Arts & Media

YouTube has an idiot problem

YouTube is no stranger to scandal. Vlogger Logan Paul's tasteless visit to Aokigahara exposes a platform in dire need of moderation.

LOGAN PAUL is by no means the first YouTube star to visit Aokigahara, the infamous so-called suicide forest at the base of Mount Fuji, outside Tokyo. But his video, released and hastily deleted on 31 December, was the first to cross the line from tastelessness to cruelty. It depicted Paul and his friends – fresh from a racially insensitive tour of the capital – exploring the forest, only to make the oh-so-predictable discovery of a hanged body. His reaction, far from being a sympathetic discussion of suicide and mental health pressures, verged on mockery, betraying a total ignorance and insensitivity.

For a creator whose fanbase is made up primarily of 13-year-olds, Logan Paul’s behaviour – and the half-hearted apology that followed the backlash – was profoundly irresponsible. It rightly drew the ire of Japanese people angered by Paul’s portrayal of their culture, suicide prevention and mental health charities, fellow YouTubers and the world’s media. He’s deservedly lost lucrative sponsorship and advertising deals as a result.

YouTube is no stranger to controversy, and this latest incident ought to be a damning indictment of a platform that demands increasingly irresponsible behaviour from its stars to maintain popularity and success. Combined with Logan Paul’s personal immaturity – egged on by young fans who know no better – and a video like this was the inevitable result.

Men – and they’re always men – like Logan Paul are slaves to YouTube’s algorithm. To keep their videos rising to the frontpage, they must satiate it; the only way they know how is to become ruder, more insensitive, and more immature.

The stench rose to the surface in January last year, when YouTube’s most popular creator Pewdiepie – real name Felix Kjellberg – released a video in which he used the website Fiverr to pay two men to hold up a sign in public reading ‘DEATH TO ALL JEWS’, in an alleged bid to expose to the unintended consequences of using the service. Kjellberg was apparently blissfully unaware of the connotations of such a stunt, and reacted petulantly when called out by The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper pointed out several other videos in which Pewdiepie made apparently anti-semitic jokes, which led Disney to cut its profitable ties with the star.

YouTube can’t stop its content creators from being idiots, but it can stop rewarding bad behaviour.

Pewdiepie is a test case for behavioural deterioration in search of viewing figures. From the very beginning, he cultivated his enormous teenage audience with crude behaviour, loud overreactions, puerile humour, and by creating a sense of community with his fans. He’s done enormously well, but his over-reliance on ‘shock-factor’ jokes, including an early fixation with rape – later lampooned by Michael ‘Slowbeef’ Sawyer, the father of Let’s Play – highlights YouTube’s limitations promoting good content, and raises questions about the responsibility he has towards his younger viewers.

Many of his fellow YouTubers, including h3h3Productions’ Ethan Klein – himself Jewish – have too readily defended Kjellberg. Instead of urging him to moderate his behaviour, they have helped to create an echo chamber in which risqué comedy and increasingly insensitive stunts are not just tolerated, but expected as part of the quest for advertising revenue.

So what can YouTube do to moderate its platform? It can’t stop its content creators from being idiots, but it can stop rewarding bad behaviour.

Currently, its moderation is curiously inconsistent. LGBT YouTubers have had their videos age-restricted or de-monetised, and small channels are often unable to fight back against copyright claims. As a result, these creators are denied a valuable source of income. Meanwhile, large channels face no such restrictions. They are seemingly immune from censorship: notably inappropriate videos by popular creators, including ones with sexually suggestive thumbnails, are regularly included in curated collections, some of which are aimed at children and young teens.

Instead of working to solve this problem, YouTube has abrogated its responsibilities further by restricting advertising revenues yet further in a blanket rule change. This month, the platform raised the threshold of views and subscribers above which channels can access ad money, requiring YouTubers to rack up at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 annual viewing hours to collect their pay packet. Designed to prevent fringe racists and spambots from making money off the website, this rule change has the (unintended?) consequence of depriving small but talented creators of hard-earned money.

This means that big stars like Logan Paul and Pewdiepie will continue to be rewarded for prodding at the limits of acceptability. Until YouTube is willing to actively involve itself in moderating its platform, creators will continue making stupid, insensitive, and offensive videos to rake in the views. They will do this because it works: the very worst part of the stunt in Aokigahara is that Logan Paul actually gained subscribers in the aftermath.

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