A SELF-DESCRIBED “22-year-old kid in Hollywood making crazy daily vlogs” recently posted a video showing the body of an apparent suicide victim. Last month, a 20-year-old woman pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter after killing her boyfriend in a stunt they hoped would bring YouTube fame.
Is there any limit to what people will do to achieve social media stardom?
Anyone over the age of 30 might be surprised to learn that the websites they frequent for cat videos have their own stables of self-made “stars.” Generally, this means young people pulling pranks, saying provocative things, or concocting stunts on camera to garner page views, subscribers, and lucrative endorsement deals.
With audiences’ attention spans keyed for the next cool thing, these lowercase celebrities keep pushing into more outrageous territory. And even when they cross the line, which increasingly occurs, the world of new media thrives on the old adage: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
That’s how it’s played out for Logan Paul, who counts 15 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. He got exactly what he wanted while walking with friends through a wooded area in Japan colloquially known as “suicide forest.” After sighting a body, Paul crows about what he calls “a moment in YouTube history,” and says “Buckle the [expletive] up,” because “you’re never gonna see a video like this again!” He ends the 15-minute clip by asking viewers to subscribe.
The video, which blurred the face of the deceased, got 6 million views in 24 hours before Paul, swamped by criticism, removed it. He has since offered several apologies.
Had YouTube adhered to its own supposed guidelines against “violent or gory content posted in a shocking, sensational or disrespectful manner,” the site would have deleted the video itself. Instead, it stuck to its only true guideline — making as much money as possible. Paul is wildly popular. According to Forbes, he has earned more than $12 million across various social media platforms, generating a lot of ad revenue for these sites.
That’s the kind of money that could convince a young woman to shoot her boyfriend in the chest.
Monalisa Perez didn’t mean to kill Pedro Ruiz III. She thought the thick book Ruiz held would prevent a bullet’s penetration and help earn them the 300,000 YouTube subscribers they craved. Instead, Perez will be sentenced for Ruiz’s death next month. Perhaps she can find solace in the fact that a video she posted hours before shooting Ruiz now has nearly 2 million views on her still-available YouTube channel.
Social media stardom was born of a generation weaned on reality TV misbehavior, MTV’s “Jackass,” and an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” ethos. Still, the fault here should be equally shared by sites that give this theater of the abhorrent a platform, and those who devour this nonsense.
We’ve seen a version of such crass “entertainment” before. Long before anyone imagined Facebook or Twitter, there were despicable daytime talk shows featuring screaming matches, fistfights, and lots of baby-mama drama. By 1995, “The Jenny Jones Show” sparked what seemed an inevitable result of such incendiary content — murder.
Three days after a never-aired “same-sex secret crushes” episode, Jonathan Schmitz shot Scott Amedure to death. A gay man, Amedure revealed his romantic interest on TV. Schmitz, who claimed he was “embarrassed” by the segment, was convicted of second-degree murder and served more than 20 years in prison.
Though it remained on the air for several seasons, ratings for “Jenny Jones” tanked. YouTube won’t suffer a similar backlash. Talk shows were a mere distraction; social media wields far greater power and has much greater reach.
Paul, who says he’s taking a break from his daily vlog, will also suffer no repercussions. When he returns, don’t expect him to be chastened, or for social media platforms to practice what their guidelines preach. Since posting his now-deleted video, Paul has gained more than 100,000 new subscribers; his apology video has been viewed more than 24 million times. He’s bigger than ever.
There’s no reckoning here, not in this current climate where viral outrageousness is king — or president.
When the man in the Oval Office is more of a social media magnet than a leader, and is allowed to threaten nuclear war while boasting of his alleged manhood in a single tweet, what remains of our sense of propriety is quickly ebbing away, one depraved click at a time.Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.