This paper analyzes the genre of YouTube documentaries by focusing on a specific case – the documentary series ‘The Mind of Jake Paul’ created by Shane Dawson. As a documentary about a ‘youtuber’ made by another ‘youtuber’, it serves as a great example of how claims about authenticity and truth are made at the intersection between traditional and old media.
The paper starts by describing the nature of YouTube as a medium and the type of content it facilitates, focusing on the idea that communication on this platform can be characterized as a steady stream of fast and compressed information, but without producing meaningful and durable knowledge. I show how within this context Shane employs traditional documentary approaches to establish his series as trustworthy and insightful. I will conclude that despite the efforts to imply otherwise, ‘The Mind of Jake Paul’ does not offer anything more than a large amount of information without critical analysis.
The enthusiasm of production on YouTube
Since its launch in 2005, YouTube has evolved into a huge entertainment platform making significant promotional and financial benefits possible for those who know how to use its features right. As online videos can reach broad audiences, the nature of media and entertainment production has changed, moving much of it out of traditional outlets such as radio, cinema and television, towards the main broadcaster on the Internet – YouTube.
The seemingly democratic nature of the platform – the ability to share any (legal) type of moving image with the world for free, without having to conform to any of the restrictions traditional broadcasting imposes, is what has attracted practitioners from a myriad of genres. As a result, YouTube has turned into a virtually limitless broadcaster with an enormous number of channels (because every user’s video library is called a channel) that can be accessed and watched at any time and as often as one likes.
YouTube documentaries seem to lack a profound comprehension of the world, nor are they rooted in theory
While some producers from the world of traditional media have adjusted their work to meet the demands of the new online audiences, viewers themselves have also been given the opportunity to become producers. On YouTube, essentially everyone with a camera and an Internet connection can become a filmmaker. This has led to the emergence of the vastly growing community of ‘content creators’ or ‘youtubers’, most of whom are self-taught non-professionals who capture themselves or those around them doing all kinds of things or discussing various matters. With new practitioners came new practices, and the vlog is one of the most prominent examples.
What most ‘youtubers’ have in common is that the object of their videos is most often their own life and experience, and the ‘vloggers’ take this to the extreme by filming their daily lives as they go. The content of such vlogs ranges from mundane everyday tasks to extreme activities, but in almost all of these cases there is a lack of any specific purpose other than to show that you can create videos. As Juhasz (2008) has observed, it all seems to be fueled by an enthusiasm about the fact of production – most creators claim that they make videos simply because they enjoy doing so. Added to this is the fact that they get financial rewards from YouTube if they have a lot of viewers, therefore the ones who manage to keep the interest of a wide audience start earning an income from the platform and turn video production into a full-time job.
The mind of Jake Paul: A lot of information, no knowledge
In such circumstances it is not hard to see why there is a never-ending stream of content on YouTube. However, this constant flow creates a context that does not exactly facilitate deep engagement by the viewer. It all boils down to the public ‘liking’ your video, preferably also leaving a nice comment before moving on to the next video. There is no time for discussing or reflecting on what you have just seen, because there is so much more to watch. As Juhasz (2008) has formulated it,
“what YouTube gains in access, it lacks in knowledge”.
She borrows this slogan from the Russian film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein, who compared the unobstructed and immediate communication of 1920s Soviet Cinema to the communication of an idea through a single word. Juhasz claims that the same concept can be used to describe the form of YouTube videos, where ideas are simplified, compressed in bite-sizes and intensified. In such strong and compact form, they can easily be sold to the public in an attempt to rouse action or consumption, or even better – action as consumption. Given the nature of the Internet as a medium for viewing practices, and the high levels of distraction of the online viewer, the depth of any content has to be reduced to leave only a surface. The communicative context of YouTube does not allow for high investment, care and commitment, just for a few clicks at best.
What you get on YouTube is a lot of information, but not much knowledge. The difference between the two, as defined by David Sholle (2004), is that knowledge is structured and moves slowly, while information is fragmented and travels fast. Moreover, knowledge is not easily attainable, but when acquired, it lasts long, while information is openly available for many, but on its own does not mean anything if you do not critically engage with it.
The structure of YouTube favors the flow of information, but not the production of knowledge. Content creators skillfully exploit this system by constantly adding more and more information-rich videos, and this also affects ‘old-school’ genres present on the platform. One particular type of film that has been significantly influenced by the ‘vlogging’ form of documenting the world is the documentary.
In her commentary on how the ‘sloganlike structure’ of YouTube potentially quiets down the expression of all voices, Juhasz (2008) uses the documentary as a point of reference. She observes that one can find a diverse range of documentary styles from various sources on the platform, but what most of them have in common is that they are “shoved into a shorter, simpler format”. YouTube documentaries seem to lack a profound comprehension of the world, nor are they rooted in theory. As a consequence, they are oriented towards popular culture, and they rely on de-constructing and re-constructing the formats of mainstream media.
The ultimate YouTube documentary
A remarkable case in point is a YouTube documentary series called ‘The Mind of Jake Paul. It was created by Shane Dawson, who is also one of the ‘youtubers’ or ‘content creators’ mentioned earlier, with currently more than 21 million subscribers. For a number of reasons, the series he created is a typical example of the kinds of documentaries created specifically for YouTube, the main one being that its subject is another youtuber – Jake Paul.
Jake is a 22-year-old actor and Internet celebrity with more than 19 million subscribers on YouTube as of May 2019. His career began on the short-video sharing platform Vine, where he managed to attract a few million subscribers. After the application shut down, he eventually got cast to play a role in a Disney Channel series, and also switched to posting videos on YouTube. His fame is controversial, because of the unruly and inappropriate behavior he exhibits in his daily vlogs.
The disruptive and even dangerous nature of his activities caused the end of his contract with Disney Channel, but it is also what has made him even more popular. In 2017, he launched an influencer marketing management and creative agency called Team 10, which has attracted major investors from the USA and China. Team 10 is more than an agency in the traditional sense – Jake’s idea was to create a home fit for vlogging and to find vloggers who can potentially become great online influencers. As a result, Jake lives in a huge mansion in LA with a couple of other youtubers who he has chosen to turn into major teen entertainers. He teaches them how to create content that is likely to rank high in the hierarchical structure of YouTube, and in return he gets a share from their income.
In case you are wondering why I am going into so much detail about Jake Paul's business model in an article about YouTube documentaries, it is because I want this to be very clear – ‘The Mind of Jake Paul’ is a documentary created by a very successful youtuber, in which he investigates the world and mind of another very successful youtuber. In other words, it is a YouTube documentary created by and starring people whose main talent is producing popular content specifically for the same platform. This is evident in the way the series plays with the tension between knowledge and information discussed in the previous paragraphs.
‘The Mind of Jake Paul’ is very extensive – it has 8 episodes, which in total amount to a length of almost 7 hours. It initially promises to be a fine documentary, Shane announcing it as an exploration of the real person behind Jake’s online persona. Dawson brings forward a potential explanation for the controversial behavior of his fellow youtuber – that he might be a sociopath. He further claims that the series will bring an answer to this question.
Despite this intitial promise of a well-prepared investigation, the documentary offers a lot of information and little substantial knowledge about Jake Paul’s character. Which is not surprising given that we are looking at a compilation of YouTube videos. Yet, the series does classify as a documentary and it is seen by a lot of people (Shane’s and Jake’s fans at least) as worthy and truthful. It is important to look into the techniques the creators have employed to craft the image of a documentary that offers insight into an important topic.
A catchy YouTube video or a worthy documentary?
‘The Mind of Jake Paul’ is based on an ambitious claim – that it will show the truth about Jake. Furthermore, this search for truth is framed as very shocking, emotional and scary. From the first seconds of the first episode we already have Shane characterizing it as a “rollercoaster”, “plane crash” and “pretty much every other disaster you can think of”, accompanied by dramatic music and an intense montage of excerpts of Jake Paul’s vlogs and popular culture visuals (shane, 2018).
The tension is increased by Shane’s emotional facial expressions. Luckily, what follows is a quick advertisement, by Shane, for the video's sponsor, which reminds us that we are still in the online world in which everything revolves around monetizing the audience. To bring back the feeling that we are about to witness something great and amusing, the intro comes with a dramatic bang. It is black and white, and shows an animation of an x-ray of a human’s head with the image of Jake where the brain would normally be (Image 1.)
On top of that we have a voiceover in which Jake talks about how his mother, father and everyone else around him were telling him not to do ‘this’ because he will kill himself. One wonders what ‘this’ is, but the clip is cut off here. The audience is left confused but also intrigued to find out why everything is so mysterious and dark.
A YouTube Documentary?
So far we have all the ingredients for a catchy YouTube video, so it’s time to introduce the documentary aspect. In fact, as a filmmaker Shane combines characteristics from three different documentary modes to establish his claims of truth. The first episode takes the shape of a reflexive documentary, with its focus on the negotiation between filmmaker and audience, and transparency about how the impressions of a reality are constructed (Nicholls, 2010). We have Shane talking to the camera, explaining the process that led to his decision to do the project, stating that he is very interested in finding out what Jake is really like, but that the backlash he received after announcing his plans made him feel scared and a bit regretful. He goes on to add that while talking to Jake about it, he had warned him that his intention was to be honest and to dig deep into the issue, to really confront Jake, and that he expects the same level of openness and honesty from him. Shane then talks directly to his audience, saying that he wants them to be on this journey with him, and that he hopes they will understand he is doing this because of his fascination with the topic, and thus forgive him for giving so much attention to a hated person.
Furthermore, in the same reflexive manner, Shane tells us how he hopes to achieve the authenticity of his documentary by walking us through the plan of including many different sides to the story. He will talk to a psychotherapist in order to provide a theoretical basis for establishing whether someone is a sociopath, as well as to Jake’s family, friends, and enemies, all in order to gain different perspectives on the man's personality.
The 'documentary' manages to talk about its subject a lot without actually saying anything.
We are also offered clips from other YouTube videos about the subject, and we see Shane himself asking people around him for their opinion. This engagement with the audience is present throughout the whole series, with Dawson explaining what is happening and giving reasons for his decisions, as well as addressing the accusations and feedback he receives after each episode. He also constantly discusses different strategies and plans on how to conduct the project with his cameraman, which seems to make the shooting process even more transparent.
The ultimate goal of reflexive documentaries is to make the viewer aware of their relation to the film and what it represents, of how it makes them adopt a certain view of the world (Nicholls, 2010). This is not explicitly present here, but instead we can find another strategy of making the audience question the credibility of the truths on offer with the use of obviously exaggerated and edited content. Some reflexive documentaries use such stylizations to present how reality can be cinematically constructed, and although it is uncertain whether this was Shane’s purpose, there is an extensive use of video clips from Jake Paul’s vlogs and other sources visualizing and intensifying themes or events referred to in the episodes.
As a caption in the second part reads, all of the clips are there just for context, not to imply anything. At the same time, the footage does seem to do more than dramatizing, instead supporting the claims that are being made. In one example we hear a person stating that Jake ran over their friend’s car with his motorbike, and then we see a clip of him acting crazy on a motorbike. In another scene we have Shane and the therapist discussing possible activities a sociopath might be engaging with, and we see clips of Jake doing all of those things. It is hard not to see this use of visuals ‘for context’ as contributing to the construction of a reality.
Observations in a YouTube documentary
Another documentary type which can be found in the series is the observational, but it is only present in episodes 5 and 6 in which Shane finally meets and spends a day with Jake to see what his life is like. The observational mode is characterized by a complete lack of intervention on the part of the filmmaker, and instead presents viewers with a spontaneous recording of lived, unstaged, experience. It results in scenes in which participants are caught doing things on their own, and viewers are supposed to determine for themselves what the significance is of what they see. This approach is often seen as revealing the individualities and personalities of the objects being observed, based on conclusions drawn from how they behave in ‘natural’ settings (Nicholls, 2010).
For the most part, Shane’s documentary is not observational – it has effects and stylizations, and his presence and influence as a filmmaker is very obvious. Nevertheless, there are moments in which the cameraman is recording ‘secretly’ and this is emphasized by the addition of an old-camera effect in these shots (Image 2). Although these moments are very few and very short, they all happen to show how nice and caring Jake can be when he does not think anyone is filming him, and they are offered as the main support for the finding that he is not really so evil and antisocial.
Another scene which can make the viewer believe that they are observing things go by without any staging is a small exchange of lines in which Shane asks Jake if he trusts him, and Jake replies that he has to trust him, because he is filming everything. This leads us to the third, and most present, type of documentary used in the series – the participatory mode, in which the focus is placed on the interaction between filmmaker and subject, rather than on unobtrusive observation. Participatory documentaries show us how filmmakers experience and interpret what they see, and how this presence affects the situations they are in. It presents us the truth about the encounter between filmmaker and observed subject, the exchange between them, the patterns of collaboration or confrontation (Nicholls, 2010).
“What if watching media doesn’t actually tell us anything about the people who make it?”
The whole series is centered around Shane’s interaction with others during his quest to find out if Jake Paul is a sociopath. We see him talking to a therapist, to Jake’s friends, to Jake’s girlfriend, to people who follow him, as well as to people who are in conflict with Jake. Most importantly, we see him talking to Jake himself. We also see his reactions, we hear his thoughts and interpretations, we see him experience and comprehend the things he finds out. He keeps sharing how he is feeling – shocked and scared while discussing sociopathy with the therapist, nervous before meeting Jake, ‘shaking’ most of the time while even thinking about Jake being a sociopath, relieved after he meets him and sees he is not so horrible, and so on. He meets a lot of people and conducts a lot of interviews, and we get to see the whole process.
The culmination of the series is a very personal and emotional interview in which Shane questions Jake about everything he found out during his investigation. Even there the emphasis is just as much on Shane’s questions and reactions as it is on Shane’s answers, if not more. In fact, we can see Shane as the central character of the documentary. It is Shane who walks us through it and creates the emotional effect needed for the audience to interact with and understand the narrative. This relates to what Batty (2014) has framed as “narrative pleasure” – understanding what is being told and explored through the structure of meaning provided by a character. Audiences need characters to experience and make sense of media, to look beyond the facts and understand the meaning. Shane’s role in the series is exactly to achieve this shift of gaze, from truth and authenticity to the emotional connection with the narrative.
But wait, does the documentary actually answer any questions?
As can be seen, ‘The Mind of Jake Paul’ tries hard to present itself as a trustworthy documentary. It brings into play a lot of the characteristics of traditional documentary modes. At the same time, it still perfectly fits into the structure of YouTube by providing immediate communication and a lot of information without asking for any deep cognitive investment on the part of the viewer. To put it differently, it manages to talk about its subject a lot without actually saying anything. It claims to be an investigation into whether Jake Paul is a sociopath, but all of the information gathered is analyzed in a very shallow way, if it is analyzed at all.
The therapist in the series, Kati Morton, is a family and marriage therapist, and Shane is a youtuber, so neither of them are experts in diagnosing sociopaths. They simply list a few sociopathic traits found in psychology books and then look for those in Jake. When they actually meet him, he strikes them as nice, and they quickly dismiss the whole idea that they have built up through four episodes. The reasons they give is that he has a dog and a girlfriend he cares for, his extreme video behavior is staged, and he is actually a careful driver.
Shane says that he feels Jake is being honest and open during the filming of the documentary and therefore all of the accusations that he is fake, lying and manipulating are not true. During the final interview, when asked by Shane why he promotes his merchandise so obtrusively in his videos while knowing that his audience consists primarily of young children, Jake answers that he does not think he is forcing them to do anything. This answer is regarded as satisfactory enough: no further questions are asked.
Consequently, the audience is not presented with any real insights into the controversy behind Jake Paul’s persona, the proposition of him being a sociopath is very fleetingly discussed, his actual personality remains distant, and the question how such a hated and scandalous person can become so successful on YouTube remains unanswered. Nonetheless, Shane’s and Jake’s viewers seem to believe that Shane has done a wonderful job into portraying the real Jake and making the world hate him less (Image 3., 4., 5.).
One has to step outside of this bubble to realize that the problems of authenticity on YouTube cannot be solved or explained by a documentary made to fit, and to seem authentic, on the very same medium.
Batty, C. (2014). Me and You and Everyone We Know: The Centrality of Character in Understanding Media Texts. RMIT University, Australia.
[Big Joel]. (2018, November 18). The Existential Horror of Shane Dawson. [video file] YouTube.
Juhasz, Alexandra. (2008) Documentary on YouTube: The failure of the direct cinema of the slogan. In Austin, Thomas, and Wilma de Jong (eds). Rethinking Documentary: New Perspectives And Practices, McGraw-Hill Education, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Nicholls, B. (2010) Introduction to Documentary, Second Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Dawson, S. [shane]. (2018, September 25). The Mind of Jake Paul. [video file] YouTube
Sholle, D. (2004) What is information? in H. Jenkins and D. Thorbun (eds) Democracy and New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.