Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Photos via Getty Images
I follow MrBeast on TikTok, but not because I like to watch the things he posts. I follow him because someday, someone might come up to me and ask if I follow MrBeast on TikTok, and if I say yes they’ll hand me a suitcase full of thousands of dollars. I believe that because I saw it in a MrBeast video—and I find my faith deeply disturbing.
In case you don’t know, MrBeast, real name Jimmy Donaldson, is 24-year-old from North Carolina who became unfathomably wealthy as a YouTuber. MrBeast cut his teeth making Minecraft videos before taking his popularity to the stratosphere with stunt content—putting people (himself included) through absurd trials or situations for entertainment purposes. In his most popular video, he recreated the competition in Netflix’s Squid Game (minus all the gore and that confusing red hair thing) for his YouTube channel, complete with a $456,000 cash prize for the lucky winner.
The thing about MrBeast is that he’s the best at what he does. Literally: His channel has 131 million YouTube subscribers, more than any other person on the entire platform. Even if his content isn’t organically your thing, it’s tough to deny that his talent and commitment to a stunt is like, Fitzcarraldo-level. He’s the only man with the vision and resources necessary to pull off concepts like adopting out every dog in an animal shelter or sitting underwater for 24 hours.
The conversation around MrBeast’s latest video is what put him on my radar as more than a Z-List get-rich-quick schemer. In it, MrBeast sponsored cataract surgery for 1,000 people. The eight-minute video takes viewers on the journey with MrBeast as he meets the people whose lives he’s changing by restoring their vision. A few even receive extra gifts, like additional cash prizes or a Tesla. MrBeast is clearly passionate and moved by what he’s able to do for these strangers—at some points, he tears up, and it’s hard not to tear up with him. But the fact that what he’s funding is a 10-minute outpatient surgery struck viewers, like streamer Hasan Piker, as a deeply depressing sign of the times. It doesn’t feel good to live in a world where a benevolent YouTuber is a more reliable source of healthcare than the government.
MrBeast isn’t the only YouTuber or content creator who makes videos about blessing strangers. Juan Gonzalez runs a channel, ThatWasEpic, where he posts clips with titles like “7 year old pays strangers rent” or “Ordering Ubers to take me 10 feet, then tipping $1000” to his 7.2 million subscribers. Dawson Gurley films himself as a “Homeless Man Asking Strangers For Money, Then Giving Back 100x..” or “TIPPING $10,000 TO DRIVE THRU EMPLOYEES IN COMPTON!!” for his audience of 8.83 million. These sums of money are big enough to make me wonder how profitable these videos must be, if this is what these YouTube creators are able to give away at a moment’s notice.
There’s just something ugly about the ease with which these influencers and content creators part with the cash. The act of walking through the streets and handing out hundred dollar bills like they’re pamphlets is a more blatant display of wealth than any car or article of clothing could be. It’s also hard to watch “regular” people get excited about what for them, for most of us, is probably a life-changing amount of money, because it calls to mind the constant state of precarity most of us live in, whether or not we know it—a subliminal reminder of the fact that, even pre-COVID, 59 percent of Americans were a single paycheck away from homelessness.
We want to meet MrBeast, or a creator like him, because it’s comforting to imagine getting handed the cure to so many of our problems. But that’s only part of what makes these videos simultaneously irresistible and disquieting. We also fantasize about being MrBeast, or one of these other, less artful do-gooder YouTubers—the Scott Disicks to MrBeast’s Kim Kardashian. What it would be like to become so famous and successful from fucking around with your friends online that the money you made literally became a new toy to play with?
Of course, charity-based entertainment isn’t new. How is content like this different from watching a TikTok where a baby with cochlear implants hears their mother’s voice for the first time, or sobbing through an episode of Extreme Home Makeover? I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s that, when charity is coming from the hands of a man who became richer than God from goofing around on camera, it’s too stark a reminder of who and what we consider valuable.