America’s labor shortage has blighted a number of industries, with the retail sector among the worst hit. It’s a dire situation—and one that hasn’t escaped the notice of Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson.
This month, Donaldson asked his 18.8 million Twitter followers to lend a hand in cleaning up the shelves of Walmart, where his new chocolate brand Feastables is on sale. “I’m building a team to do this routinely, just need help in the short term,” he wrote. (Donaldson did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)
Despite the call to do unpaid labor for a man worth an estimated $500 million, a good number of Donaldson’s most ardent fans have pitched in. Many have posted pictures of themselves in response to Donaldson’s tweets, showing off their cleanup efforts. Since the March 3 tweet, the Feastables brand has established a Shelfie Clean Up campaign, where people can send images of their cleaning to be in with a chance of entering a monthly draw to win $5,000.
Welcome to the internet, and the crazy power dynamics that its biggest stars have over their fans.
“People seem really willing to debase themselves for what amounts to a lottery ticket,” says Alex Turvy, memes and digital culture researcher at Tulane University. “Sure, there’s an element of fans being sycophantic and there’s a general impulse to simp for billionaires—see Elon Musk—but fans here have also seen how quick Mr. Beast is to drop $10,000 on someone at a moment’s notice and if all it takes is rearranging some chocolate bars and an embarrassing selfie, who wants to miss out on that?”
Turvy calls the approach a “one-and-a-half-sided parasociality,” one identified by academics looking at the relationship between streamers and their fans. (Parasocial relationships stem back decades, and were traditionally linked with TV news anchors, who broadcast to many but fostered a connection with their audience that seemed personal.) “It’s typically a one-sided relationship, but there’s an irregular reward schedule that keeps people pressing the lever in hopes that they’ll get a treat,” he says.
Other experts are more charitable about what the whole situation tells us. “I’ve come to refer to them not just as social media entrepreneurs, but as doing ‘for-profit online organizing’,” says David Craig, a clinical professor of communication at the University of Southern California. Craig points out that, while Donaldson is asking his fans to pitch in and do unpaid work, the YouTube celebrity also runs one of the largest food banks in his home of Greenville, North Carolina, and has spearheaded various philanthropic initiatives.
Craig keeps a realistic view about Donaldson’s charity drives: All that philanthropy is done at least in part as a way to “boost his role and material interest.” But here Craig comes again to the term “parasociality,” which he says has come to describe something broader than the relationship between digital creators and their audiences. “It’s not simply between the creators and their community,” he says, “but between the members of the community themselves, who are just simply looking for space where they can belong and feel like they are members of something bigger than themselves.”
In that way, cleaning up a supermarket shelf for your favorite YouTuber—then posting about it to encourage others—could be a force for good, as well as a way for MrBeast to better sell his chocolate bars. That community spirit is something Turvy, for all his initial skepticism, does think is at play, too. “Because it’s done publicly, it’s also being performed socially. Identity researchers in the social sciences talk about a few different bases that people use to form their various identities,” he says. “One of those bases is group identity. Now, traditionally that might be something like a church, or a volunteer group, or something like that—but being a [MrBeast fan] is a basis for a group identity for these folks.”
Still, the controversy around the move must have been getting to Donaldson. Late on March 6, after his clean-up plea had been quote-tweeted disapprovingly by many Twitter users, he issued a follow-up statement: “To show how grateful I am to everyone that helped tiddy things up I’m going to donate $100,000 to charity. What charity should I donate to? Appreciate you all!”