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The Heartbreakingly Ordinary Roots of a Fatal YouTube Stunt

Despite appearances, this isn’t a morality tale about internet fame

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

On Monday, a bubbly 19-year-old named Monalisa Perez tweeted that she and her Disney Channel–handsome boyfriend, 22-year-old Pedro Ruiz III, would “shoot one of the most dangerous videos ever” for their new YouTube channel. Later that day, Monalisa Perez was arrested and Pedro Ruiz was dead.

According to the criminal complaint, Perez told police that Ruiz convinced her to shoot a .50-caliber handgun at an encyclopedia he held in front of his chest. “Perez stated that Pedro Ruiz III had been trying to get her to shoot the book while he held it for a YouTube video for awhile,” the complaint reads. She claims he believed the thick book would stop the bullet from piercing his chest. It did not. Ruiz died at their bucolic Minnesota home before a medical helicopter could land.

This past spring, Perez launched a YouTube channel called “La MonaLisa,” and the pair had been experimenting with ways to increase viewership. Most of their videos were slice-of-life diaries with their daughter Aaliyah, while some follow established viral-video formats, like the “Ultimate Dirty Dare Challenge.” The amateur videos are playful, sweetly boring documents about a couple in love. They are also blatant bids to join the world of “YouTube family vlogging,” which is populated by internet-famous families who make money off posting wholesome montages of their domestic day-to-day.

Despite their efforts, none of the couple’s videos had gained traction. Ruiz reportedly decided the best way to attract a fan base was to radically increase the risk factor in their videos. “He had told me about an idea and I said, don’t do it, don’t do it. Why are you going to use a gun? Why? ‘Because, we want more viewers,’” Pedro’s aunt Claudia Ruiz told local news station Valley News Live.

Since reports of the shooting death broke, Perez and Ruiz’s family videos have jumped from a few hundred views to tens and hundreds of thousands each. The last video, uploaded the day of Ruiz’s death, has surpassed the coveted million-view mark. While police took possession of the footage of the shooting, “La MonaLisa” is finally the star of a narrative about YouTube fame.

Perez is charged with second-degree manslaughter, which is not typically a crime that gets much media attention. This case, however, has made headlines at just about every major outlet, including The New York Times, CNN, NBC, CBS, and Time. Editorials transforming the tragedy into an indictment of millennial narcissism has already begun: “There’s No Need to Kill Yourself for Likes” a Times-Picayune columnist proffered.

The media framework for this story has put the emphasis on the YouTube angle. “The internet made her KILL” is an exhilarating, pulpy thought. This narrative is comforting because it allows us to think we could never do something so moronic in pursuit of celebrity. It’s much easier to bask in safe, superiority-laced schadenfreude if you see the couple as delusional fame-chasers instead of ordinary, thoughtless, immature people.

It is true that YouTube, Instagram, and other social networks have turbo-charged opportunities for chasing popularity, and they have conditioned their users to crave the emotional sugar-rush from positive feedback loops created by likes and view-counters and retweets. It’s also true that people have been killed while seeking online attention There have been so many deaths during selfies that The Boston Globe started calling them “killfies.” (I will never use that term again, and honestly, I apologize.) In 2016, inspired by an internet video, a teenager stood in a park near Sacramento wearing what he thought was a bulletproof vest, and his friend fired a gun at his torso. The teen died, and his friend went on trial for murder. And before this week’s ill-fated “La MonaLisa” stunt, death-by-prank-seen-on-YouTube is specifically already something that has happened. Last year, an 11-year-old boy died after attempting to imitate a prank he saw on YouTube, accidentally hanging himself. Another boy suffered a brain aneurysm after attempting the “Duct Tape Challenge” seen on YouTube. What’s more, Perez and Ruiz may have found inspiration for the fatal stunt within YouTube, as searching “gun prank” on YouTube pulls up over 7 million videos.

It’s unfair to shrug off Perez’s and Ruiz’s stupid, tragic mistake as a regrettable symptom of internet-addled vanity. Their story went viral because it confirms every negative stereotype about young people today, but to reduce it to its most sensational aspects is to pretend there isn’t a much more commonplace and sympathetic root cause. While social media played an accelerationist role, the primary culprit here is same as it ever was: the recklessness and ignorance of youth.

YouTube comments are notoriously toxic, but the comments left on the “La MonaLisa” videos are venomous even by YouTube comment standards. One of the recurring themes to these comments is how unfathomably idiotic Perez and Ruiz must be. Obviously, the prank they tried to pull off was full-stop stupid, and it had tragic consequences. But the condescension and sense of superiority in many of the comments (as well as editorials like the aforementioned Times-Picayune piece) seems to imagine Perez and Ruiz as intractably stupid people instead of normal people who made a foolish decision.

Norman Mailer called William S. Burroughs the “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.” Burroughs, who died years before Instagram and YouTube and Twitter began, shot and killed his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in a game of “William Tell” gone wrong. He was educated at Harvard and celebrated as an incisive satirist. He also made a horrible choice with a gun and a prank that resulted in a loved one’s death.

Watching the videos on the “La MonaLisa” channel that led up to this moment, what strikes me more than the cruel comments is how regular these people are. They bicker and kiss and make eggs. They’re excited to test out their new drone, and get giddy at their unborn baby’s gender-reveal. They tend to their daughter and lounge on the worn couch. It’s unlikely anyone besides the police will ever see the footage of the actual shooting (unless the case against Perez goes to trial) — but the footage this couple published beforehand is its own type of evidence. It reveals their humanity and normalcy.

There are other if-only hypotheticals to ponder about this incident that are more interesting, and telling, than “If only Perez and Ruiz didn’t want to be YouTube stars.” For example: If only it was harder for them to get ahold of a handgun.

Reckless acts are not so unusual, on the internet and off. Empathy, meanwhile, remains in rare supply.