Jake Paul / YouTube
In the aftermath of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the #NeverAgain movement has shaken up the debate around gun control. It has also initiated a reassessment of the contemporary teen-ager. Before Parkland, one of the biggest recent stories involving teens was the news, earlier this year, that youngsters were eating laundry detergent as part of a social-media-inspired “Tide Pod challenge.” (“Teens are daring each other to eat Tide Pods. We don’t need to tell you that’s a bad idea,” the Washington Post wrote in a withering January headline.) The Parkland teen-agers, by contrast, were articulate, civic-minded, and, spurred by tragedy, used their ease with social media for good. As David Hogg, one of #NeverAgain’s most vocal organizers, tweeted on Monday, “Simply put politicians do not care about our generation because young people 18-29 don’t vote and that’s a huge reason why we have the student debt problem, environmental problems and gun violence because we show our political leaders they can get away with what they want NO MORE.”
Another member of Generation Z entered the fray on Monday, too. Jake Paul, a twenty-one-year-old Ohio-born social-media star, released a video, “It’s Time to End School Shootings,” which documents his time in Parkland, where, for the past two weeks, he has been meeting with youths and their parents to “go ground floor . . . and figure out what needs to be done.” Paul launched his career in his mid-teens, on the now-defunct short-form video service Vine, before a stint as an actor on the Disney show “Bizaardvark” and a wildly popular run as a YouTube vlogger. The videos on his channel are aggressively mindless physical pranks, delivered with manic energy and deliberately idiotic, loudmouthed patter—half intentional branding exercise, half the pure id of a high-school dropout who likely came into his fortune way too early. With his wiry shock of blond hair and his still-spotty skin, Paul is the boorish class clown who, through sheer bravado, has somehow convinced his peers that he is a heartthrob.
Paul, who has more than fourteen million subscribers on YouTube and has said that he would like to be the first social-media billionaire, has been living in a sprawling mansion in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Beverly Grove with the talent of “Team 10,” a social-media management label he founded. According to the television station KTLA, neighbors complained last year that Paul had turned the community into a “war zone.” Paul’s antics, each viewed on YouTube millions of times, have included covering his friend’s car in peanut butter, driving a motorcycle off a ramp into a pool, and filling a tub with thousands of Doritos. Last year, the gang spun a D.I.Y. wheel of fortune to determine which tattoos to get. Paul’s spin landed on a gun, which he had tattooed on his thigh. If the #NeverAgain activists have attempted to challenge the negative image of today’s teen-agers, the outrageous popularity of Paul and his crew fundamentally confirms it.
In Monday’s video, however, Paul seemed intent on adopting a newly subdued, community-minded persona. Entering the home of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High student and shooting survivor Jonathan “JB” Blank, he sombrely announced his intentions: “I just wanna become homies with him, be there for him.” Wearing an MSD Strong T-shirt and ripped jeans, Paul spoke to JB (“Why did you choose, like, to feel comfortable to open up to me, specifically?”), who told him that there should be more security guards placed in schools, as well as bulletproof windows. The issue of gun control was not specifically raised in the twenty-two-minute video, although later, perhaps swayed by some of the critical responses, Paul did tweet that “gun reform is an absolute must.” Paul did not speak to any of the leading #NeverAgain activists but, rather, to teens who seemed more receptive to his brand of vague inquiry. “Talking to them, I learned so, so, so much,” Paul said in the video, summarizing the conversation. “Instead of just being a bystander, people should realize, Hey: this could be me next.” He paused for what seemed like an eternity. “Or my kid,” he added.
Paul’s Randian self-interest found its match about halfway through the video, during a brief interaction with the Florida senator Marco Rubio, who, possibly in an attempt to relate to “the kids,” agreed to speak to the social-media star on Skype. Paul, who appeared to be sitting at a kitchen table, wore a dressy black blazer over his T-shirt, and greeted the senator with the words, “Hey, what’s up, man?” Rubio, in an attempt to dress down for the occasion, was more casual in a shirt and tie, no jacket. Last month, Rubio was annihilated onstage at a CNN town hall by the #NeverAgain teen activist Cameron Kasky, who asked him bluntly whether he would continue to accept funds from the N.R.A. (He would, because the organization “agrees with my agenda,” Rubio said, as the crowd booed.) Paul offered Rubio no such friction, though the Skype interview was oddly spliced with footage from the town hall, which only served to highlight the uselessness of the interaction.