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Logan Paul, Tyler 1, Dr. DisRespect, Ice_Poseidon

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YouTube and Twitch helped to create an inescapable era of provocateur culture

They’re here to push your buttons

(L to R): Logan Paul, Tyler1, Dr. DisRespect and Ice_Poseidon.
| Jeff Ramos/Polygon

Twitch and YouTube culture quickly became defined by its provocateurs.

These creators are known for saying outrageous things and acting in outrageous ways, wearing ridiculous getups or performing questionable stunts disguised as pranks — and they do it all for the sake of content. Twitch, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Twitter and Snapchat hone these types of provocateurs, but it’s the first two companies who’ve made headlines in recent months because of their creators.

Logan Paul left YouTube in January after being criticized for uploading a video that featured the body of a man who had recently committed suicide. Twitch streamer Dr. DisRespect became a topic of conversation over his offensive use of a fake Chinese accent in past videos, in which he mocked Chinese players in games like H1Z1 and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Conversations about controversial IRL streamers like Ice_Poseidon on YouTube and notoriously toxic gamers like Tyler1 have picked up again in 2018 after events that led to their names grabbing headlines.

There’s a cultural obsession with provocative creators, an insatiable desire to see what they’ll do or say next. Provocateurs build audiences off their stunts, creating tribalistic support groups that get larger and more passionate every time they push the envelope. It’s why subreddits are constructed around people’s favorite streamers, creators and influencers, and why drama between notable personalities dominates conversation; provocation is fun and interesting, both for creators and viewers.

Companies like Twitch and YouTube reward this behavior. Prank channels, influencer drama and commentary channels are some of the most popular types of entertainment on YouTube. Twitch is even more explosive because it’s live. Audiences tune into the biggest troublemakers and loudmouths, hoping to clip a top caster calling out another popular personality.

Provocateur entertainment is intertwined with drama, and as with gossip rags or tabloid talk shows, nothing is going to stop people from tuning in. Eric Dahan, influencer expert and CEO of marketing company Open Influence, told Polygon that new media provocateurs are like reality shows for a cable-cutting, always-online smartphone generation. Reality series build up to a climactic moment, with the structure of drama leading to a confrontation followed by an apology. The confrontation and apology are cathartic, letting the audience move past the scuffle and onto the next big drama.

Online provocateurs have taken this one step further.

“People don’t change”

Personalities who fit under the ‘new media provocateur’ label excel at two things: gaining attention and “apologizing” (or offering some kind of apology). Paul issued a whirlwind of apologies during his time off, even going on Good Morning America to talk about how he was going to use his voice for good. Tyler1 told his viewers that he regretted his toxic behavior, saying he offered the same apology to League of Legends maker Riot Games. Dr. DisRespect offered a teary, heartfelt apology on Twitch for his infidelity, saying he was disappointed in himself and felt bad for letting down his viewers. He did not, however, apologize for mocking Chinese players with a fake Chinese accent — quite the opposite.

Dr. Aaron Lazare, the foremost researcher behind the art of the apology, wrote in 1995 that a successful apology comes with a few intricate parts. One of the most important mechanics for a successful apology is an “explanation for why you committed the offense in the first place.”

“An effective explanation makes the point that what you did isn’t representative of who you are,” said Dr. Lazare, describing the role an apology plays in “protecting the offender’s self-concept.”

These apologies are offered to absolve the offender of guilt and to escape punishment. Paul wants to stop receiving negative tweets and wants to continue making money on YouTube; Tyler1 wants to continue playing League of Legends; Dr. DisRespect wants to maintain his fanbase. Dr. Lazare wrote that apologies are often issued to settle a debt. By admitting guilt, explaining why or how it happened, and offering a feeling of regret, a person can repair a damaged relationship.

It’s important for provocateurs to offer apologies from time to time, because they need their audiences to like and believe in them as people. But critics can’t expect provocative personalities to change their content just because of a mistake or two, no matter how severe. Apologies are important in ensuring that provocateurs are seen as ordinary people whom audiences can relate to. It allows parasocial interactions — the notion of being friends with a celebrity in a completely one-sided relationship — to thrive, ensuring the viewer relates to whomever they’re watching.

That’s why apologies have become an art form. From screenshots of apologies typed in the Notes app on an iPhone to five-minute videos addressing the situation, the apology is almost a trope within itself. PewDiePie, JonTron and, yes, Logan Paul are all examples of creators who know how to manipulate an audience with an apology. It’s a subject that YouTube commentator Bobby Burns has explored at length:

Apologies need to exist for the audience to move forward. Dr. Lazare notes that apologies are important for the offended to feel heard. Audiences need to feel like the person they rooted for heard their complaints, and only then can they move forward. That’s natural, but Open Influence’s Eric Dahan said the trouble begins when people expect those provocateurs to modify their habits.

“Influencers are people, and people don’t really ever change,” Dahan told Polygon. “Looking at Logan Paul, if you’re expecting him to act like Barack Obama, you’re in for a big disappointment. They are a personality and they are who they are. They may eventually evolve, but they’re not going to change completely, and those things don’t happen overnight.”

Provocateurs like Paul and Dr. DisRespect build successful brands on their ability to shock people. Both personalities make tens of thousands of dollars each month thanks to a particular shtick, a gimmick that’s clearly drawn in a very big audience. It doesn’t matter when they mess up by saying or doing something offensive — that’s what they’ve promised to their audience over hundreds of hours of content.

“The reason influencers don’t change is because they reinforce themselves through their audience,” Dahan said. “Their audience follows them for their content, and thus they create more of that content to feed their audience. For them to start changing means they’re alienating their audience. And you have to remember these are people that live off that social currency.

“Even if an influencer wants to change, there’s a very good chance their audience doesn’t want them to change.”

Why change what works?

Provocateur culture is growing. Keemstar is one of YouTube’s most notorious creators because of his provocative opinions on other YouTubers. DramaAlert, Keemstar’s nightly “news” show, developed a massive audience because of his take on other provocative creators. Jake and Logan Paul inspired a generation of new provocateurs operating under the guise of influencers with prank channels. And the biggest evidence of this growth is on Twitch, where streamers like GreekGodX, Dr. DisRespect and Tyler1 have inspired a new, disruptive culture.

Provocateur culture draws active viewers onto YouTube and Twitch. Those numbers translate into more advertising and investment opportunities for the company in question. More active users give the companies more chances to sell subscriptions to premium services like Twitch Prime and YouTube Red. Although provocateurs take a hit every now and then — both Paul and PewDiePie became famous for losing their YouTube Red series and being dropped from Google Preferred — they continue to grow in the long run. As PewDiePie likes to say after managing to overcome each obstacle he’s faced, “zero deaths.”

Provocateur culture is propelled by a false sense of invincibility, according to Dahan.

“[Paul] got a lot of flak from the media,” Dahan said. “The platform isn’t promoting him the same way they were, but he’s not blacklisted. The audience doesn’t see the difference. They just see him back.”

That said, Dahan doesn’t believe that new media provocateurs will continue to get away with their behavior forever. More attention is being paid to creators on Twitch and YouTube than ever before, and eventually, the executives who run the platforms are going to expect more out of their most visible stars. It’s more than just a company separating itself from problematic creators, like Paul — it’s about exploring disassociation entirely.

“The same way we look at a more mature industry like television, that’s very regulated, influencers are no different than a television network,” Dahan said. “They have an audience, they produce content for that audience and they work with advertisers. So as the industry matures, influencers are going to be held to a similar standard as television networks.”

A good way of thinking about it is examining traditional morality clauses. Dahan says:

Morality clauses come from a board. A board has an executive who writes a morality clause in there, and when they build a team, they write new morality clauses. When you look at those organizations, they’re worth tens and tens of millions of dollars, and their business can be very adversely affected if an executive were to do a wrong thing. That’s a check and a balance these organizations have in place. When you have the power concentrated in an influencer, where they are the entire board and they are the executive and they’re the entire team, they’re not going to write a morality clause for themselves. The enforcement is going to have to come from the platforms themselves.

Companies are starting to do just that. Twitch announced this week that it is introducing stricter community guidelines to drive toxic streamers and harassers off the platform, including using off-platform behavior on social media to judge character and issue bans. Overwatch director Jeff Kaplan announced a similar strategy last month, saying the team at Blizzard Entertainment is taking a more proactive approach to ridding itself of in-game toxicity by watching social media and YouTube.

It’s clear that companies are taking a stance against provocateur creators, but the question is whether this type of entertainment will continue regardless. Dahan said that unless harsher punishments are inflicted, it will. Fans are obsessed with this type of content — and no one wants to get rid of it just yet. Provocateurs apologize, promise to do better and continue performing the same offensive stunts that garnered them an audience in the first place.

It’s an unbreakable cycle, and one that no one is willing to try to fix while the cash is still flowing.