Videos of lavish spending are all over YouTube, but why are they so popular?
“I just bought that private Island, land ho!“ yells a white millennial man in a khaki-coloured research hat, while gliding towards shore on a small boat. He flashes the papers to prove it, and later we’re told that the land cost $730,000. We’re now less than a minute into the video, aptly titled “I Bought A Private Island,” by YouTuber MrBeast.
MrBeast, a.k.a. Jimmy Donaldson, has made a career off of this type of content. A quick scroll through his YouTube page will show you dozens of titles reminiscent of the aforementioned private island video. “I Spent $1,000,000 on Lottery Tickets and WON,” “Lamborghini Race, Winner Keeps Lamborghini,” “Spending $1,000,000 In 24 Hours” — the formula becomes obvious.
To those unacquainted, Donaldson’s content may seem like a mishmash of neon thumbnails and immature bragging. However, MrBeast content is highly planned and researched and fits squarely within YouTube’s newest vice — flex culture.
The term comes from the idea of flexing — to show off or boast, first popularized by rap and hip hop artists before it trickled into wider popular culture.
Flexing has found a home for itself on YouTube with influencers making mass amounts of content specifically about their consumerist tendencies. Gucci shopping sprees, opulent vacations and closet tours filled to the brim with Birkin Bags have become a genre of their own, where influencers shamelessly flaunt the vast fortunes they have amassed on the platform.
To understand this phenomenon, it’s important to take a look at the current influencer market to understand why creators would be interested in producing “flex” content.
YouTubers now have more revenue streams than ever. Up until just a few years ago, Adsense — the Google program that allows YouTubers to make money from ads run on their videos — was the primary way YouTubers gained an income. But now that social media influencing is seen as a lucrative business, more parties are involved financially. Due to third party partnerships, which can come in the form of corporate sponsorships and affiliate links (not to mention income from merch and Patreon), creators are less beholden to their audience.
On the one hand, having multiple income streams can be creatively freeing, as ideally you would be less compelled to shape content simply around increasing the amount of eyeballs you’d get on your ads. However, for many already ultra-successful creators, the cushion of third party income can diminish the importance of viewer satisfaction. In other words, if you’re already making hundreds of thousands of dollars from sponsorships, how many people like and comment on your videos really doesn’t hold as much weight.
Furthermore, many creators who make “flexing” videos are ones who rose to fame on the basis of their personalities alone. While some gained their success through makeup tutorials, such as Jeffree Star, many have risen to fame through simply their demeanor and conventional attractiveness. The concept of “being famous for being famous” has existed since the reality TV boom, and arguably earlier. However, with the democratizing features of social media, the saturation of this type of celebrity is higher than ever.
So what do you do when you have achieved wild online success for no discernible talent and you have more money than you know what to do with? You make the money itself your content.
However, flex content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Many of these YouTubers have young fans who have yet to develop a mature understanding of class and money. So, for these viewers, the sheer indulgence of these flex videos may just seem aspirational, not shocking.
Additionally, these sorts of videos promote unhealthy views of consumption. Luxury haul videos, for example, normalize the mass consumption of unnecessary goods. While haul videos from fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Shein can be found all over the internet, they’re often slammed as problematic for their promotion of unethical brands. However, luxury brands’ practices can be just as bad, as they also outsource their production to countries with less worker protections. And that’s all before you even factor in the major price markup. Needless to say, no matter where you shop, “hauling” goods can never be sustainable.
Flex culture is not likely to go away anytime soon. As long as we live in a society with major wealth disparity, some people will have massive fortunes, and others will like to live vicariously through them. Many of us are financially suffering and trapped at home, where it’s easy to spend all day staring at social media. It could be fun in these times to escape into the lavish lifestyle of others. However, at the end of the day, it only serves to further the divide as these creators get richer and richer.
Graphic by @the.beta.lab