The Moral Philosopher of YouTube

The internet is not exactly a repository of moral guidance. Yet over the past few years, millions of viewers have flocked to the YouTube channel Dhar Mann to watch contemporary fables. Instead of talking animals, these videos feature stock characters learning lessons in a format tailored to the uncanny algorithmic currents of social media. It’s Aesop meets Upworthy, by way of Logan Paul.

Dhar Mann’s video titles are openly click bait — “Kid FAKES Being SICK to Skip Class, What Happens Is Shocking,” “KAREN Next Door Goes WAY TOO FAR, What Happens Is Shocking” — and the films feature mawkish, scripted moralistic tales. But the strategy seems to be working.

According to the analytics firm Social Blade, Dhar Mann is the 91st most influential channel on YouTube, a metric arrived at through indicators including views (nearly five billion, plus 15 billion more on Facebook) and subscribers (11.2 million). Olivia Rodrigo is ranked 36th on the list.

Dhar Mann himself, a 37-year-old serial entrepreneur in Los Angeles, has turned what began as a scrappy content-creation operation into a major moneymaking enterprise. It’s paid for the construction of two 60,000-square-foot soundstages in Burbank, where Dhar Mann Studios films its videos, and a Calabasas mansion, which Mr. Mann bought from Khloé Kardashian for $15.5 million in 2020.

All of that is to say, the channel’s namesake has become an unlikely celebrity, known not for his personal dramas or onscreen prowess but for his positive messages. How did he get here? And how did we?

From Weed Entrepreneur to YouTube Star

Mr. Mann’s path to online video stardom was a winding one. His parents emigrated from India with $7 between them, he said, and he grew up sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area with three families.

His parents worked long hours running the taxi company they founded. “Because they weren’t around a lot, instead of being able to give me their time, they gave me money to do things,” he said. He began to believe that “in order to have love and live a meaningful life, you have to have money.”

He started his first business, a real estate brokerage, at 19, and spent the next decade forming a series of companies that often went belly-up.

In 2010, when Mr. Mann was 25, he appeared on the cover of Mother Jones for an article about WeGrow, a medical marijuana business he helped found. Along with Derek Peterson, previously an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, he rented a warehouse in Oakland and started selling the equipment needed to grow hydroponic cannabis.

The venture attracted national attention and was called the “Wal-Mart of Weed.” Mr. Mann even filmed a pilot for a reality TV show, “Hempire,” which never aired. But before long the business was sold and the partners split acrimoniously, with Mr. Peterson suing Mr. Mann over unpaid debts and accusing him in a 2011 interview of running a “hydroponzi scheme.” Mr. Mann countersued and was awarded a cash settlement, as well as shares in a publicly traded company Mr. Peterson founded.

Later that year, Mr. Mann pleaded “no contest” to five felony counts of defrauding the City of Oakland, which accused him of fraudulently pocketing more than $44,000 he’d received from city redevelopment grants. He faced no jail time but was fined $37,500. In an email, he wrote that the conviction was later expunged.

“At 30 years old, I found myself at the lowest point in my life,” he wrote on his website. “I was completely broke, going through a difficult breakup and feeling really depressed. I thought I was a total failure. I kept asking myself: Are things ever going to get better?”

The next year he started LiveGlam, a subscription cosmetics company, and met Laura Avila, now his fiancée, with whom he has two children. (They also run LiveGlam together.) In 2018, he began posting motivational videos on Facebook.

At the time, he said, “I didn’t know you could make money from content.” His audience was mostly family and friends.

But that fall, he experienced his first viral hit: A video about a wife squabbling with her husband.

The Dhar Mann Formula

“Gold Digger Dumps Broke Boyfriend, Then Regrets Her Decision” (2019) is a quintessential Dhar Mann film. It opens with our protagonist, John, giving his girlfriend, Bella, a new handbag.

“I want you to have everything you want in life, babe,” he says, gazing soulfully up at her.

She picks up the purse, and her eyes narrow. “What is this?” she barks. “I can’t be caught wearing Kate Spade! I told you I wanted a Louis Vuitton bag!”

Their conversation turns to dinner. “I’m craving steak and wine!” Bella says.

John, on the verge of tears, suggests Denny’s.

“Are you kidding?” Bella says. “You’re going to take me, a girl that looks like this, into Denny’s for dinner?” He tries to make an emotional appeal, but it’s too late. She’s dumping him for Estephan, who is rich.

Cut to a montage of John working hard; Estephan cheating on Bella; John finding love. In a final scene, Bella runs into John, now a millionaire, as he’s stepping into a new Bentley.

“I thought you didn’t like Kate Spade,” he says, gesturing at her purse. “It’s for a friend,” she lies, sheepishly.

Bella’s comeuppance is complete when John’s new fiancée, Rose, appears, and suggests they hurry so as not to miss their dinner reservations. “We wouldn’t want you missing your steak and wine,” John tells Rose.

The camera lingers on Bella, aghast, before fading to Mr. Mann.

“A lot of people will show up during your success with their hand out, acting like you owe them something,” he says.

“But if someone doesn’t believe in you during your worst, then don’t let them celebrate with you during your best!”

Carlos R. Chavez, the actor who played John, said he is often recognized for his roles. “The most funny one I ever got was like, ‘Hey, aren’t you the guy with the really rude boss that steps on your shoes, but then after two months, you decide you’re going to be better and then you actually end up owning him?’”

Once, at Six Flags, he heard someone in the crowd scream at him, “Hey, I prefer steak and wine!”

Mair Mulroney, 32, another Dhar Mann actor, said she also gets approached on the street in Los Angeles. “If I go to the Grove or something like that, it’s like a mob. You get mobbed by kids.” They point at her, she said, and scream, “Dhar Mann!”

Content as the Great Equalizer

Mr. Mann speaks about online content as if it saved him. Before starting his channel, “I had relationship conflicts, I had business failures, I went through anxiety, I went through depression,” he said. “I remember how important it was hearing or seeing or watching the right piece of content at that time when I needed it most.”

He recalled taking private dance lessons from an instructor who grew annoyed when he canceled a class at the last minute. Then one day the instructor didn’t show up. He sent the man a frustrated message but received no response.

The next morning, the instructor’s father messaged Mr. Mann to say that his son had committed suicide. Choking back tears, Mr. Mann said that the episode led him to realize how often people fail to understand each other: “Oh my gosh, like, wow, you don’t know what someone’s going through.”

His videos attempt to bridge these gaps. “I may have grown up eating naan and lentils, and you may have grown up eating eggs and potatoes,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that connect us at the same time, right?”

His “focus on universal truths,” he believes, is what has allowed him “to build such a massive audience.”

But he also makes choices that he knows will pay off. “I’m not disconnected from the realities of social algorithms,” he said. “If, for instance, a thumbnail has somebody crying or somebody overly expressive, or zooms into a face, it’s going to do better.”

“If I use images of people that look a little bit different, like I had a girl that had a bald head as my thumbnail, and she shaved her head because she was someone that was dealing with cancer,” he said. “Naturally, our eyes even just subconsciously gravitate towards these things. That’s important to get a lot of views.”

The simplistic dialogue, achingly sincere and devoid of slang or sarcasm, is also intentional.

Sometimes, Mr. Mann said, people describe his content as “a little bit too on the nose, or it’s a little bit cringe, or why is the dialogue so direct.” But it’s intentional. “That way, children can understand, but also people who don’t speak English can understand,” he said.

Forty percent of Dhar Mann’s audience is overseas, he said in an email. His biggest audience on YouTube is the 18 to 24 demographic; on Facebook, it’s 25 to 34. “Facebook and YouTube don’t give data for audience under 13 so I can’t say for sure 7 to 10 is the fastest growing audience, it just feels like it based on my interactions with people,” he wrote in an email.

Most of his videos incorporate timely narratives about police-calling Karens and Covid-19 hoarders, but in style and tone they are more reminiscent of 1980s after-school specials and the educational short films of the ’50s than other content that’s popular today.

The characters are broad and simple, each representing a demographic that any fourth grader could recognize: angry mom, spoiled wife, mean girl, lazy husband. They seem almost like instructional videos an alien species might watch to learn the basic points of American social dynamics.

“You will never not see a gold-digger video,” Ms. Mulroney said. “They can twist that story so many times. People love those gold-digger stories, they really do.”

Mr. Mann’s moral philosophy can at times feel thin and absolutist. A common narrative arc involves a bully mocking the protagonist for being poor or having acne; then a twist of fate strikes the bully with poverty or pimples. The videos often imply that having any kind of social problem is a form of shameful karmic punishment.

Still, the size of his audience suggests that Mr. Mann is tapping into something millions of people find compelling. In trying times — say, a pandemic with no end in sight paired with devastating wildfires on several continents and a bleak climate outlook — people want to see villains reformed and lessons delivered. No ambiguity, no debates. Everything turns out just right.

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