I REMEMBER THE FIRST Casey Neistat video I ever watched. It was a rainy day at the office—gray, windswept, and generally very depressing—I was scrolling on YouTube’s Trending page and there was this video entitled, “this was 100% HER FAULT.” The thumbnail was of a hairy and tattooed arm pointing at a shrugging woman on a bus.
I was conscious of the shallowness of my curiosity, of the clickbaity title and thumbnail, but what else did I have to do that afternoon? Nothing. And I had to know: who was this woman and what did she do wrong?
Hook, line, &…
Little did I know that I was stumbling onto one of the fastest growing YouTube channels of 2016, and that this video was part of a larger project: a series of daily vlogs covering almost two years in the life of this one man, Casey Neistat, a young squirrelly Sean Penn lookalike with goofy sunglasses.
“this was 100% HER FAULT” was immediately interesting. A softly droning electronic beat drops and there is the Houston city skyline time-lapsing from dawn to early morning. All the filming is done by Neistat himself, as well as the video editing. The style is good. It feels very new and technically polished but is also carefully calculated to feel amateurish when necessary, like an everyday personal vlog (although Neistat is far from an amateur, with an impressive career history in cinematography before ever doing YouTube videos).
The next scene is of the faulted woman in question—Candace Pool, Neistat’s wife— casually brushing her teeth. Casey walks into the bathroom, camera in hand:
Casey: On a scale from 1 to 10, how much did you miss me?
Candace: Up until this morning? 10.
Casey: Besides our minor fight this morning, how much did you miss me?
Then cut to kitchen. Candace is hurriedly walking.
Casey: What are we doing right now?
Candace (slightly exasperated): Going to get you a suit.
Already, in under a minute, the premise is set. There’s been an artsy intro, and a dialogue that clearly establishes all the necessary pieces of a classic drama: 1) intended goal = going to get suit & 2) complication = tension between the characters. One itches for a resolution—especially with the title and thumbnail image in mind. What exactly is going to go wrong?
And why does Casey need a suit anyway?
Cut to SUV, on the way to buying suit.
Casey (to camera): I know my life as portrayed in this show is fairly chaotic but the last couple of days have been peak chaos… So since we’re going to New Orleans for a wedding, I need a suit. I don’t have one.
Casey (to Candace): What are you wearing? Where are we going?
I would learn later that this was classic Casey Neistat. Every vlog has some intended purpose. And it isn’t always clear whether Casey superimposes these events onto his life as a narrative structure to engage the viewer or whether he just has a knack for animating everyday events with clever editing techniques, or both. Whatever it is, the effect is the same: Casey Neistat’s life is fun to watch.
WATCHING HIS DAILY VLOGS became like a ritual for me. They would pop up on my feed and I noticed a particularly consistent set of emotional response swell up inside of me that I could not exactly place. Like “this was 100% HER FAULT,” most of Neistat’s videos chronicle the everyday events of his life, and I soon began to realize that I had caught Neistat in the middle of a massive upward trajectory. The internal spark animating the narratives of his videos were consistently the exciting developments in his career, and his ‘peak chaos’ schedule thereafter. Neistat had already been making successful viral videos for years on YouTube, but when he started posting his daily vlogs in March of 2015 his monthly viewership was 3 million, and by October 2016 his monthly viewership had grown to 130 million. His daily vlogs during this time are both the means of his success and a diary of his success. Casey’s life is cool at the beginning of the daily vlogs as a middling Youtuber and gets way cooler by the time he reaches superstardom.
The plots in his vlogs are pretty standardized, taken as a whole: Casey travels to such and such location, Casey does interesting project for interesting company/person, Casey reviews piece of hardware, Casey does thing with drone, Casey does a Boosted Board commercial, Casey answers questions, Casey gets mail. All of his videos fit somewhere on this spectrum but achieve a level of entertainment because each of these categories become more expansive as Casey’s brand and viewership grows. He travels to more interesting locales, in more expensive flights, in more expensive hotels, does even more crazy projects, gets cooler hardware, wrecks more drones, and gets more fan mail.
Realizing this overall direction helped me pinpoint the emotional thread that ties the intrigue in Casey Neistat’s plots together, and it’s a common emotional impetus among the projected lives of social media stars in general:
I felt envy when I was watching “this was 100% HER FAULT,” all the way to Casey’s final daily vlog. I wanted to live a life like Casey was living. I wanted to be doing interesting projects that millions of people enjoy; I wanted to travel to exotic places, and to meet interesting people. I didn’t want to be sitting in my gray office building, shuffling papers, and feeling unimportant.
This is interesting because most entertainment—as is classically understood—is not engineered to produce envy. I can hardly think of any movie or book in which the main character’s life is so outrageously good that we can’t help but envy them. That would be a boring story.
WHEN DEFINING TRAGEDY, Aristotle says in his Poetics that:
A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;… in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.
This is the classic model which is still in use today. Think of basically every movie or book that exists, tragic or comic: we observe something bad happen to a character we like (or have some connection to) and their response to that bad thing. When we watch something bad happen to someone we like, it sparks pity in us, insofar as we are connected to a character, whether they are fictional or real. We watch and enjoy tragedies because pity has a bright underside. Yes, if a bad thing happens to a character we like—that is bad. It makes us feel bad for them, to a degree. It produces an anxiety in us that will have to be resolved in some way. But the bright underside of tragedy is this: we are watching something bad that is happening, not to us, but to somebody else. And that’s the key. Deep down tragedy counterintuitively makes us feel good—even though superficially we may feel bad—because the ‘tragedy’ makes our own lives look good by comparison.
Casey Neistat is a perfect inversion of this model.
Envy, not pity.
Even in the face of small inconveniences (“this was 100% HER FAULT,”), the modus operandi for Neistat (and his social media ilk) = Positivity. Casey is constantly upbeat and hardworking (see a video of his daily schedule) to a frantic and crazed degree. There are hardly any moments of melancholy in all the hours of his life that are recorded online. He seems invincibly happy.
This envy-based entertainment is a new development via internet culture—many have tapped into its power (see Dan Bilzerian, Roman Atwood, Tyler Oakley, Maddi Bragg, Cameron Dallas).
It runs on a non-fictional pretense. That is: these are real people, not fictional characters, so we buy into their positivity at face value. It tacitly tells us: anything is possibly as long as you work hard, are smart, are pretty, have an identifiable brand ethic, etc., etc. This new form of story-telling requires an ethic of positivity to produce the desired effect. We are to believe that these ‘real’ people really have it all figured out. Whereas a classical tragedy could be very dark in its core contents (Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, etc.), and depressing, the implication was positive: at least this is not happening to you. This new form is the exact opposite: most of its core contents are extremely positive and uplifting—the music, visuals, attitudes, etc. are embodiments of sunny days, everyday; cool people and fun adventures—but the implication is negative: your life by comparison is not as cool as Casey Neistat’s.
Neistat recently addressed this perception of his own channel in a video entitled “i’m not that happy.”
Around 4:40 he says:
My thesis when I was daily vlogging was to pluck the fun and happy and interesting aspects of my life out of the 24-hour day that is my life and turn it into a 10-minute video for you, the audience. I chose that approach because, much like a lot of you, I enjoy videos that make me feel good vs. ones that are overwhelmingly depressing. No one wants to watch a video of someone groveling about how lame their life is.
[But I do see how viewers] would see that as the totality of my life—like every second of my life is that happy. And it isn’t. No one’s life is that happy. I try really hard to live the happiest most positive life I can, but life is ebb and flow. And my life has been no different, especially throughout the vlog.
And at 6:20:
…[As vloggers] we have the opportunity to edit our lives—edit out the shitty parts and leave in the really happy parts. But know that they exist.
FURTHER ON in the Poetics, Aristotle describes the difference between the historian and the poet:
The historian speaks of things which have happened, and the poet of such things that might have happened.
In other words, a good story, in order to be believed, must be plausible or believable—but the audience knows upfront that it is fiction. We know, for instance, we are about to see something made up when we walk into a movie theater. This has been the tacit agreement between the maker of the fiction and the audience for thousands of years, since Aeschylus: that we are about to pretend. Hollywood spends billions of dollars every year to more effectively suspend our disbelief in this way. So, says Aristotle, the best fiction is ‘true’ in the sense that it is the type of thing ‘that might have happened,’ via likely causes and effects. It didn’t happen but it could happen, and probably would happen, based on what we know of human nature. The deeper the understanding of human nature embodied in a piece of art, and the more plausible its plot, the greater the effect it has on its audience. We are touched deeply because we know great works of fiction are ‘true’ in some sense, in their plausibility, at the very least.
Neistat’s brand of storytelling (and arguably most human behavior on all social media) runs counter to this principle as well. Unlike a work of fiction, we assume when watching a vlog that what we’re seeing is true, and it is ‘true’ in the basic sense of the word—it did happen. Neistat’s vlogs, and others like his, are true at face value. But what they edit out creates a picture that is out of proportion—we assume we’re seeing truth when really we’re seeing a fiction, a new, and, I would argue, more sly type of fiction. It isn’t a fiction spun from events made up whole cloth, but from real events edited together to specifically or selectively give a false impression of reality. Nearly all social media works in this way, because all we experience of someone is their profile, the implication = this is my life. A profile is, after all, probably an apt metaphor for Neistat’s ethic of presentation. In his vlogs he is a projection of himself rather than himself—a meticulously curated projection including only the fun parts.
This style of story-telling is not necessarily brand new. It had forerunners in cinéma vérité and docufiction dating all the way back to the 1920s—authentic-looking movies that blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction, without expensive sets and costumes. But these attempts were scant and avant-garde before the widespread proliferation of social media.
My question is: what effect will this type of story-telling have on the masses now that it is mainstream?
Is the Neistat way of narrative more or less authentic in today’s age of authenticity? Is it a new way forward for creative story-telling? A trendy blip on the screen?
I AM IN A NEW office now, with the same company, at the same regular dreary job I had the first time I saw Casey Neistat zooming around NYC in an Adderall-soaked furry. The office is still gray. The sky is even still gray.
I realize that I am probably not the most objective critic of Casey Neistat videos because I have seen so many of them. I walk to the Break Room to try and clear my mind. I’ve been sitting at my cubicle since lunch. I need a breather.
My friend is in the Break Room.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” he says.
“Do you have a minute?” I say.
“Sure,” he says.
“Cool. I want to show you something.”
We walk to my desk and I show him a video entitled “HUMAN FLYING DRONE,” in which Casey Neistat is pulled on a snowboard by a giant light-up technicolored drone, swerving through the streets, giving high-fives to those watching. The drone pulls him up into the air against an orange and purple sunset backdrop. The shots pans until he is center-frame and the words appear:
From Casey Neistat
and your friends at Samsung
I want to get an outside perspective. I want to know if I’m reading too much into this.
“What do you think?” I say.
He is smiling, eyes are wide.
“Wow, looks like he is having a lot of fun.”