Shane Dawson’s new documentaries crack YouTube culture’s Kardashian problem

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Shane Dawson’s new series of investigative documentaries has become YouTube’s Game of Thrones: appointment television for more than a billion people.

The short docs, which previously unpacked the disastrous events of TanaCon, are over-the-top, charming and play out like old friends whispering intimate details about their seemingly luxurious lives. The docs aren’t HBO- or Netflix-worthy. They’re not going to win any Emmys next year. Yet they portray actual reality — something often taken for granted on YouTube.

Dawson, a prolific creator who’s turned his comedic video series into a multimedia operation, draws out admissions and hard truths from people who’ve built careers out of sharing every aspect of their lives with an audience. He managed to fix a problem that YouTube creators didn’t even know they had: The Kardashian Conundrum.

TRYING TO KEEP UP

Today’s era of YouTube recalls reality TV’s struggle with constant connectivity, and the inherent problems the genre faced as we all became permanently logged on. Love them or hate them, the Kardashians were at the heart of a cultural shift.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians premiered on E! in 2007. It was a pre-Snapchat, pre-Instagram age, and Twitter wasn’t the communication behemoth it is today. MySpace was the main form of communication between main star Kim Kardashian and her fans. Photos were mostly taken with traditional digital cameras, and uploaded to a computer, slowly transferred from one device to the next. It wasn’t hard work, but it was certainly more laborious than anything after the smartphone revolution. Unless people were setting up alerts and paying attention to blogs, keeping up with the tabloid-famous family meant tuning into the show. Keeping Up with the Kardashians didn’t just become appointment television, but the series cultivated a devoted community around the show.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians also became an interesting case study into how social media and personal technology drastically changed the relationship between fans and the Kardashian family members.

Not only did the show turn them into celebrities overnight, but they quickly dominated new platforms like Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Kylie Jenner, Khloe, Kourtney and Kim Kardashian documented every single part of their life on social media. Every new hair style change or relationship development wound up online and in embeddable form. The show became less necessary. Keeping Up still entertained, but it wasn’t informative. It wasn’t something that people needed to catch immediately to be on top of the latest news. They didn’t need to wait until Sunday. They just needed to refresh their Instagram feed before bed.

That changed in 2016 when Kim Kardashian was held at gunpoint in her room during a trip to Paris for Fashion Week. Nearly all of the Kardashians went silent on social media for a brief time, and Kim staying away from Snapchat and Instagram entirely for a lengthy period. No one knew what was going on in the family — or with the family — outside of a few gossipy blog posts. The 13th season of the show, however, turned the robbery, and the Kardashian family’s recovery, into a major plot point.

At the time, there was debate over whether this was manipulating an emotional situation for attention, but whether cashing in on a crime or depicting a naturally dramatic situation, one thing was clear: Keeping Up with the Kardashians overcame the The Kardashian Conundrum to become newsworthy again. The urgency and exclusivity of intimate conversations helped the series reclaim its spot as appointment TV. The show filled a gap that social media simply couldn’t.

And now, YouTube, a universe filled with Keeping Up with the Kardashians-like brands, is jumping the same hurdle, with Shane Dawson as an unlikely pioneer.

LET’S GET TO THE TEA

The most prominent YouTube creators live their entire lives online, interacting with fans and monetizing every incremental step of their day. Life, in its entirety, is vlogged and uploaded to YouTube; intimate moments are shared through Instagram and Snapchat; Tumblr pages act as emotional dumping grounds; Twitter offers a peek into their likes, dislikes, hobbies and everyday thoughts. Everything is about rabid-fire engagement with the audience in a quest to stay relevant.

While that ongoing, 24/7 connection maintains an active subscriber base, the constant barrage of information thrown at thirsty fans rarely conveys a creator’s intimate thoughts. Fans settle for a parasocial relationship — a one-sided infatuation between a viewer and creator. The deeper the infatuation runs, the more fans believe they know everything about the object of their obsession. But they know very little; YouTube videos and Instagram Stories are built on false pretenses, like the best and worst of reality TV. It’s a controlled public intimacy. Every calculated moment is designed to perpetuate a narrative and entertain.

At a time when the tiniest bit of tea feels like front page news, Shane Dawson’s documentaries spill the cup. A new series with YouTuber Jeffree Star, a top beauty vlogger, entrepreneur and musician, illuminates the life of a person we thought we knew, and like the Tana Mongeau one before it, specifically calls out the paradox of a YouTuber’s private life.

The first episode of the series includes a lengthy tour of Star’s private closet, full of clothes, jewelry and accessories valued at roughly $7 million. Star has never shown that closet off before; he’s never talked about how much his most valuable possessions are worth. All of this makes the documentary feel like Star is opening up a part of his life that, until now, most people didn’t even know they needed to see.

The documentary is opulent and fleeting, but it’s a fresh format in the context of YouTube history. Collaborations between creators are popular and practically run-of-the-mill, but the the documentary kicks everything up a notch by turning a hangout into a conversation that isn’t just entertaining, but tune-in-to-find-out-the-truth newsworthy.

This interrogation of the private by Dawson’s warm, welcoming presence has become an instant phenomenon. YouTube feels like it’s on a standstill when Dawson publishes the next chapter in his latest series. People get together with friends to devour 30-minute installments like they’re episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Game of Thrones.

Dawson has spearheaded an entirely new genre of video on YouTube that somehow makes it feel fresh all over again. It feels like new era of entertainment, echoing the past, and kicking off a trend that everyone will soon be replicating.