On Mr. Beast And Being Alone In A Circle For 100 Days
culture by algorithm in the 21st century
I don’t intentionally seek out Mr. Beast videos, but the algorithm knows that I’m interested in them and gives them to me. On the cool Monday morning of September 26th 2022, before I went to my real job, I was laying on my apartment floor under my weighted blanket doing my anthropology. TikTok’s algorithm delivered me a 1.5x speed reupload of Mr. Beast’s most recent YouTube video titled “Survive 100 Days in Circle, Win $500000”. 1.5x speed is pretty fast for the already breakneck speed of a Mr. Beast video, but TikTok attention spans are short and this video at standard speed is 17 minutes long. The sped-up voices are awkwardly fast and sound effects sound very wrong but you get used to it.
In the video, Mr. Beast gives one of his subscribers the chance to survive for 100 days in a circle about 100 feet in circumference. He has no access to the outside world. The circle is in the middle of a grassy field somewhere in America. The contestant is a man named Shawn, who has a wife and three kids. The video was filmed over the summer, and Shawn notes that he’s a father and only has so many summers with his kids while they're young, and he’ll be spending one without them. He brings with him some drawings done by his children to hang on his fridge. A crane drops a house for Shawn to live in, in the center of the circle, with half the circle as a yard. He’s left with 300,000 calories of canned food (“so that he has to think about rationing it”, Mr. Beast explains) and abandoned in the circle, to survive for 100 days. He is filmed by hidden cameras at all times, and has a personal camcorder to vlog his thoughts while no one is there.
Through the one hundred day summer, Mr. Beast visits Shawn, while filming other videos. Mr. Beast blasts beeping noises from speakers placed just outside the circle, the circle that Shawn cannot leave without losing $500,000. Shawn attempts to throw rocks to knock the speakers over. A large storm comes when Mr. Beast isn’t there and Shawn decides that he’ll take the risk and stay in the circle. A tarp blows away out of the circle in the strong winds and Shawn notes that the tarp isn’t worth $500,000. Mr. Beast brings in Shawn’s kids for father’s day and notes that “he never imagined how hard it would be for Shawn to spend time alone without his wife and kids”. Shawn’s kids gift him a Lego AT-AT Walker from Star Wars, to build in his endless free time. On day 50, Mr. Beast offers Shawn $100,000 to leave the circle now, which Shawn declines. Mr. Beast explains that he brought a marching band, to celebrate if Shawn said yes, and because he said no he’ll have the marching band play outside his house all night.
On the 4th of July, Mr. Beast stages a massive firework show, blasting fireworks close to Shawn’s house. At exactly midnight, he ends the show, saying “it’s not the 4th of July anymore” and informs Shawn that he’s going to leave him alone for a while. For 30 days Shawn has no human contact. Watching it, it feels more like a choice because the video is getting long and Mr. Beasts wants to skip to the end. Alone for a month, Shawn describes how he likes to stand by his “storm window” and watch the clouds come in. He rations out his remaining food, eating canned turkey and vegetables directly on the can. He digs a trench around the perimeter of the circle so he doesn’t inadvertently step out. He piles together leftovers into a single meal of sludge. When Mr. Beast visits again, he seems overjoyed to see another human.
The final days of the challenge are a blur. Mr. Beast brings in a construction crew that saws Shawn’s house in half. Shawn, laying in bed, says that it’s now hotter inside the house than it is outside. Mr. Beast’s friends, recurring minor characters who mess with contestants, smash windows to Shawn’s house, and climb around in the attic. Mr. Beast brings a team of clowns that stand outside Shawn’s house all night. Mr. Beast offers him $400,000 to leave the circle a few days early. Shawn stays the course until the end. Mr. Beast hands him a giant check and Shawn reunites with his family. Shawn ends the video by saying “make sure you’re spending your time on things that are worth it”, which is either a very strange or very wise comment from someone who spent the last one hundred days doing nothing at all for more money than some Americans make in a decade. Then the video ends and I have to go to work.
This is just one Mr. Beast Youtube video. Last summer, at the height of Netflix’s Squid Game popularity, Mr. Beast remade Squid Game as a real game show. 100+ contestants ran through obstacle courses, or took money to leave early, to get down to one single final winner of $500,000. The original Squid Game, which I didn’t watch because it sounded boring, has “anticapitalist themes” which Mr. Beast totally ignores. It is a reference to the show, plays the same games as the show, but has no plot, no “themes”. It’s also not a game show because it has no sense of fairness. Some of most athletic and talented players are eliminated by total random chance. He has another video where contestants play an extreme game of Hide and Seek, for $1,000,000, with other famous YouTubers like Logan Paul competing. The Hide and Seek game takes place in the entirety of LA’s SoFi stadium, the same stadium that hosted the Super Bowl. Players are not pushed to quite the extremes as Shawn in “Survive 100 Days in Circle, Win $500000”, but they hide in trash cans and freezers for hours. This is the tone of Mr. Beast videos. Lifechanging money is given away, or is at stake in competitions. Seemingly normal people are caught up in his games. He sometimes gives them the chance to say how they feel, and sometimes just makes jokes. Mr. Beast constantly changes the rules of his games, the terms the players are operating under to receive the lifechanging amounts of money. This is never regarded as unfair by any of the contestants of the show, in the videos, it’s just part of the game. As soon as the contestant wins, there is very little time spent before the video cuts off and Youtube Recommendations pushes the viewer to the next piece of content.
How does Mr. Beast have the money to create these videos? He’s the fifth most subscribed to YouTube channel in the world. And he operates on small margins. In interviews, he explains that many of his videos lose money, and he invests almost all of his earnings from You back into more videos. He talks about an expensive video he flew YouTubers out for that he completely cut “because it wasn’t a good video”. Mr. Beast doesn’t live a lavish lifestyle. He has a video that is entirely about cleaning up the most dirty beach in the world, that specifically partners with a charity. During the pandemic, he partnered with local restaurants to sell “Beast Burgers”, a proprietary burger recipe that any kitchen could make and sell with his branding, and in interviews he speaks proudly of restaurants that would have gone out of business without the interest Beast Burgers provided. An easy critique of Mr. Beast is an out-of-touch elite bestowing money that is trivially small to him and massive to his contestants, but I don’t get that sense from Mr. Beast. He doesn't care about the money or live an elite life that puts him out of touch with reality. He seems like he’s out of touch with everything, besides the raw primal desired content that young users of the internet want to see. But he’s very in touch with that. The amount of money Mr. Beast spends in ways comically divorced from reality, and his lack of understanding of the people he interacts with while spending this money, is reminiscent of Nathan Fielder’s first show, Nathan For You. But while Nathan For You is a joke, Mr. Beast is played totally straight. He’s just being himself.
Like Pawn Stars or American Pickers or House Hunters, shows that dominate the American subconscious of older generations, the specific amount of money at stake in a Mr. Beast video is very important. That allows you, the viewer, to more easily decide if you would take the money if you were in their shoes. Unlike those shows, the budget is substantially higher. The content of a single Mr. Beast video would take up an entire season of a traditional network TV show, but he blasts through the content, skipping from one segment to the next. He rarely lingers on any one storyline for more than a minute before the next twist is introduced. He must blast at this pace for the younger generation.
On TikTok, the true medium of the newer generation, Mr. Beast does smaller scale videos than his YouTube content. When Minions: Rise of Gru came out and Gen-Z males made a trend of wearing tuxedos to the movie theater to watch it, Mr. Beast took the trend to its maximum volume by renting out a theater and assembling a group of 200+ people in tuxedos. He did that for around a 30 second video. He does the trend of “take $1 or double it and give it to the next person” but instead offers random people at Walmart the choice of $1000, or give $5000 to a random person in the store. The first people in the video take the money, but one person gives $5000 to a random person in the store who is overcome with emotion. Mr. Beast then gives $10,000 to the person who turned down the $1000, for his generosity. This video is less than a minute long. The subject matter and scale of Mr. Beast’s TikTok content is smaller, but it reflects his interest in mastering another content platform. He builds the content that users ask for.
Mr. Beast loves the idea of accessibility of his videos. He hires translators to dub his videos into Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages, and his channels in those other languages also have millions of subscribers. I watched a clip from his interview with Joe Rogan, also fed to me by TikTok, where he explains that only a small percentage of the world speaks English, and that by only publishing his videos in English he’s losing out on a massive audience. He wonders why Joe Rogan, with his own massive platform, doesn't already do this. Again, I don’t get the sense that he wants an audience for the sake of money. I think he genuinely wants to make things that viewers are interested in. He has no desire to get out a message or make art or make himself famous.
Mr. Beast started as a Minecraft YouTuber. In many of his videos, you can sense the sort of Minecraft way of looking at the world. It feels like he’s in the late game stage of Minecraft, where one has infinite resources and can build whatever one wants, but he keeps playing them and reinvesting and building ever more complex structures. He still has a second channel for Minecraft, Mr. Beast Gaming, and the tone of those videos is almost identical to his main channel. He has people compete in excessive challenges with absurd rules, for smaller cash prizes. His friends still show up to randomly torment contestants, and the terms of the contest still change on a whim.
One of the most interesting recurring events to me in Mr. Beast videos is how he makes other humans spend an excessively long time in one place. He has a video similar to “Survive 100 Days in Circle, Win $500000”, where many people were placed into a circle and the last one to leave gets money. More human hours were likely spent in the circle in that video, between the various contestants, but they had each other to talk to and interact with. He has another video where “the last person touching the Lamborghini gets to keep it”, where contestants stand directly next to a Lamborghini with their hand pressed to it for days. The Lamborghini is gradually raised, making it harder and harder for people to hold it. “Survive 100 Days in Circle, Win $500000” has to be the most extreme, because of the raw isolation of the challenge. I don’t know if this recurring waste of human time means anything, beyond Mr. Beast’s constant disregard of it. “Survive 100 Days in Circle, Win $500000” is particularly striking because he literally filmed other videos in the middle of it. Shawn was just sitting there in the circle and Mr. Beast came back when he had time. Looking out his storm window waiting to bring wealth to his children. Whenever I watch these videos I’m awed and scared at the lengths to which humans in the twenty-first century will go to slurp up the drips of unimaginable wealth that the algorithm leaks out through Mr. Beast.
The internet has broken us free from the monoculture of TV networks that dominated the twentieth century. Their strict standards resulted in content that was homogeneous and boring, but safe. It’s terrifying that a man spent one hundred days in a small circle in an empty field. It’s even more terrifying that this is solely at the whims of a single former Minecraft YouTube creator who happened to find the perfect niche to build a platform and happens to have a perfect sense for what his millions of anonymous viewers want from a video. Now, things are exciting and interesting. But there’s no standards, no compliance department telling Mr. Beast that this video maybe isn’t the best idea. When there’s no bureaucracy, only passion, the world is interesting, but sometimes interesting in scary ways. That’s the world we’re headed into. In the future, content is ruled by algorithmic desire, and those best suited to steer on the seas of the algorithm’s waves and whims.