By: Imaiya Ravichandran
I, and I’m sure many of you as well (at least, I hope), visit Youtube at least once a day. Whether it is to watch the latest viral video, or to indulge in the obligatory daily dose of cute kitten videos, over one billion unique users fall victim to the endless abyss of funny, intriguing, and flat out weird content conveniently catalogued on this website. Standing alongside giant television and movie conglomerates, it is somewhat surprising that this start-up, rooted in humble beginnings above a Japanese restaurant in California, managed to become one of the world’s primary sources of entertainment. Of course, this incredible feat can be attributed to the accessibility and flexibility of the Internet, which most people prefer to the rigidity of TV and movie schedules. However, now that TV and movies are becoming increasingly available online, what else can explain Youtube’s continued success? Perhaps the answer lies in the modern “Youtube celebrity” whose content provides an inimitable degree of intimacy with its viewers.
There are several reasons why one would favour the approachable, flawed Youtuber instead of the inhumanly attractive celebrity. Though I shamelessly admire George Clooney in all his pepper-hair glory on screen, or hysterically shriek at the TV whenever Queen Bey performs, I am aware that these personalities are performing for legions of devoted fans. There is no true sense of connection between them and myself, although I often trick myself into believing otherwise (in a superficial sense…I’m not a stalker, guys). However, when interacting with a Youtube celebrity, this buffer is all but completely eradicated. Their content is so personal and genuine that you lose sight of the other hundreds of thousands of subscribers who are also closely bonding with the Youtuber in question. The reverence once felt towards the distant celebrity is now replaced with a new type of admiration, one that is summed up by the phrase: “they’re just like us!”
But they’re not just like us. In addition to surprisingly hefty salaries, Youtube celebrities possess a type of clout that many would argue is more powerful than that of their Hollywood celebrity counterparts. It stems from their uniquely close relationship with their viewers. While their following may not be as large as a traditional celebrity’s, the reach that they do have is much more influential. We put Youtubers on a pedestal, trusting them as we would a dear friend.
And so, it was understandably appalling for many Youtube audiences when news broke in March 2014 that two beloved British Youtubers, Tom Milsom and Alex Day, had been accused of sexual misconduct with multiple viewers.
In Milsom’s case, Tumblr user Olga accused him of emotionally and sexually abusing her throughout the course of their relationship; at the time of their courtship, she was only 15 and he was 21. Day’s accusers, eight in total, provided various accounts of sordid experiences with the popular vlogger, with the two most harrowing being of him coercing women to sleep with him – by definition, him engaging in rape. Milsom and Day were the second and third artists signed to the Youtube-centric record label DFTBA to be accused of some sort of sexual misconduct. Only a month earlier, former label-mate Mike Lombardo was sentenced to five years in jail for possession of child pornography.
I had been subscribed to Alex Day, or “nerimon” as he is known on Youtube, since I was 13 years old. As a staunch feminist, to hear of him and his friend’s atrocious behavior was certainly infuriating and disgusting, but first and foremost it was disappointing. It was profoundly different than if an elusive, unattainable celebrity had committed a crime. Here was a figure that I had looked up to, who I had laughed with, whose struggles and triumphs it felt like I had shared in. I was not alone in my attachment to Alex, nor in the blow that followed when my trust in him was breached. The allegations against Alex originated as blog posts on Tumblr. The diary-esque nature of the posts lent themselves to a cathartic release of his victims’ frustrations and disturbing tales of how they too had once admired Alex, only to have him use his position of power in an unmistakably inappropriate fashion.
The scandal elicited an impassioned response from the Youtube community. Response videos spread like wildfire, DFTBA swiftly dropped Day and Milsom from their roster, and a general call was made for increased discourse about the rampant presence of sexual abuse, sexism, and abuses of power in the Youtube community. The trope of an authoritative figure manipulating a less powerful victim is deeply embedded within the mores of the entertainment industry. However, it is especially pernicious in the Youtube context because it is a space in which large masses of potential victims feel safe with and close to their potential manipulators.
A small number of critics suggest that audience members guard themselves more warily against famous Youtubers. To always remember that there is a computer screen separating you and that charming British vlogger, and that you can never know anything more than what is depicted in a mere three minute long video. But I resent this suggestion. It goes without saying that it is important to be safe on the internet. It is equally important (and obvious) that one should not blindly trust a celebrity. However, to encourage barriers and distance between viewers and Youtubers would be to erode the very essence of openness upon which the Youtube community is built. If we teach viewers to not grow attached to a Youtuber, should they also not wear short skirts when walking along a street? Or have a drink before going out? Hopefully, you can understand the preposterous nature of these recommendations. They unjustly shift the onus from the Youtubers, who should be cognizant of their powerful positions and not exploit them, to the audience.
I bring all this up because recently, another Youtuber named Sam Pepper has come under fire for sexual misconduct, which he brazenly displays in multiple of his videos. Moreover, after a seven-month hiatus, Alex Day returned to Youtube with a video entitled “The Past”, in which he embarks on a half-hour tangent detailing a slew of feeble excuses “defending” his past conduct. I’m comforted that a sizeable portion of comments express contempt towards both Sam and Alex’s actions, adjudicating that sexual abuse and its perpetrators have no place in the Youtube community. However, the remaining reactions form a considerably large group who claim solidarity with the ostracized Youtubers. They suggest that “Youtube give them a second chance.” I wonder why these people feel this way. Most do not dispute the accuracy of the allegations against the Youtubers, nor do they challenge the severity of their crimes. Rather, they harken back to videos of the past, ones that depict their fallen heroes in all their charming, charismatic glory. And then, I realize that they too are victims, in some sense, of the intoxicating Youtube celebrity.