Last Saturday, two YouTubers failed to settle a fake online beef by declaring their mutually financially beneficial fight a draw, leading to the announcement of a second mutually financially beneficial fight (that had actually already been announced).
Olajide Olatunji, better known as “KSI”, fought Logan Paul, better known as “that YouTuber that filmed a dead body in a Japanese suicide forest while laughing, before apologising, announcing he’d changed, then reappearing on YouTube by tasering a dead rat, and embarking on a months long fake beef with KSI.” KSI is catchier.
At once perceived as both deadly serious by their fans and comically absurd to outsiders, Paul and KSI’s online conflict drove thousands of people to watch the fight at Manchester Arena, and millions more to watch online.
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The idea of having ‘beef’ with someone has become an integral feature of social networks, but it’s existed in entertainment for a long time. Bette Davis had beef with Joan Crawford, Jay Z had beef with Nas, Liam Gallagher had beef with everyone he could find.
But beef in the internet age has turned into something more akin to a school-yard fight. There’s nothing more Year 7 than two lads with more self-belief than sense demanding to meet each other for a fight, spending days crafting insults, all leading towards a brief scrap where neither gets close to socking the other one but both declare they won.
Saturday’s fight even included Logan’s younger brother Jake leaping into the ring over some perceived slight, a dynamic instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever declared war on a classmate who was carefully flicking ink from a fountain pen across a clean white shirt.
It’s hard to see ‘beef’ as anything other than inherently masculine. It’s a loud, venomous, and toxic version of angry masculinity, emanating from people who were never quite sure how to deal with the fact that girls were briefly taller than them when they were 11 or that someone, anyone else might have the audacity to be smarter or more talented than them.
“The fans are drawn in because these guys are cartoons, and, inevitably, children like cartoons”
It is this toxicity is that’s so troubling about this fight: the idea that these merch-obsessed, hyper-capitalists believe the real solution to their problems is to take poorly executed swings at each other while Max from EastEnders and an army of 10-year-olds looks on.
Let us be under no illusion that this is who their audience is - 10-year-old boys and girls. Even the older fans are mostly teens who are still figuring out how to interact with the world.
They’re drawn in because these guys are cartoons, and children, inevitably, like cartoons. They’re cartoons because YouTube encourages it, and it’s why the two Paul Ohioans with floppy hair and great jawlines have done so well.
Pathos and melancholy aren’t popular emotions - rage, hilarity and that common emotion best described as Just Yelling At The Camera So The Viewer Feels Like Something’s Happening are the fastest way to YouTube success.
As Logan Paul grew in popularity - and wealth - his videos became even more predictably childish. He filled pools with slime, he jumped out of planes, he got an adorable dog, he made trampoline ball pits, all things tht a 9-year-old would do given the freedom. And it worked. He built a huge audience of children and young teens that would follow him anywhere.
In itself, these videos aren’t particularly bad - the fact that kids want to see what happens when a dumbass turns a swimming pool into jelly isn’t a surprise, or even bad. Flogging expensive merch that parents have to sink money into on the other hand is cynically capitalist at best.
What’s more concerning is how Logan Paul has turned this cartoonish bro image into something toxic, built around such an aggressive conception of masculinity. The Pauls and KSI are inevitably problematic. KSI has previously been accused of misogyny after asking bluntly sexist questions to women in his videos, while Logan films dead bodies, and Jake has been filmed saying the N-word multiple times.
Both KSI and Paul also released nakedly homophobic diss tracks, with Logan making homophobic jokes using clips of KSI’s past homophobia, in a move that managed to make them both look worse.
The YouTube stars have all attempted to apologise with varying success, but the toxic masculinity at the root of these issues remains.
Toxic masculinity defines manhood using status, violence, sex, and aggression. Strength is everything, weakness is feminine, and violation of this status quo leads to your manhood being questioned (KSI even said in a diss track of Paul that he would “beat the manhood out the bitch”). It’s the only way to accurately describe how this fight became such an alluring phenomenon for so many, and how these ‘characters’ operate.
It’s how two YouTubers ended up inexpertly slogging away at each other in Manchester on Saturday. Just witness Logan Paul’s sniggering theory that KSI was stuffing his boxers, again like Year 7s ready to swing at each other by the bus stop.
The beef follows familiar rules. It’s not real enough to be documentary, and not fake enough to be scripted, but close enough to both that it feels gross. It’s a proximal estimation of reality: two people who know every beat they need to hit, running through them without ever worrying that the other will break the illusion. Both have too much money on the line.
But this beef is part of a new trend because of how it weaponises wokeness.
“It’s tricky to believe that Logan suddenly discovered his woke feminist side”
‘Wokeness’ has increasingly become a part of online beef. Kanye’s apparent red-pilling this year was the most visceral iteration of it, as he tweeted screengrabs of friends’ messages trying to pull him in a different direction, but so was Drake’s Pusha T argument, which culminated in Pusha tweeting images of Drake wearing blackface in an old photoshoot, almost impossibly complicating the conflict.
In a long interview with fellow vlogger Casey Neistat, Logan, as part of the (again, mostly fake) beef, tried to utilise wokeness by talking about how KSI had “gone too far” by insulting his girlfriend, leading to Logan storming out of a press conference.
It’s tricky to believe that Logan, who once made a video where he ‘rode’ women by pretending they were bikes, suddenly discovered his woke feminist side. Instead, he’s aware it’s a controversial issue he can make people support him over, particularly because it feeds a traditionally masculine ethos of being protective of his girlfriend. As the two fought over who was right, the cynically ‘woke’ debate became part of a massive promotional campaign.
So we end up with an online culture with the thinnest of veneers over a pit of toxic masculinity, a pit where problems are very literally solved with the ultimate expression of toxic masculinity, actual violence, while a ‘woke’ internet nevertheless believes it has some ability to shut down ‘problematic’ attitudes.
Ultimately, KSI and Logan Paul used cartoonish pranks to bring in a young audience, open to influence and marketing, who will come to believe that this toxic use of violence, of aggression, of misogynistic point-scoring using women as a battlefield is somehow normal.
And it works! The fight got at least 800,000 online viewers at £7.50 a go, bringing in more than £6 million on YouTube alone. Then there was the gate for the arena, with VIP tickets selling at nearly £500, and a massive subscriber boost for all the participants. And that’s before all the merch opportunities that come from this huge audience (KSI hoodies at the venue went for £30 each).
Logan Paul has barely published a video this year - he used to release one daily, back when the algorithm rewarded it, but since the end of April he’s published just 18 (it’d be 120 if he was going at his previous rate) - and 11 of those 18 were explicitly about the fight. But financially, he’s probably doing even better, by selling his pantomime of toxic masculinity - and his merch - to an audience of children.
(Pics: OP Talent)