Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers perceive Gen Z as the instigators of what they have termed “cancel culture,” suggesting that we (and, to some degree, millennials) are using social media to shame people for their actions in a wide range of situations. But a recent blowup among a Gen Z YouTube crew — one of many such issues — illustrates better than anything how the so-called adults in the room fundamentally misunderstand our generation and, in trying to glom onto any way to influence our buying habits, first promote people whose actions are inherently controversial and then publicly withdraw their support when the controversies get noticed.
When the then-teenage David Dobrik first started uploading videos to the now-defunct app Vine, he was only sharing six-second sports clips. However, as Dobrik met more creators in the Los Angeles area, he eventually started posting funny moments between his group of friends who became known as the “Vlog Squad.” Dobrik’s official crossover to YouTube wasn’t until 2015, but his signature style eventually drew millions of viewers.
The videos Dobrik, now 24 years old, made were all under five minutes and relied heavily on eye-catching — and, retrospectively, ignorant — titles like “ARE WE RACIST!!?” and “WE LIKE BULLYING!!”. These shocking phrases seem obviously in poor taste now, but “clickbait” video titles were a common practice among YouTube stars to game the site’s algorithms and attract more followers, even if the titles didn’t really reflect what the video was about at all.
It’s important to understand the context of YouTube crews like Dobrik’s to my generation. As we grew out of kiddie programming, Gen-Z viewers who started watching crews like Dobriks’ as teenagers and have since grown up, did so because there was little other programming in the increasingly fragmented television environment that truly represented or was aimed at us. Heavily scripted, heavily censored programming written by and for (or at least not to offend) our parents and grandparents wasn’t interesting; prestige television that attracted millennials with long run times and multiseason story arcs bored us. Even the representation of teenagers felt forced and inaccurate as streaming services tried to draw us in.
Dobrik’s YouTube channel was just the middleman for businesses to get teenagers’ attention.
So we flocked to his channel and others like it to laugh and feel connected to a friend group that seemed genuinely representative of our generation. Plus, unlike the “reality TV” we saw elsewhere, there was little scripting — and the video quality wasn’t professional. And, although he pulled pranks — a programming trope as old as “Candid Camera,” “Jackass” and “Punk’d” — Dobrik portrayed himself as the better alternative to controversial YouTube creators such as Jake and Logan Paul.
His channel felt lighthearted and safe, until it became clear to people that it wasn’t.
Given Dobrik’s influence — at one point, he had 18.7 million followers on YouTube, mostly within the young age range prized by advertisers — powerful brands paid for ads to appear in his videos. Companies such as SeatGeek, Bumble and HelloFresh were just a few of his biggest sponsors that were attempting to grab Gen-Z’s attention. Chipotle named a burrito after him and gave him a lifetime loyalty card.
These large financial sponsorships allowed Dobrik to buy a $9.8 million house and gift luxury cars to fans, friends and family. It also enabled him to grow his following — because, after all, if he was buying a $10 million house and luxury cars, he must be must-see TV — and to execute wild and harmful pranks at the expense of others, even if they were his friends.
There will always be a new generation of young people doing things that other young people want to watch, and older advertisers chasing ways to capture that demographic without doing any research into what it is that they are actually funding.
And because he drew an increasingly large following as a result of his growing corporate sponsorships, young viewers didn’t or couldn't recognize the harm — and companies didn’t care, as long as those young viewers were also seeing their ads. Dobrik’s YouTube channel was just the middleman for businesses to get teenagers’ attention.
But in the last couple weeks, it seems to all have come crashing down.
On March 16, Insider reported that Dobrik’s friend and fellow Vlog Squad member, Dominykas “Durte Dom” Zeglaitis, allegedly sexually assaulted a woman, whom they referred to as Hannah, in 2018, at his apartment while Dobrik filmed. (Insider used a pseudonym to protect the victim but verified that she appeared in one of Dobrik’s vlogs in 2018 on the night she says the assault took place.) Zeglaitis has refused to comment on the allegations.
Dobrik posted the video, which he titled “SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE PLAYED WITH FIRE!!”, and insinuated that Hannah and her friends — who were underage at the time but allegedly provided alcohol by the Vlog Squad to what Hannah says was the point of her own incapacitation — were there to have group sex with Zeglaitis. “After a couple minutes of talking, it was clear there was no five-some happening,” Dobrik said in the voiceover. “But, by some stroke of luck and master negotiating, Dom made progress.”
Dobrik’s video racked up 5 million views before Hannah asked Zeglaitis to take it down, noting her incapacitation and his alleged awareness of it; the video was removed from Dobrik's channel at her request, but other people's versions of the video remained online until the Insider article.
These large financial sponsorships also allowed Dobrik to grow his following and to execute wild and harmful pranks at the expense of others, even if they were his friends.
In the days following the allegations, Dobrik posted two separate apologies, the second of which came after brands started to drop their support. The tone offers a more public and in-depth discussion of the allegations. “I want to start this video off by saying I fully believe the woman who came out against Dom … As was reported the next day, I got consent to post the video,” he said. (According to Insider, Hannah later texted Zeglaitis that she was asked for consent while still black-out drunk.) “Even though I got the consent to post that video, I should have never posted it.”
It is, however, not the first time Dobrik or other Vlog Squad creators have documented behavior worthy of criticism. In February 2021, Joseth “Seth” Francois, a former member of the group, spoke out about also being sexually assaulted in a 2017 video. Dobrik had tricked Francois into kissing 47-year-old YouTuber Jason Nash, by blindfolding him and telling him Nash was a woman; Dobrik also termed it a “prank.” Less than a week later, another former member, Trisha Paytas, noted that Dobrik had snuck into a hotel room she was sharing with Nash and filmed content she considered intimate without her consent, posting the video to his channel in December 2018 under the title “I SNUCK INTO THEIR HOTEL ROOM (SURPRISE).” (That video remains live despite her objections.)
Still, Chipotle announced its deal with Dobrik in 2019. He was a judge on “America’s Most Musical Family” on Nickelodeon in 2019. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, when announcing a $4 million round of seed funding for Dobrik’s Dispo app in October 2020, called him a “motivated visionary.”
But one by one, all of these organizations have started to withdraw their support, now that people started noticing what Dobrik did in 2017 and 2018. And, if this marks the end of Dobrik and his squad’s influence, it seems well-deserved.
It won’t, however, be the end of YouTube, video squads or any other social media platform that follows this model. There will always be a new generation of young people doing things that other young people want to watch, and older advertisers chasing ways to capture that demographic without doing any research into what it is that they are actually funding.
However, whoever serves as Dobrik’s successor needs to be held accountable in the moment, not simply have money thrown at them because there is more money to be made from doing so. It isn’t cancel culture to hold those in power accountable — especially when the power and influence that people have is used to hurt others.
Gen-Z may wish we knew all of this before now — and before our content creation became something for older generations to exploit for their profit. But we weren’t the adults in the room; we were just a bunch of kids watching videos on the internet. We gave him the views, but it was the brands that gave him the money.