If I have to explain Mr. Beast to you, chances are you won’t get it — but I’ll try anyway, just so you understand why my son and I paid fifty bucks to wait an hour and a half for ten bucks’ worth of food, and perhaps so we all understand the occasionally unpleasant aspects of the Internet a bit better.
Or, if you have a male child under the age of fifteen, you can ask him to explain it better. You don’t? Alright, here goes.
Mr. Beast, a 22-year-old college dropout, is to YouTube what Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar. He understands it at a fundamental, intrinsic level. Once upon a time, movie studios had something called “high concept”, which was a way of saying you have to be able to explain a movie in a single sentence. (The so-called “elevator pitch” is a corporate-toady version of this.) Mr. Beast takes the high concept and turns it into maximum high concept, a single idea taking the place of plot or story. The video that brought him to the attention of the public was “Counting to 100,000”, and much of his work follows in this semi-autistic vein (“I PUT 100 MILLION ORBEEZ IN MY FRIEND’S YARD”). Other videos feature him giving away money (“I’LL PAY FOR ANYTHING YOU CAN FIT IN THE CIRCLE”, “I BOUGHT EVERYTHING IN THE GROCERY STORE.”) He is hugely popular with young people, particularly young Internet-raised boys, who naturally resonate to the OCD, counting-to-numbers-and-spending-big-numbers aesthetic of his channel. He has given away millions of dollars on YouTube and along the way has earned something like $25 million for himself.
Here in the car business, we think Doug DeMuro is a pretty big deal in the video-clown game because he has 3.5 million subscribers; Mr. Beast has almost fifty million. Last week, they all bought hamburgers, which brings us to the, ahem, meat of this story.
The idea behind Mr Beast Burger is about as Modern Internet Capitalism as you can get. It’s a “virtual restaurant” available in most major cities across the country. You buy your meal through the Mr. Beast app (of course there is an app) or via DoorDash/Grubhub (but not Uber Eats, at least not where I live.) The menu is extremely simple, with about eight choices in total.
Standing up the 300-plus Mr. Beast “locations” would be the work of a couple years and a few billion dollars, but Mr. Beast gets around that problem through the simple expedient of leveraging existing capital — to wit, the hundreds of sit-down chain restaurants that are currently floundering because of government restrictions on eating inside. (Or, in the case of California, eating anywhere but your home; if you want to gather and party without masks, the only acceptable reason is a totally spontaneous and not in any way planned Biden victory parade.) A company called Virtual Dining Concepts contacted restaurants to ask if they wanted some additional business. The founder of VDC is also an executive for Earl Enterprises, which owns Bravo! Italian Kitchen and Buca di Beppo, so all of those locations have signed up. Of course, they have zero experience with this kind of food.
Remember that last sentence, it will prove to be important later.
Mr. Beast launched his “restaurants” in his typical fashion, by giving away cash and iPads to the first customers. Then he asked all of his followers to give his burgers a try. Let’s do some numbers real quick. Mr. Beast has about 150,000 fans for each one of these “virtual restaurants”. To put this in perspective, imagine that Manhattan had… ten restaurants, and Brooklyn had fifteen.
Do you think that would be a problem?
And so it has proved with Mr. Beast Burger. The various online forums for DoorDash and GrubHub drivers have blossomed with nightmare conditions; being told to wait for over an hour, “red zones” where you have to accept Mr. Beast orders and deliver them before you can do anything else, and furious customers who rather naturally don’t feel like tipping for a two-hour wait time between order and delivery. One Reddit thread detailed a considerable number of people whose burgers were almost entirely uncooked. Another told of over twenty GrubHub drivers packing the parking lot of a Bravo, multiple orders in hand, while two cooks struggled to deliver one order every ten minutes.
I didn’t know any of this last week when my son asked if he could have a Mr. Beast meal. I did know that it was expensive, well above premium burger places like Shake Shack or Five Guys. Our meal was $43 plus tip, for two of us. That got us one burger, two grilled cheese sandwiches, two orders of fries, two cookies, and no drinks. We waited almost 100 minutes for the food. When it arrived it was the same temperature as the outside air, which was to say about thirty-seven degrees F, so I reheated everything and we sat down to chow.
Speaking truthfully, I’ve had worse meals, although most of them were served in various educational and/or correctional facilities. John, on the other hand, thought it was just great, and he told me he couldn’t wait to order again. I considered the fact that my son, who on many occasions eats like the proverbial bird, had just consumed an entire double burger on the cusp of what would be a much-needed growth spurt, and I ruefully agreed that we’d make the Mr. Beast call again in the future.
No doubt Mr. Beast will become even richer after all this is done — there could be a million dollars’ or more worth of highly-profitable orders coming in every day — but since I have no financial stake in the enterprise what fascinates me is the multiple ways in which our fundamentally broken society has made the whole thing possible.
Start with Mr. Beast himself. Most of his viewers, just like (whisper it) most of DeMuro’s visitors, are children and/or people in foreign countries who are almost worthless from an advertising perspective — but YouTube doesn’t give its advertisers a lot of freedom or leeway. If you want to reach a few legitimate buyers, you have to show a lot of ads for VRBO and luxury watches to ten-year-olds. The clients put up with it because YouTube is the only game in town.
YouTube is the only game in town because it is widely considered to be a money pit for Alphabet, its evil owner; after losing billions of dollars a year for a decade, Alphabet now claims YouTube is profitable, but it doesn’t disclose exactly how, and it merges YouTube revenue with other enterprises in its reporting. The clued-in crowd on the Internet thinks that Alphabet subsidizes YouTube for two reasons:
0. To have monopoly power in the online advertising space;
1. For reasons of social and societal control.
YouTube is well-known for the ferocity with which they “demonetize”, even mildly conservative political outlets, but it’s more than that; the company’s crusade against “gun vloggers” is so jihad-esque that it’s swept up airgun and airsoft channels in its wake. (Demonetization, for those of you who don’t know, means that YouTube keeps showing ads on your stuff, but they keep the money instead of giving you a cut.) Imagine having your airsoft channel defunded because of “concerns about violence”. You can get shot directly in the face with an airsoft and not die. I know it because my son has shot me in the face with his airsoft gun. Twice.
Your humble author believes, and has told everyone who will listen, that cars are next on YouTube’s list. Nearly every entity that attempts to regulate guns (or tobacco) eventually gets around to the regulation of cars. When the car channels are demonetized, there will be a lot of HUGELY SURPRISED PEOPLE out there. Don’t be. You’ve been warned, right here.
In any event, Alphabet is willing to put a nine-figure sum behind YouTube just to retain control of the situation. This is not the type of behavior typically associated with Good People, although those of us who can even remember Google’s famous “Don’t Be Evil” slogan are now a vanishing breed.
(A brief aside: In retrospect, it was mind-numbingly naive of those of us in the Free Software and Open Source communities to ever support or even tolerate Google. Our sworn enemy, Microsoft, was a crummy company filled with crummy people but its primary goal, that of controlling and profiting from computer operating-system software, seems very tame now compared to the ways in which “Alphabet” openly manipulates everything from public opinion to American elections.)
What do YouTube’s transfer payments from bewildered advertisers to Mr. Beast have in common with Mr. Beast’s “virtual restaurant” idea? In both cases, modern computing technology is used to obscure the reality of a situation, at a non-zero human cost. Alphabet is a massive parasite with its proboscis embedded deeply in the carotid artery of nearly every American business. You’d be a fool not to advertise with Google (and its equally equal rival, Facebook) because without them you’ll lose much of your audience — but the tech companies can charge you whatever they want and give you whatever they want, shielded by an algorithm. The days of advertising being “buying a billboard and being able to drive by it in order to check the value you’ve gotten for money” are long gone.
Similarly, the Mr. Beast Burger restaurant is an expensive, parasitical idea laid on top of existing restaurants and their employees, none of whom had any idea that they were about to go from working in a fine-ish-dining Italian kitchen to a fast-food takeout burger joint, literally overnight. But what are they going to do? Find another place to work in December of 2020? If they do, they’ll just be replaced, because the official opinion of today’s managerial and executive class is that only the software matters. In this modern paradigm, all you have to do is get the app right and the messy, unpleasant people/facilities/work beneath the app will just happen by magic.
We’ve tried this as a society before, most notably in the AT&T breakup and utility “degregulation” of the Eighties and Nineties. In both cases, the assumption was that the oily Morlock bits of telephone switches, power plants, transmission lines, and whatnot would just work while all the real effort and energy went into finding new ways to sell and manage the command infrastructure above them. That’s how you got the Grandma Millie Enron call and today’s “new normal” of rolling brownouts or whatever’s happening in California. It’s a calculated strategy of not giving a shit about how things actually work, secure in the belief that you can distort reality enough in the short run to make your millions and get out.
Our world is increasingly a world of abstractions laid one on top of another until the reality of the situation on the ground is completely obscure. In some areas, like modern computing, you just throw processing power at the stupid idea (Kubernetes, anyone?) until it creaks along anyway, kind of like how you can make a 5,000-pound SUV fast and agile if you throw $60k of driveline and suspension at it a la Durango Hellcat. In other areas, like restaurants or utilities or phone service, you can’t really do that. Thus, a 100-minute wait for a cold hamburger.
It’s the Western equivalent of chabuduo, perhaps made worse because it provides even more incentives to the wrong people. It can’t last forever; eventually the power will literally go out and people will discover the importance of paying attention to the basics. In the meantime, there will be a lot of YouTube algorithms, a lot of abstraction layers, a lot of chilly forty-dollar hamburgers. If I have to explain it any further, you won’t get it.
This week, for Hagerty, I reviewed the mighty G90. Some people think it’s a true-from-the-ground-up luxury sedan with no compromises, while others think it’s Korean junk. I also released a new What If, this one being a joy both to commission and write!