A YouTube celebrity stumbles upon a man apparently hanging dead from a tree. Naturally, the YouTube star films it. He’s a vlogger, after all. “Buckle the fuck up,” he says, “because you’re never gonna see a video like this again!”
This is how the zaniest, most popular YouTube stars talk, this is how they think, and this is how they endear themselves to their millions of subscribers. They produce every waking moment of their lives as a series of stunts, pranks, and brags. Finding a dead body in a forest isn’t cause for mourning, but rather excitement. You’re never gonna see a video like this again.
On New Year’s Eve, the YouTube star Logan Paul posted a video dispatch from Aokigahara, a forest near Mount Fuji. Aokigahara bears an unfortunate reputation as a destination for people considering suicide. Paul knew about the reputation of the “suicide forest.” At the top of his video, Paul explains that he’s on the lookout for ghosts. Hiking with a small crew, Paul believes he spots a dead body, and his crew turns its video camera toward the tree. The video blurs the man’s face but otherwise shows him hanging against the trunk. Paul and his friends — with their camera still rolling — spend several minutes shifting among discordant emotional states: amused disbelief (“Are you fucking with us?”), shock (“This obviously just became very real”), sadness (“I’m so sorry”), awkward humor (“What, you’ve never stood next to a dead guy?”), and telegenic self-obsession (“This is a first for me”). Once Paul returns to a nearby parking lot, he’s decided that his discovery of a human corpse is “the craziest moment” of his life. Clearly, he believes the episode will make for some great YouTubing. After hyping the footage cryptically for a day on Twitter, Paul published the video Sunday.
Viewers were not so enthused. In the final hours of 2017, YouTube and Twitter users alike began to share their displeasure with Paul, and the New York blog Select All first reported the video in the mainstream media Monday night. Only after a rush of alarmed headlines did Paul apologize, first with a tweet about “views” and “great responsibility,” and then with a YouTube video. Near the end, we see Paul frowning. “The goal with my content is always to entertain, to push the boundaries,” Paul says. “In the world I live in, I share almost everything I do. The intent is never to be heartless, cruel, or malicious. Like I said, I made a huge mistake.”
Only YouTube could’ve afforded Logan Paul the room to make such a grotesque mistake on such a massive scale. Paul shares his videos with more than 15 million subscribers on the most popular video platform in the world. On YouTube, widely followed web stars such as Paul vlog obsessively, they speak freely, and they run wild. Instagram stars control their own image with meticulous curation through images and tight captions. Twitter personalities are more verbose, and they’re also knee-deep in the verbosity of others. Twitter is a crowded, public space where some murmurs, and some voices, happen to ring louder than others. But YouTube is bigger and richer, and its discourse flows much less democratically from power users to your average viewers; the stakes are higher and the content is far more profitable. YouTube stardom is a superior echelon where personalities produce high-quality videos that earn high-dollar ad revenue and sponsorship deals. Per a Forbes estimate, Paul’s antics generated more than $11 million in revenue last year. Paul’s most popular videos show him greeting fans, arguing with his younger brother (the YouTube star Jake Paul), driving sports cars, and bragging that he might get himself deported from Italy and Japan. Still, no one watches the Paul brothers expecting to see a human body.
Paul’s dispatch from Aokigahara isn’t distressing simply because it reveals a corpse. We’ve seen death online. We’ve seen cops fatally shoot black people, including black children. Two years ago, we watched a man gun down two TV news journalists in self-recorded footage that went viral. We’ve shared these videos with an abundance of political concern, be it police reform or gun control. Among Twitter’s power users — including journalists, activists, and celebrity entertainers — this editorial judgment is competitive and quasi-democratic; columnists, activists, and subjects all jockey for narrative authority; they rush to imbue the footage, and the death itself, with a certain significance and political urgency. But where posting videos of people killed by law enforcement officers or domestic terrorists may spur viewers into political action, posting footage of those who die by suicide in the name of “awareness” accomplishes little beyond shocking audiences. The process of communal accountability is foreign to the upper echelon of YouTube, where personal brand craft is far more autocratic and the landscape far more spacious and fractured than Twitter. YouTube is wild. YouTube is free. YouTube is a sandbox for ambitious, unattended children. YouTube stars don’t stand within a discourse. They stand atop a discourse, unchallenged.
For years, YouTube has struggled with editorial oversight regarding all sorts of user content, from small-ball copyright-infringement claims to anti-Semitic pranks that go viral. The New York Times has covered controversies surrounding YouTube’s biggest star, PewDiePie, who has ridiculed black and Jewish people in video segments and gaming livestreams, and whom YouTube has censured but never banned. Similarly, YouTube has denounced Paul’s video and hit his account with a “strike,” which the company describes as an initial “warning” that expires after three months. But YouTube doesn’t employ Paul or supervise his channel, so it seems the company’s oversight (in this case) is virtually meaningless. It is tempting to believe that advertisers will discipline Logan Paul or PewDiePie by the sheer force of their budgets, which may not want to bargain on depictions of dead bodies or white kids shouting “nigger” on popular livestreams. But Logan Paul is a 22-year-old troll who play-fights with his brother and churns out self-produced content for a living. PewDiePie is older, 28, but stuck in his ways and committed to his rebellious schtick. On a hyperactive quest for attention, funded by six-figure sponsorship deals, there’s little room for backlash but even less room for maturity and personal restraint.
YouTube’s strike against Logan Paul’s account doesn’t stand to change how Paul will act going forward, either. (Typically, YouTube will disable a video by issuing either a community guidelines strike or a copyright strike. Reports suggest that Paul disabled the video himself.) The community guidelines strike, and the general backlash, may spur Paul to produce his channel more cautiously. It will also aggravate Paul fans who interpret all “strikes” and oversight as persecution, such as the die-hard fans who have defended PewDiePie through several waves of press scrutiny. YouTube stars flourish despite controversy, their channels running on stunts, shock, conflict, and drama. Logan Paul’s dispatch from Aokigahara is a sign of just how hungry and heedless these stars can be. If we never see another video like this again, it’ll be only because YouTube has finally decided that a “strike” will count for more than just a fleeting public censure. As of Wednesday morning, Logan Paul can vlog undeterred.