If you needed someone to play a handsome, charming high school bully in a movie, you couldn’t do better than Logan Paul. He’s 22, still young enough to seem like a teenager, 6 feet tall, muscular, with a perennially windswept swoosh of blonde hair. He has a big, solid chin and a thick, trunk-like neck. He has blue eyes and white teeth and when you look at him, there are two likely reactions, both equally visceral: One is immediate, panicked adoration, a crush so intense you think you might die. The other is that you hate him so much that your own disdain might poison you from the inside out.
Paul is one of YouTube’s hottest commodities, with more than 15 million subscribers and a total view count that’s inching towards 3 billion. He’s a carryover from the days of Vine, and now posts vlogs that include the kind of soft-Jackass-style stunts that have become garden-variety on YouTube. They all have clickbaity titles like “FAKING MY OWN DEATH PRANK! *crazy reaction!*” (23 million views), “STOLE MY BROTHER’S GIRLFRIEND” (23 million views), and myriad very mediocre rap songs, many of which are about his equally blonde younger brother, Jake, a YouTube fixture in his own right who currently has 12.8 million subscribers.
But 2018 hasn’t gotten off to a good start for Paul. His latest video, posted on Sunday and since deleted, documented him and his crew traveling to Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, which in English is often called the “Suicide Forest.” The video, which was intended to somehow be simultaneously edgy, educational, and even humorous, was titled “We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest...” and for once, Paul’s advertising was gruesomely correct: The video included footage of what appeared to be a dead body found in Aokigahara. In the video, according to New York Magazine’s description, Paul sees a body hanging from a tree and shouts, “Yo, are you alive? Are you fucking with us?” The video racked up 6.3 million views in just 24 hours — though Paul was clear to point out it wasn’t monetized — before he removed it himself.
In two days, Paul has already apologized for the video multiple times and in multiple ways, on Twitter and YouTube, but the damage — to his reputation outside the bubble of his existing fanbase, at least — seems done. If Paul wanted the attention of the Hollywood establishment, he certainly got it: Celebrities including Aaron Paul, Zach Braff, and Sophie Turner were among many calling Paul, essentially, an asshole.
Back when he was on Vine, Paul made videos that were rooted in quick editing and good-natured physical comedy, relatively wholesome and goofy. In the last few years, and since the demise of Vine, he’s made a concerted shift toward longer, more intimate, and more deliberately provocative videos. “I’m at the point where no matter what, brands are still going to come to me,” Paul told Business Insider in 2015. “So I can start being a little more edgy.” Now, instead of slipping on a banana peel, he’s courting arguments with other vloggers and releasing a produced music video where he makes fun of his brother for three and a half minutes before making out with his brother’s ex-girlfriend.
YouTubers, many of whom post new videos every day, make an alarming amount of content for the site. But it’s rare for one of their videos to break through the firewall between “whatever it is teenagers are watching online” and adult consumers who aren’t the intended audience, but are considered more mainstream. And when these videos do go viral or make news beyond just their little corner of YouTube, it’s usually because of a deeply unethical or offensive transgression, like Nicole Arbour’s “Dear Fat People,” a vlog that broke through briefly because of its shocking callousness (linking out to it here feels like praising a toddler for intentionally peeing on your face, so I won’t bother) or the anti-Semitic “jokes” of the vastly popular Swedish YouTube star Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg. For YouTube, it seems, clicks are still clicks, and audiences aren’t very discerning about who they reward. “The discrete idiots may come and go,” Richard Lawson wrote in Vanity Fair this week, “but the idiot machine will still keep churning, loud and autonomous, and impervious enough to drown out everything else, until it’s all there is.”
Usually, the transgression — and the subsequent breach — results in a lot of hand-wringing about What’s Happening On YouTube. This is, sometimes, very legitimate, as in the case of the platform’s massive child exploitation problem. Other times, it’s merely an instance of stupid, white, wealthy, popular boys acting the way stupid, white, wealthy, popular boys often do. But as the lines between YouTube virality and real-world celebrity continue to blur, as YouTubers are getting gigs in mainstream media, it’s becoming more clear that YouTube doesn’t know how to moderate its own content or its creators. And when YouTube creators are thrust into the spotlight for their missteps, they find that other audiences are far less forgiving than their YouTube viewership. Take, for instance, Paul’s brother Jake: Last summer, he got in trouble with his neighbors for throwing loud parties and burning furniture in his backyard. After that, he was kicked off the Disney show he was starring in. The things that might get you clicks online won’t fly when you’re starring on a kid’s show.
If immediate reactions to Paul tend to fall into one of two camps — dire affection or aggressive loathing — the responses to his latest infraction do as well. Adults, meaning people who are too old to truly be in Paul’s audience sweetspot and therefore don’t watch his videos with an intense devotion, want Paul punished. “No matter what happens this year,” wrote @Serena_MH on Twitter, “at least we can all agree that Logan Paul is a fucking terrible human.” Another user tweeted that she had to explain to her 11-year-old “why his hero think[s] suicide is funny and why it’s actually not.” The general vitriol is perfectly understandable; Paul tried to profit off a total stranger’s suicide, if not financially, than at least through brand recognition and raw views and by having his name in every YouTube viewer’s mouth for a week. Mission accomplished, I guess.
But while certain internet bubbles are rightfully chastising Paul, his fanbase is handling it very differently. Philip DeFranco, a prominent YouTuber who covers all things YouTuber-related, tweeted on Monday night, “Just remember this. Before all the extended community outrage against Logan Paul’s ‘we found a dead body’ video, there was a seemingly uncontested 550-600,000 likes on it. His core audience doesn’t give a fuuuuuuck.” Take a look at the comments on his latest apology video, which at the time of this writing already has views creeping toward 14 million. User Kandice White writes, “I can’t stop defending u your my favorite person in the world … your still and always going to be my favorite no MATTER what you do or done that was right.” Another, Aby Shepherd, tells him simply, “You’ll get through this we love you.”
Plenty tell Paul not to be sorry, more accept his apology wholeheartedly, and more still are content to post “LOGANG” — his fanbase’s moniker — as a sign of solidarity. Just look at the #logang hashtag on Twitter: “When someone does something wrong, don’t forget all the things they did right,” “I’m still a Maverick and nothing will change that,” “Hey idiots, maybe kids won’t commit suicide deep in the forests of Japan now? Logan is using his platform to TEACH.” The adults want an apology, for Paul to be banned from YouTube, to generally go away. But the teenagers, the ones Paul speaks to the most, seem almost endlessly willing to forgive and defend.
The things that make Paul repellant to some and enticing to others may be the exact same qualities: He’s a hot doofus who gets away with doing stupid shit. He is wish fulfillment personified: At 22, he’s managed to become very wealthy, famous, and successful while hardly doing anything at all. His fame, at this point, feels like a self-propagating mechanism. If you hate him, it’s likely because he represents what you’ve always resented about the world — that someone so utterly thoughtless and lacking evident empathy could still thrive, and worse, become wildly famous. If you like him, it’s likely because there’s something inspiring about all that success. Maybe you think he’s cute, and boy, wouldn’t it be great if you got to join the Logang and move into his $6.55 million Encino estate?
Paul is, after all, the kind of popular guy who can make the very emblems of loserdom — big nerd glasses, fighting with your family in public, and generally living your every life’s detail on the internet — cool, in a way that some viewers might imagine could rub off on them. His fans are no doubt invested in his success because they’ve watched his rise from a cute, unassuming teenager making videos of himself tripping to an (ostensibly) grown man starring in sleek music videos where he and his posse of other YouTube stars bop in front of rented Rolls-Royces. Paul’s fans are in on his evolution, and so they have a stake in his success. No wonder they want to defend him so fiercely when someone else — namely, adults who haven’t been paying attention to him until now, who don’t get it — try to cut him down.
If you were ever in high school, you can probably understand this point of view. The kids and teenagers who make up Paul’s core audience are enraptured by his easy charm, his good looks, how being a fan feels like being on a winning team. It feels like a popular senior letting you follow him on his private Instagram. It feels like being invited to a great party thrown by a cool person who is definitely not a virgin. In essence, thinking about Paul forces you to pick a side: Do you want to hitch your wagon to the #logang and hope you get pulled along, or do you want to eat lunch with your teacher, you narc?
Without really trying, YouTube has become its own kind of high school community, where being popular is the priority at any cost. This tone is represented in every corner of the platform, from the mean girls of Makeup Artist YouTube, the assholes of Gamer YouTube, the aggressively unfunny Comedian YouTube — thoughtless cruelty, needless cattiness, and of course, vile racism and sexism are often rewarded with more attention. The voices that dominate on YouTube remind us that we’re compelled by the unsettling and by the ugly. It’s becoming increasingly obvious, and disappointing, who will win the popularity contest in the end: rich, white, hot, vapid.
It’s almost Trumpian in how embarrassing it feels. We want to think we’re progressive and thoughtful, that a consumer-driven entertainment platform like YouTube would lead to only the best rising to the top, but it’s still men like Paul — and PewDiePie — who get the most bandwidth.
Now, adults want Paul to pay, not just because he committed an act devoid of empathy, but also because we want to believe that people can still be punished for bad behavior. We want to know that adulthood means you can get away from people like Paul, whose success is so disproportionate to his skills, or to what he might morally deserve. We want to believe that putting your hubris on display won’t win you more affection. And, over and over, we are proven wrong.
One of the last videos Paul posted at the end of last year was titled, “WHY 2017 WAS THE BEST YEAR OF MY LIFE.” In it, Paul recounts his many successes, from buying a house at 22, to buying a Rolex, to becoming the fastest channel to hit 10 million subscribers in YouTube’s history, to shutting down the Dubai Mall with an 11,000-person meet-and-greet. There’s more about his clothing line and appearing in a movie and how an appearance in New York cost the city’s police “a quarter of a million dollars because the planning wasn’t the best — that’s my bad New York. Oh, I also took my shirt off, what’s new?”
It is an exhausting embarrassment of riches, a 10-minute dispatch straight from the heart of possibly the worst human being currently in North America under the age of 70. His popular high schooler schtick is repellant, and yet there’s still something compelling — or at least mesmerizing — about his indestructible arrogance. You have to give Paul credit: It’s hard to look away from him. For now, Paul and his type of performative high school jocks are still mostly relegated to places like YouTube, but that’s prone to change as they get more movie roles, more shots on television, more opportunities to become newsworthy outside of the trending feed.
What happens when lousy people on YouTube become lousy people in the world? At what point do you stop engaging in a stranger’s wish fulfillment to keep him rich and happy and semi-famous? There seems to be so little stopping people like Paul from failing upward endlessly into another level of celebrity, one where he might have to be more careful, but where he’ll have access to a whole new audience who, likely as not, won’t remember the mistakes he made on the way up. Even when he loses, Logan Paul still wins. ●
Scaachi Koul is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.
Contact Scaachi Koul at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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