The Mayweather-Paul Boxing Spectacle Monetizes Our Vices
Tomorrow, Logan Paul, a YouTuber-turned-boxer with a 0-1 professional record, will fight Floyd Mayweather, indisputably one of the greatest boxers, nay, athletes, of my generation. Mayweather’s 50-0 professional record against Paul’s single loss makes this fight simply ridiculous. In a sane world, dictated by the norms of boxing, such a matchup would never take place. But we do not live in a sane world; instead, we live in a world dominated and dictated by “content,” profitable in proportion to the views it generates.
Like many Americans, I have feelings about the Mayweather-Paul fight on June 6. I want Paul to lose, dramatically, as an emphatic statement against the legitimacy of a “YouTube boxer” and the accompanying silliness of that trend. But the fact that I care at all about this fight, the fighters, and the outcome means that I am part of the problem. That is because Mayweather versus Paul would not have been booked at all without the aid of people like me, who participate in a social media environment that profits on outrage and drama, and thus encourages vicious habits on the part of both audience members and content creators.
The Paul brothers, newly minted boxers and battle-scarred barons of the content machine, are both participants in and instigators of a system that rewards brashness, foolhardiness, and Achillean arrogance. The pure incongruence of a world-class boxer accepting a fight with a controversial YouTube personality with a 100 percent losing record, combined with pre-fight mischief, inspires us to side with Mayweather against the dastardly Paul brothers. Kick his ass! Show him (them?) that he (they?) can’t keep doing this. But keep doing this the Pauls will, win or lose, because the paycheck is guaranteed in either case by us, the viewers. Our very indignation is the ink that prints the checks.
Fights involving controversial internet celebrities, it seems, pay better than fights between fighters precisely because of the incongruity of it all. It draws our attention more effectively than the routine spectacle of sport by virtue of the absurdity. But viewership numbers that advertisers care about are poor analogues to anything like quality, skill, or merit. Instead, clicks, views, and shares are generally driven by social media algorithms that reward controversy, outrage, and general discontent—all things that the Paul brothers are quite familiar with.
Their brand and content seems designed to, as Insider put it, achieve “fame through scandal.” A prominent example of this was the video that Logan Paul uploaded that depicted, among other inconsiderate tourist antics, the dead body of a man who had committed suicide. The backlash against Paul was tremendous, and YouTube imposed some modest consequences. But outrage, it seems, is fuel for future success. Not even impiety or corrupting the youth could keep Paul out of the spotlight, and he and his brother quickly returned to vlogging, podcasting, and generally attracting eyes by being offensive to as many people as possible, as often as possible.
None of this should be surprising if we understand how social media companies profit from our outrage. The lifeblood of these companies is user “engagement” and ad impressions. Maximizing engagement and accompanying impressions requires holding our attention. We have known for some time that this leads companies to create algorithms that trap us in cycles of anger and antagonism; “incendiary” and “extreme content” is foregrounded by design, because that type of content keeps people online, typing, clicking, and sharing.
In the era of “content,” when creators are at war over these scarce commodities, that same design incentivizes increasingly antisocial, aggressive, and offensive displays to keep consumers outraged. The clicks must flow so creators like the Paul brothers can have their share of the revenue, and social media companies can continue to profit. In other words, everyone in this situation wins financially except for us, the viewers.
The sick joke at the heart of Sunday’s fight and every subsequent event involving the Paul brothers is this: It rewards the Paul brothers with millions of dollars and the viewers with a brief adrenaline rush or an evening of distraction. But it simultaneously punishes the Paul brothers, the viewers, and aspiring content creators with the encouragement of poor emotional and technological habits.
The Paul brothers walk away with wealth, to be sure. Along with their paychecks, however, they carry the incentive to continue acting on impulse and fostering discord apace. Perhaps team sports punish this behavior more effectively than individual sports like boxing. Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Antonio Brown damaged himself immensely from his selfish shenanigans. But as content creators, the Paul brothers have acquired a world stage and a bigger payday than they could have ever imagined, so why quit while they are ahead?
The viewers will walk away with confirmation of their presuppositions—depending on the outcome—that boxing is fixed, YouTubers are not real boxers, and so on, without the incentive to reflect on what made them invested in the fight to begin with. We will likely post on social media before, during, and after the fight, seeking the brief dopamine hit from a ‘like’ or searching for a good argument to be had, dividing our attention between multiple platforms in a loop. In other words, our bad habits will be reinforced and rewarded algorithmically, regardless of the fight’s outcome. Aspiring content creators in the audience will likewise be given suspect exemplars whose popularity implies the ability to obtain success via excess.
As I write this, Jake Paul’s next fight has been scheduled against former UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley. The Facebook comments on the announcement are exactly as you would expect: “Circus act again.” “Jake is still calling himself a boxer but not fighting boxers!” “A clown fight for clowns.” If I were a betting man, I would wager that a good number of these commenters will still watch the fight and sell their attention for a little entertainment.
What is needed, then, is something that Tim Wu, in his book The Attention Merchants, calls a “human reclamation project.” The “merchants” that demand our attention, he says, have goals that are “generally at odds with ours.” Where we want to use our time wisely, the merchants want to absorb as much of our time as they can monetize. Where we want to develop healthy habits and virtues, the merchants profit when we have an excess of harmful emotion and a deficiency of self-control. Effectively achieving our human ends requires concerted effort against the algorithms that seek to keep us enthralled. This reclamation of my time and attention is a project I intend to undertake with gusto, right after I watch Logan Paul get knocked out.
I will close with the appropriate words of Paul Simon’s song “Werewolf”:
Ignorance and arrogance, a national debate
Put the fight in Vegas, that’s a billion-dollar gate
Revenue, pay per view, should be pretty healthy
The usual deductions, then it all goes to the wealthy.
Philip Bunn is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.