We need to talk about YouTube’s love of horrible stunts

Last month an eyebrow-raising survey did the rounds. One thousand children aged six to 17 were surveyed on their dream career: 34.2% picked YouTuber, with a further 18.1% saying blogger or vlogger.

On one level, this isn’t too troubling: these kind of lists have always been filled with careers for fame-seeking extroverts, and the role of musician, actor, TV presenter and athlete are all present and correct in the list as they’ve always been.

There are two problems with YouTuber being taken as a serious ambition, however. The first is that unlike TV presenter, where there are only ever around 100 or so vacancies in the whole world, YouTube is essentially infinite. That means that real life won’t beat all your hopes and dreams out of you half as effectively as it did in my day.youtube_comments

The second is linked to that. Every day 65 years’ worth of footage is uploaded to the site, and you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to figure out your chances of getting noticed.

Still, there is one tried-and-tested method to rise to the top: do something so outrageous that you literally can’t get see it anywhere else.

A toxic mix with fatal consequences

But the bar for outrageousness is getting higher and higher with every passing day. This means that in 2014, pretending to steal people’s phones and filming their reaction was enough to generate over a quarter of a million views from easily entertained simpletons. In 2017 however, YouTube viewers are so jaded that as I write this, more than 5,000 people are watching two tedious attention-seekers bury themselves alive for 24 hours and live-stream the inside of their coffin.

This isn’t a good trajectory to be on, but you can’t say it’s not grimly predictable that people would do more and more outrageous things to get noticed. YouTube has a revenue model that promises between $8 to $80 for 10,000 views, meaning that every video has to raise the stakes on the last.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the awfully depressing case of DaddyoFive – a channel where the parents routinely played pranks on their children that were so unremittingly awful that they lost custody. “I am ashamed. It started out as family fun,” said father Mike Martin at the time. “It started with me and my kids, but then it was just about making a video and then making the next video more crazier than the next.”

They’re not alone in continuing to up the ante until tragedy strikes. As I write this, a pregnant woman from Minnesota has just been charged over the fatal shooting of her boyfriend for a YouTube stunt. They believed that holding a book in front of his chest would stop the bullet, inadvertently killing the man in front of the couple’s three-year-old son.

It’s not like they didn’t know the risks involved, as this cheerily flippant tweet from before the accident shows:

But they went ahead with it anyway. The victim’s aunt told WDAY-TV that her nephew had explained his reasoning as follows: “Because we want more viewers, we want to get famous”.

“They were in love, they loved each other. It was just a prank gone wrong,” she added.

Shining a light on the problem


What’s truly worrying about this case is that if the couple’s plan had worked, and the book has absorbed the bullet, then you or I wouldn’t know about it: they only had 9,682 followers – assuming more haven’t ghoulishly followed since the tragedy unfolded. What would the couple have done next to keep their followers watching and the ad money rolling in?

And that’s not even considering the “monkey see, monkey do” effect of broadcasting to an audience of easily led teens and tweens. TV has strict standards for what can be shown: YouTube is the Wild West, only without the pretence of a sheriff watching over things.

As someone over the age of 25, I don’t actively use YouTube for entertainment – it’s just there when I know I’m looking for something specific. I therefore can’t say how much truly dangerously irresponsible stuff there is on there. But what’s really worrying is that this is something that me and YouTube have in common. Sixty-five years of footage are uploaded every day – guess how much of that can be seen by a pair of human eyes.

“Harmful and dangerous content” is theoretically forbidden by YouTube’s terms and conditions, but it’s pretty obvious that the rules aren’t being enforced, and besides, “harmful” isn’t exactly an objective, quantifiable measure. It would be a start for Google to clarify; it would be even better if they acted to enforce.

YouTube isn’t really monitored by the mainstream media until something truly shocking like this happens. We really should do better. If we don’t, Google has no incentive to fix this mess – and imagine how it’ll look by the time these fame-seeking kids have followed their dreams.

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