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YouTube, Logan Paul and the Implications of Sensationalist Content

YouTube has turned into an extremely viable platform for creators, the limits of which are consistently expanding. With the rise of the social media influencer, and the “YouTuber”, there has been a consequent rise in creators who spawn content simply because of the promise of exponential profits. I would even go so far as to say the quality of the content is no longer the central issue that determines how many views, thumbs up and subscribers you will acquire , but rather how “clickable” the content is, determining how many people will venture onto your video, whether it be out of timid curiosity, mindless boredom or sheer outrage. Shifting towards this, and away from a reputation for authentically bring people together and constructing online communities, YouTube’s  authenticity, as well as ultimate motives, has rightfully come under harsh criticism.

On this platform, the saturation of content in certain categories is constantly expanding: it follows, then that you must be different in order to stand out. If you are a daily vlogger, for example, your content must be sensational (either in content, or in the title) for the sheer purpose of sustaining, and hopefully growing, an audience. There seems to be no way around this fact. The epitome of this “sensationalist” epidemic seems to be embodied in the videos of daily vlogger Logan Paul, who (as I’m sure you all know) on New Years Eve uploaded a video to his YouTube channel as part of a Japanese travel vlog series which depicted him and his friends “stumbling across” a man who had committed suicide in Aokigahara (the Japanese suicide forest). They proceeded to film the body while laughing and being loud and obnoxious, and Paul even posed for a thumbnail with the suicide victim. The larger series, while not depicting as outrightly repulsive behaviour as in Aokigahara, shows Paul and his friends being incredibly disrespectful and mocking of the Japanese culture. I won’t go too deeply into detail here because some really informative videos on the issue with Paul’s behaviour are already out there: check out this one for a brief overview, and this one for a more detailed discussion if you’re curious to know more.

While the video was taken down by Paul more than 24 hours after posting due to the volume of public outrage and backlash he received,  it had nonetheless by that time received over six million views. Paul stated in the video that he would not be monetizing the video, this does not account for the number of new subscribers that a video like this brings in for the creator, which in Paul’s case has been over a million in the past thirty days alone. Additionally, his video views and subscriber count have only increased following the posting of the video, meaning that he has been making money- while not off of the “suicide video” itself, off of the publicity that draws in viewers, who then watch other videos of his. It seems logical, despite the apologetic statements put out by Paul after the incident, to assume that he was aware of this sort of reaction prior to posting the video: the sensationalism of such videos does seem to guarantee an influx of curious and angry viewers, but viewers nonetheless.

YouTube, after remaining silent on the issue for almost a week, since issued an open letter to the public on the platform’s Twitter account, stating:

“Many of you have been frustrated with our lack of communication recently. You’re right to be. You deserve to know what’s going on…Like many others, we were upset by the video that was shared last week. Suicide is not a joke, nor should it ever be a driving force for views.”

YouTube has also since punished Paul for his actions by ceasing several original projects with him on the paid subscription platform, YouTube Red and revoking his YouTube’s Google Preferred Programme privileges. They have also recently announced a reworking of their vetting process for their videos, meaning that actual humans (approximated to comprise of around 10,000 people, by the end of 2018), and not just algorithms, will review the videos that are within their Preferred Programme. The problem is, Paul is one of YouTube’s most successful vloggers: having accumulated 15 million subscribers and nearly 3 billion views since he joined the platform in 2015, it seems improbable that a video such as this one would not have been seen in-house by YouTube in the six days it took to issue a statement, or even acknowledge the existence of such a video. What then, does YouTube’s seeming reluctance to punish, or even acknowledge, the failure on the part of one of their most successful creators suggest about the company’s motives and true concerns- and conversely, it might be interesting to consider if there is something to be said for the rapidity with which content containing anything remotely sexual (even if educational) is flagged, demonetized, and age restricted?

The problem isn’t Logan Paul, in particular. He is merely an extreme embodiment of the culture that’s overtaken this once “free” social platform. What was once a platform, refreshing in its potential for genuine connection with others, has become so financially viable that the authenticity it was once known for seems to have majorly dissipated. While some YouTubers who have been on the platform a long time are able to connect to their audience base and have formed trust with their viewers, what is far more prevalent is a culture of mistrust and assumed (and actual) manipulation, especially in creators with malleable, younger audiences. The need for sensationalist, outrageous content, which inherently needs to multiply in outrageousness in order to survive among the six hundred thousand hours of footage uploaded to YouTube every twenty-four hours, seems to speak to a deeper issue in the ethos of the platform itself. The problem, in essence, is that this is no longer a free platform: it’s a business, and it caters to those who understand how to manipulate it. The question becomes, then: how do you reconcile the human connections that are formed on the platform with the reality of financial viability? How does YouTube maintain its trustworthiness, when it is accused of allowing a video like Paul’s to remain online for over twenty-four hours? Has this platform become entirely financially driven with no chance for redemption to its initial roots of real, human connection? In fact, is this redemption something YouTube even strives for?

 

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