September 19, 2021

YouTube’s moral philosopher

The titles of Dhar Mann’s videos are blatantly click traps – “Kid FAKES Being SICK to Skip Class, What Happens Is Shocking”, “KAREN Next Door Goes WAY TOO FAR, What Happens Is Shocking” – and the films feature narratives cutesy and scripted moralizers. But the strategy seems to be working.

According to analytics firm Social Blade, Dhar Mann is the 91st most influential channel on YouTube, a measure obtained from metrics including views (nearly 5 billion, plus 15 billion more on Facebook) and subscribers (11 ,2 millions). Olivia Rodrigo is ranked 36th on the list.

Dhar Mann himself, a 37-year-old serial entrepreneur in Los Angeles, has turned what started as a rambling content creation operation into a major lucrative business. He is being paid to build two 60,000 square foot sound sets in Burbank, where Dhar Mann Studios films his videos, and a Calabasas mansion, which Mann bought from Khloé Kardashian for $ 15.5 million in 2020.

All of this to say that the channel’s namesake has become an unlikely celebrity, known not for his personal dramas or screen prowess, but for his positive messages. How did he get here? And how do we have?

From Weed Entrepreneur to YouTube Star

Mann’s path to online video stardom has been a winding one. His parents emigrated from India on $ 7 between them, he said, and he grew up sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area with three families.

His parents worked long hours running the taxi company they founded.

“Because there weren’t many of them, instead of being able to give me their time, they gave me money to do things,” he said. He began to believe that “in order to have love and live a meaningful life, you have to have money. “

He started his first business, a real estate brokerage, at age 19, and spent the next decade forming a series of businesses that often failed.

In 2010, when Mann was 25, he appeared on the cover of Mother Jones for an article on WeGrow, a medical marijuana business he helped found. Along with Derek Peterson, previously an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, he rented a warehouse in Oakland and began selling the equipment needed to grow hydroponic cannabis.

The company gained national attention and was called the “Wal-Mart of Weed”. Mann even filmed a pilot for a reality TV show, “Hempire,” which never aired. But soon after, the business was sold and the partners acrimoniously separated, with Peterson suing Mann for unpaid debts and accusing him in a 2011 interview of running a “hydroponzi scheme.” Mann sued and got a cash settlement, as well as stock in a publicly traded company founded by Peterson.

Later that year, Mann indisputably pleaded five counts of defrauding the city of Oakland, which accused him of fraudulently pocketing more than $ 44,000 in city redevelopment grants. He was not sentenced to jail but was fined $ 37,500. In an email, he wrote that the conviction was later struck out.

“At 30, I found myself at the lowest point of my life,” he wrote on his website. “I was completely broke, I was going through a difficult breakup and I felt really depressed. I thought I was a total failure. I kept asking myself: will things ever get better? ? “

The following year, he started LiveGlam, a subscription cosmetics business, and met Laura Avila, now his fiancée, with whom he has two children. (They also run LiveGlam together.) In 2018, he started posting motivational videos on Facebook.

At the time, he said, “I didn’t know you could make money with content.” Its audience was mostly made up of family and friends.

But that fall he had his first viral hit: a video of a woman arguing with her husband.

The Dhar Mann formula

“Gold Digger Dumps Broke Boyfriend, Then Regrets Her Decision” (2019) is a quintessential Dhar Mann film. It opens with our protagonist, John, giving his girlfriend, Bella, a new purse.

“I want you to have everything you want in life, baby,” he said looking at her fondly.

She picks up the purse and her eyes narrow. “What is that?” she barks. “I can’t be caught wearing Kate Spade! I told you I wanted a Louis Vuitton bag!

Their conversation turns to dinner. “I want steak and wine! Bella said.

John, on the verge of tears, suggests Denny’s.

“Are you kidding?” Bella said. “Are you going to take me, a girl that looks like that, to Denny’s for dinner?” He tries to make an emotional appeal, but it’s too late. She dumps him for Estephan, who is rich.

Cut to a cut of John working hard; Estephan cheating on Bella; John finds love. In a final scene, Bella meets John, now a millionaire, as he gets into a new Bentley.

“I thought you didn’t like Kate Spade,” he said, pointing to his purse. “It’s for a friend,” she sheepishly lies.

Bella’s arrival is over when John’s new fiancée Rose appears and suggests that they hurry so as not to miss their dinner reservations.

“We wouldn’t want you to miss your steak and your wine,” John tells Rose.

The camera lingers on Bella, aghast, before turning to Mann.

“A lot of people will show up during your success with their hand outstretched, acting like you owe them something,” he says. “But if someone doesn’t believe in you during your worst times, then don’t let them celebrate with you during your best times!” “

Carlos R Chavez, the actor who played John, said he is often recognized for his roles.

The funniest thing I ever had was like, ‘Hey, aren’t you the guy with the really rude boss who walks on your shoes, but after two months you decide you’re gonna be better and then you end up owning it? “

Once at Six Flags he heard someone in the crowd yelling at him, “Hey, I prefer steak and wine!

Mair Mulroney, 32, another Dhar Mann actress, said she was also approached on the streets in Los Angeles.

“If I go to the Grove or something, it’s like a crowd.” You are attacked by children. They point at her, she says, and shout, “Dhar Mann!

Content as a great equalizer

Mann talks about online content as if he saved it. Before creating his channel, “I had relationship conflicts, I had business failures, I went through anxiety, I went through depression,” he said. “I remember how important it was to hear or see or watch the right content when I needed it most.”

He remembers taking private dance lessons from an instructor who got annoyed when he canceled a lesson at the last minute. Then one day the instructor didn’t show up. He sent the man a frustrated message but received no response.

The next morning, the instructor’s father texted Mann to tell him that his son had committed suicide. Choking back tears, Mann said the episode made him realize how many times people don’t understand each other, “Oh, my God, like, wow, you don’t know what someone’s going through.”

His videos attempt to fill in these gaps.

“Maybe I grew up eating naan and lentils, and you maybe grew up eating eggs and potatoes,” he said. “There are a lot of things that connect us at the same time, aren’t there? “

His “focus on universal truths”, he believes, is what allowed him “to build such a massive audience.”

But he also makes choices that he knows will pay off.

“I am not disconnected from the realities of social algorithms,” he said. “If, for example, a thumbnail has someone crying or someone overly expressive, or zooms in on a face, it will get better.”

“If I use pictures of people who look a little different, like I have a girl with a bald head like a thumbnail, and she shaved her head because she was somebody. one who was suffering from cancer, ”he said. “Of course, our eyes even subconsciously gravitate towards these things. It’s important to have a lot of points of view.

The simplistic dialogue, painfully sincere and devoid of slang or sarcasm, is also intentional.

Sometimes, Mann said, people describe its contents as “a little too much on the nose, or it’s a bit cringe, or why the dialogue is so blunt.” But it’s intentional. “In this way, children can understand, but also people who do not speak English can understand,” he said.

Forty percent of Dhar Mann’s audience is overseas, he said in an email. Its largest audience on YouTube is 18-24 year olds; on Facebook, it’s 25 to 34.

“Facebook and YouTube don’t give data for audience under 13, so I can’t say for sure that 7-10 is the fastest growing audience, I feel like it’s based on my interactions with people, ”he wrote in an email.

Most of his videos incorporate topical accounts of police calls to Karens and COVID-19 grabbers, but in style and tone they are more reminiscent of 1980s after-school specials and educational shorts. 50s than other popular content today.

The characters are large and simple, each representing a demographic that any fourth grader could recognize: angry mom, spoiled wife, naughty girl, lazy husband. They almost look like instructional videos that an alien species might watch to learn the basics of American social dynamics.

“You will never see a gold digger video,” Mulroney said. “They can twist this story so many times. People love these gold digger stories, really.

Mann’s moral philosophy can sometimes seem thin and absolutist. A common story arc involves a tyrant mocking the protagonist for being poor or having acne; then a stroke of fate hits the bully with poverty or pimples. The videos often imply that having any kind of social problem is a form of shameful karmic punishment.

Yet the size of his audience suggests that Mann is exploiting something that millions of people find compelling. In tough times – say, a never-ending pandemic coupled with devastating forest fires across multiple continents and a grim climate outlook – people want to see the bad guys reformed and lessons given. No ambiguity, no debate. Everything is going well.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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