Has YouTube culture become dangerously toxic?
Although some people just use YouTube to binge watch ASMR videos or look up their favorite ’90s music videos, there are other people who hang out on YouTube on the regular and subscribe to vloggers and personalities. Entire communities are formed on the video platform, and while so many find it to be a positive place, with one scandal coming after the other in recent months, it feels like YouTube culture is getting more and more toxic. The question needs to be asked: Is YouTube culture doing more harm than good at this point?
YouTube execs have assured their audience that it’s always making tweaks to the online community and how videos are shared and that the community is safe, it’s worth considering just how the company is going about fixing these problems.
Recently, Kevin Allocca, the head of YouTube’s culture and trends and author of the book Videocracy: How YouTube is Changing the World told CBS News that what happens on YouTube is reflection of our culture at large. He has a point. Although YouTube itself curates the homepage by recommending videos to people, those recommendations are only based on algorithms that take popularity into account. Basically, it recommends things it thinks we want to see, and usually, it’s right. He said, “We as viewers shape these platforms, by watching, we are incentivizing and participating in the popularity of certain things.”
“[YouTube] is molded in our image,” Alloca added.
That’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone who’s spent time in a YouTube comment section, in which people are allowed to be anonymous and say some really twisted and mean things. YouTube doesn’t get to review content before it goes up (though it does screen videos to ensure they’re in compliance with its terms and allow users to flag and report disturbing content). Still, a lot of awful content garners super high numbers of views and shares.
Most recently, there was the Logan Paul video in which he went to Japan to do a piece on a forest that’s famous for being a spot where people kill themselves. Even just going there was a weird thing to do, especially since the majority of his 16 million subscribers are children, and he’s not the most responsible spokesperson about mental health. Then, he found a body and marveled over it, even going as far as to crack jokes. When people rightfully complained, YouTube took it down, but that means millions of people saw it. He gained 80,000 subscribers after the scandal, according to Complex, meaning people were interested in what he had to say even after proving that he doesn’t exactly have the best judgment. Since he makes money based on views, his apology video was just a chance to cash in.
If every part of that feels several shades of f*cked up to you, you’re not alone.
Paul’s apology, which has been criticized by a lot of people, blamed YouTube culture in a way for his egregious mistake. He essentially said that a video every day is tough work, and there’s not enough time to always stop and think “is this a good idea.” But always going for more extreme things is also important if you want to keep people coming back. On YouTube, people don’t seem to be looking for insight and thoughtfulness. The more outrageous or scandalous something is, the more popular. Whether it’s a weird video about a rainbow, a 30-minute anti-vaccine “expose” that’s not based in science, or a young man PewDiePie saying racist things in the name of getting views.
When PewDiePie was called out for racist and anti-semitic videos, Maker Studios, which manages YouTube stars, told Business Insider in a statement, “Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case, and the resulting videos are inappropriate.” The YouTube model for fame (or at least viral one-hit wonders) is to be as “provocative” as possible, which is really just another word for being offensive in this context.
The same goes for the popular ToyFreaks channel, which was targeted late last year and flagged for inappropriate videos. That audience, which is also comprised of young people, was created around a father who films his daughters doing really weird things, like force feeding each other until the vomit or scaring them with “pranks,” like throwing a frog into the shower while they’re in it. The big draw is their clearly panicked reactions. YouTube pulled the videos after complaints, telling BuzzFeed News in a statement:
"We recently tightened the enforcement of these policies to tackle content featuring minors where we receive signals that cause concern. It’s not always clear that the uploader of the content intends to break our rules, but we may still remove their videos to help protect viewers, uploaders and children. We’ve terminated the Toy Freaks channel for violation of our policies."
Obviously, when you give people access to watch whatever they want in the privacy of their own homes, they often choose really strange, possibly dangerous things. YouTube execs are right — if the community feels toxic — like it needs more and more obscene fuel to satisfy it — it is, in part, merely a mirror showing us how bleak most humans truly are. But it’s the platform, too, that places the provocative videos on the trending page, and grants anonymity to trolls, and incentivizes view-bait. The more views people like Logan Paul gets, the more money the company makes, too. It can make tweaks to the filters and monetization policies, which it has done in the wake of Paul’s video, but YouTube is not a charity — whatever content gets eyeballs wins at the end of the day. And more often than not, that means obscene and sensational content.
Eventually, there will have to be a breaking point unless the platform doesn’t mind becoming a dark and twisty place on the internet. But until then, it looks like more YouTube scandals will come our way as a product of the toxic environment, with the company playing whack-a-mole on a case-by-case basis instead of solving the underlying problems. Until of course, users demand better. Just don’t hold your breath for that to happen anytime soon.