Gary Vaynerchuk has been an internet celebrity for so long that it’s hard to know what era terminology to use to describe him. He was an early YouTube star, creating videos first for his father’s wine business and later for media and technology companies; he later founded his own media company. He has been a self-help guru, publishing books about how fans can “crush it” in their own business, as well as something more extreme, taking on the persona of a near televangelist under the name “Gary Vee.” More recently, non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, have proven to be a natural fit for him: last year he stepped back into the zeitgeist with his own NFT projects, urging his young audience to join the club so they don’t end up among the “losers.” “He spends so much time exposing.
But something interesting came up in response: videos of young people staring plaintively at their own cameras and explaining why they think Vaynerchuk’s content is dangerous. A person named Nick Green, curly-haired and with a baby face, ridiculed Vaynerchuk’s business advice, exhortations such as “be aware” and “do it.” Georgie Taylor, a blonde and British woman who posts under the pseudonym münecat, filmed a video calling Vaynerchuk. “Youth Shepherd of Capitalism”, deconstructing his tendency to inflate his entrepreneurial story (being hired by the family business) into an epic personal mythology, and highlighting how his focus on the positive can include a strange malice towards anyone who struggles with issues beyond their individual control.
It is important to note that these commenters were not professional journalists, interested experts, or viewers from outside the YouTube world. They and their audience belong to the same demographic that Vaynerchuk is targeting: young and more engaged with internet videos and social media than traditional commentary. YouTube, in other words, has spawned its own media critics. Taylor, for example, peering through cat-eye glasses and squeezing a beer, offers a detailed video that is almost an hour long and is as neatly structured as the Dateline exposé. Gathering video evidence from Vaynerchuk’s own production, she accuses him of feeding on youth, selling Generation Z and millennials the dream of getting rich, using their attention to line their own pockets.
Over the past few years, this type of commentary – Internet video figures analyzing the results of other, more popular Internet video figures – has become its own little ecosystem. The people who comment often appear on each other’s channels discussing the absurdity of influencers and social media culture. Their level of seriousness varies, but they tend to try to be funny; even killer takedowns like Taylor’s are laced with barbs. Their comments have become one of the most popular genres on YouTube, appearing among popular videos such as clips of Jimmy Fallon and James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke.
Perhaps there is a hopeful inevitability in all of this: even in a world without gatekeepers and with limited moderation, some ingenuity will emerge. YouTube even has the equivalent of tabloids and trade publications covering salacious online dramas or niche interests. But it’s YouTube commentators who have become, in some cases, as popular as the stars they respond to, leading to strange clashes between fame and critical honesty, as well as literal skirmishes in influencer-infested Los Angeles studios. In 2019, rude influencer Jake Paul posted a video titled “Confronting Internet Bully Cody Ko” in which he tracked down Cody Kolodzejczyk, a YouTube commentator who frequently discussed his work. Clearly furious and complaining that someone could be so full of hate instead of spreading positivity, Paul recorded how he ambushed his critic in a video he intended to monetize for income.
Kolodzeichik and his Comedy co-star Noel Miller became popular on YouTube thanks to the series It’s Disgusting, which made fun of not only Paul, but other internet celebrities as well. However, fans of Kolodzeichik and Miller noticed that as the two became famous, they became more and more immersed in the world of the very media that criticized. Soon, the objects of their bullying began to appear on Kolodzeichik and Miller’s own channel, creating hit videos, performing gestures of reconciliation with comedians. Fans were worried about a conflict of interest that would encourage Kolodzejczyk and Miller to strike — an accurate reflection of concerns about access-based coverage in traditional journalism.
For example, in the May 2021 episode of Kolodzejzik and Miller’s podcast, they responded to a particularly outrageous TikTok from Gary Vee in which he called on a participant in one of his self-help workshops to generate gratitude by imagining family members shot in the face. Howling with laughter Kolodzeichik and Miller exchange rising riffs on the topic (“Imagine that your family was swallowed by 10,000 locusts!”); the clip of the conversation has become one of their most popular TikTok posts. But soon Gary Vee himself caught on and asked to be on the podcast. Appearing in a T-shirt that read “POSITIVE VIDEOS ONLY”, he repeated lines at Miller’s request (“I need you to imagine swallowing a bag of nails!”) as the hosts laughed in confidence.
Kolodzeyzik, Miller, and their ilk — YouTubers like Drew Gooden and Danny Gonzalez — don’t just keep you up to date on internet one-night stands; they also expose questionable online courses, money-making deals, and NFT ads that some of the internet’s influential celebrities have had their hands on. (Celebrities, whose audience, it must be said, is mostly teens.) They almost certainly consider themselves comedians rather than media critics, but they don’t hesitate to judge the content they discuss. They cover the influential arena among young people but are sometimes ignored by the mainstream media. Consciously or not, they began to teach their the audience criticism of the media, along with the lesson that not every popular figure yells “How are you guys?” the camera has its own interests in mind.
Like artists in a landscape they create, these commentators are free to define their craft; it’s hard to envy those who have become friendlier to internet celebrities, even if their blunt style makes them less convincing. But whether or not the future of criticism on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram lies with these comedians, they have already shown how desperate a generation has been – people who have heard “What’s up guys?” since preschool, and now hold credit cards and bank accounts – needs and wants critical coverage of what he sees. The question is whether such criticism can thrive in a structureless world where values don’t have to be articulated and hospitality can always be used under the guise of positive emotions.
Source photos: screenshots from YouTube.
Adlan Jackson is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. He last wrote about Beach House for the Music Issue.