During an interview on Good Morning America earlier this month, 22-year old YouTube celebrity Logan Paul described himself as “a good guy who made a bad decision.” Mocking a suicide victim is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a “bad decision,” but I have long since given up on trying to understand him. The rest of the internet has followed suit and has endlessly lambasted Paul for the vlog he uploaded in last January. This post centered on him and his cohorts laughing at a hanged corpse that they discovered while wandering through Japan’s Aokigahara Forest. After the backlash Paul received, he half-heartedly apologized for turning the so-called “suicide hotspot” of the country with the world’s highest suicide rate into entertainment fodder. He also insisted that he deserved a second chance. The apology was apparently good enough for YouTube, which took virtually no action against Paul. Yet, a little over a month later, he was at it again, this time tasing dead rats and performing CPR on a live fish. A casual observer would come to the conclusion that Logan Paul had not learned his lesson. While I agree with that conclusion, I also want to add YouTube has some explaining to do as to why they did not do more to remedy the situation.
Paul is hardly a minor presence on the internet. According to Forbes, he made over 12.5 million dollars through YouTube alone in 2017. It is a lofty perch for a young man who got his start in 2013 by making six-second videos on the (now defunct) video hosting website, Vine. Within two years, Paul was ranked as the 10th most influential content creator on the site. He eventually branched out onto YouTube, posting longer short films and comedy sketches. Paul has even entered Hollywood, writing and starring in the upcoming comedy Airplane Mode as well as making several minor appearances in television and film. In spite of his fame, or perhaps because of it, Paul is no stranger to controversy. He’s come under fire for uploading a video containing a sexist parody of the song “Handlebars” (originally by the alternative hip-hop/rock band Flobots) and for allegedly feigning colorblindness in another. Last March, he even staged his own murder before a crowd of his younger fans, complete with a fake shotgun and an elaborate blood-spray system. As shocking as laughing at a dead man may be, it’s anything but new behavior for Paul.
However, Logan Paul is only the latest in a long line of YouTubers willing to exploit the suffering of others for their audiences’ entertainment. Last September, Maryland parents Mike and Heather Martin were sentenced to five years’ probation on charges of child neglect after uploading several videos of them verbally abusing their children for fake messes the parents themselves created. In December 2015, British YouTube prankster Sam Pepper came under fire for forcibly kidnapping a man before mock-executing his best friend before his eyes. Pepper deleted his channel two months later after posting a final apology video and admitting that many of his pranks, including the kidnapping video, had been staged. As despicable as some of YouTube’s content may be, other social media sites have plenty of the same despicable content to offer as well. Last Easter, Stephen Stevens of Ohio uploaded a video of himself casually and randomly murdering an elderly man to Facebook. The video remained online for over two hours before it was taken down, and the “Facebook killer” shot himself after police cornered him two days later. Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the site’s slowness to act, admitting that “we have a lot of work and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.”
However, Paul has proved much more adept than others at dodging the consequences of his borderline-sociopathic behavior. Though his recent controversies cost him an advertising deal with Google and several projects on YouTube Red, the rest of his content remains untouched. In fact, his subscriber count rose considerably throughout January, breaking the fifteen million mark within the first few days of the month. Even the infamous suicide vlog itself remained online and fully-monetized for over 24 hours until Paul himself took it down–after the video reached 6.2 million views. According to Investopedia, the average YouTuber makes $7.60 for every thousand views they receive on a monetized video. Factoring in the 45% cut Google receives from ad revenue, we can determine that Logan Paul made roughly $25,916 by laughing at a suicide victim. Paul has hardly been affected by the outrage against him; it reminds me of author Kurt Vonnegut’s description of his and other artists’ opposition to the Vietnam War: “It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”
YouTube’s reluctance to deal with Logan Paul is just one example of its uneven enforcement of content rules. Officially, its community guidelines forbid a wide range of behavior, ranging from violent and sexual content to threats and harassment. The page claims that YouTube’s community managers “carefully review flagged content 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to determine whether there is a violation of our Community Guidelines.” However, some creators complain that YouTube gives larger channels greater leniency as to what they can publish while punishing smaller channels harsher for the smallest infractions. In September 2016, Hank and John Green announced that their video of their visit to a United Nations refugee camp in Jordan had been demonetized. Last March, members of the LGBT community noticed several of their videos regarding same-sex attraction and relations had been filtered out as “mature content” by YouTube’s restricted mode. British vlogger Rowan Ellis, who claimed to have had over forty of her videos affected by this policy, accused YouTube of being “complicit” in “the sexualization of queer and trans people.” I am sickened at the thought of anyone, let alone the staff of a prominent website, finding Logan Paul’s brand of shock comedy less offensive than frank discussions of pressing social issues.
Similar to Logan Paul himself, his corporate masters at YouTube’s California headquarters have come a long way from their humble beginnings. Originally started by three former PayPal employees in 2005, the website became a subsidy of Google in 2006. Today, the internet analytics company Alex Internet ranks YouTube second only to Google itself in its list of the fifty most popular websites. YouTube’s advertisements are managed by AdSense, a Google-developed program that selects which ads to show on a website based on its content and audience. Though Google keeps YouTube’s revenue a tightly-guarded secret, an analyst at the Boston-based financial planning firm Baird has predicted that the video streaming service will generate $15 billion in advertising revenue this year. In the years following the Google buyout, only one member of YouTube’s founding trio, Steven Chen, remains with the company. Susan Wojcicki, the Google employee who initially proposed the merger, became YouTube’s CEO in 2014. Wojciciki has used her position to advocate for a number of social issues, including paid maternity leave and computer science education for children (particularly girls). In regard to Logan Paul and his ilk, however, she’s limited herself to boilerplate corporate responses.
In the face of charismatic and profitable content producers like Logan Paul, YouTube is all bark and no bite. True, the website will make small moves to appease the outraged masses: as of now, they have “temporary” suspended ads on all of Paul’s videos “in response to [his] recent pattern of behavior” (why dead rats were a stronger impetus than a dead man is beyond me). But as long as Paul and his peers continue to provide a steady stream of ad revenue, YouTube will tolerate whatever tasteless dreck they shove in our faces. But at some point, someone will have to draw the line. Maybe it will be YouTube, finally choosing empathy over profit. Maybe it will be Logan Paul himself, growing out of the naiveté of his youth to see the monster he has become. Maybe it will be his fans, looking on with disgust and betrayal when he pushes their devotion to him too far. Or perhaps a far greater entity will be forced to step in, and the hellish cycle will die with one final spectacle. Whatever happens, I hope I can record it. Just think of the views.
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