In the fall of 2016, Jimmy Donaldson dropped out of college to try to solve one of the biggest mysteries in media: How exactly does a video go viral on YouTube? Donaldson, then 18, had been posting to the site since he was 12 without amassing much of an audience. But he was convinced he was close to unlocking the secrets of YouTube’s algorithm, the black box of rules and processes that determines what videos get recommended to viewers.
In the months that followed, Donaldson and a handful of his friends tried to crack the code. They conducted daily phone calls to analyze what videos went viral. They gave one another YouTube-related homework assignments, and they pestered successful channels for data about their most successful posts. “I woke up, I studied YouTube, I studied videos, I studied filmmaking, I went to bed and that was my life,” Donaldson recalled during a recent interview.
Then, one day, he was struck with an idea for a video that he was sure would work. It was as simple as counting. Donaldson sat down in a chair and, for the the next 40-plus hours, murmured one number after the next, starting from zero and continuing all the way to 100,000. At the end of the exhausting stunt, he looked deliriously at the camera. “What am I doing with my life?” he said.
It was an oddly mesmerizing performance, the kind of thing every kid in elementary school thinks about but never tries. The resulting video — entitled “I COUNTED TO 100000!” — was a viral smash. Since its debut on Jan. 8, 2017, it has earned over 21 million views.
The video helped give rise to one of the unlikeliest success stories on YouTube. Over the past four years, Donaldson‘s channel, MrBeast, has amassed more than 48 million subscribers. In the last 28 days, people have spent more than 34 million hours watching his videos. On Dec. 12, MrBeast was named Creator of the Year at the Streamy Awards, YouTube’s equivalent of the Oscars.
The consistent success of MrBeast’s videos has gotten the attention of the YouTube establishment. Last year, every video he posted eclipsed 20 million views. Such consistency is unparalleled, even among YouTube’s biggest stars. “He lives on a different planet than the rest of the YouTube world,” said Casey Neistat, a filmmaker turned YouTuber.
Donaldson, now 22, has a baby face and a patchy goatee. He speaks with an aw-shucks modesty and doesn’t do many interviews. But the restraint quickly fades away when he starts talking about YouTube. “Once you know how to make a video go viral, it’s just about how to get as many out as possible,” he said. “You can practically make unlimited money.”
“The videos take months of prep. A lot of them take four to five days of relentless filming. There’s a reason other people don’t do what I do.”
Unlike many first-wave YouTube stars, who were actors, screenwriters, models and singers hoping someday to break into traditional industries, Donaldson has only ever aspired to YouTube stardom. He wakes up every day thinking about the perfect videos, with an exactitude that borders on monomania.
At age 12, he created his first two YouTube channels. In one, he filmed himself playing the video game Call of Duty. In the other, he played Minecraft. He named both channels using a riff on Beast, his Xbox playing handle. Over time, he grew increasingly curious about the site’s economics. At one point, he filmed a series of videos estimating the earnings of top creators, starting with PewDiePie, the long-reigning king of YouTube.