The Accidental Media Critics of YouTube

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Gary Vaynerchuk has been an internet celebrity for so long that it’s hard to know which era’s terminology to use to describe him. He was among YouTube’s earliest stars, crafting videos first for his father’s wine business and then about media and technology companies; later he started his own media company. He has been a self-help guru, publishing books about how fans could “Crush It” in their own businesses, and also something more extreme, adopting an almost televangelist-like persona as “Gary Vee.” Most recently, nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, have turned out to be a natural fit for him: He re-entered the zeitgeist last year with his own NFT projects, exhorting his young audience to join the club lest they end up among the “losers” he spends so much time denouncing.

But something interesting popped up in response: videos of young adults looking plaintively into their own cameras and explaining why they considered Vaynerchuk’s content dangerous. A man named Nick Green, curly-haired and baby-faced, lampooned Vaynerchuk’s business advice, exhortations like “be aware” and “do it.” Georgie Taylor, blond and British and posting under the screen name münecat, made a video calling Vaynerchuk “the youth pastor of capitalism,” picking apart his tendency to inflate his entrepreneurship origin story (being hired into a family business) into an epic personal mythology and highlighting how his emphasis on positivity can include a strange viciousness toward anyone struggling with challenges beyond their individual control.

Importantly, these commentators were not professional journalists, concerned experts or onlookers from outside the YouTube world. They, and their audiences, come from the same demographics Vaynerchuk targets: young, and more engaged with internet video and social media than with traditional commentary. YouTube, in other words, has spawned its own media critics. Taylor, for instance, peering through cat-eye glasses and clutching a beer, offers an in-depth video that’s nearly an hour long and as neatly structured as a “Dateline” exposé. Marshaling video evidence from Vaynerchuk’s own output, she accuses him of feeding on youths, selling Gen-Z and millennial audiences a dream of wealth while using their attention to line his own pockets.

Over the past few years, this type of commentary — internet-video figures dissecting the output of other, more popular internet-video figures — has become its own small ecosystem. The people doing the commenting often appear on one another’s channels, where they discuss the absurdities of influencers and social-media culture. Their level of earnestness varies, but they are, generally, trying to be funny; even withering takedowns like Taylor’s are laced with quips. Their commentary has become one of YouTube’s more popular genres, appearing among trending videos like Jimmy Fallon clips and James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.”

There is, perhaps, a heartening inevitability to all this: Even in a world with no gatekeepers and limited moderation, a certain savvy will assert itself. YouTube even has its equivalents of tabloids and trade publications, covering salacious online drama or niche interests. But it’s the commentary YouTubers in particular who have become, in some cases, as popular as the stars they react to, leading to strange conflicts between fame and critical integrity — plus literal run-ins in the influencer-infested studios of Los Angeles. In 2019, the loutish influencer Jake Paul posted a video titled “confronting internet bully cody ko,” in which he tracked down Cody Kolodziejzyk, a commentary YouTuber who often discussed his work. Visibly enraged and complaining that anyone could be so full of hatred instead of spreading positivity, Paul recorded himself ambushing his critic — in a video he would monetize for income.

Kolodziejzyk and his comedy partner, Noel Miller, became popular on YouTube with a series called “That’s Cringe,” which mocked not just Paul but other internet celebrities. Kolodziejzyk and Miller’s fans, however, noticed that as the two rose to prominence, they became steadily more immersed in the world of the very media they were critiquing. Soon the subjects of their mockery started appearing on Kolodziejzyk and Miller’s own channel, creating hit videos by performing gestures of reconciliation with the comedians. Fans fretted about a conflict of interest that would incentivize Kolodziejzyk and Miller to pull their punches — a neat mirror to worries about access-based coverage in traditional journalism.

On a May 2021 episode of Kolodziejzyk and Miller’s podcast, for instance, ​they reacted to a particularly outrageous TikTok from Gary Vee, in which he urged an attendee at one of his self-help seminars to induce gratitude by imagining family members being shot in the face. Howling with laughter, Kolodziejzyk and Miller traded escalating riffs on the theme (“Picture your family getting swallowed by 10,000 locusts!”); a clip of the conversation became one of their most popular posts on TikTok. But soon Gary Vee himself caught wind and requested to be on the podcast. Appearing in a T-shirt that demanded “POSITIVE VIBES ONLY,” he parroted lines at Miller’s request (“I need you to picture yourself swallowing a bag of nails!”) while the hosts laughed credulously.

Kolodziejzyk and Miller and others like them — YouTubers like Drew Gooden and Danny Gonzalez — don’t just inform you about internet ephemera; they also reveal the shady online courses, moneymaking conventions and NFT hype that some of the internet’s influential celebrities have had their hands in. (Celebrities whose audiences, it must be said, consist largely of teenagers.) They almost certainly see themselves as comedians, not media critics, but they haven’t hesitated to judge the content they discuss. They cover an arena influential among young people but sometimes ignored by traditional media. Knowingly or not, they have begun teaching their audiences media criticism, along with the lesson that not every popular figure to shout “What’s up, guys?” into a camera has their best interests in mind.

As entertainers in a landscape they themselves are creating, these commentators are free to define their craft; it’s hard to begrudge those who have become friendlier toward internet celebrities, even if their blunted style makes them less compelling. But whether or not the future of criticism on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram lies with these comedians, they have already highlighted just how desperately a generation — 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 it is seeing. The question is whether such criticism can thrive in a world without structure, where values need not be articulated and glad-handing can always be trafficked under the banner of positive vibes.

Source photographs: Screen grabs from YouTube

Adlan Jackson is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. He last wrote about the band Beach House for the magazine’s Music Issue.