How MrBeast Became the Willy Wonka of YouTube

When Jeremiah Howard was around 5, he was told he had a cataract — cloudiness in the clear lens of his right eye that seriously impaired his vision. “Growing up, I always had really crappy aim,” he says, and he had trouble keeping pace in school. By the end of his junior year of high school, he knew he wanted to have cataract surgery but wasn’t sure how he’d afford it. “I was 17, and I was extremely stressed about how I’d pay,” he says. His mother was not in the picture, and his father, who installs alarm systems for a living, made just enough to keep Howard and his sister in a three-bedroom mobile home in Florida. The procedure, which costs several thousand dollars out of pocket, seemed a distant possibility.

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Howard emailed “a bunch of different organizations that could help,” but he never heard back. On the advice of his family’s landlord, he looked into Social Security assistance for the blind, but he couldn’t figure it out. So his friend suggested exactly what any young American confronted with an impossible medical-bureaucratic situation would suggest: Set up a GoFundMe. He did, and it made less than $50. But in August of that year, Howard got a message from a stranger on Snapchat who’d found that GoFundMe. She told him she had a way to pay for his surgery — she just needed to interview him and clear it with her boss.

A few weeks later, Howard was in Jacksonville, Fla., sitting between an ophthalmologist named Jeffrey Levenson and his Snapchat benefactor’s boss, a 25-year-old North Carolinian named Jimmy Donaldson — but known better to Howard, and millions of YouTube viewers, as MrBeast. Howard was one of 1,000 people whose cataract surgery Donaldson had arranged, free of cost to them, to create content for his YouTube channel — which, with more than 150 million subscribers, is the third-biggest on the site. The end product was an eight-minute video called “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time.”

When he’s introduced to Donaldson in the video, Howard laughs nervously to hold back tears. “I’ve been subscribed to you for, like, 11 years,” he tells Donaldson. When we next see Howard, Dr. Levenson is removing bandages from his eyes. As Howard looks around the room, marveling at the results of the surgery, Donaldson retrieves a giant novelty check. “We wanted to give you $50,000 to put toward college,” he tells Howard. “I didn’t even think this was real,” Howard says. “It’s like I’m waiting to wake up.” He puts his face in his palms and his sister leans over to embrace him. The video cuts to a new segment, in which Donaldson gives a Tesla to another patient around the same age as Howard.

CreditCredit…MrBeast, via YouTube

By MrBeast standards, “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time” was not a megahit. The platform credits the video with 144 million views, placing it behind MrBeast classics like “I Adopted EVERY Dog in a Dog Shelter” (195 million views), “I Filled My Brother’s House With Slime & Bought Him a New One” (181 million views) and Donaldson’s all-time biggest video, “$456,000 Squid Game in Real Life!,” which clocks in at 434 million views. But unlike even Donaldson’s biggest videos, “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time” seemed to break YouTube containment when it was released in January. Most YouTube phenomena these days, even if they’re hugely popular among the platform’s audience, rarely enter other spheres of media consciousness; “1,000 Blind People,” by contrast, was almost immediately sucked into the vortex of Twitter controversy and obsessive media coverage.

CreditCredit…MrBeast, via YouTube

“There is something so demonic about this and I can’t even articulate what it is,” tweeted Alex Clavering, a public defender who makes YouTube and TikTok videos under the name LolOverruled, alongside a screenshot of the video’s thumbnail — an uncanny Photoshopped image of a grinning Donaldson grasping the shoulder of a dazed, postsurgical child, which resembles the poster of a low-budget horror movie and seems to suggest that Donaldson himself scrubbed in for the surgery. Clavering’s tweet earned him 2,700 replies, many from frustrated MrBeast defenders: “People don’t seem to realize that in order for him to be able to keep helping people, he has to turn his charities into content or he won’t make the money he needs to keep helping people.”

Versions of this same dispute, between MrBeast admirers and viewers who found themselves weirded out by the whole spectacle, reproduced themselves across Twitter for the next several days. Twitter is not a place known for easygoing conflict resolution, but something about the video was unusually divisive. Clavering told me he was harassed over that tweet “for weeks.” But he was also giving voice to a common reaction to the video from those less familiar with MrBeast. If you were to boil down the range of complaints to a single charge, it was that Donaldson had paid for the operations only for the attention — that the entire exercise was cynical and exploitative. (Donaldson declined to comment for this article.)

Unsurprisingly, the criticism only attracted more attention. CNN, the BBC, the Today show and People magazine all covered the stunt (and the attendant controversy), and local TV news channels tracked down and interviewed people featured in the video. Usually, popular YouTubers get this kind of attention only for, say, hiring Indian gig workers to film themselves holding up a sign reading “DEATH TO ALL JEWS” — an actual video uploaded by PewDiePie, the nom de vlog of the Swedish streamer Felix Kjellberg, whom MrBeast passed in the YouTube rankings late last year. Here, Donaldson had found the internet’s attention directed toward his channel for an act of exorbitant, indiscreet charity.

Donaldson has built a YouTube empire on this kind of quasi philanthropy, in which he crafts spectacles around surprise cash giveaways (“Giving a Random Homeless Man $10,000”), contests with expensive prizes (“Last to Leave $800,000 Island Keeps It”) and other lavish, if not particularly sensible, gifts (“Tipping Waitresses With Real Gold Bars”). The phenomenal popularity of these videos has made him a superstar by any measure and cemented his reputation as a secular saint among the YouTube faithful, but it has also left him open to the criticism that his generosity is more calculated than heartfelt — another audience-development strategy alongside the garish thumbnails and finely tuned video titles.

But to Donaldson’s fans, who view the phenomenon through the distortion field of YouTube’s incentive structures, this criticism seems basically incomprehensible. Within the world of YouTube, the most “demonic” content is often the most successful, and what makes Donaldson stand out is not that his videos make you feel “icky” (as another streamer put it), but that he puts that ickiness to work.

“He doesn’t do it just for the profit; he does it for the next person he intends to help,” Howard told me. “Which, when you genuinely start to think about it, it’s amazing.” And, when you really do think of it this way, it is amazing. But is it the good sort of amazing, or the bad sort of amazing?

Compared with the strange and compelling creatures on display elsewhere on YouTube, it can be hard to understand precisely what’s appealing about MrBeast. Donaldson has an easygoing manner and a charming, goofy enthusiasm, but no immediate televisual charisma. He is not particularly funny or well spoken or physically striking: If you created an average of the faces of all 25-year-old white North Carolinians, you would probably end up with something like Donaldson’s. And yet Donaldson has surpassed almost all of his competition to build one of the most popular channels on the platform, topped only by an Indian record label and the toddler-hypnosis juggernaut Cocomelon, which he will almost certainly overtake this year. MrBeast is the largest channel belonging to an individual who could be called a “YouTuber,” outstripping the formidable figure of PewDiePie by more than 40 million subscribers.

Being a notably regular guy carries with it a charisma of its own, and Donaldson’s relative normalcy and approachability are bolstered — and probably also encouraged — by his skill at reading the ripples and whipcracks of the vast and secret sorting and recommending algorithms that structure major platforms like YouTube. Eligible creators on the platform earn around half of the revenue from advertising that YouTube sells against their videos. The company took in nearly $30 billion in ad revenue in 2022; there’s a lot of money available for anyone who cobbles together a large-enough audience. But finding and keeping that audience is a much more complicated task — and, in a sense, every YouTuber’s second job.

Even within this context, Donaldson stands out for his dedication to understanding how YouTube works. For most of his teenage years, “I woke up, I studied YouTube, I studied videos, I studied filmmaking, I went to bed and that was my life,” Donaldson once told Bloomberg. “I hardly had any friends because I was so obsessed with YouTube,” he said on “The Joe Rogan Experience” last year. After high school, he hooked up with a gang of similarly obsessed “lunatics” and planned out a program of study. He and his friends “did nothing but just hyperstudy what makes a good video, what makes a good thumbnail, what’s good pacing, how to go viral,” he told Rogan. “We’d do things like take a thousand thumbnails and see if there’s correlation to the brightness of the thumbnail to how many views it got. Videos that got over 10 million views, how often do they cut the camera angles? Things like that.”

Donaldson’s skill at studying and understanding viral success isn’t limited to YouTube: He can also claim mastery of Seamless, having started an extremely successful business called MrBeast Burger, which mostly exists as a brand on delivery apps, licensed by local restaurants seeking to stand out in the crowded marketplace. At times, his entrepreneurialism and his reputation as one of the internet’s nice guys commingle uncomfortably. He sells a brand of chocolate bars called Feastables, and for months now, at Donaldson’s request, fans have been acting as volunteer brand representatives, tidying up the supermarket displays and posting photos of their acts of service to social media and the MrBeast subreddit. (As with Donaldson himself, it’s impossible to say whether this is done in the spirit of charity, however warped, or out of a desire for a handful of Reddit upvotes — or even Donaldson’s gratitude, however he may choose to express it.)

Thanks to the amount of money up for grabs in the YouTube economy, there’s a large cottage industry on YouTube itself devoted to giving advice on becoming a YouTuber, and clips of Donaldson interviews in which he discusses his observations of the algorithm and successful strategies for working within it are treated by the mass of would-be YouTube stars the same way Warren Buffett remarks at Berkshire Hathaway annual meetings are treated by armchair investors. (Not entirely without reason: In 2022, Forbes estimated that Donaldson brings in $54 million a year.) And the core lesson, one he repeats frequently, is that YouTube viewers — and the algorithms that herd them through the site — reward visible expense and effort.

In practice, for Donaldson, this tends to mean lots of large numbers in the video titles. At their core, the premise of most MrBeast videos is that numbers with lots of zeros are impressive. One blind person seeing for the first time isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? One thousand blind people seeing for the first time. Or 50 Hours in Antarctica; or 100 Days in a Circle; or a $70,000 Golden Pizza; a $500,000 Game of Tag; $1,000,000 Hide and Seek; 1,000,000,000 Christmas Lights. One of his earliest viral hits was a stunt in which he counted to 100,000 over the course of 40 hours. Its success became a blueprint, and he followed it up with similarly effortful feats of pain and endurance, such as watching “It’s Everyday Bro” (the YouTube star Jake Paul’s atrocious rap video) for 10 hours straight.

As his audience grew bigger, Donaldson began to make money from sponsorships, which he’d routinely plow back into extravagant purchases for his videos, actualizing the wildest dreams of 10-year-old boys by putting millions of pennies in a friend’s backyard, or buying hundreds of leaf blowers to create a “hover field.” Videos like this were so influential they started an entire YouTube genre, known as junklord content, for all the waste they generate. But the video that Donaldson says changed MrBeast’s trajectory was neither a flashy waste of money nor an elaborate endurance challenge at all. He wrapped up $10,000 in cash and handed it to a homeless man panhandling on a road median in 2017.

CreditCredit…MrBeast, via YouTube

The video is amateurish and unedited by MrBeast’s exacting standards. Nevertheless, it became a huge hit, even compared to his previous successes. A few months later, he posted a video in which he gives his mom $100,000 in cash. At first, she refuses. “If I don’t give it to you, I don’t have a viral video,” he tells her. “You’re using me for views?” his mother jokes. “Yes, but you get money too, so we’re both happy,” Donaldson responds.

Junklord gimmicks and endurance stunts are still MrBeast’s bread and butter — after “1,000 Blind People,” his next two videos were “$1 vs $500,000 Plane Ticket!” and “I Paid a Real Assassin to Try to Kill Me” — but where Donaldson differs from other junklords is that, more often than not, the expenditure ends up in someone else’s hands. The best known MrBeast productions are spectacular, convoluted competitions with enormous cash prizes: “Last to Leave Circle Wins $500,000,” or more recently, “Ages 1-100 Fight for $500,000,” or most famously, “$456,000 Squid Game in Real Life!,” which Donaldson described as a $3.5 million production.

But just as often, Donaldson is simply giving stuff away, no contest needed. Sometimes, as with the cataract-surgery video, or in the case of Donaldson’s subchannel Beast Philanthropy, this munificence is explicitly geared toward helping the obviously needy. Sometimes it’s simply absurd, arbitrary generosity to indiscriminately chosen viewers or passers-by: a Lamborghini handed off to a randomly chosen Uber rider, an entire house deeded to an unsuspecting Domino’s delivery person. In one video, Donaldson offers a deli cashier $100,000 to quit her job on the spot; in another, he finds people streaming live on Twitch to zero viewers and gives them thousands of dollars. The idea that MrBeast might show up in your life at some point and arbitrarily hand you a pile of money is so widespread online that the first rule on the MrBeast subreddit is “No Begging for Money”: “Mr beast will not give any money through reddit.”

Donaldson’s “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time” is perhaps slightly different in that the bulk of its beneficiaries aren’t MrBeast subscribers. But what makes it so clearly a MrBeast video is its attention to scale. Throughout the video, a counting-up graphic appears at the bottom of the video, ticking up to tally each surgery. The chyron reads as glib to outsiders — as though Donaldson were playing a curing-the-blind video game — but it reflects a key component of what people like about MrBeast: the immensity of the tasks he sets for himself. For the video’s final minute, Donaldson reveals that his channel isn’t just paying for surgery here in the United States but around the world. Orchestral music cues up over images of lines for surgery in Jamaica, Indonesia, Honduras; the counter races to 1,000. (The video was produced in collaboration with charities that aim to end preventable blindness.) What you have just witnessed, the video suggests, was not simply a good deed but a small part of an ongoing movement in which MrBeast subscribers are active participants.

Which many of them believe they are. On YouTube, the size of your audience is directly connected to your revenue, and Donaldson pitches subscribing to his channel as an act of charity, sometimes literally: “From now until the end of the year, every single time someone subscribes, I will give away 10 cents,” he says in a video from February 2021. “By literally hitting that subscribe button, you are taking 10 cents out of my pocket and giving it to people like we had in the video.” Even better, subscribers are often chosen to be the participants in his contests and recipients of his beneficence. In 2022, on the occasion of passing 100 million subscribers, Donaldson flew 100 MrBeast subscribers to a private island and pitted them against one another in “Survivor”-style challenges for ownership of the island. (The contest also featured a crude social-credit system in which earlier subscribers were given advantages in the games.)

Donaldson is explicit that profit is not the goal; expansion is. The effect is a kind of unstoppable flywheel of charity, spectacle and growth — a combination lottery, raffle, game show and telethon, administered by the Willy Wonka of Greenville, N.C. But it can be hard to tell where the momentum comes from and what it’s serving: Is it growth and spectacle for the sake of charity, or charity for the sake of growth and spectacle? In this sense, “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time” is something like the apotheosis of the MrBeast brand, for the way it literalizes the MrBeast system of turning eyeballs into money, money into charity, charity into content and content into more eyeballs. As a joking subtitle at the end of the video puts it: “I wonder if we’ll get 1,000 more views from the people we cured LOL.”

Thumbnails for MrBeast videos, including: “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time,” “I Paid a Real Assassin to Try to Kill Me,” “I Survived A Plane Crash,” “Would You Swim With Sharks for $100,000?,” “$1 Versus $500,000 Plane Ticket,” “$456,00 Squid Game in Real Life.” Donaldson has discussed fine-tuning these promotional images to maximize audience.Credit…MrBeast, via YouTube

Over the past decade, as YouTube has conquered the brains and cultures of young people, it has often and justifiably been cast as something surprising, new and darkly alien. The proliferation of uncanny, anonymously created bootleg videos of popular cartoon characters doing creepy stuff seemed to suggest some kind of inhuman forces at work; the seeming popularity of far-right content raised the specter of dangerous rabbit holes and algorithmic radicalization. Even the less controversial formats and content can seem bizarre and off-putting to those of us not raised within the folkways of YouTube: You just watch other people play video games? You just watch other people open boxes of toys? You just watch other people watch YouTube videos?

In this context, the strangest thing about “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time” is how familiar it is. Seen alongside everything else YouTube has to offer, it doesn’t come across as demonic. Rather, it’s sappy, earnest and professionally efficient. It establishes its purpose and stakes in the first 30 seconds, hits every emotional beat necessary and lasts not a millisecond longer than it needs to. It is, in content if not in form, television. Tacky chyron and creepy thumbnail aside, it feels much closer to a cable-channel makeover show or a life-affirming local-news segment than it does to the work of YouTube native peers like PewDiePie or the Paul Brothers.

What distinguishes Donaldson from his broadcast-media predecessors isn’t his subject matter or editing style, but rather his relationship to his audience. Vincent Miller, an academic in the media studies department at the University of Kent in England, first encountered MrBeast “probably the same way any 50-odd-year-old academic would — my kid was watching his videos,” he told me recently. He found himself intrigued (Donaldson would be happy to know) by the channel’s cut-above production values, but also by the pitch: “The interesting thing that he was doing was saying: ‘You don’t have to give up anything. All you have to do is watch. And I make so much money from each one of you who views these things.’”

Miller’s interest in MrBeast resulted in a new academic paper, written with Eddy Hogg, in which Miller places MrBeast in the context of a media-studies concept called the “audience commodity,” the idea that media consumption is essentially a form of labor, because people spend time creating a valuable commodity — an audience — that is then sold to advertisers. One standard objection to this way of thinking about media is that audiences are not consciously entering a marketplace to sell labor, the way a worker comes to an agreement with their boss; indeed, they all but certainly think of what they’re doing as leisure. In most cases, Miller says, they may “not even be aware that they’re producing a commodity.”

Unless, perhaps, they’re watching MrBeast. For Miller, what makes Donaldson remarkable is that he essentially asks his audience to see themselves as a commodity, and to therefore see their views and likes and shares as a force for good: “MrBeast is actually telling people that they’re entering a marketplace, by saying, ‘If you watch this, this is worth so much money, I can raise this much money and I can spend it on good causes.’” As Donaldson says in one video for his philanthropic sub-channel: “Beast Philanthropy is literally funded by your eyeballs. Not even joking.” Watching MrBeast videos may not be “work” in the traditional sense, but insofar as there are no illusions between Donaldson and his viewer about the audience creating a commodity to be sold, it’s more complicated than the commonly understood passive experience of channel-surfing on TV.

For older viewers, maybe less accustomed to seeing themselves so bluntly as numbers on other people’s spreadsheets, the strategy of wedding philanthropy so closely with audience growth can seem, well, icky. But Donaldson’s young fans have mostly grown up on YouTube; some, like Jeremiah Howard, have been watching his videos since they were preadolescents. They’re intimately familiar with the platform’s business and revenue structures, both because so much content on YouTube is concerned with these topics but also because many of them are striving amateur YouTubers themselves. (When I asked Howard what he was going to do with the $50,000 check Donaldson gave him, he told me he was thinking about using it to kick-start his family’s YouTube channel, FLBOYRHINO.) For people in Howard’s position, adjacent to the internet’s vast new engines of wealth and commerce but able only to participate at the margins, MrBeast both imbues their role with a sense of purpose and offers a channel for redistribution that, as Howard learned, may not otherwise happen. To them, he looks not ethically compromised, but ingenious.

In May, a few months after “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time,” Donaldson released a new video called “1,000 Deaf People Hear for the First Time.” If you’ve seen “1,000 Blind People,” you can imagine its follow-up — and the video thumbnail — without needing to watch it. You can imagine the attendant controversy too: the sparring between rapturous MrBeast fans and queasy critics, for whom the video is glib, shallow, icky, demonic.

I’ll admit that I agree with some of those critics, at least to the extent that I think it would be nice if a person with Donaldson’s platform and resources (and evident desire to help people) cast a closer eye on structural problems with the American health care system and on the everyday injustices visited on disabled people. But I can also see how this kind of criticism misunderstands what the MrBeast channel is and how it works. Having kicked his flywheel into action, Donaldson from here can only really keep it spinning. Any deviation might threaten the perpetual motion of his growth machine. (Imagine being 12 years old: Do you want to watch an explainer on private-equity roll-ups of primary-care practices?)

Watching his videos, I was sometimes struck with the thought that I was glad that Donaldson’s talent for YouTube traffic had been attained by a basically decent and moral person rather than the twitchy reactionaries and malcontents the site seems to attract. But Donaldson’s study of YouTube success had probably also shown him that decency, morality and generosity, properly calibrated, could be extremely successful characteristics in a YouTuber, whereas resentment and transgression could, by the current rules of the platform, get you only so far. Donaldson can wield YouTube to his own benefit, at least as much as any one person can, but that also means the limits of his project are, in essence, the limits of YouTube itself.

Maybe this is fine for Donaldson, who seems compelled not by a narcissistic desire for fame or fortune on the one hand, nor by a purely charitable impulse on the other, but by the very same adolescent compulsions that shape his videos: How far does this go? How big can this thing get? How many zeros?

Max Read is a journalist and screenwriter whose work has appeared in New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Bookforum. His newsletter and guide to the future is “Read Max.”

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