The second day of the year has brought with it the first online outrage: 22-year-old video blogger Logan Paul ventured into Japan’s “suicide forest,” found a man hanging from a tree and filmed him for more than 5 million followers. Or, according to the language on Twitter’s trending topic list, “YouTuber sorry for video showing dead body.”
Paul apologized in the mode of many a disgraced star. His thesis? It’s actually impressive he hasn’t had to say sorry before. “I’m often reminded of how big a reach I truly have & with great power comes great responsibility,” wrote Paul. “For the first time in my life I’m regretful to say I handled that power incorrectly.” Later, he issued a second apology on YouTube, his eyes rimmed with red.
Paul’s claim that his video aimed to raise awareness about mental health has convinced few but his hardest-core fans. Sensationalizing suicide is nothing new, and YouTube vlogging culture is all about sensationalism. It doesn’t take dead bodies to pick up millions of clicks. PewDiePie’s profanity-filled reactions to everyday occurrences while he plays video games helped him net $15 million in 2016. Children opening Kinder Surprise Egg eggs draw in droves of viewers.
It’s also all about exploitation. Paul says, “Suicide is not the answer, guys, there are people who love you and care for you” – even as he plans to edit the footage as another example of the “real” and “raw” life he shares with them, never mind the life of the man whose corpse he has captured on camera for their consumption.
Logan Paul wouldn’t be Logan Paul if he weren’t the type of person for whom a lifeless body is just another opportunity to stack up subscribers. But it’s not only young white guys with dumb hats who have taken advantage of a system that rewards people for traffic and punishes them for, well, pretty much nothing.
Those Kinder Egg kids have parents, and their parents are turning them into miniature moneymakers. Last year, a couple lost custody of their children after allegedly making abusive “prank” videos of their youngest son (in one, they told him they were giving him away to another family for his bad behavior).
Teens clamor for adolescent social media celebrities such as Hayden Summerall and Annie LeBlanc, or “Hannie,” to hook up. They hyperventilate when the “stars” appear on each other’s Instagrams or in a scripted YouTube series, and they even Photoshop pictures or splice together clips so it looks like the two are dating. Annie is 12. When her family started putting every step of her life on YouTube, she was 4.
YouTubers also capitalize on the impressionability of their young audiences. Worrywarts have harped for years on the dangers of preteens sitting in front of the television all day, but there is something uniquely creepy about 5-year-olds spending hour after hour on their parents’ iPads watching other families’ lives — kids “unboxing” toys, moms, dads, brothers and sisters playing freeze tag together — instead of living their own. Even toddlers gaze all day long at algorithmically generated animations of barnyard animals that sometimes turn into horror shows. And Paul’s supporters, some of whom may struggle with suicidal thoughts, stare rapt at the screen as he shows them a man who traveled to the forest to end his life alone.
Paul’s original video got more than 6 million views and hundreds of thousands of likes before it disappeared. His apology garnered over 400,000 views and almost as many likes within hours. Other YouTubers, some of whom criticized Paul for taking advantage of a tragedy, uploaded videos recounting his wrongdoing. They’ll get thousands of views, too.
“I should have put the cameras down,” Paul said in his second apology. He’s not the only one.