YouTube has a prank culture problem, and it’s one that creators are unlikely to walk away from as the company continues to reward dangerous attempts to shock audiences.
Logan Paul, currently YouTube’s most notorious creator, told Good Morning America that when he uploaded a video featuring the body of a man who recently committed suicide in Japan he wasn’t thinking about the implications. His intentions at the time were to bring awareness to suicide, he said, a plan that backfired almost immediately after publishing the video. It was also intended to shock his viewers.
“The idea was to shock and show the harsh realities of suicide and get people talking about something that I don’t think people are talking about much,” Paul said.
The second half of that statement can be read as a polished public relations attempt to defend his actions, but it’s the first part of the quote that deserves attention. “The idea was to shock,” something that Paul is an expert in. He built his audience on performing stupid and dangerous (albeit entertaining) pranks on Vine and YouTube. His entire online persona was designed around his ability to shock kids watching him, attempting to outdo himself every single time.
In March 2017, Paul published a video called “FAKING MY OWN DEATH PRANK! *crazy reaction!*” The video starred Paul faking an extremely gory, violent prank in front of his apartment window as dozens of young fans watched horrified from the street below. Paul introduces the prank as something “that’s wrong I think, but at the same time is so right.” After being shot, spurts of fake blood staining the window and his fans across the street looking on horrified, Paul laughs on the ground.
“Yo, I think that worked perfectly!”
It’s a disturbing video, and an even more grotesque prank, but it isn’t surprising. Tony Blockley, a criminologist at the University of Derby, told Vice in 2016 that most violent prank videos on YouTube exist as a way to both shock and stroke the performer’s ego.
“By attaining that ‘shock value,’ you feed your personal ego,” Blockley said. “There is a status, a credibility, a kudos attached to it. We don’t shock or scare for the sake of shocking or scaring. We do it to achieve something.”
For YouTubers like Paul, that achievement is being rewarded by YouTube in views and subscribers.
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Paul has more than 16 million subscribers, and while that isn’t a perfect gauge of how popular his channel is, it puts him in the top 50 YouTube channels on the platform. Prank channels and videos are some of the most popular on YouTube. As creators gain prominence for their pranks, they’re tempted to outdo each one, working toward something bigger.
That’s a dangerous mentality to have, and one that Paul almost addresses in his apology video about the situation. Paul notes he should have put the camera down, he should have stopped recording and he never should have posted the video in the first place. Uploading the video made sense to Paul because that type of disturbing content is what drove his channel to success. It’s a quality that PewDiePie, one of Paul’s biggest critics, empathized with the vlogger over in a video discussing the effort and mentality that goes into being a full-time creator.
“The problem with being a YouTuber or an online entertainer is that you constantly have to outdo yourself,” PewDiePie said. “I think a lot of people get swept up in that ... that they have to keep outdoing themselves, and I think it’s a good reflection of what happened with Logan Paul. I don’t think Logan is necessarily a bad person; I just think he really got caught up in that idea that he has to keep pushing himself to get those numbers.
“If you make videos every single day, it’s really tough to keep people interested, and keep them coming back.”
It’s a mentality that Dr. Jeremy Phillips, a senior lecturer in forensic psychology at the University of Chester, spoke to Vice about. YouTubers upload videos because they want to be noticed. They want the positive attention and compliments that come with creating something entertaining. For many creators, the best way to pursue having an ego stroked is performing dangerous pranks.
“People see others gaining kudos for these acts and want to elicit the same reaction,” Phillips said. “You do not stand on the roadside dressed as a clown for no reason. You are expecting a reaction. You are expecting to be filmed.”
The success of prank channels and the narcissism of those creators are the same reason people attempt dangerous trends like “Tide Pod Challenges,” in which they bite into a Tide detergent pod, or hold a book in front of their hearts as another person shoots a loaded gun directly at them, trying to see if it will stop the bullet. These videos can rack up millions of views. They’re often monetized, meaning the creators are earning money for their pranks, and YouTube includes a few of these creators in its annual, year-end YouTube Rewind video.
They’re stars, so why wouldn’t they continue to push the envelope?
YouTuber GradeAUnderA, a channel with more than 3.2 million subscribers, has talked about YouTube’s prank channel problem quite a bit. In one video published in 2015, GradeAUnderA points out that having a prank channel basically means creators are given free rein to “be a wanker in public.”
“You can basically make videos doing whatever the fuck you want,” he says. “Racism, sexual harassment, murder, anything you fucking want. There are tons of ways you can think of on how to piss people off. Just call it a social experiment.”
YouTube’s prank culture has reached a breaking point, and the company knows that.
What comes next?
In the past year, YouTube has announced a number of new rules and guidelines it will implement to try and create a safer platform for viewers.
These decisions come in the wake of Paul’s video, alongside disturbing children’s content that is often masqueraded as prank channels, and other violent content that hides under the guise of being a prank. YouTube is working with a moderation team consisting of 10,000 people to try and suss out these types of videos before they go up; or at the very least taken down immediately. The company is also going to manually review every video being published by Google Preferred creators (those who receive top advertisements), and YouTube’s Partner Program is going to shrink in size.
This is YouTube looking out for itself and its advertisers, but along the way, the company may slowly tell prank channels they can no longer operate the way they have. Paul is the sacrificial lamb; the way he conducts himself over the next few months will be telling of YouTube’s new policy. Paul may return to his old ways in the next six months, after our attention moves on to the next big YouTuber causing problems.
If Paul’s channel returns to juvenile shenanigans, will YouTube step in? Or will Paul and other prank channels continue to exist as they always have, pulling in millions of views and revenue for the company?