- 15 Feb 18
In the ‘attention economy’ of Youtube, scandal and outrage are an essential part of the currency. With anti-semitism and insensitivity about suicide seen as grist to the mill by so called ‘YouTubers’, alarm bells have been ringing...
Logan Paul, a successful YouTube vlogger, made headlines recently when he posted a vlog of his trip to the Aokigahara ‘Suicide’ forest in Japan. The forest is infamous for being the site of hundreds of annual suicides, with mouldering human remains being a common sight among the trees.
In the forest, Paul comes across what seems to be the body of a recently deceased man hanging by his neck from a tree. Paul recoils in horror at the sight of the body, calling out, “Yo, are you alive, are you foolin’ us?” He then spends several minutes capering around the corpse and exclaiming how he had never seen a dead body before.
The backlash was immediate, Paul was the target of widespread condemnation for what was deemed by many a grimly voyeuristic video. He has since deleted it from his channel.
This is far from the first time that a prominent YouTube ‘influencer’ has whipped up a storm of controversy in the media. Last year Swedish video game YouTuber, PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg), was widely lambasted for paying two men in India to hold up a sign with, ‘Death to all Jews’, written on it. In fact, barely a month goes by without some figure from the platform finding themselves embroiled in some kind of messy scandal.
For an advertiser driven-platform this is less than ideal. However, the actions of these YouTubers, may well be an inevitable outcome of the way Youtube does its business.
Lots of people make bugger all out of creating free content for Youtube to exploit. Musicians are notoriously badly paid by the tech giant, which is in turn owned by Google – one of the richest corporations in history. But there are some entertainers and ’broadcasters’ who do make huge amounts of money on YouTube based on the number of views they get.
Ad revenue is the main source of profit for so called ‘YouTubers’, with each view their content gets earning them a fraction of a cent. This may not sound like much – and in fact it isn’t – but if you multiply this by the hundreds of millions of views that some of the high-end YouTubers like Logan Paul can receive on each video, the profits can be very substantial indeed.
Individual ‘content creators’ face plenty of competition, with over 300 minutes of video being uploaded to Youtube every 60 seconds. Arguably, to stand out, you have to shriek for attention – and this, combined with the younger age (and short attention span) of most YouTube users, means that courting controversy can be a very specific business model.
To understand how YouTubers approach manufacturing content, you first have to understand what ‘attention’ means to them: attention is a form of currency, and it can make you money in more ways than just via adverts. Peter Coffin, a YouTuber and leftist cultural critic, has been producing content on Youtube for over 10 years. He has seen the rise of this ‘attention economy’ across the entirety of YouTube, and has watched it seep into the wider world of politics.
“To commodify ideas and frame their exchange as a market necessitates a currency,” he says. “Proponents of ‘idea marketisation’ generally believe people invest their belief in the validity or superiority of an idea. Unfortunately if things succeeded on sheer merit, we wouldn’t have brash YouTubers, or, for that matter, Donald Trump.”
Thus, the power and profitability of ‘attention’ on YouTube incentivises scandal. As the need to keep a content-hungry, and capricious audience grows, YouTubers find themselves driven to act in increasingly ostentatious ways.
In this new dystopia, scandal is like striking oil. Despite over a billion daily users, a lot of YouTube still isn’t mainstream. A scandal means a burst of exposure. But this can have unforeseen consequences: Logan Paul dominated the headlines for several days, with people hurling moralistic broadsides at him.
Will this kind of backlash cause any lasting damage to a YouTube star’s career? Peter Coffin thinks probably not. “I’d say outrage is the combination of anger and attention,” he says. “Maybe you could consider it a $20 bill compared to a prank’s $5 bill.”
When a YouTuber is at the centre of a storm of controversy, the routine is to do two things: put out an earnest-sounding apology video, and then appeal to their fanbase by accusing the media of unfairly attacking them. More often than not, this works. What young audiences see is their parents, teachers, and other ‘grown-ups’ attacking a figure they closely identify with.
A Few Bad Apples
It’s a story as old as time: the grown-ups brand the kids’ latest obsession as immoral. Heavy metal, rap, and video games have all received this treatment. Of course, maybe there is a difference when your child’s idol is gibbering at a recently deceased person hanging from a tree. Transgression, you can argue, has always been a hallmark of youthful fads, each generation trying to outdo the last.
In many ways, the internet has accelerated this – and shifted it into the spotlight. This could spell doom for YouTube creators. After each high profile scandal the site is pressurised to take action. After the anti-semitic incident with PewDiePie, YouTube undertook the ‘Ad-pocalypse’ – sweeping changes to their advertisement policy that aimed to help advertisers prevent their brands from appearing on ‘controversial’ videos.
Following Logan Paul’s stunt in Aokigahara, YouTube have decided to tighten their their ad policy even further.
Though the bigger channels, like Logan Paul’s, were the catalyst for these changes, the people who are feeling the sting are smaller channels. More and more, YouTube is changing from a platform for all, to a website dominated by gigantic million-subscriber channels – who nonetheless chase scandal and attention with reckless fervour.
The race to the bottom is still running...