How MrBeast Became the Willy Wonka of YouTube

For older viewers, maybe less accustomed to seeing themselves so bluntly as numbers on other people’s spreadsheets, the strategy of wedding philanthropy so closely with audience growth can seem, well, icky. But Donaldson’s young fans have mostly grown up on YouTube; some, like Jeremiah Howard, have been watching his videos since they were preadolescents. They’re intimately familiar with the platform’s business and revenue structures, both because so much content on YouTube is concerned with these topics but also because many of them are striving amateur YouTubers themselves. (When I asked Howard what he was going to do with the $50,000 check Donaldson gave him, he told me he was thinking about using it to kick-start his family’s YouTube channel, FLBOYRHINO.) For people in Howard’s position, adjacent to the internet’s vast new engines of wealth and commerce but able only to participate at the margins, MrBeast both imbues their role with a sense of purpose and offers a channel for redistribution that, as Howard learned, may not otherwise happen. To them, he looks not ethically compromised, but ingenious.

In May, a few months after “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time,” Donaldson released a new video called “1,000 Deaf People Hear for the First Time.” If you’ve seen “1,000 Blind People,” you can imagine its follow-up — and the video thumbnail — without needing to watch it. You can imagine the attendant controversy too: the sparring between rapturous MrBeast fans and queasy critics, for whom the video is glib, shallow, icky, demonic.

I’ll admit that I agree with some of those critics, at least to the extent that I think it would be nice if a person with Donaldson’s platform and resources (and evident desire to help people) cast a closer eye on structural problems with the American health care system and on the everyday injustices visited on disabled people. But I can also see how this kind of criticism misunderstands what the MrBeast channel is and how it works. Having kicked his flywheel into action, Donaldson from here can only really keep it spinning. Any deviation might threaten the perpetual motion of his growth machine. (Imagine being 12 years old: Do you want to watch an explainer on private-equity roll-ups of primary-care practices?)

Watching his videos, I was sometimes struck with the thought that I was glad that Donaldson’s talent for YouTube traffic had been attained by a basically decent and moral person rather than the twitchy reactionaries and malcontents the site seems to attract. But Donaldson’s study of YouTube success had probably also shown him that decency, morality and generosity, properly calibrated, could be extremely successful characteristics in a YouTuber, whereas resentment and transgression could, by the current rules of the platform, get you only so far. Donaldson can wield YouTube to his own benefit, at least as much as any one person can, but that also means the limits of his project are, in essence, the limits of YouTube itself.

Maybe this is fine for Donaldson, who seems compelled not by a narcissistic desire for fame or fortune on the one hand, nor by a purely charitable impulse on the other, but by the very same adolescent compulsions that shape his videos: How far does this go? How big can this thing get? How many zeros?

Max Read is a journalist and screenwriter whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Bookforum. His newsletter and guide to the future is “Read Max.”

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