Two days after Texas teenager Ben Breedlove posted a YouTube video talking about the dangerous heart condition from which he suffered, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, he died from a heart attack. It was Christmas night.
His video has now been seen by millions, including hip-hop artist Kid Cudi, who watched as Breedlove held up notecards to tell the story of how he “cheated death” three times, first at age 4 and again earlier this month. Breedlove never spoke aloud in the video as he described his condition, which involves a thickening of the heart muscle that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood, but his written notecards to the tune of Gary Jules’s “Mad World,” spoke loud enough.
Breedlove’s video joins the ranks of the many autobiographical, or confessional, videos posted to YouTube by teens or young people before him. Often, these videos tell of the very private details of a person’s life, from a heart condition to experiences with bullying or struggles with sexuality. When they go viral, they can have different consequences.
But in May, when a bullied teen from Buffalo, N.Y., Jamey Rodemeyer, posted a confessional video that said he was bisexual, his bullying only increased. Several months later, Rodemeyer killed himself.
In the book “Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People,” University of Ottawa lecturer Michael Strangelove attempts to understand why teens post very personal videos about their lives in a very public way.
“YouTube's autobiographical video diaries are a new form of self-presentation and an expression of a surrounding confessional culture,” Strangelove writes. “Whether in the form of text, audio, or video, people find confessing online empowering.”
A university student, Rebecca Roth, tells Strangelove that for this reason, online self-disclosure is easy. “It’s surprisingly not hard to put details about yourself out to complete strangers,” she says.
Especially when so many other people are doing it. Rodemeyer was inspired by sex columnist Dan Savage’s confessional videos from the “It Gets Better” project, which has inspired tens of thousands of people to record videos telling bullied gay teens that their lives will get better.
Breedlove’s videos, too, have inspired people to post videos to YouTube about their own medical conditions.
First, watch Breedlove’s videos:
In this video, a woman is inspired by Breedlove to record a video about a medical condition affecting her spine:
Another young girl recorded a video about how she had been bullied since childhood because of a skin condition she was diagnosed with at the age of 2:
Some teens took it as a chance to count their blessings, and remind others to count theirs:
If Breedlove were still alive to see the impact his video has had, he might find it empowering, too. His mother told Radar Online, “he would have preferred to sit back at home with his family and watch online how deeply positive everyone was receiving the message.”