Photo Credit: Logan Paul (Twitter)
A week ago, Logan Paul uploaded a video to his 15 million subscribers titled "We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest . . ." The video's thumbnail image - the still image that shows up on YouTube's trending pages and search results as a preview for the video - showed a partially blurred dead body hanging from a tree in the background; in the foreground was the YouTube superstar's worried face. Paul was wearing a funny green hat.
The video title, sadly, was not clickbait. The vlog contained extensive, close-up footage of an apparent suicide victim's body. Paul's vlog horrified many YouTubers, before the outrage spread from YouTube's immediate community to the wider public - including the shocked parents of Paul's huge, and very young, fan base. The video came down as the outrage became a national news story, and Paul apologised, and announced that he was going to step away from his daily vlogging schedule to take "time to reflect."
But among YouTube creators and their committed fans, not all of the outrage was spent on Paul. A good portion of criticism was directed at YouTube itself - particularly for its all but silence as the days went on.
The company issued a short statement to YouTuber Philip DeFranco at the height of the outrage against Paul, one that many observers felt didn't really say much at all. And now, one week later, YouTube has issued a fuller statement that condemns the video and promises that the company is taking steps "to ensure a video like this is never circulated again."
The statement was tweeted out from YouTube's main account on Tuesday afternoon:
"An open letter to our community: Many of you have been frustrated with our lack of communication recently. You're right to be. You deserve to know what's going on.Like many others, we were upset by the video that was shared last week. Suicide is not a joke, nor should it ever be a driving force for views. As Anna Akana put it perfectly: 'That body was a person someone loved. You do not walk into a suicide forest with a camera and claim mental health awareness.' We expect more of the creators who build their community on @YouTube, as we're sure you do too. The channel violated our community guidelines, we acted accordingly, and we are looking at further consequences. It's taken us a long time to respond, but we've been listening to everything you've been saying. We know that the actions of one creator can affect the entire community, so we'll have more to share soon on steps we're taking to ensure a video like this is never circulated again."
YouTube is not new to criticism from its own community. There's a whole genre of videos, including from many of the site's biggest creators, that accuse the platform of censorship, algorithmic shenanigans, and inconsistent enforcement of its own guidelines.
Creators have, over the past year, also become infuriated by how YouTube handles the fallout from creator controversies that go mainstream. When the Wall Street Journal reported on PewDiePie's history of making Nazi jokes in several ad-supported videos, the company eventually responded by expanding and then more aggressively enforcing its rules about which videos are "advertiser friendly."
Many prominent creators reported cratering ad revenues as more of their videos were "demonetized" by YouTube for breaking those guidelines. They were upset by a perception that YouTube was enforcing those rules inconsistently, and wrongly demonetizing too many videos that didn't actually break the rules. This was called the "Adpocalypse."
Over the course of 2017, the Adpocalypse became plural: a controversy would go mainstream, YouTube would act, and creators who had nothing to do with the controversy would see consequences in how they made money off the platform. Major creators like vlogger Casey Neistat have asked YouTube to be more 1) communicative and 2) transparent with how it runs the website that creators depend on for a living.
The Logan Paul video kindled another round of fears among creators that the next Adpocalypse was on the way. But as it evolved, this controversy started to feel different, like the beginning of a reckoning that several other major social platforms have faced. Last year, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube's parent company Google all faced scrutiny over their roles in spreading misinformation and extremist content. In 2018, perhaps, YouTube will become a bigger part of that conversation.
What Logan Paul did, albeit unintentionally, was illustrate in one single vlog a disturbing truth that has been behind many of YouTube's most recent controversies. YouTube's algorithms incentivize creators to make things that are designed to be shared - and shocking footage is one of the things that gets views. The dead body video is the dark cousin of YouTube's clickbait problem, where creators give their videos provocative but misleading titles in order to drive views.
Paul's video was titled "We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest . . .," and in it, he implies heavily that his crew initially set out into the forest with the intention of camping there and pretending to see things - a dead body, perhaps? - in the dark. Had they not found a real dead body and abandoned that plan, it's easy to see a scenario in which Paul would have uploaded their prank-style video with the same provocative title. But instead of ending with an ellipsis, the title would conclude with a question mark.
Logan Paul (and his younger brother Jake Paul) are now the most famous examples of what happens when online creators remake themselves and the world into nothing more than a source for their content. Living becomes an exercise in optimizing their own virality. Logan Paul went into the woods and saw a dead body while the cameras were rolling. He declared it "the most real vlog I have ever posted on this channel" and "a moment in YouTube history." There was no consideration of turning the cameras off. It wasn't until his second of two apologies that Paul acknowledged the body as something more than a vehicle for his content when he apologized to "the victim and his family."
YouTube's statement acknowledges a great deal of the community's long-simmering concerns, and promises more action in the near future. But the fact remains that a video showing a dead body at length, and in close-up, remained on one of YouTube's popular channels for a day before it was taken down. And that takedown didn't come from YouTube; as BuzzFeed noted, the video was removed by Logan Paul himself.
© The Washington Post 2018