Jake Paul, the angular-faced Ohioan whose YouTube account boasts more than 10 million subscribers, is the latest poster child for the confounding growth of online celebrities. The 20-year-old YouTuber and Disney Channel star who bills himself as “the first social media influencer to become a series regular on TV,” has been at the center of a number of improbable controversies, including a public rap beef with his brother, also a YouTube sensation and Disney star, Logan Paul. Most recently, Paul announced an upcoming track with Gucci Mane in a palpably uncomfortable video featuring him and Gucci working in the studio together. “You killed it,” Paul says to Gucci, pronouncing it more like "kilt" in an attempt to sound like what Jake Paul thinks rappers sound like.
From an economic standpoint, the move is rather prudent for Gucci Mane. Jake Paul is part of a growing segment of social media influencers who, despite having little to offer in terms of actual creative output, wield an enormous amount of power in the entertainment industry, modeling for fashion labels, releasing singles and collaborations, and appearing in film and television, all as a means of leveraging their online fan base. The entertainment world, which dragged its feet in acknowledging the influence of the internet, appears to have swung completely and thoughtlessly in the other direction, obsessively elevating anyone who can attract attention online.
But there’s been little consideration of how online fan bases exist and grow in the first place. For example, consider this series of very reasonable questions about Jake Paul’s fans: Of his 10 million subscribers, what percentage subscribed simply because Paul already had a large following? What is the inflection point on YouTube for this type of automatic growth? Do each of Paul’s 10 million subscribers have the same level of devotion — do they all actually like him? How many dormant, duplicate, or bot accounts are in this 10 million subscriber count?
There are undoubtedly a lot of people interested in Jake Paul; his schtick relies on his appeal to preteen girls and his faux hip-hop presentation, an Aaron Carter for the YouTube generation. But the metrics displayed on YouTube serve mainly to inflate the celebrity of one of the platform's stars. On the creator's side, the service provides analytics like minutes viewed, audience demographics, and click through rate, that offer a more comprehensive, but still limited, view of how this fanbase actually looks and behaves. For those on the outside of Paul’s inner circle, however, we envision a group larger than the population of New York City capable of referring to themselves as “Jake Paulers” with a straight face.
The metrics displayed on YouTube serve mainly to inflate the celebrity of one of the platform's stars
Even outside of Youtube, public facing metrics create a feedback loop within a particular service. The researcher Nancy Baym argues in her paper, Data not seen: The uses and shortcomings of social media metrics, that rather than offering useful information about who is actually viewing media and why, audience metrics primarily serve a commercial function, often for the platform. “It is part of the politics of these platforms to set up counts in such a way that users become more engaged with the site while trying to increase their numbers,” she writes. “Higher numbers are widely taken to imply more legitimacy, popularity, visibility, and influence and thus more economic potential.” The dynamic is what’s helped influence the rise of a constantly expanding crop of young rappers on SoundCloud. Acts like Lil Pump and Smokepurpp are amplified by the fact that their often vacant and ephemeral tracks can go viral. Whether or not they intend on developing these artists, and despite sometimes harrowing ethical baggage, the same corporations that have always controlled the entertainment industry have a data driven incentive to make quick bets that pay off in the short term.
In a different time, sales figures and chart performance played a similar role, placing most of the power in the hands of record labels and publishers who determined how much exposure a particular artist was worth, or with film and TV studios who had the power to make or break movie stars. Online services like YouTube were built around the idea of distributing that power to the individual user. But thinking of these platforms as pure meritocracies where power isn't exerted unevenly is fundamentally dishonest. Consider, for example, the popular memes and modes of online speech generated by black creators only to be repurposed and exploited by the likes of white video stars. Jake Paul’s “It's Everyday Bro” music video, which has amassed 123 million views, is essentially a Kidz Bop iteration of popular young hip hop acts like Madeintyo or dancers like SheLovesMeechie, none of whom will likely see the astronomical view counts that Jake Paul receives.
The self serving logic of a platform displaying metrics underpins a changing understanding of what makes an artist viable. It is not about Jake Paul’s music, or his acting, or his terrible dancing. It’s about his ability to generate numbers in a very specific ecosystem. The outward facing metric, then, serves as a hegemonic tool within online platforms that allows for an extreme consolidation of power, typically along similar lines as the real world. Imagine if every Jake Paul video was presented without the tacit endorsement of an enormous view count. There would surely be a population of teenagers drawn to his antics, but it seems less likely that he’d catch the attention of the man who made the greatest rap song ever.