OnePlus Nord's YouTube docuseries is really weird, but I can't stop watching it

Commentary: The four-part YouTube series is basically a reality show about making a phone, and it's full of drama.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
3 min read

OnePlus just launched a new budget phone called the OnePlus Nord. On the surface this sounds like a typical tidbit of phone industry news that's not worth much thought. But the Chinese phone-maker is spending an inordinate amount of energy drumming up hype for, what is essentially, a sub-$500 phone that'll be available only in the UK, Europe and India for now.

For instance, it created not one, but two Instagram accounts for it -- one perhaps prematurely for the name "Lite Z Thing," and one for what is the official name, "Nord." It's also releasing a four-part series on YouTube about the development of the phone. You can watch the first 10-minute episode below.

There's nothing inherently wrong with wanting to promote your product, and OnePlus is no stranger to unorthodox tactics. When it first started out, the company had an invite-only system for customers to buy its phones, and set up pop-up stores in key markets. On a more distasteful note, OnePlus also launched, and then quickly ended, a campaign encouraging women to send photos of themselves for a free OnePlus One phone back in 2014. Not for nothing, but OnePlus didn't claw its way into the overcrowded phone industry, where Apple and Samsung rule all, by moseying about with ho-hum ad campaigns.

But the decision to let cameras follow top executives, department heads and employees during the creation of the OnePlus Nord is an odd one. At about six minutes into the video, a tense argument breaks out between two employees. At the end, OnePlus co-founder Carl Pei scolds his staff for being on their computers during a meeting, only to be chastised later for being on his phone. It's borderline reality-television levels of spectacle that, while interesting (I'll definitely be watching the next episode), is nonetheless bizarre to expose potential customers to.


A still from the first episode. High drama!

OnePlus/Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

Even though they're not at Apple's level of secrecy, companies like Samsung and Google still wouldn't allow such an intimate look. And there's a good reason too. While I don't doubt there's as much, if not more, infighting and disagreements that occur within these companies, as a potential buyer you might well view it as somewhat unprofessional and inappropriate. It's like watching in-laws fight at the dinner table -- it happens and there's nothing too noxious about it, I just don't want to be there when it goes down.

Perhaps it's OnePlus' way of appearing authentic and raw, but one can never really be authentic when cameras are rolling, and it's strange to think about tech employees, designers and engineers, who likely aren't media trained, unknowingly hamming it up in front of an audience. It's also important to keep in mind that OnePlus is producing this series, so everyone, the execs in particular, is bound to come out in a positive light overall.

Also, what's with the overwhelming sense of pressure and urgency? I know it makes for great drama and television, but all the intense talk about being under deadline is exhausting and ultimately self-imposed. OnePlus is choosing to release this product now, and it's one that people will ultimately fork over their own money to buy. Even if the entire process is rushed, you certainly don't want your consumers to know that this phone was quickly put together. 

Again, the frenzied pace of the video may all be for dramatic effect -- especially considering the video ends with a cliffhanger-esque acknowledgement of the COVID-19 outbreak. And I'm sure all will be resolved by the fourth episode. But I don't know what good it does to let people in on the workplace drama that unfolded during the phone's development. People rarely want to see how the sausage is made because, frankly, it's uncomfortable to know. And the only thing worse than interoffice fighting is to watch interoffice fighting at another company I don't even work for. 

At one point in the video, a designer, Matthias Czaja, says the visual identity of the OnePlus Nord is supposed to be "very clean and calm…" Given what the first episode showed so far though, the process is anything but. Nevertheless, I'll still be watching, because why not? (And spoiler alert! The phone gets made, and we went hands-on with the OnePlus Nord already.)