 it faced the first “adpocalypse” due to a misstep by PewDiePie, the most subscribed YouTuber in the world.
In the fall of 2017, it faced the second “adpocalypse” because news broke that shady accounts were showing grotesque videos to children by subverting YouTube filters.
Then, on the last day of the year, one of YouTube’s golden boys made one of the biggest mistakes the platform has ever seen.
Until the Aokigahara video, Logan Paul was seen as relatively family friendly. Curse words are bleeped out on his videos and he wasn’t as raw as his younger brother, Jake. Just a few weeks ago, Logan and Jake were both featured prominently in YouTube’s annual “rewind” video.
When Logan Paul posted the Aokigahara video, it shot up to number one on YouTube’s trending page. It had six million views and nearly 500,000 likes before Logan Paul took the video down due to the outrage.
Here’s the biggest problem for YouTube: it featured the video as number one on its trending page to the tune of six million views despite the fact that the video clearly violated YouTube’s terms of service.
YouTube never removed the video. It was Logan Paul who removed the video from the platform.
Why is this a problem? It’s a problem for obvious reasons, but one of the problems is that, in the past, YouTube has been accused by popular creators even edgier than the Pauls of showing favoritism toward “clean” creators like Logan Paul.
When YouTube allowed his video to skyrocket to the top trending video and when it did not take the video down, it reinforced this complaint.
YouTube news personality Philip DeFranco received the following response from YouTube when he asked about the video:
The problem is that YouTube didn’t enforce this rule!
Creators like Logan and Jake Paul make a ton of money for themselves and YouTube. Boogie2988, a popular and controversial YouTuber, provided the following insight, which Julia Alexander noted in her Polygon article earlier this week:
Every single day, each of these two individual channels, they are getting anywhere between ten to 20 to 30 million views a day. Now, to give you a point of reference, I get about 12 million views a month. So they are doing twice what I do in a month every single day. They are murdering. They are killing it.
Now, Logan’s channel has gotten right around 300 million views in the last 30 days, while Jake’s channel has gotten closer to 500 [million], and between the two that’s about 800 million. If you give a very low estimate CPM [cost per thousand] here, that means they’re probably taking in $1 million to $2 million — a lot closer to $2 million — a month.
Alexander explains further:
The way YouTube’s breakdown of revenue works, a creator keeps 60 percent of the AdSense revenue made from a video, while YouTube retains 40 percent. On a $2 million video, that’s $800,000. Even if YouTube disagreed with everything Jake and Logan Paul did on their channels, to try and alter how the Pauls conduct their channels would result in the loss of millions.
In the case of Logan Paul, even though he posted a video of a dead body, he makes too many videos and generates too much revenue for YouTube to ever do anything about his channel. Quality is sacrificed for quantity and overall views. The video had more than 6 million views before it was taken down.
“These types of issues can challenge the underlying business model of a YouTube,” Kint told Fast Company. “Their scale is dependent on commoditization and aggregation, and what brands want is dependent on quality and curation.”
YouTube has a serious problem. But we have a more serious problem when it comes to the broader consumption of social media entertainment.
The Broader Social Media Entertainment Problem
Logan Paul and social media superstars like him are 24/7 performers because of the vlogs that document their daily lives and the social media platforms they maintain. They are like gods to tweenagers.
Logan Paul, Jake Paul, and others like them are the Beatles, One Direction, Justin Bieber, and the rest. They just aren’t known for their music as much as their entire lives lived onscreen.
These creators are drowning in luxury homes, expensive cars, and beautiful women. In the eyes of young people, they are living the dream, and when you can’t be them, the next most fun option is to watch them.
Early in 2017, I read a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. The book was published in the 1980s and it focuses on how television as a medium made everything show business. The book is over 20 years old, but Postman’s insight on television can be transferred almost directly to our age of social media.
Even as someone who advocates for social media as a medium that can be used for both eternal and earthly good, Postman’s words about television haunt me when I apply them to social media.
Below, I want to share a handful of quotes from Amusing Ourselves to Death that I think apply to Logan Paul, YouTube, and social media in general.
In these quotes, I have replaced every use of the word “television” with either “YouTube” or “social media” to illustrate the relevancy of his words for today:
[Social media], in other words, is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business.” (pg. 80)
“What I am claiming here is not that [social media] is entertaining, but that it has made entertainment itself the natural format for…all experience.” (pg. 87)
“[Social media] is different because it encompasses all forms of discourse….[Social media] is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself….Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.” (pg. 92)
“For the message of [social media] as a metaphor is not only that all the world is a stage, but that the stage is located in Las Vegas, Nevada.” (pg. 93)
“All that has happened is that the public has adjusted to incoherence and been amused into indifference.” (pg. 111)
“The [YouTube] screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism.” (pg. 119)
“Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them be.” (pg. 135)
“But [social media] is a speed-of-light medium, a present-centered medium.” (pg. 136)
“Those who run [YouTube] do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it…It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously….In America, we are never denied the opportunity to amuse ourselves.” (pg. 141)
“Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom to we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?” (pg. 156)
“[Social media], as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse…and turns them into entertainment packages.” (pg. 159)
“The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is in that we watch. The solution must be found in how we watch. For I believe it may be fairly said that we have yet to learn what [social media] is.” (pg. 160)
“For in the end, he [Aldous Huxley] was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.” (pg. 163)
The broader social media entertainment problem is this: success is defined by the audience. YouTube creators live for the views. Subscribers, views, likes, and the ad revenues that follow in their wake are the fuel for the entertainers to keep living lives worth documenting. YouTubers rely on their audience for their revenue and their moral compass.
If creators don’t post seductive, shocking, or otherwise click-inducing content, they cannot afford to continue living the lives their fans thirst to experience through the screen.
It’s a vicious cycle of amusement that requires creators to be constantly pushing the limits of what is acceptable. Ultimately, within the confines of YouTube’s content policy, and sometimes even outside of it, what is considered “acceptable” and “unacceptable” is unknown to the creators. They push the limits and rely on their viewers to tell them if it is right or wrong.
Take Logan Paul’s first apology for the Aokigahara video as an example of this. There are a number of problems with this “apology,” but focus specifically on what motivated him to take down the video:
He leads with the criticism he received rather than the lack of sound judgement he exhibited. Had he not caused a “monsoon of negativity,” it seems he would have left the video where it was. The negative response is what made him realize he was in the wrong.
As Postman says in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “Those who would be gods refashion themselves into images the viewers would have them be.” Logan Paul isn’t dumb. He has a base knowledge of who he wants to be. But being a social media “god,” he largely follows the collective moral compass and desires of his audience.
What is Logan Paul without the approval of his “Logang?” Without his fanbase, Logan Paul is a common college frat bro.
Beyond all of this, there is an entire YouTube culture built around the “reaction” genre. So dozens of well-known YouTubers have made videos calling out Logan Paul for using a suicide for his own gain without acknowledging that they themselves are using the controversy for their own gain as well.
A Final Note to Parents
Parents, Logan Paul just proved why you need to be aware of what your children are watching on YouTube.
A creator deemed “family friendly” by the platform used a dead man as a prop in a video he hoped would prevent suicide.
Here’s the kicker: Logan Paul is not going to be put out of business by this misstep. The video was viewed over six million times and had 500,000 likes before Logan took it down. In large part, his fans don’t care that he messed up. They are mostly children and don’t understand why using a dead body as a prop is a problem. They have said, “Who did Logan hurt? The guy was already dead.”
Logan and Jake Paul aren’t going away, and that means only one thing: they will continue to push the limits of what is acceptable. They have to in order to survive on the platform.
While I am not a parent, I study social media for a living and I help lead the middle and high school students at my local church, many of whom watch the Pauls and other YouTubers more often than they watch television.
I do not presume to know how to parent better than you, but I beg of you: please do not let your children or young people you know watch Logan and Jake Paul, and please exercise caution about what sort of entertainment your children are consuming on social media.
As previously mentioned, even the YouTube Kids platform is not immune to sexually- and physically-exploitative content.
There is some great, clean, funny, and educational content for your children on YouTube. But please do not let YouTube or other forms of social media entertainment babysit your kids.
Social media platforms, like YouTube, present the real threat that we will amuse ourselves to death. The situation is so dire that we have come to amuse ourselves with death.