MrBeast may never quit YouTube, but his game is changing

In the fall of 2023, a clip ripped from a video by Tom Simons and reposted on X (formerly Twitter) saw Irish YouTube entertainer Seán “Jacksepticeye” McLoughlin strapped to a lie detector test. His friends were grilling him about everything, like whether or not he still enjoyed his job as a YouTuber and how much money he had in the bank. Though sensitive, none of the questions fazed McLoughlin, a video star with millions of subscribers on YouTube. To truly rattle him, his friends had to pull out the big guns — questions that, if answered honestly, would make most squirm. Has YouTube gotten worse as a platform, they probed? Yes, McLoughlin answered, still not missing a beat. And he said Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson, YouTube’s biggest creator, was to blame.

Though his friends expected it, McLoughlin’s answer shocked the internet. With a reputation for generous stunts that give ordinary people cars, houses, and thousands of dollars, many think of MrBeast as a kind of philanthropic figure, representing some of the best YouTube has to offer. His branding is at once self-aggrandizing yet selfless; on podcasts he frequently reminds his 241 million subscribers (at the time of publication) that he’s at the top precisely because all he ever does is YouTube, and all he wants to do is entertain people. He lives in his own recording studio. While his free time seems minuscule, the rare times he does pull away from work are for dates with his girlfriend that center around activities that could enrich his videos, because he considers a single hour of a date to be worth $100K had it been dedicated to work instead.

The idea that MrBeast throws all the money he makes — and it’s considerable — back into doing YouTube videos is practically lore. There’s little regard for personal profit, or so he says. He tells viewers that while he employs a sizable percentage of his hometown, he still lives modestly, unlike other rich YouTubers. A segment of his fortune goes toward philanthropy, and in many of his videos he finds a way to give people valuables. Viewers dream of running into MrBeast and his oodles of cash. Creators, meanwhile, can only imagine what it’s like to have the sort of audience reach and clout MrBeast does. He builds wells in Africa, man — how could anyone have anything bad to say about MrBeast? Who would dare, even, to say something negative and risk their own business in an industry as small and collaborative as YouTube? And so, the internet came down on McLoughlin.

The fire wasn’t just from sycophantic passersby; in the replies to the clip, top creators with millions of subscribers came to MrBeast’s defense. There was incredulity, there was indignity. Nobody would say such a thing unless they were jealous or out of their mind, the replies suggested. But McLoughlin seemed to be in a fair state of mind, based on his explanation. And by virtue of having been on YouTube as Jacksepticeye for years up to that point, he was inherently an authority on how the platform has changed. In the Q&A video, McLoughlin says that MrBeast made YouTube worse by shifting the focus to be “more about views, money, and popularity” over having fun. If it wasn’t superficial, McLoughlin argued, MrBeast’s videos would be longer — and we’d see more of him having a good time.

Months later, the caustic exchange is emblematic of an ongoing tension coursing through the heart of YouTube. This tension has only grown more visible as MrBeast’s content has started dominating the platform, signaling a paradigm shift. As YouTube strategist Zackary Smigel explored in a recent video, we’ve seen distinct eras start and end on the platform. At first, YouTube prized authenticity, and the prototypical creator was likely recording out of their bedroom on an iPhone. Once real money came into the picture, the same creators who built the platform became brands who made a living off of their popularity. The camera-ready Smosh you see today, whose goofs blew up in the advent of curated social media presences on platforms like Instagram, is very different from the amateur duo who started the channel back in 2005, for example.

MrBeast embodies this ostentatious era of YouTube so fully that some, like Smigel, consider the platform’s current phase synonymous with Donaldson. You see his influence everywhere, in the types of boisterous content people make, the brisk editing styles populating all of YouTube’s trending content, and even in the way YouTubers style their video thumbnails. Up until recently, MrBeast had the biggest video on the platform. Rare is the video that doesn’t take cues from MrBeast’s signature and endlessly memeable reaction face. As far as detractors like McLoughlin are concerned, MrBeast copycats are a plague on YouTube. And even if they do wholly original content, by and large, the most visible creators on the platform produce videos that mimic the extremes of someone who is willing to spend millions on a shoot.

“With MrBeast, it feels like you are watching a millionaire live out his fantasies,” Smigel told Polygon.

Fueled by an obsession with the architecture of his own fame, Donaldson’s process now seems him engineer videos that, while potentially entertaining to humans, do not get uploaded unless they clear a bar set by the YouTube algorithm. In a different context, this calculated approach to videos might raise questions about the value and meaning of his art. Except MrBeast’s brand of hustle culture has become a de facto part of YouTube’s dominant aesthetic.

Despite taking offense to McLoughlin’s assessment, and saying he wouldn’t have “given up” 14 years of his life to something if he “wasn’t having fun,” Donaldson also acknowledges the hardship of the work. Specifically, he frames it as a form of self-improvement — which has allowed him to evade tough questions. In interviews, Donaldson candidly reveals the tough conditions that make his videos possible, like building a friend group that constantly criticizes his output and axing expensive, fully finished videos that he’s unsure about. But because he’s rich and famous, no matter how rocky it gets, his road is seen as aspirational.

Whenever Donaldson analyzes his own trajectory on YouTube, he self-mythologizes around his own expertise, and how it allows him to game the platform. He’s described spending countless hours obsessing over every detail, down to the optimal brightness of a YouTube thumbnail. He knows the first 10 seconds of a video are the most important for retention, which is why his videos start with a barrage of all the wild things that will unfold in its run time. And that signature MrBeast editing style that’s fast, frantic, and omnipresent on YouTube is a relentless gambit for your attention. “I can get 100 million views on a video for less than 10 grand if I wanted to,” Donaldson boasted on the Colin and Samir podcast.

When asked to describe his own channel, Donaldson says that he’s so laser-focused on achieving virality that he will not upload a video unless he thinks it’ll go big. Later on in the same podcast, he muses that if he fed all the information about his MrBeast videos to an AI and prompted it to tell him what to make next, the output would be what he’s already making.

The key is to always be improving. Donaldson has mused that his dominion over YouTube is the product of radical candor within a team of like-minded creators with similar perfectionist standards. To this day, Donaldson claims to get on daily calls with other creators in the hopes of learning something new that will help him stay at the top. He claims that if a creator’s circle of friends doesn’t spot room for improvement in the videos — even if they’re already viral — then the creator is doomed to stagnate on the platform. Critique can only improve your output, he suggested at the time. But clearly he didn’t feel the same about McLoughlin’s comments, even if his YouTuber contemporary was on to something.

In reviewing dozens of MrBeast videos from over the years, Donaldson has nearly erased himself as a person from his episodic output. If viewers don’t really see him having fun, that’s by design. Donaldson has outright said he sees “personality” as a limitation for growth, once noting in a podcast that hinging your content on who you are as a person means risking not being liked. And if someone doesn’t like a creator as a person, they may not give the videos a chance.

McLoughlin’s comments hit at another bleak possibility: Viewers may hardly see MrBeast having fun in his videos because he’s not actually having a good time. In podcasts, Donaldson tells hosts that he goes so hard, he won’t stop working until he burns out and isn’t able to do anything at all. With a laugh, he admits that he has a mental breakdown “every other week.” If he ever stops for a breather, he says, he gets depressed. MrBeast is so laser-focused on generating content on YouTube that he describes his personality as “YouTube.” He acknowledges that this brutal approach to videos, which has cratered many creators over the years, is not healthy. “People shouldn’t be like me. I don’t have a life, I don’t have a personality,” he said in a podcast recorded in 2023.

Where this gets even stickier is knowing what makes any of it possible. MrBeast’s videos are so expensive, with budgets in the millions, that he can barely afford them. The main channel often operates at a loss, which is part of why his business has expanded to include food items that can be bought multiple times — and therefore have a higher profit margin. But from the very start of his career as a YouTuber, MrBeast’s funds come from sponsorship brands who are happy to drop cash for a viral video that covertly acts as advertisement. Though he’s been under scrutiny for his part in the warping of YouTube as a content ecosystem, you will never see something outwardly controversial or offensive in a MrBeast video. For a long time, Donaldson admits in a number of podcast appearances, he was afraid of putting anything complex in his videos — what if a viewer didn’t get it and stopped watching? Donaldson might very well be an advertiser’s absolute dream, the logical endpoint of an internet that’s been flattened into a samey, straightforward sludge of optimized content.

So far, much of what’s been heralded in YouTube’s era of MrBeast sounds bleak, but the next era might already be upon us. If the old YouTube was Instagram, the new YouTube will be more like TikTok. That manifests in literal ways, with the company putting much of its energy into “shorts,” but also figuratively, beyond structural elements. TikTok’s strength lies in its ability to surface videos from everyday users to an enormous audience, and it’s so good at doing this that people talk about its algorithm in mystical terms. Meanwhile, trust in media establishments continues to decline, while more and more Americans are turning to TikTok for their news.

The internet, in other words, is hungry for authenticity — or at least a person they can detect as human to deliver their content. It’s the very thing YouTube once did best, once the internet moved past the supremacy of blogs. “We are seeing many creators blow up right now because they’re creating good content while maintaining their relatability,” Smigel says. Spending a million dollars on a hotel room, as MrBeast did in a recent video, during a period where some can’t afford basic necessities and numerous industries fight for better working conditions, isn’t exactly relatable. Ostentatious influencers like the Kardashians are already experiencing the consequences of this shift within the public eye, but the changing attitudes of the broader viewership will likely hit YouTube’s elite.

It’s unlikely we’ll see MrBeast dethroned anytime soon, and even less likely that the incoming class of creators will reach his same viewership. Monoculture of that sort is a vanishing rarity, nor a marker of quality. MrBeast isn’t the best YouTube has to offer; he’s just made that rhetoric his brand. Other self-interested creators have a stake in perpetuating the narrative that a bigger number is inherently better. The better the numbers, the better the revenue — and numbers are easier to figure out than trying to assess or assign a value to art. But the most influential YouTubers of the next era already don’t resemble the prototypical MrBeast video. Look at Sam Sulek, Dodford, or the rise of “Corecore.”

On some level, Donaldson must feel the ground shifting underneath his feet. On X (formerly Twitter), MrBeast’s updates say that he’s been trying new things with his videos — things that, a year ago, might’ve sounded sacrilegious in a MrBeast video. He’s screaming less, and messing around with his friends way more. The videos are slower, and by extension, feature a longer run time than his older videos. He’s including sillier material, even if it doesn’t seem pertinent to the video. To Donaldson, these changes are all a part of his newfound focus on producing material with better stories. His theory, which he’s been talking about for over a year now on podcasts, is that good storytelling will take his videos to the next level. But good stories are about people, not brands — that’s advertising.

If Donaldson is right, then McLoughlin is also right. The question is whether or not audiences and their evolving tastes can ever fully see a MrBeast video as something earnest, which by their very nature might be impossible. Real people aren’t hiring hitmen to track them down, or blowing millions on making a bank explode. But the next era of YouTube seems to be bending a superstar toward its ideal mode rather than the reverse.

“The return to an authentic era on YouTube comes down to a growing fatigue with sensationalism. […] I think we are witnessing a cultural shift,” Smigel says. “Millions of people, myself included, grew up on the internet, and for years we’ve been bombarded with sensationalism. It’s exhausting. Personally, I crave human connection.”

In early 2023, watching a MrBeast video was the psychological equivalent of getting on a roller coaster ride that pulls you into a drop moments after stepping inside. A year later, Donaldson still bombards viewers with a screaming MrBeast within the first 30 seconds of run time. His anxiety to keep people watching remains palpable: In a recent video about subjecting someone to his worst fears, MrBeast sets off a fake explosion during a simple explanation of the parameters. But unlike in the past, it’s easy to keep track of the jump cuts, excessive as they might be. Rather than squeezing in a quick preview of the most sensational moments of his video at the start, as he usually does, Donaldson lingers on his subject a smidge more. An evolution, even if it’s all in the details, is underway.