by Kevin Schofield
This weekend’s read is an essay looking at the phenomenon known as “MrBeast,” a man named Jimmy Donaldson who has made himself rich and enriched others through a pair of truly unique YouTube channels.
Donaldson made his first YouTube video at the age of 13, and in the decade since, has perfected the art of the viral video. Along the way, he learned that through the YouTube Partner Program, which splits advertising revenues between YouTube and video creators, he could create a virtuous cycle: A viral video drives views, which drives advertising revenues, which funds the creation of an even more spectacular viral video, which drives more views, which brings in even more revenues. And the circle continues.
Donaldson has produced three genres of video that attract lots of eyeballs: outrageous stunts (often blowing things up); “junklord” videos, where he either buys a large amount of a product and uses it in an unusual way, or he spends an ungodly amount of money to purchase something; and “giveaways” that, true to the name, give away large amounts of money to ordinary people. It turns out that all three are very popular; Donaldson’s MrBeast channel now has 174 million subscribers. It has been reported that he made $54 million in 2021 from this endeavor. Much of that money gets invested back into the next set of videos so he can continue to ramp up the spectacle and drive even more eyeballs.
Along the way, Donaldson realized he could riff off the “giveaways” genre to do even more good by setting up a Beast Philanthropy YouTube channel where he films himself and his crew giving money away to charitable organizations and the impact the donation has. Those videos also drive YouTube advertising revenue, which funds the next set of charitable donations. The Beast Philanthropy channel has over 15 million subscribers — a huge audience and a big revenue driver. This is a new model for philanthropy, with a very unique funding source: corporate advertisers.
According to two researchers at the University of Kent (the authors of this weekend’s read), there is some debate in philanthropy circles about how much new money this is bringing into philanthropy, or whether it is just redirecting corporate philanthropy dollars from other worthy causes. The counterargument is that mainly advertising budgets are paying for it, not companies’ social-responsibility budgets — and the advertising budgets are always much larger.
But the more interesting discussion being driven by the MrBeast phenomenon relates to an ongoing debate about the nature of work, and particularly within the context of Marxist economic theory. The heart of Marxism is the idea that capitalists exploit workers — historically in factories and fields — by deriving more value (and ultimately revenue) from their work than they are required to pay those workers. But the rise of mass media, including digital media, has upended that model by creating value in an “audience commodity”: Media companies gather audience members by enticing them with content they want to watch, and then sell that audience to advertisers. The audience members aren’t workers — they aren’t getting paid, and, in fact, most of the time they spend watching media is their leisure time, not their working hours — yet it appears they are still getting exploited, and media companies are selling their eyeballs. In the world of social media, it’s even more complicated, because audience members become “prosumers”: they consume content, but they also produce it by sharing, “liking,” and commenting, all without getting paid a cent (if you buy the idea that watching free content is really just a “free lunch” and not real compensation). So what constitutes “work” today? Some Marxist theorists have suggested it is now all non-sleeping time, and that just as Marx argued for “labor power” as a political force, now “audience power” is a mostly untapped force of its own.
And that is apparently what MrBeast has tapped into, both for his main channel and for Beast Philanthropy: using audience power to generate revenues that can be channeled either to grow a business or for greater social good. But what he is doing raises difficult questions about “exploiting the workers” as well; is he exploiting the value being created by his audience without adequately compensating them for it? Likewise, how should we feel about YouTube’s share of the advertising revenues going into their corporate coffers?
There are, of course, other looming questions here. The MrBeast virtuous cycle is not infinitely sustainable; at some point, there simply aren’t enough potential audience members and advertising dollars to continue to fuel growth. We also need to ask whether Beast Philanthropy is really a new model for philanthropy or simply a one-off: How many philanthropic YouTube channels could the ecosystem support before it becomes a zero-sum game where they are fighting over the same pool of audience members and advertising dollars? There’s certainly room for some clones, especially given that Donaldson’s operation is limited to the United States, but it’s hard to believe there could be dozens of them.
Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to think MrBeast is both the leading YouTube content creator in terms of revenues and also “YouTube’s biggest philanthropist.” In a sense, he’s arrived there by “exploiting” his audience, his advertisers, and, of course, YouTube’s content partner program; and yet at least for the moment, none of them seem to mind.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
📸 Featured image by Mehaniq/Shutterstock.com.
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