A 22-year-old zealously strumming the guitar in a subway stop for charity — it’s a sweet picture that Jason Y. Lee paints in my mind as he recalls the day he found a new purpose in his life — to create a movement of empathy for human good. Fast-forward 11 years later, he finds himself as the founder and CEO of a digital phenomenon that has touched the hearts of millions: Jubilee Media.
Lee tells me more about how Jubilee started out as a fundraiser for those affected by the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
“I felt really privileged and felt the need to do something, so I went to the subway stop to perform and raise money for Haiti. My goal was pretty simple: it was to raise $100, and when I wasn’t able to do that at the subway, I made a video online,” Lee said. “Within a week, I had 10,000 views. That video was the first YouTube video I ever made, and I thought it would be my last. What has transpired since then has been really cool.”
Cool is an understatement for Lee’s success. After all, this is the man behind over 6 million subscribers and almost 1.3 billion total views on Youtube. When I tell him that I, along with thousands of other viewers, was confused about the true meaning of empathy until we started watching Jubilee, he smiles.
“I think you make a really great point,” he says. “You know, when we say empathy, it doesn’t mean that you have to agree with every single person and that they’re all correct. Empathy is the act of understanding and being able to feel what someone else is feeling. The more of that muscle, that ability we have, the more we realize that we’re all human. That’s the mission of Jubilee: we want to provoke a new culture of empathy.”
Right now, it feels like the world is more starkly divided than ever.
Middle Ground, one of the most popular series on Jubilee’s Youtube channel, seeks to find common ground between two ways of thought rather than holding a debate. Some popular episodes of Middle Ground include “Cops and Ex-Felons Seek to Find Common Ground,” “Men’s Rights vs. Feminism” and “Can Israelis and Palestinians See Eye to Eye?”
“The point of all the episodes is to not convince one side to join the other, but rather to show that they have a lot more in common than they think,” Lee said. “With every Middle Ground episode, a lot of thought is put into casting in terms of who is the right person to articulate their point of view. We often shoot for over an hour for a single episode, spend about a week and a half or two weeks editing the video and then it goes out for the world to see.”
Odd Man Out, another one of Jubilee’s most popular series, is a game in which a secret mole must be spotted by the rest of the players through rounds of questions revolving around the topic. The first episode of this series was titled “6 Beyonce Fans vs. 1 Secret Hater,” and later episodes have included “6 U.S. Citizens vs. 1 Secret Non-Citizen” and “6 Christians vs 1 Secret Atheist.”
“I think a lot of folks watch Odd Man Out because it’s super entertaining,” Lee said, chuckling.
I ask what the underlying message of the series was, and he tells me: “We created Odd Man Out to investigate the idea of what it means to be, for example, a Christian, and why is it that we think a Christian would look or sound or feel a certain way. It’s like chocolate-covered broccoli in a way. By playing this ‘game,’ we start to realize and teach ourselves that a lot of the preconceived notions that we hold are not true. You know, a lot of people are just curious to see who the odd man out is, but I hope that in the back, what’s happening is that people are learning more and checking their own biases.”
Checking one’s biases is also important within the sphere of modern dating and swipe culture. The Jubilee series Versus 1 engages people in challenges such as “20 vs 1: Video Chatting With 20 Guys from Dating App,” “30 vs 1: Dating App in Real Life” and “10 vs 1: Speed Dating 10 Guys Without Seeing Them.”
In addition to viewers simply enjoying the episodes, Lee hopes that they start to ask questions and reevaluate the way they think about approaching dating.
“Versus 1 is honestly a pretty terrifying and crazy idea, and it’s sometimes difficult to watch, but also super entertaining. What we wanted to do was show that it’s essentially what’s happening on our phones: we’re swiping left or right based on one snap judgment. I think it’s really important for people to enjoy the episode, but we’re also trying to infuse all of our content with meaning and with a deeper point,” Lee said.
Engraving meaning into everything he does has always been Lee’s inspiration and intention for his work. His current 641 YouTube videos reflect that passion.
“Remembering why I’m doing what I’m doing and who we’re doing it for, gives me a lot more inspiration to continue. Right now, it’s easy to be discouraged and to believe there’s no hope for the future,” he said, noting how the world has truly shifted in the last year. “One of the best parts of my job is talking to young people like yourself, and what I see in this generation is incredible. I see resilience and a true yearning to change the world, and that’s what inspires me every day.”
So often, the reason behind aversion to certain points of view is because of a lack of exposure. We delve into a conversation about the recent global drive to feature less accessible points of view, partly due to a passion for representation fueled by young people.
“I’m thrilled to be talking with you because high school and college students are really the core of our audience,” he tells me. “We’ve seen people create high school clubs where they watch Jubilee videos once a week and discuss it. Teachers even use Middle Ground in their curriculum. I think it’s one of the coolest things about my job — I get to see students, teachers and individuals using our ideas to further the mission of empathy.”
Empathy doesn’t always mean understanding the full intent behind someone’s thought and behavior, but Lee is constantly working to create content that speaks about distancing from the hostility that differences cause and inspires others to do the same. Understanding is different from agreeing, and there’s a lot that goes into shaping that message into a creative project.
For Lee, he advises starting from the heart.
“This is the golden age for digital media because it’s now more simple than ever to film a video, to tell a story. Start creating. You have to be patient, keep working and put yourself out there. That’s the same advice I would give to anybody,” Lee said. “When we’re resilient, a lot of talent, productivity and good can flourish. It’s a reminder of how Jubilee was started — it came out of a lot of adversity. You have to be resilient, continue to work, continue to build and continue to dream.”
Jason Y. Lee and Yejin Heo. (Image Courtesy of Yejin Heo)