Over the years, content on YouTube has always adjusted to reflect contemporaneous tastes, as both social attitudes and technological advancements have changed what viewers want to watch. The relationship between YouTube and its audience is one of constant action and reaction, where YouTubers create content, the public responds to it and, eventually, creators adjust their material in response.
In recent years, as a product of this feedback mechanism, one method of storytelling has grown increasingly popular. A combination of the documentary and series forms, a docuseries is exactly that: a series created by a number of related documentaries. And, while bigger YouTube channels, such as Vice or New Atlantis, also produce their own docuseries, audiences have tended to gravitate to the videos of small, independent creators.
In 2016, Buzzfeed creator Ryan Bergara, with co-host Shane Madej, started producing a series called Buzzfeed Unsolved, which consists of both Supernatural and True Crime seasons. Following an extensive amount of research, Madej and Bergara present real-life supernatural and true crime occurrences through creative animations and comedic commentary. More recently, they have also added a Sports spin-off, which covers various sports conspiracies. According to Social Blade, a website that tracks YouTube analytics, Buzzfeed Unsolved has accrued nearly 50 million views, with close to 2 million subscribers.
More recently, veteran YouTuber Shane Dawson helped expose the genre to an even wider audience. Dawson has been active on YouTube since 2008, and with 17.7 million subscribers, is a fixture of the community. In June, Dawson released a series on fellow YouTuber Tana Mongeau following her disastrous “TanaCon” incident, which originated as a way for Mongeau to respond to her unfavorable experiences with VidCon. Seeing as Dawson himself had supported the venture, his release of a three-part series revealing “The Truth about TanaCon” came as little surprise. However, the response to the series was absolutely overwhelming, with the first video receiving more than 17 million views.
It is not often that YouTube audiences get to view “the real side” of YouTubers, but that’s exactly what Dawson offered: more than explaining the “behind the scenes” of an event that failed miserably, he made Mongeau appear vulnerable, an uncommon look for YouTubers because of the disconnect that traditionally exists between content creators and their viewers. This dissociation occurs, in part, because fans are often uncertain as to whether or not the content creators they follow are being authentic or just broadcasting fabricated personas for the views.
Following the success of Dawson’s TanaCon series, he completed yet another docuseries, this time a two-part work that chronicled “The Secret World of Jeffree Star.” While Star has certainly explored many avenues of entertainment, such as singing and songwriting, he is currently best known for his role in the beauty community as a makeup artist/cosmetics creator with his brand, Jeffree Star Cosmetics.
Star’s YouTube channel, jeffreestar, as well as his Instagram and Snapchat accounts, often depict him living a lavish lifestyle with a fleet of custom cars and a beautiful home in Calabasas, California. Dawson’s series on Star focused on revealing “the man behind the social media portrayal” and the hard work that goes into starting your own business. Again, this was a foray into connecting the audience with the life and personality of Jeffree Star, both of which can seem quite unrelatable to viewers.
Now, on the heels of his first two docuseries’ successes, Dawson has unveiled his most ambitious project yet: a series of videos exploring “The Mind of Jake Paul.” This currently ongoing series follows the life of Jake Paul, who, in recent years, has been at the center of several controversies. Dawson’s videos on Paul so far, which have included intensive background research, aim to answer the question: Do Jake Paul’s questionable actions make him a sociopath, and/or is this persona simply for the camera?
Dawson’s series on Paul is already under massive scrutiny, as many of Dawson’s fans disagree with his choice to create a platform that brings more attention to the already problematic Paul. Dawson responded to this criticism by taking to Twitter and saying, “As I edit I realize no matter what I do a big group of people are going to be pissed at me.” Despite the criticism, the first two videos already have over 15 million views and the third has over 7 million.
So what’s different about this particular form of docuseries? Sure, the Buzzfeed Unsolved series educates viewers on historical and major events, but what’s the point in reporting on seemingly self-created drama? There are tons of documentaries that follow the lives of celebrities and other famous figures. The answer really boils down to one main thing: the extended reach of today’s social media.
We live in a world where the newest controversy can reach the eyes and ears of the public before the figures involved are alerted about it themselves. Dawson’s docuseries show him, an internet celebrity, chronicling the lives of other internet celebrities. Considering that the subjects of these docuseries are people who run in the same circuits as Dawson himself, he is able to offer a “closer look” and provide a personal aspect to the docuseries that is often not associated with documentaries.
Independent YouTubers like Dawson and others like Bergara who have a relatively large amount of creative freedom can make content based off of their own schedules, which allows them to cater their videos to a specific audience: their subscribers. This means there is a niche for all types of audiences, ranging from crime and supernatural activity to current social media “influencer” conspiracies.
In a way, these docuseries teach viewers more about the world we live in. Sure, the importance of the content I’m seeing might be questionable. Do I need to know if Jake Paul is a sociopath? No, not really. Will I watch the series to find out? Yeah, probably. Hey, at least I’m spending my online procrastination time on YouTube educating myself.