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‘Lil Tay Challenge’ highlights the worst part of YouTube culture

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Will everyone please stop flexing?

Lil Tay
Lil Tay in one of her videos.
Lil Tay/Instagram

The Lil Tay saga is YouTube and Instagram’s latest milkshake duck.

Lil Tay’s story is built on intricacies; a tale that captured everyone’s attention, leading to an inevitable appearance on Good Morning America, but here’s a quick introduction.

Lil Tay is a 9-year-old influencer known for boasting about her extravagant lifestyle through energetic diss videos directed at just about everyone, including her viewers.

Lil Tay describes herself as the “youngest flexer of the century,” posing with sports cars, stacks of cash, standing in a lavish properties and even joining YouTube’s Jake Paul for one of his latest music videos. Much like other, similar influencers (Woah Vicky, for example), Lil Tay is known for her outlandish tactics, not any particular or obvious talent. Here’s one of her most popular Instagram posts, starring Jake Paul:

She’s made headlines in recent weeks due to a series of unfortunate events. Her videos reportedly resulted in her mother getting fired from a lucrative Vancouver real estate agency; behind-the-scenes videos exposed Lil Tay’s brother as the mastermind behind her entire Instagram production; feuds with people like Bhad Bhabie have landed her on the radar of Los Angeles paparazzi and YouTube gossip vlogs. Simply put, Lil Tay quickly became the biggest thing on the digital planet but, like other 15-minute famesters before her, that planet quickly forgot about her existence when she ceased to be interesting or controversial.

Well, mostly. There’s a part of the internet that’s still obsessed with Lil Tay’s antics, seeing her ascent from child into D-list celebrity mainstream as a roadmap to follow. Many young kids between the age of six and 15 want to be the next Lil Tay and think they can be simply by acting like her. Just search “next Lil Tay” on YouTube; a wealth of videos from budding YouTubers with 30 subscribers pop up, the all of them acting like Lil Tay. The goal is to be more ostentatious, more outrageous and more obnoxious.

Lil Tay’s schtick is easy to mock. She’s a larger-than-life caricature of today’s top vloggers and influencers. It’s almost satirical, but the earnest attempt to turn Lil Tay into the next Bhad Bhabie (who most people will remember as the girl who told Dr. Phil to “cash me outside”) eliminates any satirical possibilities. This isn’t criticism of YouTube culture, it’s a distilled expression of it.

Lil Tay is easy to point at, laugh and imitate, and many people do just that. One of the results is the “Lil Tay Challenge” — a series of videos from YouTubers, fans, comedians and generally bored people scrolling through Twitter or YouTube acting exactly like Lil Tay.

Here’s a compilation:

It’s a funny, run-of-the-mill internet challenge. Fortnite won people’s attention with a dancing emote challenge, and Lil Pump found his own success with a “Gucci Gang” remix challenge. Finding challenges on the internet that stem from a budding meme or popular entertainment property isn’t new, but seeing how people interpret Lil Tay’s schtick is interesting. It can be hard to tell if they’re making fun of her, making a joke or even seeing her lifestyle as something they can attain in the same manner. This becomes even more uncomfortable when you realize Lil Tay’s young age means that she’s unlikely in control of her own image, or even understands the culture she’s either mocking or buying into.

Vlogging and influencer culture is constantly changing. One fad takes off as another dies. It’s the circle of life. But vlogging culture has become synonymous with the wealthy elite in the past year or so. Videos about buying expensive cars, tours of mansions, buying designer clothing and showing off massive walk-in closets are the norm. Clickbait thumbnails show popular YouTubers standing with wads of cash, “flexing” on whoever and whatever.

It’s also not healthy. PewDiePie, arguably YouTube’s most influential creator, called out these types of vlogs in a March video.

“All the time these days, you just see money in the title of videos,” he said. “It’s pretty much everywhere ... but now it’s not just clickbaiting kids to watch your expensive lifestyle. Now it’s even gone so far that you can sell this idea, ‘You can live my lifestyle.’”

Lil Tay’s family was well off before this all began, and it’s unlikely that she’s personally as extraordinarily rich as she or her family portrays her. And wanting to have more money than we do or to be seen as successful isn’t new, nor is it particularly shocking. The problem is that YouTube has weaponized the idea that, if you are rich, you can do whatever you like and other people are less than you. These videos don’t just erase the idea of shame or taste, they celebrate a better life without it.

What’s more dangerous is that children, and many adults, see these videos as an instruction manual for success. If you can sell the idea of your own success and narcissism to enough people, you will actually become successful and rich. But the bar has already been set pretty high in terms of offensive behavior, so you better go above and beyond if you hope to make a splash and make the millions you assume are coming to you. It’s an arms race to see who can lose their soul the fastest, in the most public manner possible.

But only a small percentage of this is real. Jake Paul has money, sure. He’s done well for himself through hard work, smart business moves and gaming the system; the lack of shame was only a small part of how he rose to the top.

And he’s still a rare oddity in the YouTube landscape. Everyone else is like Lil Tay; sitting in front of a green screen and putting on an act in order to feel like they’re a part of that world.

And sometimes that’s enough to get a ticket in, even if it doesn’t last very long and no one has a good idea about what happens next.