The fallout of "Dramageddon 2.0" has called up questions about what it means to be "real" as an Internet celebrity.
2020 has been a rough year for Shane Dawson.
After more than a decade of making over-the-top sketches and self-serious "documentaries" on Youtube—growing a fanbase of millions who view him as their wacky friend—Dawson became embroiled in on-going drama between beauty vloggers Tati Westbrook, James Charles, and Jeffree Star.
In what's become known as "Dramageddon 2.0," Dawson is accused of manipulating that drama from behind the scenes in order to boost his own videos. And that drama has brought up the regrettable history of Dawson's racist and otherwise offensive "comedy."
This included the moment that brought him to the attention of Jaden Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith—when Dawson pretended to be pleasuring himself to an image of then-11-year-old Willow Smith, while sexualizing the lyrics of her song "Whip My Hair."
In his video "Taking Accountability," Dawson attempted to address some of these issues more genuinely than he had in past apologies—by acknowledging that no one owes him forgiveness and that he may even deserve to be punished.
It remains to be seen if this represents a genuine shift in his attitude. After years of cultivating a dubious air of authenticity in his content, is it time for Dawson to finally shift his tactics? To find a newer, deeper version of authenticity? And what can we learn from his missteps?
"Authentic" on the Internet
Let's start by establishing what it means to be "authentic" online. Sadly, that word is always going to belong in scare quotes—so feel free to take them as implied for the remainder of this article—because there is no way to convert your true, unadulterated self into a digital signal that strangers on the other side of the world will implicitly understand.
For the same reason that there's no such thing as truly objective journalism, there's no such thing as being truly, simply authentic online. Even when we're trying our best to achieve these ideals, there are limits. We need to pick and choose what we're going to include in order to be coherent, and in that process we will naturally (even if only subconsciously) end up curating the result to represent a specific version of truth.
Short of live-streaming your entire life—along with a brain scan actively translating your innermost thoughts—real authenticity can never quite exist on the Internet. But there are some types of "authenticity" that are more worthy of everyone's time than others. For the sake of wild over-simplification, we can say that Internet "Authenticity" breaks down into three basic types:
The Fake Authentic
Examples: Jake and Logan Paul, Shane Dawson, most TikTok stars.
As French Novelist Jean Giradoux (supposedly) put it, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made." That's certainly true for the most successful influencers of YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, mommy blogs, podcasts—basically anything people do online for money.
With the abundance of talent and entertainment spread across the Internet, the only reliable way to get your audience to keep coming back is to give them a sense of connection. If you make them feel like they're checking in on their friend, you don't need to be churning out Grade A premium content—basic slice-of-life updates will keep them engaged. Authenticity (or a version of it) is currency on the Internet.
But how do you jumpstart that parasocial connection? How do you ensure that every minute of every video contains as much potential to form that connection as possible? You turn everything up to 11.
Are you a little silly? A little snarky? A little adventurous? Not anymore, you're not. You need to crank that up and make yourself a caricature so that—as soon as you open your mouth—a stranger will feel like they know exactly who you are.
This is obviously the model of authenticity that Shane Dawson, the Paul brothers, and a lot of other prominent influencers have generally gone for. It's also why they are particularly prone to drama, and why their audiences skew a little younger.
This version of authenticity requires you to embrace the artifice of the whole thing and intentionally lean into your performance. There is no moral drive to this approach, so it can be woke or anti-woke—and can even switch back and forth between the two. Likewise, either of the other forms of authentic—if they're given a little too much emphasis—can easily become fake authentic. The only rule for this one is that it has to be extra.
If you're going to do something offensive, it's going to be as offensive as possible. And if you're going to apologize for the offensive stuff you used to do, your apology is going to be tearful and heart-wrenching.
The Abrasive Authentic
Examples: Ben Shapiro, Pewdiepie, most Twitch streamers
This is the only version of online authenticity that doesn't smell its own BS. Proponents of the abrasive aesthetic think that they've cracked the code on representing your true self to strangers on the Internet—by being dicks.
If you have a thought that you wouldn't say to someone's face—because it's impolite, hurtful, widely considered to be racist—this school of thought insists that you share it with the world. It can't be wrong if it's your thought, because you are so awesome and nothing offends you, so why should you walk on eggshells for people who can't take the raw, honest truth.
Facts don't care about your feelings, so if they want to call fat people lazy, or assign people pronouns based on their chromosomes or their genitalia, then that's not only their FrEe SpEeCh right, it's their duty to the truth. They have a moral obligation to be dicks. And yet—if you met them in real life—they probably wouldn't feel the need to tell you if your breath stank. So instead, you should tell them that their views do.
This approach takes advantage of the safe distance afforded by digital media to harness the thrill of saying what you aren't supposed to. By focusing on those areas where a taboo exists, they cultivate a facade of raw, undoctored realness, while actually magnifying everything crass and cruel.
While Shane Dawson sexualizing Willow Smith may be a bridge too far for even this cohort, the abrasive aesthetic definitely leans in that direction. On the other hand, this approach is also capable of producing some great social commentary—the thing you aren't supposed to say is occasionally exactly what the world needs to hear—but not every edgelord on the Internet is Lenny Bruce.
This approach tends to be most thrilling to people who haven't grown up enough to understand why there are good reasons you're not supposed to say some things—that the first rude thought that comes into your head may be based more on biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions than it is on some Platonic ideal of truth.
Not to say that this is just another case of the audience skewing young. This audience skews towards those with privilege—sheltered from the negative consequences of ignorance, they're free to believe that everyone but them is just overly sensitive and in denial about reality—until you criticize one of them for holding their view as a straight white man. Then you're the one being racist...
The Kind Authentic
Examples: Contrapoints, Philip DeFranco, Lindsay Ellis
In case it isn't clear from the name, this is the least gross variant of authentic on the Internet, but it tends to get the worst reputation. People hate "woke-scolds," "virtue signalling," and "social justice warriors," and clumsy approaches can often veer in that direction, but at its basic level this style of Internet authenticity is not about looking for others' failings, it's about recognizing failings in yourself.
It's about having the humility to see that your personal perspective is often flawed, limited, and potentially harmful. It's about doing the work to listen and try to understand where other people are coming from. The result, generally, is that you end up editing out impulsive thoughts that you realize are actually pretty simplistic and gross.
At its best, this version of authenticity acknowledges the fact that there is no such thing—that trying your best to be thoughtful and considerate necessarily puts a filter on the dumb, instinctual parts of your brain—but it's a filter worth having.
The same global Internet that opens us up to criticism from thousands of strangers for voicing a slightly bad take (the same Internet that can "cancel" you like it did Shane Dawson) also opens up a world of research to better understand why some of our immediate thoughts and impulses might be harmful or offensive. If a little bit of work can save you from causing harm or offense, isn't it worth doing?
YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!)www.youtube.com
But just like the vegetarian who only has to mention their diet to piss off a fervent meat eaters, or the bicyclist who somehow deserves to be blasted with the spewing black exhaust of a truck that's "rolling coal," some people will take the fact that you're doing more work as an implicit critique of the fact that they're doing less.
Even if you aren't actively calling people out—even if you're doing your best to "call in" instead—people will perceive that effort as an indication that you think of yourself as morally superior. To that mindset, only abrasiveness is authentic, and any effort at kindness is inherently a lie. But maybe the opposite is true. Maybe humans are fundamentally social creatures, and there is no authentic self in a vacuum.
If who we are is revealed not in the absence of other people, but in relation to them, then maybe the best way to be authentic online is to embrace the new hyperconnected structure of society that offers us access to people from vastly different perspectives. Maybe if we try to understand the people we instinctively want to reject, we can learn more about ourselves and the issues that underlie that impulse.
Maybe we can start to build a more global and inclusive society that won't instill the next generation with so many biases and misconceptions that feel "authentic" to us. And maybe that work is something we can all participate in. Maybe even Shane Dawson is learning to do it.
Or maybe thinking like that makes me a woke-scold, SJW cuck.