The Internet is for Extremism
How MrBeast explains why everything online is going insane
Everything seems insane on the internet.
It’s 2023, and Donald Trump still dominates American political discussion. The internet is filled with wild MAGA nonsense, and if you follow politics online you’ve probably also learned what a Tankie is against your will. But it’s not just politics - everything seems insane. Influencers are doing crazier and crazier stunts to go viral. Pop culture fights happen more often and with more venom. Niche communities seem to fall into deranged niche drama more easily than ever.
To understand how Donald Trump used the internet to take over American politics - and why everything else is also going insane - we first need to understand MrBeast.1
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We Have To Go Bigger
YouTuber MrBeast2 could fairly claim to be the biggest online content creator in the world. He’s the most-subscribed individual creator on Youtube. He has more than 290 million followers across his YouTube channels and his videos have collected more than 45 billion views. And it’s possible that no one in the world has thought as deeply about how to go viral as he has.
MrBeast has talked at length about his obsession with YouTube, producing content, and going viral. He often talks about how he’s been uploading videos since he was 11 years old, how he’s probably spent 40,000 hours discussing content creation tactics for the YouTube platform. He faked going to community college to live at home with his parents and make content 15 hours a day. He’s the kind of guy who has extremely detailed (and evidence backed) opinions about the facial expressions that go on video thumbnails, how often a video should jump cut, and what types of videos will get views. So it’s worthwhile to think about some of his earliest viral videos, what he’s making now, and what it says about the nature of virality.
MrBeast was 19 and a small-time YouTuber, nowhere near a household name. He was offered the biggest sponsorship he’d ever been offered to date - 5,000 dollars - and his immediate reaction was ‘Double that and let me give it away to a random homeless person’. He ended up being right, and the video went insanely viral. He knew that the bigger the number (especially if it could break into five digits and be 10,000 dollars) the better the video would do.
The instinct to go bigger has informed virtually everything MrBeast has done since then. He soon had a new video giving away $20,000 to homeless people, then $100,000, then an actual house. He is always pushing the limits, doing bigger and wilder and more, and not just when it comes to giving away money. He’s driven through the same drive-through 1000 times straight. He spent four million dollars to enact a real life Squid Game and bought a train so he could run it off a cliff. He spent two days buried alive in a coffin and a week stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean. He’s given away a private island a cured 1000 blind and deaf people.
The biggest and probably most knowledgeable content creator on the planet has one philosophy - if you want people to watch, push things to the extreme. And this rule doesn’t just govern YouTube videos. It governs everything we do online.
The MrBeastification of Everything
Think of a relatively normal and uncontroversial thing to be a fan of. Let’s pick hot sauce - imagine yourself as a hot sauce aficionado. If you were living 30 years ago before social media, your options were pretty limited. Maybe you’d know a couple restaurants nearby with pretty spicy food. Maybe you read an extremely niche hot sauce magazine that would publish twice a year for a tiny audience. Maybe you knew of a mail order company that sold some really hot stuff, hotter than you could get at the supermarket. But fundamentally, even as an obsessive fan, your options were pretty limited.
Today, your options are not limited. There are dedicated hot sauce forums online. There are mountains of social content analyzing hot sauce, discussing hot sauce, watching celebrities eat incredibly hot chicken wings. There’s a hot sauce subreddit with hundreds of thousands of subscribers where people have incredibly strong opinions about this topic.
We can even measure this empirically - the hottest pepper in the world today is up to 10x as hot as the world’s hottest pepper in the 1990s. And it’s also far more accessible. You can buy hotter sauces than ever before, easier than ever before, and it’s all thanks to the power of the internet. Hot sauce is undergoing MrBeastification - always pushing for hotter.
There are times where it seems like this extremism is happening to everything online. Celebrity fandoms are more extreme than ever - in fact, it’s no longer enough to be a wildly deranged stan, you must also engage in the anti-fandoms that are now common. Sorority rush has gone from a relatively understated affair to a giant social media production requiring intense planning. Our financial scams have gone from straightforward ponzi schemes to meme stocks and cryptocurrencies that border on being actual cults. Fringe beliefs in every field - economics, vaccinology, history - are flourishing. The more conspiratorial and extreme the view, the better it tends to do on the internet. Everything is being pushed to be the most extreme version of itself.
The Incentives We’re Chasing
What’s causing this? It’s the social web. There are a couple of structural ways in which the internet empowers and incentivizes extremism.
In the past, if you believed in weird economic systems, if you thought Bigfoot existed, or if you just really deeply loved hot sauce, it was nearly impossible to connect with like minded people. You were just the neighborhood weirdo. Now, you can fire up social media and instantly be connected to a thousand other weirdos who believe the same nonsense as you. Fringe individuals become fringe groups, and they get organized.
This ends up creating echo chambers. Whether it’s a big famous topic like national politics or an extremely niche area like anime fanfictions, people will cluster with like minded individuals and self-radicalize. Nothing turns up to 11 faster than a group of people building an identity around a topic they’re normally mocked for.
Gone are the days when you were largely forced to deal with the national monoculture, forced to talk to people in real life. Mainstream media aimed at everyone tends towards conformity and non-extremism, because they have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. But the mainstream media is being left behind for social media, where everything is fractured into thousands of subcultures and the incentives are for ever increasing extremism.
Fundamentally, the social dynamics of the internet turbo-charge this extremism. When the amount of content available online is near-infinite, why wouldn’t you gravitate towards the content that is the most of whatever it is you’re searching for? Why watch a video where a cook bakes a 10 pound cake when you could watch a 50 pound cake? Why watch someone give away a thousand dollars when you could watch someone else give away a hundred thousand dollars?4 MrBeast recognized this early on and he’s correct - this is how things work with social content. People always want bigger and crazier and more extreme.
One guy makes a new world’s hottest sauce, but you can get views by one-upping him with an even hotter sauce. One sorority gets attention during Rush by filming a short dance video, so next year your sorority films one with fancier matching outfits and even bigger choreography and stunts. One poster gets clout calling for socialism, so you call for an even more extreme form of socialism. There is no point at which your incentive is to moderate, to go smaller, to backtrack. For most things, more extreme always equals more attention.
The algorithms incentivize this sort of content, and they also incentivize conflict. Fighting with the other side generates clicks and attention, and the nastier the fight the more people will be watching. A respectful, neutral debate about whether Nicki Minaj or Cardi B has the better song won’t get any attention. But a flame war between Nicki and Cardi stans with slurs, harassment and doxxing would probably dominate Twitter for weeks.
And while we haven’t even mentioned politics yet, the same exact dynamics are at play there. There’s a reason Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have always been far more popular than their mainstream rivals specifically in social media spaces - because those spaces are fundamentally built to promote extreme views. And it’s not an accident that Trump’s style of constant controversy worked in 2016 when it would never have worked in decades before. Create conflict, espouse extreme views, and you’re likely going to be an online hit.
I wish I could leave you with some sage wisdom about What This All Means, or perhaps Where We Go From Here. I don’t really have that. I don’t think we can really change it or stop it from happening. This is just a consequence of how the social internet operates, and perhaps a consequence of human nature. Politics and mainstream media used to be so boring that in 1950 political scientists actually asked Republicans and Democrats to fight more often and stop being so agreeable. The social media age, to put it lightly, does not have that problem. Everyone is fighting all the time about politics, pop culture, economics, sports, everything.
The only thing I can think to say is that it’s important we recognize this happening. If you recognize the phenomenon, you can stop yourself from being entirely sucked into it. You can realize when you’re being pushed to click the craziest video, to read the wildest story, to fight over the most insane political topic. I don’t think we can stop the dynamic, but individually we don’t have to be trapped by it. We can back away from the instinct and touch grass, which is what we all need a little bit more of.
God knows there are too many ‘explain Donald Trump’s rise’ pieces on the internet already, but hopefully this will entertain you by being the first one that links Trump to MrBeast, hot sauce, and sorority rush week.
It says something about me that I find videos of MrBeast discussing his content strategy more interesting than his actual content