Our Virals, Our Selves: The Dark Side of YouTube

Some people will do anything for fame.

YouTube has done something pretty amazing in the course of about five years, even by the standards of the Internet: gone from entertaining novelty to utterly ubiquitous. Think about it. You probably have seen at least one YouTube embed today, or maybe went to the site. People use it as an ersatz iTunes, pass along greeting cards, store video game walkthroughs, preserve episodes of TV shows, use it to spread video authorities don’t want you to see, and generally put it to all kinds of use the founders probably never anticipated. YouTube has become one of the most popular tools of expression in human history.

And along the way, YouTube helped create the viral video, partially because people will upload anything to it. Look at this kitten:

This kitten is famous. This kitten is on t-shirts. Millions of people have seen this kitten. Marketing departments would kill for the kind of exposure this kitten has gotten. And all because it’s seventeen seconds of cute.

And YouTube can also display some impressive human achievements, like the Diet-Coke-and-Mentos guy, or the Daft Punk dancers:

Yeah, it’s simple, but it’s incredibly effective.

But then, well, there’s the other end of it, the place where human need for attention meets the all-too-human urge to mock. For every adorable kitten that’s been getting love and glory, there’s, say, this:

This is the dark side of YouTube, and it has four parts. The first is pretty common, taught to us by Penny Arcade: The Greater Internet F***wad Theory. All you really have to do is scroll down to the comments section of any YouTube video. Seriously. Just pick one. The stupidity of YouTube comments is so infamous that when XKCD suggested that a “Listen To Your Comment” button be implemented, YouTube actually tried it. Sadly, it didn’t work.

The second is people’s desperate need for attention. Yeah, I’m going to bemoan the tendency of people to be outright bastards for another thousand words or so, but the reality is, nobody put a gun in Tay Zonday‘s mouth. Jan Terri handed out those videotapes for years.

And to be fair, it’s not like these people were used. The huge viral stars, at least the entertainers, get what they’ve been working for. Jan Terri is a great example. She handed out videos of her song “Losing You” for years, and it finally paid off: she appeared on “The Daily Show”, opened for Marilyn Manson, and got her album out. Most musicians never do that.

What’s troubling is the crossed intentions. Most viral stars don’t succeed because they’re any good. They succeed because they’re terrible. To be fair, some of them know they’re terrible. The Chinese guys lipsynching badly to the Backstreet Boys probably never expected to build an empire out of it, but they have, for better or worse. But sometimes a viral star doesn’t want to be a breakout. They do a gag for a much smaller community, or even just a few friends, and sometimes that explodes right in their face. Remember this guy?

I was actually around for the start of Numa Numa: I used to be a huge fan of Newgrounds and went to that site every day. I wasn’t friends with Gary Brolsma, but I was one of the first to view the video. By Newgrounds standards, it was actually kind of weak; just a dude with a webcam, as opposed to the elaborate animations done in Flash that were the site’s bread and butter at the time. It was a goof intended for Newgrounds users and would get booted off the site in short order, I thought.

Then it was all over the dorm I was living in, then it was all over the country, and then Brolsma disappeared because he couldn’t take the attention or the people laughing at the fat guy. And I don’t really blame him; the guy was eighteen at the time and never expected to be famous. Granted, Brolsma got it together, figured out how to handle it, and came back, turning the thing into a career, and good for him. But remember the Star Wars kid? That poor guy had to check into a psych ward to deal with the problems accidental fame inflicted on him.

The third part is simple human error, the people who made a mistake and just happened to have it captured on video. This is getting easier and easier to do as cell-phones take higher quality video and closed-circuit cameras get installed in more places. If we’re being fair to YouTube and its users, this was a common form of entertainment well, well before the guys who founded YouTube were even fathered in the first place. People suffered painful self-inflicted injury was what “America’s Funniest Home Videos” absolutely thrived on. Bob Saget probably built a house thanks to people sending in their allegedly funny videotapes of a baby hitting daddy in the nuts with a golf club or a ten year old leaping off a roof and landing crotch first on a swing set. That show has more nut-shots per minute than a bad ’80s comedy, and it’s so profitable it’s still on the air.

But internet video has made this so pervasive and easy-to-access that people like Failblog’s Ben Huh have built minimum-wage-paying empires out of it. Now, it doesn’t matter how you screw up. You can kick a little kid in the face:

You can blow a backflip:

Or you can shoot yourself in the foot:

Hell, you can even cause serious property damage and bodily injury:

And it’s not going to matter; somebody’s going put it up on YouTube because it’s hilarious. And screw your career.

For example, the guy who blew the backflip, known as the Afro Ninja, was a stuntman who has turned that into a career, complete with the Afro Ninja major motion picture. But right after that video, which he shot in his house, got leaked, he had the worst year of his entire career. The DEA agent in that video used to work undercover: that video leaking effectively ended his career at the DEA. The video with that car destroying a bank, you can clearly see the car being completely crushed: the driver and his ten-year-old son survived, but it was a close thing.

Granted, all of this is schadenfreude, and human nature. We’ve been laughing at the misfortunes of others, and feeling bad about it afterwards, for centuries. The final part, though, the point where it gets really nasty, is when you’ve got people who are genuinely insane on YouTube. Not as in “outsider artist” crazy. As in, “actually clinically mentally ill” crazy. Like, say, this video:

Blood-curdling incident of a transgression between a man who is seriously mentally ill and has been fighting this problem for decades and a victim of the man’s inability to function? That’s HILARIOUS!

Granted, watching insane people act out has been a past-time of the human race since the Middle Ages, but since we’re no longer crapping in a bucket and throwing it out the window, you’d think human attitudes have improved on this topic.

And you'd be wrong!

None of this is to say some people didn’t see what this was and try to step in to help Bruso. His story is pretty tragic, and the money being made off the guy is largely going to try and help him deal with his problems. But lest you think this is unique:

Yeah, this circulated in 2008. But we can expect the scientists at Discovery’s Bad Astronomy blog to have some compassion for the mentally…OK, maybe not. You might notice College Humor latched onto this one too. Nice to see schizophrenia is so entertaining.

If it sounds like I’m getting on a moral high horse, I’ll take a moment to admit that when I first saw these videos, I wasn’t filled with an overwhelming compassion and a desire to help all of God’s creations, except voles, because f*** voles. Are you kidding? I laughed myself sick. Sure, I felt like a jerk later. But I still laughed.

And I think that’s the thing. YouTube isn’t really creating anything new here, but it’s able to make old things much more immediate and present them without context. I didn’t find out who Thomas Bruso (Epic Beard Man) was until days after I’d seen the video. I thought the Mortal Kombat thing was hilarious, at least until I replayed the video and realized I’d missed all the racial slurs. And I don’t fault people for putting up videos or people for watching them; we’ve all got to kill time at work somehow.

But at the same time, it makes you wonder about the human race. We took the greatest tool for expression in our history and we’re using it to laugh at untalented people, self-immolation, and be atrocity tourists. That’s…kind of worrisome.

On the other hand: kittens!

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