Format Shift: The Reinvention of Shane Dawson
It’s weird how quickly a cliche can develop. I feel like every piece of criticism responding to Shane Dawson’s new multi-part documentary format on YouTube starts with a bunch of disclaimers. The author (meaning writer, vlogger, podcaster, etc.) comments on how they hated or didn’t really know Shane Dawson. They say it’s surprising that he’s doing something so serious with his channel. They’re happy for his success, but they question what’s really motivating him.
In all honesty, I can see how this is true for a lot of authors. Online content, especially videos, is a young person’s game. I’m young by normal standards, but ancient by Internet standards: 32, turning 33 tomorrow. I’m old enough to remember when YouTube was a new platform; I’m also old enough to remember cassette overtaking vinyl and mall tours being a huge deal.
While Shane Dawson has been on YouTube for a long time, the shift to a more advertiser friendly model left him and many content creators on the sidelines from front page promotion and advertising for years. There are thousands of successful online content creators who have built entire careers for themselves during that transition period who genuinely wouldn’t know who Shane is. His videos might pop up in the suggested video thumbnails from popular brand-friendly YouTubers, but you rarely could see his content rise on its own for quite a long time. It’s not their fault they’re just discovering Shane Dawson with his new long format documentary style.
By the same token, there are those of us old enough to remember the Shane Dawson who was synonymous with YouTube. I don’t blame those people for not following or keeping up. By his own admission, the sketches with characters like Shanaynay (his ghetto character) did not age well. They were never really appropriate from a cultural or racial standpoint, but that kind of character or sketch was still very common in American pop culture at the time. His content hasn’t really been like that in quite a few years, but those characters and what they stand for can cast a long shadow on a career.
I have nothing but respect for people who have lived many professional lives. Shane’s career has largely been based on YouTube, but he has reinvented himself many times and even gone beyond the format to try new things (like his two books, his podcast, or a feature film). Sometimes things just don’t work anymore and you have the choice of giving up or essentially starting over. Shane has a passion for video and film and keeps finding new ways to keep that dream alive.
Enter me. If I see a video I like, I’m subscribing to the channel. I might not like anything else they ever produce, but knowing how hard the grind can be in online content creation, I at least maintain the subscription and give their content a try. I only found Shane Dawson, for real, while teaching courses in new media and filmmaking last winter/spring. I got pulled in by the “Spooky Boys” videos, aka Shane with his friends trying out urban legend games or visiting haunted places.
That series is how I first discovered Team 10, the Pauls, and all of that. Shane literally has a video of him and his friends driving to the former Team 10 house shortly after they moved and frames it as a horror story. It’s a silly video and I didn’t get all the jokes. I knew that Logan was the one who made a video filming a dead body in the Suicide Forest in Japan. I was aware that there was obnoxious white people rapping involved. I was otherwise blissfully unaware of that trend and part of YouTube.
I did try to ask some of my students what the deal was. The classes I taught were in a computer lab. They had to use YouTube for research projects and as their publishing platform for their own videos. Apparently high school students are on the older side of Team 10 fans as no one could really explain the phenomenon outside of some pretty insulting comments.
At this time, Shane Dawson had started to publish his multi-episode documentaries about other YouTubers. The transition from his silly, almost reality TV-style slice of life with a gimmick videos to serious discussions of brand, success, fame, and failures was incredibly impressive.
His first subject was Grav3yardgirl, the silly beauty guru and product tester who went from being one of the top content creators in the world to a much smaller fanbase. Shane created essentially a seven-part series to introduce the new direction of his channel. These videos are honestly one of the most impressive and authentic rebrandings I’ve seen since P!nk changed from an R&B artist to a pop/rock superstar on her second album.
The first four parts of the series see Shane taking his “squad” (an ironic term for his friend group that has stuck as a label for them) on a YouTube cliche secret road trip. He buys them tickets for a location he doesn’t reveal, then sets up silly adventures when they arrive, like an extreme local makeover or trying to rent a mobile home. The audience becomes invested in the antics of the trip before the real purpose of the video is revealed: helping Grav3yardgirl rediscover her voice as a creator and open up about her real life.
I can’t say for certain how long Shane Dawson planned on switching to this kind of format. You see the shift to multi-episode videos almost a year ago when Shane announced his intentions to reconnect with people from his past in more serious videos. These were still broken up with sillier videos, but the one and done videos were definitely falling out of favor.
Now Shane Dawson is starting to trend again with each documentary series he does. I have nothing but respect for his work ethic and how quickly he works. His three part documentary about the failure of TanaCon (a counter-event to VidCon created by Tana Mongeau, a YouTuber banned from VidCon after complaining about their policies who flippantly announced her own convention in a rant and ran with it) became event viewing. It also was edited and completed with a few weeks of the event itself. TanaCon happened on 22 June; Shane’s TanaCon series premiered 28 June and finished on 2 July. That’s a less than two-week turn around for a 90 minute documentary.
This is where those cliches started to form that I mentioned in the opening to this piece. The amount of times I heard or read people say how much they either hated Shane because of his past content or never really knew who he was was is astonishing. There are people who were so ready for more drama from the Tanacon fallout that they were willing to watch and critique essentially a feature-length documentary by a content creator they claimed to hate.
This is also where the idea of critical analysis of new media starts to show its young age. People still aren’t quite sure of what to make of content created for an online marketplace. We accept the ease of tool—cellphones mean we have instant access to anything we’ve ever wanted to know—but not the content created for it. There is no standard form of critique that has been defined through decades of scholarship because there isn’t decades of content to be analyzed and observed yet. We’re on the ground floor of figuring out the cultural impact of new media and people are throwing every idea they have out to see what sticks.
I’ve done it for years and stick to formats that make sense for other media. I’ll do a review of a piece on its own, or a more in depth analysis of a trend, creator, or series, putting it in an appropriate context. What I typically see when looking for opinions on this kind of content is gossip blog format. It’s an over the top plastic face “you won’t believe the latest drama” analysis that does a disservice to the amount of work that goes into something like a documentary series of YouTube. This isn’t someone calling out their haters on Instagram Live; this is a content creator researching, filming, scripting, and editing a legitimate documentary series on pop culture.
I’m honestly not sure what to think of Shane Dawson’s newest project yet. “The Mind of Jake Paul” is teased as an eight part series on Jake Paul, the creator of Team 10. The focus of the series is made more clear in the first episode. Shane says he was working on a series about sociopaths and somehow got Jake Paul to agree to be the subject of his video instead. Just from the b-roll on the first episode, it’s clear that Shane went deep on researching the sociopath topic (I’m pretty sure the Aileen Wuornos clip he uses is from Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer). Now the framing of his new series is exploring if Jake Paul is a sociopath or just putting on a character for the cameras.
That’s my only hangup about this series. Nothing Shane has done in his series on Grav3yardgirl, Tanacon, Jeffree Starr, or his similar collaborations with Kathy Griffin or Molly Burke suggests that he is going to force his narrative onto the subject once the interview with the subject starts. He has an angle he wants to explore and he will see it addressed. My hesitation is how clearly Shane set himself up for the sociopath series and how that research angle is going to impact a change in subject. I don’t know enough about Jake Paul to even begin considering whether or not investing in the sociopath angle is even remotely appropriate. I just worry when I see a scene of Shane trying to decide whether or not he should reveal to an expert on sociopaths that he’s now trying to evaluate Jake Paul instead of exploring the link between online content creators and sociopathy. That’s its own discussion of ethics in documentary filmmaking, so at least he’s being transparent about how he’s choosing to approach the topic.
I will be reviewing “The Mind of Jake Paul” series when it is complete. For now, I leave you with the best build up of context I can provide. Shane Dawson is clearly serious about the new direction of his channel and I’m excited to see what he does with what’s essentially a new platform. His videos are trending again, he has sponsors who want to support this kind of content, and, most importantly, he seems satisfied with what he’s creating again. I can relate to that last part most of all. I want people to be happy with what they choose to do in their lives, even if it takes them on a journey they never anticipated. I encourage you to give Shane a chance and check out some of these new series, if not for Shane, then to see some of the most compelling original content on YouTube in years.
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