This article is part of Watching YouTube, a Slate series about YouTube.
On Sunday, celebrity YouTuber Logan Paul got away with it yet again. It was Paul’s birthday, and the night before he had driven his customized school bus all the way up to Yosemite National Park. Finding all of the campsites taken, he and his friends decided to crash in a random parking lot. Morning came quickly, as did a park ranger, who was displeased with Paul’s ad hoc choice of lodging.
“If everyone who wanted to camp wherever they felt like it did, think of how trashed this place would be, right?” the ranger told Paul. Paul quickly apologized, but the ranger wasn’t finished. “So there’s that,” she continued. “There’s the fact that you took up … how many spots we looking at? Five spots?”
“Well, just ’cause… it’s a bus. So, like, I didn’t know where else to do it, you know?” Paul said, the sincerity of his apology perhaps undercut by his choice of apparel: a Logan Paul–branded hoodie/shorts combo and a pink cowboy hat reading “Birthday Princess.” After some more banter he retreated to the safety of the “Cool Bus,” as he calls it. “Yo, we getting ticketed, bro?” one friend asked.
“Yo, I don’t know, park rangers, they got weapons, bro,” Paul responded. “I thought they just, like, patrolled the park.”
The schadenfreudists in Paul’s vast audience—his YouTube channel boasts 17 million subscribers, and surely at least a few of those are dedicated hate-watchers—may have hoped that this ranger would be the instrument of Paul’s latest comeuppance, that the vlogger would be expelled from Yosemite, perhaps, or at least be handed a steep fine. But there is no justice on YouTube, and the ranger probably had kids who are obsessed with Paul. “It’s your birthday?” the ranger finally said. “Well, happy birthday. Well, I guess that means that you don’t get a ticket.” Paul and his entourage cheered loudly at the news—the latest in a long string of gifts they definitely didn’t deserve.
The 23-year-old Paul is one of YouTube’s most successful vloggers. A former Vine star, he has now posted on YouTube hundreds of daily vlogs, which are now professionally edited and look at least as good as your standard reality TV show. He earns millions of dollars a year and has fans—the “Logang”—who follow him everywhere. He is a hard worker, an early riser, and a legitimately gifted physical comedian. He is also very, very annoying.
Logan Paul is the antic avatar of young white male entitlement. Whether he’s quintuple-parking at a national park, embodying negative American stereotypes in Italy and Japan, having his dog sign a legal contract, “feuding” with his equally annoying brother Jake, driving a school bus 30 miles per hour in the highway fast lane, or recording a music video in which he rides a “bicycle” made out of women while announcing that he can and will “ride your girl with no handlebars,” Paul will make you despair for the future of this great country. He is astoundingly ignorant and unnecessarily loud, self-aware enough to know when he is being an annoying jerk, and smug enough to know that he will face few consequences for his actions.
Around New Year’s, it seemed like Paul’s luck might have run out. The vlogger found himself embroiled in an international scandal after he filmed himself encountering a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara forest. (“This literally probably just happened,” Paul said at the time, as his cameraman zoomed in on the corpse. “His hands are purple. He did this this morning.”) The since-deleted video drew near-universal scorn, and YouTube reacted by suspending Paul’s participation in its premier ad program. But Logan Paul is too big to fail, and after a brief hiatus, he returned to YouTube in much the same state he’d been in when he left it: rich and loud.
I come to bury Logan Paul, not to praise him, but for the sake of fairness I will say that I understand his appeal. He is an exuberant, charismatic guy who is likable enough in a rascally sense. He never actually seems malicious. He is funny if you don’t think too hard about the context of his work. His videos are very well done: They look good, are crisply edited, and move better than most lifestyle reality television shows.
But “better than something objectively horrible” doesn’t mean “good.” A typical Logan Paul video goes like this: He shouts a good-morning greeting at the camera and encourages viewers to subscribe to his channel and visit his online shop. The character he plays on camera is a hyperactive goof who is bad at things. Several times per video he will start screaming for no real reason, less out of rage than excessive enthusiasm; nevertheless, it feels like he is perennially on the edge of a tantrum, like many child-kings before him.
Paul’s videos often include purportedly inspirational messages, in which he exhorts his viewers to be different—be “mavericks” (Maverick is also the name of his clothing brand)—and live their best lives by buying his merchandise. The moments when he mines his life for inspirational material are priceless: “I haven’t said this often, but, like, guys, we all have struggles, right?” he said in October. “When I was 15 I had knee surgery on both knees. Thought my life was over, like, I played sports, um, and I couldn’t anymore. It was an 8- to 12-month recovery time. I couldn’t do leg lifts with the rest of the football team.”
This sort of purported trauma is meaningful to children and no one else. Not coincidentally, kids are Paul’s biggest fans. Logan Paul’s fan base—the “Logang,” as he calls them, incessantly—is very young. They follow him everywhere. They wear his merchandise and defend him online. He is prepubescent America’s foremost cool older brother. Paul is an overgrown boy playing at adulthood, possessed of unlimited resources, surrounded by his friends and supplicants. He bought a school bus and customized it, and drives it around everywhere. He flouts the rules made by authority figures and suffers no real blowback. For powerless narcissists—children—he presents a fantasy of what it would be like to be the actual center of the universe.
The charismatic troublemaker character is a staple of popular entertainment: Bugs Bunny, Bart Simpson, the emperor Caligula. Pop culture loves rogues. But the line that separates a troublemaker from a brat is very thin, and it has a lot to do with the protagonist’s standing in the broader social strata. Roguishness plays best when the rogues are outsiders, when their transgressive behavior potentially exposes them to real consequences. This is especially true in terms of nonfiction programming. When Tom Green pulled pranks on his friends and family on his eponymous 1990s public access television show—painting his parents’ house plaid, for instance—the joke worked because he was also a skinny, weird-looking dude who actually lived with his parents. The Jackass crew may have become famous stars over the course of their careers, but they began as skateboarders and misfits, and their stunts were mostly targeted at themselves. But Logan Paul is neither outsider nor misfit, but rather a blond kid from Ohio who played high school football. He is the cool kid whom the misfits despise. He is a rich overdog, Donald Trump with better hair and less oversight. He’s not a maverick. He’s, for lack of a more precise term, a privileged dick.
This sense of privilege was surely what convinced him it was a good idea to post the Aokigahara forest video on his channel, even though he knows that he is creating content for an audience of children. The sense of privilege was what sent him into the suicide forest in the first place. “I will say, if I’m gonna get haunted by a ghost, I’m gonna do it in my fuckin’ Gucci jacket, I wanna look good,” he declaimed in the parking lot. “Just a couple of dumb Americans going camping in a suicide forest!” he hollered as his crew entered the forest. The dead body hanging from the tree threw him for a loop—“It was gonna be a joke. This was all gonna be a joke. Why did it become so real?” he said—but as the video wrapped up, he seemed to evince a sense of pride. “This is the most real vlog I’ve ever made. 400-plus vlogs, and I’ve never had a more real moment than this. Fuck.” For Paul, this was what counted as a Very Special Episode.
The outcry against the suicide video was loud and immediate, and Paul’s privilege meant that it took him by surprise. On Jan. 2, Paul uploaded a video in which he did something unfamiliar to him: apologized. The video, which lasted less than two minutes and may have been made under duress, was titled “So Sorry.” In it, an exhausted-looking Paul spoke—he usually yells—directly to the camera. “I’ve made a severe and continuous lapse in my judgment, and I don’t expect to be forgiven. I’m simply here to apologize,” he began, and went on for a while in that vein. “The goal with my content is always to entertain, to push the boundaries, to be all inclusive,” he continued. “In the world that I live in I share almost everything I do. The intent is never to be heartless, cruel, or malicious.” It was clear that he had learned his lesson, and that he would never show another dead body on camera again.
But, wait, that wasn’t supposed to be the lesson at all! The problem with Paul isn’t that he is actively malicious or a literal ghoul. The problem is that he gets away with stuff for which other people get yelled at, jailed, or shot. His apology for the suicide forest video notably didn’t touch on any of the other dumb stuff he did while he was in Japan—and he did a lot of dumb stuff in Japan. Those antics may not have included any dead bodies, but they nevertheless set the stage for the suicide forest video.
Let’s recap. Paul’s first day in Japan began with him coughing ostentatiously all over a breakfast buffet, after grabbing an entire loaf of bread and an entire honeycomb from the table. “I gotta be careful to not like disrespect the culture, because, Logang, Japan is all about the respect,” he said later that day. A voice from off camera replied. “That’s actually true.” “I know, it’s true, so I gotta take my chach levels and bring them down,” he said, before the video cut to Paul and his friend screaming like banshees as they ran through an outdoor market while Paul made “karate” motions with his arms. “I wish for health, happiness, and hella bitches,” he said later, wearing a kimono and a conical hat, as he threw coins into a well. Later videos featured him lying down in the middle of the street after slapping his friend with raw fish, then leaving those raw fish on the back of someone else’s taxi. Were any of these actions heartless, cruel, or malicious? No. But they were the product of the sort of narcissism and obliviousness born only out of privilege.
After the Aokigahara forest debacle, YouTube changed the terms of its Partner Program and made it harder for small creators to profit from the ads served against their work. The ostensible reason for the changes was to enact tighter quality controls on its content. But the takeaway, for many small-time YouTubers, was that they were being punished for Paul’s mistakes. As for Paul, he stayed off YouTube for almost a month, only to return with a video in which he announced his return and also announced all the ways that he had changed: He met with a bunch of suicide prevention experts, he promised to donate $1 million to suicide prevention groups, he got a haircut. “One thing I did learn out of all of this?” he said. “No matter how much hate, or comments from random strangers who I have never even seen or heard of in my life—‘Logan, you’re trash. Logan, you’re garbage. Rot in hell. Die. Hang yourself.’—it’s noise to me. I will never ever ever forget who I am at my core, and no one can ever make me think I’m something otherwise.”
Thanks to his obsessive vlogging, we all have a pretty good sense of who Paul is at his core, too: a memoirist whose only frame of reference is himself. He is famous for playing himself on YouTube, and he plays himself as an annoying jerk; if that’s just a character, if that’s not who he is deep down inside, then he has only himself to blame for the fact that the world sees him as the person he presents on camera.
For what it’s worth, there are lots of people who love Paul for it, even if most of those people are younger than 16. Back in Yosemite, the video that began with the ranger encounter ended with him beset inside his bus by a crowd of children screaming “Logan! Logan!”
“Yo, the Logang goes so hard, I frickin’ love you guys!” Paul said. He opened the door of the bus, addressed the crowd—“If we could keep the noise down to a minimum, so I don’t get arrested or whatnot, that would be amazing”—and then listened as they serenaded him with “Happy Birthday.” He climbed out of the bus to do the outro for the vlog. “And also, guys, you wanna tell them where to get the hottest merch in the game?” he asked the kids.
“Loganpaul.com/shop!” they screamed.
“The Maverick movement is real, as you can see,” Paul summarized. “Every day we are out here changing the world. Every day we are out here doing it different. Logang! I love you all and I will see you tomorrow!” And the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next. Logan Paul isn’t going anywhere—and if you don’t like it, well, that is assuredly not his problem.