I was first introduced to James White a little over four years ago.
As if by kismet, a stranger, who I'd followed on accident, had retweeted a Vine of James, a young Chinese man of around 30, enthusiastically shouting the words "very cool, very swag, very handsome, I like it!" onto my timeline. Years later, I'm more than a little ashamed to admit that my immediate instinct was to laugh. What I couldn't quite figure out at the time, though, was whether I was laughing at James, or whether I was laughing with him.
Intrigued enough to carry out some low-stakes reconnaissance, I clicked on James' profile to learn more. From what I could tell, the post that had drawn me in initially was a bit out of step with his usual updates. Though the aforementioned slogan — "very cool, very swag, I like it" — appeared to be a recurring catchphrase of sorts, James' typical tweets were objectively less exciting, featuring little more than a picture or a Vine of him, and an update about something routine he was doing. Occasionally, he'd tweet something more ostentatious, like a video of him singing a popular American song, or make personal admissions about his desire for a girlfriend. But mostly, his Twitter was mired in the mundane. "Congee for lunch," he captioned these 2015 selfies, which inexplicably racked up 349 likes. "Going to drink" read a similar post with 418 retweets, featuring a clip of James taking a sip of water.
Noting the quotidian nature of James' updates, I began to suspect that the tens of thousands of Twitter followers, among them celebrities like Andy Richter, Ike Barinholtz and Chris D'Elia — and the 200,000 more who followed him on Vine — were there for reasons more unsavoury than a benign curiosity about his day-to-day hydration. The internet being characteristically terrible, I was convinced that many of James' followers were appreciating his tweets in a way that was mean spirited, potentially laughing at his accent or poking fun at his seeming obliviousness. Worse still, I wasn't entirely sure James wasn't a dedicated performance artist, playing into all of the attention he was receiving through an ongoing commitment to an elaborate bit. Superficially, the way people tagged their friends in the replies to his tweets, as If to say "get a load of this guy," seemed to indicate that either of these scenarios were valid possibilities.
After following James for a few weeks, I began to see gradual signs that much — though, certainly not all — of my initial cynicism was unwarranted. Admittedly, I was disheartened by the number of crying-laughing face emojis I saw scattered throughout his mentions, but if this lightmockery fazed James in any meaningful way, he didn't appear to show any signs of its impact, making no discernible attempts to tailor his content towards, or away from, this jeering.
Over time, it became progressively clearer that very little of the content James was posting was premeditated. His updates were simply far too humdrum to suggest the work of a calculated mastermind. On April 3rd and 4th, for example, he followed up a post about owning a selfie stick with a post about washing his bed sheets. On April 6th, he marveled at the size of the sitting room at his friend's house. If he was employing any sort of procedure to carefully select which particular details of his life to share online, it was so impossibly impenetrable, that it struck me as far more likely that he was simply being earnest. Perhaps he was exaggerating some elements of his personality, but he certainly wasn't inhabiting a character — he was simply living his life on a giant stage, documenting it on the internet as it happened in real time.
Things took a dark turn towards the middle of 2016 when James' father was admitted to the hospital. As a follower who'd grown accustomed to James' cheerful posts, I was startled when, on June 4th of that year, James tweeted, "my dad has Hypertension and suddenly cerebral hemorrhage yesterday.he is in hospital right now,his life is in danger,i am so sad." Perhaps even more startling than the tweet itself, though, were the supportive responses it elicited from his followers. Rather than the standard influx of heckling, the replies to this particular tweet were positively uplifting, featuring a number of people offering him kind words of reassurance, like "I hope he gets better soon James" and "my prayers go out to him bro."
Witnessing this groundswell of support, it occured to me that perhaps I'd been reading the intentions of James' followers in bad faith. In addition to the bevy of aforementioned well-wishes, many even answered his call for more substantive forms of assistance, donating to him via PayPal and/or passing this request on to their own followers. One particularly devoted admirer — a young woman from The Netherlands, Lynn Bruce — even went as far as to set up a GoFundMe campaign on James' behalf, collecting and transferring over $650 to him before she could no longer maintain the campaign's upkeep.
When I spoke to Bruce about why she felt this compulsion to help James — a person who was, for all intents and purposes, a complete stranger — she had this to say:
"They always say bad things happen to the ones who are undeserving of it, and I believe James's father falling ill was that turning point for him. I felt like something had to be done to help James in any way, as he didn't see how he'd be able to overcome this sudden change in his life. All we could do, really, is show him that he's not alone in this."
Fortunately, James' father managed to survive this ordeal, emerging from the other side of this health scare in permanent hospice care, but alive and lucid. Less fortunately, it doesn't appear as if James' fundraising operation raised enough money to significantly relieve the burden of his father's medical expenses (according to one of his tweets, these totaled in excess of $20,000 USD). Still, the collected sum, regardless of how far it fell short, did not diminish the generosity of each individual donor, all of whom seemingly contributed their hard-earned money without even the slightest concern that this may have been a scam. Floored by the astounding amount of goodwill James' had fostered among his followers, the last remaining bit of cynicism the internet had conditioned me to carry finally washed away.
It's been almost three years now since James' father was first admitted to the hospital. Granted, this is merely speculation, but it's hard to overstate just how right Bruce was when she referred to this incident as a "turning point." Unfortunately, James did not respond to my request to interview him for this story, but a cursory glance at the state of his timeline today would suggest that he's a far less carefree individual now than he was three years ago. Perhaps the ordeal caused James to reflect on the notion of mortality, or perhaps the exorbitant cost of keeping his father in hospice care has placed an additional weight on his shoulders, but in either case, it's not difficult to appreciate why he'd be reluctant to participate in an interview where he'd be asked to elaborate on these sensitive topics. To the extent that I'm able to levy these hypotheses, then, it's only because James now chooses to augment the routine updates he's been sharing online for years, by offering a clearer, less one-dimensional picture of his day-to-day life.
Of course, it wasn't entirely unheard of for James to share negative sentiments with his followers in the past, but the palpable sense of urgency these tweets carry with them today is a newer phenomenon. Whenever James tweets about how much he dislikes his job, for example — expressing sentiments like "I'm tired of my work, it's very far, it's very tired,I'm at very low rank of my company, everyone can ask me to do this,to do that," — you can tangibly feel just how little joy he derives from his vocation. Likewise, stumbling across a subsequent tweet which reads, "my mother ask me to endure and tolerate, I have no choice, my father is in hospital, my mother doesn't have job, all have to depend on me," it's hard not to appreciate just how trapped James feels at the crossroads between his desire to seek self-actualization and his obligations to his family.
Relatedly, part of the reason James is so preoccupied with his desire to change careers is his belief that a larger salary may help bolster his romantic prospects. The way he tweets, almost compulsively at this point, about his quest for a girlfriend (a search through his 2018 tweets for the word "girlfriend" produced, by my count, 46 distinct results) it seems as if this fixation is driven by cultural and familial pressures far more profound than his personal desire for companionship. "I can't bring a nice girlfriend back home to see my parents," he began a tweet from a few months ago. "I feel very ashamed ,the[ir] colleagues and relatives all look down upon me […] when can I bring honor back to my family?"
Worryingly, the longer James remains single, the more this seems to weigh on him emotionally. He ruminates on the subject endlessly, workshops different approaches, and goes on regular dates, all of which he documents on Twitter in painstaking detail. In May 2018, for example, James tweeted a nearly two minute long video, teetering on the verge of tears and chastising himself for losing patience with a girl who took too long to respond to him on a dating app. "She didn't reply, so I delete [her account]! Now I very regret!" he says agonizingly, before hitting himself on the forehead in clear frustration. Watching this painful video, it's nearly inconceivable that this is the same guy who, just two days earlier, was updating his followers about the tartness of a plum he'd eaten.
For his part, James seems to accept that he's not blameless in his current predicament. He's openly acknowledged instances where he's sabotaged budding relationships by being excessively superficial, by assigning too much weight to his parents' input, and by projecting his personal insecurities.
That James chooses to share all this information is curious. Most successful online personalities are in the business of casting themselves as the heroes of their own stories, but James' approach couldn't stray any further in the opposite direction. To the extent that he's interested in curating any sort of brand, the only brand he seems interested in is full-scale transparency.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this unfiltered approach has served only to widen James' appeal, satiating a public appetite for candor that seems to be in short supply these days. Followers may not always approve of James' actions or choices, but there is nonetheless something eminently relatable about the vivid picture he paints of life's peaks and valleys. Who among us hasn't had trouble reconciling our personal interests with our familial responsibilities? Which one of us can honestly say that we haven't inadvertently sabotaged our own romantic interests by letting our flaws get the best of us?
Vine shuttered in 2017, effectively depriving James of his largest platform, but James' Twitter and Instagram followings have grown rapidly in recent years — crossing the 108,000 and 18,000 marks respectively — a surge due, at least in part, to his uniquely sincere persona.
Notably, when I DM'ed a few of James' followers to ask what it is about his online presence they find so compelling, this is a sentiment they reinforced repeatedly. "Most social media portrays life as perfect, beautiful, and positive, but honestly there's not enough negativity being addressed," said Twitter user, @wasnni. "When I see James White posting his daily struggles — not being attractive or how he has to wake up at 6 am to work — it's really motivating and serves as a reminder for EVERYONE that other peoples' lives are harder, or in fact, the same as [ours], and that we all have struggles in life."
"He's a very endearing guy," replied @SlumphG from England. "He shares a lot of his struggles and ups and downs. The fact [that] he's candid and no bullshit is nice to see."
Incidentally, the era where trolls were the loudest voices among James' followers seems to have died out alongside Vine, creating an opportunity for admirers like @wasnni and @SlumphG to foster a community free from toxicity, rather unlike most spaces on the internet. In the increasingly rare instances where people try to heckle James today, their negative energy not only feels out of place, but it also feels gauche — sort of the loose equivalent to attending a friend's rec-league soccer game just to boo the players, knowing that everyone else in attendance is strictly there to root for their success.
Witnessing this community flourish, free from the anonymous hate-speech, divisive rhetoric and snarky cynicism that make the internet so terrible, it feels like living in a bizarre alternate reality where the internet never drifted away from being the tool for unambiguous positivity its pioneers intended it to be. As this pertains to James' online following, much of this positivity has manifested itself in the form of blanket support; followers like @ididntneedatwit, who told me via DM that she occasionally offers compassionate words of encouragement to James because she feels like he's a kindred spirit. "I'm a lonely person," she explained. "I have a hard time making connections with others and prefer to be alone. James is very sweet and sincere and too kind for this world. I see myself in him."
In other instances, this wholesome online community has given way to the type of informed criticism and thoughtful advice that most people are generally only comfortable doling out to those they know intimately. "It'll never work if you try too hard! Let it come naturally!" wrote @emxlymxrrin in response to one of James' many 2019 tweets lamenting his lack of romantic success. "Love cannot be won. Be happy that you are able to feel alive and experience the good and the bad," replied @formerlyjscobe to the same post.
When I sent @emxlymxrrin a DM to ask her about why she elected to reach out to James with this particular piece of advice, she spoke about him with a sense of familiarity that most people reserve only for their friends. "He's just a really honest hardworking guy with great qualities […] but he also looks so hard for love and I feel bad because he doesn't have enough patience to realize that finding happiness and fulfillment takes time."
Reading her thoughtful dissection of James' ongoing trials, it raises the question of whether the bond @emxlymxrrin shares with James fits neatly within the standard parameters of a typical parasocial relationship. This term, defined by Oxford as a descriptor for the "[one-sided] psychological relationship[s] experienced by members of an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media," has evolved rapidly in recent years, taking on an additional layer of complexity as the attachments between audiences and performers have been warped by online accessibility.
Whereas early researchers in this field were preoccupied with studying the effects even the subtlest of gestures could have on manufacturing intimacy between a performer and their audience — like television broadcasters who'd address their audiences directly — today's researchers study an archetype of online performer for whom these gestures would seem almost quaint. YouTube vloggers, Twitch streamers, podcasters, lifestyle bloggers, etc. don't so much break the fourth wall as they attempt to downplay its existence altogether. A large majority of this ilk, not unlike James, have built their following on a presentation of authenticity, succeeding to varying extents to obscure the fact they're putting on a performance at all.
According to @emxlymxrrin, James' success in this regard is singular. In her words, "he's the most honest person I follow on here […] he shows real emotion." She doesn't suspect that he's carefully massaging an online avatar by making conscious choices about what to omit from his online presence, because, as far as she can discern, "James kinda uses twitter as a diary. […] It seems like he posts pretty much everything." She reaches out to him to impart sincere pieces of advice — though she doesn't do this with any of the other public figures she follows online — because "James has such a personal connection with his audience that it's hard not to feel almost like he's a close friend." Speaking to her about this, I was struck by how few spaces on the internet I could think of where this level of ostensibly unmanufactured intimacy exists between a personality and their followers.
Sadly, almost as if this were an inevitability, this wholesome bubble has started to show its cracks within the last year. Given that Twitter is now fully immersed in the "wow, this blew up" era, where every single person who accidentally posts a viral tweet feels compelled — often by economic need, but sometimes by far more vain impulses — to follow it up with a promotional link to an Etsy page or an Instagram profile, it's mildly surprising that it took James this long to realize the commercial potential of his platform. In contrast to the well-documented stories of aspiring online influencers who create fake sponsored posts on Instagram in the hopes that these will eventually translate to real sponsorship opportunities, James' accidental realization that he could monetize his following in the wake of his father's hospitalization seems almost like a cute origin story.
Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with leveraging an online platform for financial gain. As the aforementioned @SlumphG put it, "using an elevated position in social media for monetary gain seems to be all the rage these days. I think we all would do something similar." Yet, when someone has built the core of their platform, as James has, on a reputation for being pure and wholesome, the introduction of capitalism into this mix begs a delicate balancing act. In this regard, James' largest online venture at present — one-off sales of t-shirt designs and phone cases — hasn't been particularly worrisome. Conversely, his current push to mobilize his followers to support him on Patreon could potentially prove problematic down the road.
Consider that James isn't really a "content creator" in the traditional sense of the title. His allure is not linked to podcasts, articles, or any of the standard creative endeavours people typically leverage to thrive on the platform. By definition, the "content" he does provide, unfettered access to his life, can't be compartmentalized into neat units of output or monthly tiers. Once his followers are forced to start asking questions like, "how does James' $10/month tier of daily updates compare to his $20/month tier?" it could potentially shatter his whole brand of full-scale transparency, thereby undercutting his current appeal.
Fortunately, this concern is still very much theoretical at present. Judging by the way James' Patreon is currently configured, he doesn't appear to be offering any tangible incentives to those who sign up for pricier monthly tiers. Moreover, the fact that he has just 10 patrons on the platform at present suggests that I needn't be too worried about this leading to some sort of existential spiral.
For their part, James' followers — the ones I spoke to, at least — don't seem to be overly concerned that James' attempts to monetize his platform will somehow cheapen the purity of his online presence. Of these people, no one put it into perspective quite like the aforementioned Lynn Bruce:
There's a difference between someone like Jake Paul, who is rich, has never faced adversity, and is a straight, white American trying to monetize actual teenagers to [get] wealthier, [and] someone like James, who lives in a very small house by himself […], lives in China, and has had no excessive privileged — I'm assuming because his parents don't seem to be rich beyond the basics that they need — creating items all by himself and trying his hardest to make something for [his followers]. So, I think if it can help him keep his head above water, then my perception of him will honestly be the same. There's no shame to be had in making a little bit of money from people willing to donate or buy your art/merchandise. In the end, we decide ourselves if we want to buy his t-shirts or not.
While on the subject of James' monetization efforts, it's worth noting that James keeps a directory of these projects on his official website, the aptly addressed, "verycoolveryswag.com." Each time you visit this homepage, a dialog box pops up, requiring you to click "OK," before granting you access to its content. The message in the dialog box, "Very Cool Very Swag, I Like It!!!," doesn't strictly make sense in terms of the input it's necessitating from you — what is it I'm confirming exactly when I hit "OK"? — but, once you navigate through this needless firewall, the website reveals a comprehensive overview of James' sizable digital footprint.
In many ways, the experience of visiting this website is a microcosm of the experience of following James as a whole. On your first visit, you may find yourself confused by the aforementioned dialog box, knowing as you do that this is a highly unusual part of the contemporary online user experience. Once you've pushed past this bewilderment, however, you'll find yourself fully immersed within the world of James White. This is not dissimilar to the experience I had back in 2015, when I first stumbled across that Vine of James enthusiastically shouting his catchphrase. After approximately fifteen years of voracious internet usage, I'd become so jaded that I couldn't quite accept his sincerity at face-value. This was the firewall I had to navigate through before I could successfully join James' online community. His catchphrase was far too flamboyant not to be self-aware, I thought. He had far too many followers for a majority of them not to be trolls, I suspected. Several years' worth of evidence later, I'm almost 97 percent certain that I needn't have been so cynical.
With that being said, there is always going to be a small part of me that knows — regardless of how many pictures James posts from his father's hospital room — that I can never be 100 percent certain of the veracity of anything he documents online. Strikingly, we often overlook this fact, but this also happens to be true of basically everyone we share a relationship with. Even if you've known your best friends for decades, you still have no way of verifying they're not continuously embellishing or fabricating the anecdotes they recount, or perhaps inhabiting a different persona than the one they display in other circles. Implicitly, we choose to trust these people regardless, because it makes the world a more livable place.
It says a great deal about how effectively the internet has eroded this feature of analog living that it took me as long as it did to offer James this same benefit of the doubt. I may never know how authentic he is being online, but given that the internet has now been overrun by anecdotes about scam artists and selfies from Instagram pop-up "experiences," I'm no longer particularly concerned about attaining this certainty. I choose to trust him implicitly regardless, in hopes that it may make my day-to-day life on the internet a little more livable.