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Why are people buying mysterious boxes on eBay without knowing what’s inside?

Are mystery boxes a deal or ordeal? 

Valerie was cursed – which might explain why she never replied to my message. A few years ago, the American took to to protest about a “mystery box” she won on the online auction site eBay. As the name suggests, the contents of such boxes are a mystery until they are opened by the buyer.

“One item stumped me,” wrote Valerie. Among “goodies” in the box was a sealed glass jar containing rolled up slips of paper. Attached was a message. “By opening this jar you are now responsible for its contents.”

Inside the jar were six typed notes informing Valerie that she was now the owner of a bad luck penny. Exactly a month later, her air conditioning broke down. Soon after, Valerie’s partner fought with her boss, and then her car died. That same night, fire ants bit her feet. “I believe it’s the penny’s fault,” Valerie wrote in her complaint. She did not respond to an interview request.

eBay mystery boxes have been around since the early Noughties, but have recently had a huge upsurge in popularity thanks to YouTubers (and Buzzfeed) creating videos about their contents. Valerie’s experiences are unusually macabre, but not many mystery box-buyers end up thrilled with their purchases. This week, I bought two. I am now the proud owner of a survival bracelet, a pack of Pokemon cards, an aux cable, some carabiners, the most hideous necklace I have ever seen in my life, and Cartoon Network: Mash Up, a DVD copy of 4 Exciting Episodes of Cartoon Network Favourites.

A £40 mystery box, available on eBay

“I think it’s an excellent way to engage with the community,” says Marc McGregor, a 27-year-old from Southampton who sold me my first mystery box for £10 (pictured below). Marc has been buying items in bulk from China and selling them on eBay since 2002, but recently started making mystery boxes as a way of offloading his stock.

“Say for example, how I gave you a survival bracelet in your box,” he says – and I mumble assent, even though before that very moment I didn’t know what one of those was – “that’s a popular item but I couldn’t sell them because people weren’t able to see my auction due to a change in the eBay algorithm.” Mystery boxes, then, were a perfect solution.

The contents of my first mystery box

Over the course of a month, Marc has sold “20 to 30” boxes for £10 each, always ensuring that the items within the box have a combined recommended retail value of more than a tenner. “There’s a few people who ruin the fun for everyone,” he says, “I think there’s a few people who are out there just to be greedy, to make as much money as possible.” Yet although the items Marc sent me have value, to me they’re worthless. This is the inherent risk – or, some might say, fun – of a mystery box.

“It’s not within my comfort zone so I feel like it’s a fun experience,” says Jessica, a 21-year-old who has been bidding on mystery boxes since watching Buzzfeed’s video about the trend. Although she is aware that she could get dud items – or things she doesn’t really want – Jessica feels the fun outweighs the risk. “I’m poor so the cheaper ones attract me,” she says, comparing the experience to a childhood party bag or game of pass the parcel.

Jessica bids on specific mystery boxes that are labelled “for girls” or “for YouTubers” to ensure the items are more relevant to her. eBay’s own rules state that mystery boxes must contain some hint to the contents of the box in the listing, although many do not. The second mystery box I bought simply challenged me with the description: “ARE U BRAVE ENOUGH TO BUY THIS BOX?!! COULD HAVE ANYTHING??”

A mystery box for a lady with questions, available on eBay

Yet although buyers might not benefit from mystery boxes, sellers certainly do. Chris Williams is a 31-year-old from Rugby who started selling the boxes after he decided to move overseas and wanted to shift some of his possessions, as well as stock from his gift shop. “I’ve been toying with the idea of doing car boot sales, but I hate early mornings,” he says.

Chris puts anything he doesn’t “want, need, or couldn’t sell” in his boxes, including clothes, mugs, CDs, DVDs, kitchen utensils, and stationery. He received one piece of negative feedback on eBay after shipping a box, but blames the buyer for not properly understanding the trend.  

And trend it is. Before this month, Chris had only sold two mystery boxes on eBay, but went on to sell 20 in one week after YouTubers began posting videos. A prominent YouTuber, AmazingPhil, actually reviewed one of Chris’ boxes, giving it four out of five stars. “I was very pleased,” says Chris. “I always put ten items in the boxes I sell and the value will always be greater than the £5 purchase fee.”

Yet although the recent rise of the mystery box was meteoritic, Chris feels popularity is already waning. “I went from selling 20 boxes a week to zero last week,” he says. “I’m sure many people have jumped on the bandwagon to try and declutter their attics and spare rooms, so that’s definitely pushed my listings way down – which explains why I haven't had any sales recently.

“Unfortunately I think the trend has passed just as quickly as it arrived – so I guess I need to go back to trying to sell items individually or brave the dreaded early Sunday morning for a car boot sale.”

When it comes to mystery boxes, then, you might be better off selling than buying. Although waiting for and opening a box has distinct ten-year-old-at-Christmas vibes, the disappointment that comes with lifting the lid wipes out any prior positive emotions.

In my second box, the seller left a note – complete with a smiley face – telling me I had “PROFITED!” because the items inside were worth more than the £5 I paid. Yet although I may yet find a use for 4 Exciting Episodes of Cartoon Network Favourites, I am concerned about the Per Una necklace that accompanied them.

I hope it’s not cursed.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Jake Paul via YouTube
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We should overcome our instinct to mock Jake Paul’s school shooting video

The urge to mock the ex-Disney star diminishes the victims he speaks to and ignores the good YouTubers can do.  

It’s very “darkest timeline”. Ex-Disney star Jake Paul (brother of vlogger Logan Paul, who infamously filmed the dead body of a suicide victim) has created a 22-minute documentary about the Parkland school shooting in which he greets Florida senator Marco Rubio with the words “Hey, what’s up man?” and doesn’t mention gun control once. 

Paul – who has previously made headlines for setting fire to a swimming pool – goes on to ask the politician: “I think like a lot of people think passing laws is super easy, can you explain some of the struggles around, uh, passing laws?”

It’s hard to not immediately balk at the documentary, which was released yesterday and has since been widely mocked by the press and individual journalists. Critics note that Paul doesn’t mention gun reform within the YouTube video, and many mock his conduct towards Rubio. Others accuse the video of being an insincere PR move, particularly as Paul has previously fetishised guns on his YouTube channel – and has a tattoo of a gun on his thigh.

21-year-old Jake Paul talks and conducts himself like a child, which is what makes the video immediately jarring (“I just wanna become homies with them and just be there for them,” he says of the Parkland survivors he is about to meet). There is a vacant – almost dumb – expression on his face when he speaks with Rubio, leading the viewer to question just how much the YouTube star understands. But this is precisely the value of the video. Paul is a child talking to an audience of children – and talking to them on their terms.

YouTube doesn’t disclose the exact demographics of a YouTuber’s audience, but fan videos and Paul’s comment section reveal that most of his 14 million subscribers are young children and teens. Paul is introducing these children to a politician, and the video is edited so that Rubio’s claims don’t go unchecked – with footage of the senator being criticised by Parkland survivors playing in between shots of Paul and Rubio’s chat.

Paul (admittedly unintentionally) asks the senator questions a child might ask, such as “Is there anything that people can look forward to? Is there anything new that you’re working on?”. Although this might be jarring for adults to watch, the comment section of Paul’s video reveals it is already positively affecting his young audience.

“Definitely going to speak out now,” writes one. Another: “I shared this to my Mum and asked her to show the head teacher so everyone do that as well.” Childishness is still transparently at play – one commenter writes “Plzzz Stop the Guns… it hurts my feeling I’m crying… 1 like = 10 Pray to Florida” – but this too shows that Paul has introduced new concepts to kids previously more concerned with online pranks and viral fame.

Of course, it’s easy to see how this might be a cynical move on Paul’s part. Yet how can we demand more from YouTubers and then criticise them when they deliver it? Paul’s video is far from perfect, but engaging children in genuine discussions about current affairs is a commendable move, one far superior to his prior acts. (Paul previously caused controversy by telling a fan from Kazakhstan that he “sounds like you’re just going to blow someone up”, and his diss-track “It’s Everyday Bro” is third most disliked video on YouTube). Like it or not, Paul has an incredible influence over young people – at least he is finally using it for good.

Paul’s video has also undeniably helped at least one teen. “It’s just easier to talk about what’s going on with someone like you than a doctor or someone,” Jonathan Blank – a Parkland survivor – tells the YouTuber in the video. Later, his mother praises Paul through her tears. “It was the best therapy for my son,” she says, “You didn’t have an agenda, you cared.”

Other Parkland survivors are angry at the media’s response to the video. Kyle Kashuv – also interviewed in the documentary – has tweeted multiple times since the video’s release. “Media has the utter audacity to mock my classmates and Senator Rubio for doing the interview ON MY REQUEST AND THE REQUEST OF TWO OTHER STUDENTS,” he wrote.  

“If you mock a video where my classmates, that witnessed their friends get murdered in cold blood, are crying and putting their hearts on their sleeve, be prepared to be hit back twice as hard.”

Kashuv differs from the most famous group of Parkland survivors, as the teen supports the STOP School Violence Act over national gun reform. Yet the teen’s politics do not make his thoughts or feelings less valid, or his voice less important in the conversation. While critics note Paul spoke little of gun reform in his video (instead he suggested that schools have bullet proof glass and Instagram should flag pro-gun posts), the YouTuber later tweeted to clarify his stance.

“Gun Reform changes we need in my opinion,” he wrote. Paul went on to suggest that anyone who wants to buy a gun should be 21, go through a six month training course, and have a mental health evaluation. He also tweeted that gun shows should be banned and there should be a “30 day wait period after purchase to receive firearm”.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Paul is right, or has all the answers, or is even equipped to discuss this topic sensitively. Yet his promise to pay for busses to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC, alongside the fact he didn’t monetise his YouTube documentary, speak of someone at least trying to do some good. “We all want the same thing and that’s to make schools safe,” he says in the video. Although he gives Rubio and the STOP School Violence Act a platform, he is dismissive of their impact.

“Kind of why I wanted to make this video in the first place is to activate parents and kids within their own schools and communities, that’s the way things are going to get done the fastest. We don’t to wait for hundreds of people in Washington DC to pass the laws,” he says.

Though the description to Paul’s video was most likely written by a far-more savvy PR, it’s hard to disagree with. “I vow to be part of the solution and utilise my platform to raise awareness and action across the board, but we cannot focus on one issue, we must actively discuss and make progress on them all,” it reads.

The criticism of Paul smacks of the old media sneering at the new media, galled and appalled that a 21-year-old YouTuber would dare wade into politics and do so less than perfectly. Concerns about propriety and morality are a veil to disguise a pervasive distaste for YouTube stars. Criticisms that his suggested solutions are stupid ignore the fact that it’s not his job to reform society. It’s like having a go at Sesame Street for not criticising Theresa May.

YouTubers might not be the idols that adults wish teenagers had, but we can’t change that. What we can do is encourage viral stars to engage with important issues, and not mock them when they do so less than brilliantly. Jake Paul may not be a good person – it might even be a stretch to describe the video as “good”. But the YouTuber made an effort that should be commended, not mocked. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.