I’ve long been fascinated with the mega-YouTuber Jimmy ‘Mr. Beast’ Donaldson, who is 23 years old and richer than God.
There’s something perennially fascinating about basically all YouTubers who sit at the top of the content tree, because they really are making and remaking their own worlds, shaping entertainment into something it’s never really been before – look at Logan Paul, who first typified the rise-and-grind make-a-prank-video-every-day-and-sell-merch-about-it mindset, then got cancelled for accidentally filming footage of a corpse, then went away for a month, came back with a slightly less fluffy more sincere haircut, mumbled something about how he’d “do better” and now he has one of the biggest podcasts in the world and boxed Floyd Mayweather Jr for an estimated $20m.
But Mr. Beast is particularly fascinating, because he does it while having a moustache and not even being especially charismatic about it. I can’t stop watching.
Mr. Beast first gained viral notoriety by gaming whatever the YouTube algorithm was at the time – one of his big early successes was a daylong video where he counted to 100,000 – then pivoted into what I can only describe as ‘stunt philanthropy’, i.e. giving a homeless person $10,000 and watching them sob gratefully on camera, or treating a family to a Christmas-saving no-limits trip around Best Buy. Obviously, I cannot criticise the guy giving away money to the needy, no matter how mawkish and calculated I find it, so you see how Mr. Beast has me in an absolute headlock.
This week, Mr. Beast – one of the few YouTubers, like Mark Rober, who are such enormous stars in their own right that they can drop videos as and when they please, rather than having to rustle up content to feed the algorithmic beast every one or two days – launched his much-trailed version of Netflix’s Squid Game, where he … well, he just did Squid Game.
Nobody died, obviously – instead, the first contestants were handed a sympathetic $2,000 for going out early. The sets were faithfully recreated from the Netflix show and each participant was in a true-to-series costume. The $456,000 prize was provided by an app that I dutifully downloaded after Jimmy did an ad halfway through the video.
And the video was good: though there was absolutely no lip-service paid to the fact that Squid Game was a nine-hour long criticism of the grinding gears of capitalism and Mr. Beast’s videos are quite often just handing people between one- and ten-thousand-dollars in exchange for them humiliating themselves trying to win a car (the video ended with Donaldson saying, “shout out to the creator of Squid Game!”), the final game of musical chairs for a half-million dollar cash prize was genuinely thrilling. But … he just did Squid Game. I don’t get it. Netflix did Squid Game. And then Mr. Beast … just did Squid Game. There is no trick.
This wouldn’t have been bought into sharp focus if there wasn’t a soon-deleted tweet this week from Jon Youshaei, one of those ‘creator and adviser’, too-into-NFT guys that exist out there, praising Mr. Beast for so brazenly ripping the original idea off.
“.@MrBeast Squid Games video: 103M views in 4 days,” Youshaei wrote. “It took 7 weeks to make. @netflix’s Squid Games series: 111M views in 30 days. It took 10 years (!!) to make. More views, less time, fewer gatekeepers. That’s the promise of the creator economy.”
I know, I know – I can’t believe copying someone else’s idea wholesale took less time and money than creating the original content in the first place. However, this is part of the problem: yes, we have a new generation of internet-only megastars with the power and the finances to make any content they like. But sadly, after years of creating videos purely to please an algorithm rather than an audience, they don’t really have anything new to say. What happens when Mr. Beast runs out of Netflix shows to re-make? How many more times can he buy someone needy a car?
This week’s Squid Game video was, undoubtedly, a huge success. But it hints at a dearth of IP a little further down the line that could change how YouTubers make videos all over again.
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