In 2005, a group of three ambitious PayPal employees created YouTube.com, a site where people can post and share videos. Little did they know that their simple idea would go on to revolutionize the internet.
The first YouTube video, made by co-creator Jawed Karim, was a shaky 18-second clip of Karim in front of a group of elephants, entitled “Me at the zoo.” Today, over 1.3 billion videos have been uploaded to the site, with as many as five billion views per day. Its incredible popularity, along with the chance to make money since YouTube started selling ads, has attracted an array of successful YouTubers with millions of subscribers, advertising deals and even original made-for-YouTube shows on the site’s premium account, YouTube Red. However, YouTube’s rapid ascent to the top of the Internet food chain has raised the question: in this day and age, what is considered quality content?
On Dec. 31, 2017, Logan Paul, who has 15 million subscribers and a salary of around $1 million monthly, according to NPR, uploaded a video of himself and some friends in Aokigahara, Japan, also known as the Japanese “suicide forest.” The forest got this dark nickname because people often go there to commit suicide, and some say their spirits haunt it. While walking through the forest, Paul happened upon a dead body hanging from a tree. Quite stupidly, he decided to film the body. He even posed with it for the video’s thumbnail. As any sane person could have predicted, this brought him a whole lot of unwanted attention. He even joked with his friends, saying, “What, have you never seen a dead body before?” while he chuckled.
Though he later wrote on Twitter that he “intended to raise awareness for suicide and suicide prevention,” Paul did the exact opposite by being disrespectful of the family of the person in the video and by making jokes in a sacred place about a sensitive, serious topic.
Prior to the tremendous backlash the video faced, it was on YouTube’s top-trending page. The hostile response to the post prompted Paul to delete it himself. The vlog received criticism from celebrities including Anna Akana and Aaron Paul (no relation). Since then, he has uploaded an apology video, which has reached 40 million views.
YouTube has become an established media platform, so the site must develop and enforce better content standards and hold creators responsible for what they upload. While YouTube has a policy of prohibiting graphic content, they didn’t remove the video and allowed it to remain on the trending list for over 24 hours, causing people to point out the hypocrisy — YouTube flags harmless videos that have mild LGBTQ references and profanity, yet, at the same time, promotes a video disrespecting a dead person.
Paul still faces punishment, according to the Washington Post; he has been removed from Google’s Preferred ad platform, which allows brands to sell ads to the top five percent of creators. Additionally, YouTube will no longer promote him on Foursome, a YouTube Red show, and his other Originals projects have been put on hold.
While Paul claims to be taking a break from vlogging, he continues to gain subscribers from this controversy, and his career is not likely to be affected very much.
This sequence of events is similar to what happened in January of 2017 to fellow YouTuber, Felix Kjellberg, more commonly known as Pewdiepie. The controversy, which ended with the same penalties that have been given to Paul, came about when Kjellberg hired two men to hold up a sign that read “Death to All Jews” for $5.
Pewdiepie currently has 59 million subscribers, the most of anyone on YouTube, showing that his removal from Google Preferred, an ad platform, did not affect his career, and certainly didn’t set a standard to prevent recurrences, like Paul’s video. It would not be surprising if Paul returns in the near future as if nothing happened.
These popular YouTubers, who often capture themselves doing extremely rude and idiotic stunts, are misusing their influence for more views and money. Paul’s statement on Twitter, an apology that was given in an attempt to save his career and cover up his mistake, was insincere and certainly not enough to make up for his offensive behavior and the unneeded attention he brought to the forest.
Paul also left a negative image of how uncultured and disrespectful Americans can be in a different country, and showed his stupidity in choosing to post the video without editing out the parts that contained explicit and personal footage.
In order to ensure that YouTube’s content is appropriate and that celebrities like Paul and Kjellberg are proper role models to their millions of fans, YouTube needs to hold them more accountable. Either by temporarily banning or even deleting accounts of those who violate standards, a necessary first step is making YouTube standards more rigid and clearly spelled out and requiring strict compliance with those standards, whether or not the offender is popular, like Paul.