Everyone and their mother has an opinion on Shane Dawson’s docuseries that investigates Jake Paul, a YouTuber who specializes in prank videos and vlogs. Dawson, for whom this eight-part series is the biggest project he’s tackled, wanted to dive into the life, career and mental state of Paul by investigating the reckless behavior and string of controversies that surround him.
The docuseries was beset by controversy since its announcement, but Dawson barreled on through and produced something that, while the world seems entirely split on how they feel about it, kept us riveted. Now, with Dawson taking time off the Internet and the Twittersphere debating back and forth about the finale, the dust has settled, but not for long. Going forward, YouTube is going to be a lot different.
The Mind of Jake Paul is an unusual animal, not least because of the conditions under which it exists. The series was helmed by Shane Dawson, who has been a YouTuber for ten years, no easy feat. He’s a familiar figure to the YouTube community, and with his recent turn to conspiracy theory content and smaller-scale documentaries, he’s become a trustworthy figure, too. Dawson has that credibility with both his audience and with Paul—if a journalist unfamiliar with YouTube attempted this, I don’t think it would have been nearly as effective.
The Mind of Jake Paul also did something that no other documentary or series has been able to do: it responded to audience feedback. Dawson received backlash over episode 2, The Dark Side of Jake Paul, in which he sits down with Kati Morton, a licensed therapist on YouTube, to explore the definition of sociopathy. Viewers took issue with horror movie footage Dawson spliced in to accompany the interview with Morton, claiming that it was painting sociopathy and, by extension, mental illness as threatening to others. One of the critics was none other than Logan Paul, Jake’s brother who has fielded just as much controversy throughout his own YouTube career.
In response, Dawson posted an apology in episode 3, The Family of Jake Paul. He was producing this docuseries in real time with us, instead of a standard production, which would have most, if not all, episodes finished by the time the premiere is up. This is something largely unable to exist in conventional media, but the home-brew nature of this series lent itself to creating a vested interest in its audience. And it has faced controversy at every turn—at the announcement, people came down hard on Dawson, saying that Paul didn’t deserve a platform.
This series has its flaws—the aforementioned horror editing and ethics of diagnosing someone without their consent to being observed, among others. There’s something to be said about Dawson’s lack of impartiality and unwillingness to push for answers, too, but I believe that had Dawson been totally impartial, people would not have opened up to him. Dawson approached his interviewees as a friend and fellow YouTuber instead of a journalist, which made his subjects more willing to talk about sensitive topics. Dawson clearly wanted to ensure that everyone he spoke to came out looking like “the good guy,” but the feeling of having someone on one’s side might make it easier to open a door long kept closed.
I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should like Jake Paul, but I think The Mind of Jake Paul was successful because it unpacked a lot of controversies and dispelled the mystery surrounding the titular figure. It’s something practically unseen on YouTube, which began as a platform for sketch comedy and vlogging. And not only did it have ramifications within its YouTube-wide audience, but mainstream media has begun to take notice. Its nature is almost interactive, which documentaries have never been able to do.
Certainly, after this, public perception of Jake Paul has changed—some still hate him, but others have softened their opinions on him. A notable moment for me was during the finale episode when Paul deleted a controversial vlog right in the middle of his interview. Again, not possible if he and Dawson came from any other medium. Online personalities tightly control their channels and have access to their libraries at their fingertips. A film director couldn’t do this. A novelist couldn’t do this. But Paul could and did.
What is most important about this series, though, is what Jake Paul does next. After Dawson concluded Paul was not a sociopath and managed to get him in good standing with some of the Twittersphere, this is his easiest opportunity to change his behavior, starting with apologizing for his casual use of racial slurs in the finale and changing how he markets his merchandise in his videos. Now that his pranks have been outed as planned, I hope we see a change in his content going forward.
We might see a skew towards more serious content on YouTube, too. YouTube Premium’s stint for “prestige” content is limited and hasn’t really found a direction to lean into. The Mind of Jake Paul builds on the work of Keemstar and Philip Defranco, so we may see a renaissance of channels like theirs, too. Dawson has made very big waves in YouTube, so big that their effect on the platform is far from over.