In the early hours of Wednesday 5 August, Jake Paul’s home in the upscale city of Calabasas, California, received an unexpected visit: the FBI was here to execute a search warrant. That search was related to an ongoing investigation, an FBI representative told The Independent at the time. The corresponding warrant was sealed, meaning it wasn’t immediately clear what investigators were looking for.
Multiple firearms were seized during the raid, in connection with a riot at an Arizona shopping mall, the bureau later told local TV station KABC. Paul had been facing misdemeanour charges related to the same case, which were dismissed on the same day by local police “so that a federal criminal investigation can be completed”. Those charges could be refiled at a later date. Paul has denied engaging in any unlawful activity at the mall and insisted he was instead searching for a protest against the death of George Floyd. He wasn’t home at the time of the FBI search.
For all their headline-making, common-sense-defying, attention-grabbing antics, it remains relatively rare for YouTubers to find themselves in the crosshairs of real-life law enforcement. Accountability, in the world of famous vloggers, comes more often in the form of more-or-less permanent public shunnings (“cancellations” might be a more appropriate terms). Their brands might suffer. Their follower counts might drop. These effects are usually temporary – YouTubers have a way of failing up.
Drama, after all, is content, and content is the raw material that Jake Paul, much like his older brother Logan, have turned into more than 20m followers each, a combined 11bn views, and the kind of wealth that is best measured in Rolexes and Lamborghinis. In other words, in the world of social media celebrities, the currency is noise, and the Paul brothers have had plenty of that to deal, for a long time.
The Paul saga is the product of the internet of yore, when Vine was the hottest new thing in town. Jake and Logan, the sons of a nurse and a real estate agent, first found success on the short-form video sharing service. Their respective careers, of course, survived the death of the platform in 2016. The Paul siblings’ claims to fame are somewhat sprawling, and listing them all can be a daunting task. There’s the seemingly never-ending backlog of vlogs. There’s Jake’s rapping career. There’s Logan’s clothing brand. There are Jake’s music videos and Logan’s podcast. Both brothers have made forays into boxing. And, of course, both have made headlines, not always for comfortable reasons.
Perhaps the most infamous Paul controversy came on 31 December 2017, when Logan shared a vlog filmed in Japan’s Aokigahara forest, which showed the dead body of a man hanging from a tree. The incident seemed to epitomise the excesses of social media culture, the directionless chase for clicks, and the ways in which searching for views can apparently strip someone not just of sound judgment, but also of the most basic empathy.
Jake, too, has been far from immune from controversy. The FBI search seems like the continuation of a story that began, perhaps, in 2017, when a neighbour complained to local news network KTLA that disturbances at his house had turned the area into “a war zone”. In a brief interview with the outlet, Jake appeared flippant. Surrounded by his posse, he pretended not to understand what his neighbours were upset about and climbed the local news van. He was the epitome of a class clown, one who not only has found positive reinforcement in his antics – by way of fame, followers, and a silo of friends/co-star hybrids – but turned them into his livelihood.
One cannot begin to understand the allure of the Paul brothers without acknowledging the allure of personal wealth, and the ways in which it still contributes to their brands to this day. Estimations of each sibling’s net worth vary widely, and tend to become outdated every time a new controversy rears its head. But it’s clear both men aren’t wanting for much, at least as far as material possessions are concerned.
Both of them reside in California mansions – Jake’s in Calabasas, Logan’s in Encino. A video shared by Jake last month references his Lamborghini, while Logan regularly shares vlogs with titles such as “I GAVE MY MOM $10,000 CASH FOR CHRISTMAS!” and “I BOUGHT MY ROOMMATE A $20,000 ROLEX! (surprise)”.
The idea of success as being directly correlated to someone’s finances is so deeply entrenched – especially in the US – that many people rarely give it a second thought. And even when someone’s failures are acknowledged, wealth is still perceived as at least partly exculpatory. Yes, alarming claims have been made about working conditions at Amazon, but Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the world, so surely he must be doing something right?
It’s hard to criticise the Paul brothers without doing so in a way their fans might deem stiff or uncool. Perhaps critics are just jealous. After all, Jake and Logan are rich and famous. To top it off, they’re their own bosses, and they apparently get to lead enormously enjoyable lifestyles doing what they enjoy. It’s not hard, in those circumstances, to frame criticism as coming only from a place of envy.
And yet, it’s worth taking a closer look at the ethos that has allowed the Paul brothers to thrive in the way they have. Logan initially attended college, but dropped out to focus on his online career. Jake, who is two years Logan’s junior, never enrolled. As he told The New York Times in 2017, referring to his past Vine career: “There was real-life opportunity to make a career for ourselves, for the rest of our lives. We were working with brands and advertisers. I was, like, 17 years old, making more money than my parents.”
In the US, most people do not have a safety net, even when they direly need one – in case they lose their job, in case they get sick and their insurance coverage is spotty. Money ensures your safety in ways that are not needed in other places. If you are given a chance to make a lot of money, relatively fast, you take it, because the opportunity may not come again, and this really is the golden ticket.
(Of course, you don’t need Jake-and-Logan amounts of money to live a safe, comfortable life. But wealth distribution tends to be an uneven thing, so here we are.)
So, in a country where college is outrageously expensive, and very much viewed as a means to an end (say, a pathway to a well-paying job), it makes sense to drop out if a more lucrative opportunity is presenting itself. Logan Paul certainly isn’t the first person to have made this choice. It’s worth thinking about the lost opportunity here – of shaping your mind, of becoming a better, more thoughtful, better informed human being. The kind that doesn’t climb local news vans. The kind that thinks twice before sharing footage of a dead body dangling from a tree.
I haven’t managed to make full sense of the Paul brothers’ continued popularity, which seems to defy both expectations and the passage of time. But I know almost for sure that the culture that has enabled their rise is one that conflates wealth and success. This should – at the very least – give us pause.
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