Can Online Creators Exhibit Their Anxiety, or is That a Topic Best Left to Scripted Musicals and Movies?
Issue No. 12
YouTube’s recommendation engine prompted me to watch Ben Platt’s performance this past week on America’s Got Talent, where he appeared as a guest star to sing “You Will Be Found” from the hit Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen. The video set me on a course to consume a lot of content this week about social anxiety and teen suicide. Thanks YouTube.
I never managed to catch Platt’s Tony-award winning performance on Broadway. Dear Evan Hansen has been billed as a must-see musical, especially for those who suffer from anxiety. An estimated 1.3 million people have watched the musical since it first opened in 2016, leading it to become the 20th highest grossing musical of all time with over $225 million in sales. Now tens of millions of people around the world will hear the story of the musical when Universal Pictures distributes its film adaptation on September 24, starring Platt in the title character.
Dear Evan Hansen tells the story of a high school senior who suffers from severe social anxiety, whose desperate desire for acceptance leads him into a web of lies following the tragic death of a classmate who was battling his own internal demons. The creators of the musical are Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songwriting duo behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman.
Paul has said he and Pasek “observed that many folks in our generation, who were young people at that time, felt incredibly lonely and were really desperate for connection. With the advent of social media, it has only gotten worse. But I think we were both struck with how desperate folks were to find any excuse to come together, whether over a tragedy or not. But when tragedy did strike, it became this permission-giving moment for a lot of folks to sort of justify their sadness and find each other. So we wanted to sort of explore that.”
Pasek had a real life story from his high school days where a classmate died of a drug overdose. In the wake of this tragedy, Pasek watched as everyone in the school suddenly became -- posthumously -- the student’s best friend despite not knowing him. Nobody was really his friend. Pasek was curious about the impulse he had to join others and insinuate himself.
What would cause somebody to lie about a tragedy in order to be a part of it? How lonely would you have to be to do that? How lonely must we all be because we do that in a way?
Dear Evan Hansen spotlights what many miss in the modern world: what it’s like to feel isolated and to crave connection. Feelings exacerbated by the Covid pandemic.
After watching many video clips of Platt performing songs from Dear Evan Hansen on morning and late night TV shows, I was struck by his technique and skill in capturing anxiety in his performance.
When approached by the film producers, Platt was initially hesitant to reprise the role for the film adaptation. “On a personal level, mental-health wise, it’s not an easy role to play, and I think that as wonderful as the experience was, it was really, really taxing on my personal and emotional life. The growth that happened in the year or so afterwards was really important for me, so the idea of reverting was a very scary thing,” he said.
There are many video covers of “You Will Be Found” -- the song Platt covered on AGT -- with 79 million views, and there are nearly 600 million views of other content from the musical. It is resonating with a global audience. Just look at the lyrics from “You Will Be Found”:
Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?
Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there's a reason to believe you'll be okay
'Cause when you don't feel strong enough to stand
You can reach, reach out your hand
And oh, someone will coming running
And I know, they'll take you home
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
And when you're broken on the ground
You will be found
Performances of the song bring chills and tears to those who watch online. Myself included.
Depression affects over 300 million people worldwide, and is the primary reason why someone in the U.S. dies of suicide every twelve minutes. According to the WHO, one in thirteen people around the world suffer from anxiety. About eight-percent of children and teenagers experience an anxiety disorder.
In the past twelve months, videos uploaded to YouTube and Facebook with ‘anxiety’ in the video title have surpassed 1.7 billion views. Videos with ‘suicide’ in the video title have surpassed 2.3 billion views. What does this tell us?
Anxiety is Afflicting Creators More Than We May Recognize
Unexpectedly, I received a double dose of anxiety-themed content this week when I set out to watch the new Hulu series The D’Amelio Show, a reality series capturing the family of Charli and Dixie D’Amelio, two of the most followed personalities on TikTok.
The disclaimers at the beginning and end of each of the eight episodes were telling.
“The following episode tells a real story of people who have struggled with mental health challenges, and includes conversations about suicide. If you are struggling, you are not alone. Visit our resource page to learn more about how to help yourself or others.”
I wrote about Charli in my Feb 2020 post. In January 2020, she uploaded 169 videos to TikTok and generated over 4 billion views. Her videos received over 525 million likes. She danced and smiled while wondering aloud ‘why her?’.
The new short form video platform aimed a firehose at 15-year old Charli, placing her on its For You Page, where she went from a teenager in Connecticut with a passion for competitive dancing, to an infatuation of teenage boys, and a role model to tween and teen girls across the globe. Charli already had 30 million followers in February 2020 when I wrote my piece. Today she has over 120 million followers.
Using Google search trends as a benchmark for general interest popularity, Charl's peak is unmatched by all of the online video creators who have come before her on YouTube, including PewDiePie and MrBeast. She at times has even surpassed the general interest of Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, her idol.
While some musicians and creators have years of development and growth, Charli’s growth happened in such a hyper-compressed time frame.
Since at least 2014, American teenagers shared they were more influenced by online personalities than those from television and film. At the same time, young kids were starting to state their desired profession to be a YouTuber, a creator, or an influencer.
Yet, I have never heard or read a statement from Charli stating that she had this desire.
She was not exactly propelled to stardom against her will. The new Hulu series though is a first peek behind the curtain that shows it is not as glamorous as one would think.
In January 2021, around the time the Hulu cameras entered her new multi-million dollar home in Los Angeles, Charli posted just 28 videos to TikTok (a drop of 83% YoY). By August 2021, her output was down to just 13 new videos in the month (31% of the posts include paid promotions). Monthly view totals have dropped 92.5% from the January 2020 mark.
Her video output could possibly be correlated to her well-being.
I have wondered what the point of the Hulu series is, aside from a paycheck for the family and the notion of people from TikTok having a series on a major OTT platform.
Dear Evan Hansen is a fictionalized story about a high school teen with severe anxiety, which has inspired Hollywood actors such as Amy Adams and Julianne Moore to take pay cuts to play roles in the film adaptation because they feel so passionate about the subject matter. The movie is meant to reach people with anxiety and say ‘you are not alone’ and ‘you will be found’.
In contrast, Charli is not a fictional character in her Hulu series. She’s a real life teenager with anxiety issues.
She admits in one episode to having ten panic attacks -- in a single day. In a group setting, her older sister points out rashes on Charli’s neck. A sign of anxiety.
In another episode where her sister wants to bring Charli out shopping for her seventeenth birthday, the sight of a single paparazzi outside the store sends Charli into physical pain while still in the car. She pleads to her sister to turn the car around and go home.
The online haters have penetrated Charli’s shell. She openly fears for the negative comments placed against the photo or video that emerges from the paparazzi outside the clothing store.
It is not just anonymous people on the Internet. In real life, Charli admits to questioning those around her and their intentions. She has trust issues, formed from her freshman year of high school when a boyfriend cheated on her. Her sister was the one to inform her of the unfaithfulness.
Her circle of new Los Angeles friends all have therapists. Charli goes to a new therapist in the series, and remarks in one episode that the therapist stated up front that their daughter is a big fan and sees Charli as a role model. It’s a shock to Charli. How is she supposed to open up to this person? Will his daughter still consider Charli a role model if the daughter knows Charli has mental health issues?
I genuinely admired Charli by the conclusion of the series. I have two young daughters and tried to think about them in her situation. I cannot relate. I do not know how Charli has managed through the past two years.
In the series finale, Charli provides candid feedback interspersed with footage of her seventeenth birthday celebration where she is serenaded by the pop singer Bebe Rexha.
“There are incredible things that I get to learn, get to do, get to experience. But it’s not what I thought it was. It’s a lot more mentally draining than people think. I don’t think you could ever truly be prepared or made for this.
No one’s really given us a chance to show what it’s really like and how it’s not always picture perfect, and how it’s not always a roller coaster going up. No one wants to see real life. They want to see highlight reels.
Like when you look at it from an outside perspective, I completely understand why everyone thinks it’s like, it doesn’t make sense to feel the way that I feel sometimes. They see all the good things and they don’t understand why we’re not happy.”
Charli considers making the Hulu series a hard thing. To her, it’s not easy sharing your whole life.
Aside from the camera crew in your house, and exposing more of your life than you would generally want to do, Charli opens up about the business of being the most followed person on TikTok.
“I mean, I don’t know how long anyone expects me to just keep going as if, like, nothing’s wrong,” she says. “I am responsible for all of the people around me. Every person that works for my family puts pressure on me. And if I wanted to quit, well, now they don’t have a job. It’s a lot to put on one person. I don’t really like asking people for things. Like, it’s hard to speak up and ask for time off cause there’s deadlines and contracts, and I know that. But it’s tiring.”
The most memorable scene in the series, and one where I came away with a lot of respect for Charli, is where she is tasked to tape a thank you video in response to being awarded a spot in the Time magazine “Time100 Next” of 2021.
I am not sure if Charli has ever seen or read Time magazine. Her parents have, and her mother states to Charli the recognition in the top 100 is a “really, really big deal”.
Charli is confronted with a situation where she is being told about the honor. She is told she is selected because she represents the changes in media and how people consume stuff. Charli works super hard and makes a lot of people happy. Taping the thank you video for the magazine will make her parents happy.
You can see she is visibly unsettled. She’s unclear if she’s nominated or already selected. She openly questions the outcome. “Nobody is going to believe something if they can see it on my face,” she says. “And I’m just, like, uncomfortable.”
She tries a new take. Action. She is trying to project excitement. It’s not working.
“I really don’t know anything about this. I’m getting handed a paper with what I should be feeling. That’s not what I do. I’m not a ‘Hey, say this just because this is what this company wants to hear’”, she says. “No. Why are you telling me that I’m thankful, and that this is such an amazing opportunity? Let me tell you that.”
Charli is also unclear of the company she is joining for the Time 100.
She is told it includes people from the medical field. Young people who are helping with the vaccine. Musicians. Actors. People who did their best in the past year to inspire other people.
That does not connect with Charli.
“This is just, like, gonna set me up for something that’s not going to be good,” she says. “It’s basically like you’re telling me, like, well you’re on the same field as a doctor. No, don’t tell me that.”
She implores her team to pause and think about what she is being asked to do. She says nobody thinks the way she does. Others think like management or agents. She says they are not the ones in the spotlight, and have to worry about how things are going to play out.
Charli leaves the room where the taping is taking place. She visits her mother and father and tells them she will look like an idiot being on the list. It does not make sense to her.
“All of the people who are doing a million more things than I am,” she says. “I dance on the Internet. Like, I shouldn’t be on that list.”
In the end, Charli stands her ground and decides not to tape a thank you video for Time magazine.
The publication elicited Jennifer Lopez to write a forward for Charli’s placement in the list:
“She felt like a kindred spirit, maybe because I started out as a dancer too. When Charli dances, she connects. She’s the biggest new teenage star right now, and it’s not simply that she dances on TikTok. She’s the best at it. When she dances, people want to be like her. Her authenticity comes through the screen. There’s huge responsibility in such a high level of fame. With each new follower or video that brings in millions of views, Charli shows that the days of simply waiting to be discovered for your talents are gone. Put yourself out there on your own terms, and as Charli has proven with true authenticity, they will come.”
Before all of the TikTok fame, Charli’s passion was dancing. In the Hulu series, we see Charli have a dance coach visit her Los Angeles home for private lessons to prepare for a pending competition that never materialized in the series.
Did the sudden fame and the vocal minority of online haters rob the teenager of pursuing her passion?
Charli is an executive producer of the Hulu series, so she presumably had a role in its final cut.
I find the series to be a lesson to young people who aspire to reach the apex Charli has reached with her TikTok stardom, that it is not as great as you would think.
Would Charli trade her current home in Los Angeles for her childhood home in Connecticut? She admittedly never wants to leave the home, so what is the ongoing draw of being located in Los Angeles? Is her well-being better suited outside of Los Angeles?
I also find the series a cautionary tale to the desires of investors and startups in the creator economy to pursue creators and influencers as entrepreneurs and business owners. Is it wise to invest in people who are teenagers? Should they, as legal minors, treat what they do as a hobby and not a job?
When I worked at YouTube and spent time with parents in Asia who had kids who experienced fame on the platform, they were very conscious about contractual obligations. Contracts transitioned something that was fun into work. They acknowledged their children were too young to recognize what they were being compelled to do, so they opted out of any paid agreement.
What to do when the minor has mental health issues?
There is one scene in the series where Charli is presented with what looks like a dozen binders capturing all of the various elements of her business enterprise. I wondered if the sight caused a mini panic attack. Missing amongst the collection is a binder focused on being a teenage girl.
The work commitments are placed on top of a foundation that is rocky at best. Charli does her best to roll with it. The anonymous haters constantly distract and diminish the wins. She does say at one point that she will not simply walk away from her online platform because that would provide the haters a win.
She closes the series with a plea to those trying to emulate her, and for those just interested in her story.
“Be part of the change. Be part of the group of people that makes social media not as negative of a place,” she says. “If you spread the positively, I think social media can be a different place.”