A massive happy birthday to what looks like the world’s most influential joke. Thirteen years ago this week, Jawed Karim uploaded a video of himself standing in front of some elephants and making a juvenile quip about their “really, really, really long trunks”. The short clip, titled Me at the Zoo, would be as unremarkable as it was unfunny, were it not for the fact that Karim is the co-founder of YouTube and this was the first video uploaded on to the site.
I never thought I would be nostalgic about the good old days of elephant gags. However, Me at the Zoo seems endearingly wholesome when you look at the terrifying cesspit of clickbait content YouTube has become. In 13 years, the video-sharing website, which was purchased by Google in 2006, has redefined the nature of celebrity. It has, to quote an Observer headline from 2010, made ‘superstars of everyday people’. Increasingly, however, it seems to be making psychopaths of everyday people. If you want to make money from YouTube, then — to reduce its constantly changing monetisation rules into their simplest terms — you need a shedload of views. In order to get those views, and compete with the billions of other videos on the site, some content creators are resorting to highly unethical behaviour.
Take Logan Paul, for example. The popular 22-year-old vlogger, who netted £9.3 million (Dh48.73 million) from YouTube in 2017, faced widespread criticism earlier this year after uploading a video of a suicide victim in Japan. He did it, he said, to “raise awareness” of mental health issues. It seems more likely, however, that he did it to raise awareness of his own brand. And while he was widely reprimanded for the sick stunt, it seems there really is no such thing as bad publicity; Paul’s subscriber count jumped after the scandal. He went from having 15 million subscribers in January to more than 17 million now.
Not all vloggers who have pushed boundaries in order to up their views, it should be said, have been similarly rewarded. Last year, a 19-year-old American woman, Monalisa Perez, accidentally killed her boyfriend in a YouTube stunt gone wrong. The couple had wanted to make a viral video in which Perez shot at an encyclopedia her boyfriend was holding to his chest. The book, they thought, would stop the bullet. It didn’t. Perez pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter last month.
Another YouTuber facing jail time because of a quest for viral fame is 20-year-old Kanghua Ren. Last January, Ren, who goes by the YouTube name ReSet, fed Oreo cookies stuffed with toothpaste to a 52-year-old homeless man. “Maybe I’ve gone a bit far, but look at the positive side: This will help him clean his teeth,” Ren joked. The video reportedly made about 2,180 euros (Dh9,753) in advertising revenue, before being removed from YouTube amid public outrage and a police investigation. The Barcelona-based YouTuber was charged with a crime against moral integrity and could face two years in prison.
Ren’s behaviour was disgusting. However, it seems a little unfair that YouTube hasn’t been charged with crimes against moral integrity alongside him. Ren isn’t one bad apple in the YouTube ecosystem: He is an inevitable by-product of a platform that seems to prioritise money over morality. Last week, for example, an investigation by CNN found that YouTube was running ads from major companies on channels with extremist content, despite promising to demonetise “hateful content” last year. Like Facebook, the founders of YouTube have created a monster that has spun out of control. And, like Facebook, YouTube spends a lot of time talking about “community”, but seems more interested in monetising it than protecting it.
When Barbara Bush died last week, she was widely heralded as being the second woman to be both the wife and the mother of United States presidents (the first was Abigail Adams). This factoid, I noticed, was almost always rolled out as if it was a great achievement, rather than an indictment of America’s political dynasties.
The US likes to think it did away with the monarchy in 1776. It prides itself on being a land of equal opportunity, without the class barriers that stratify British society. However, I would argue that hereditary privilege is even more important in the US than it is in the United Kingdom. Indeed, I’d even say the US is a monarchy of sorts. While it may not have a king or queen, it has aristocratic families in which power is a birthright. Take the Kennedys, for example. Barring 2012, a Kennedy has held office in the federal government every year from 1947 to the present day. Earlier this year, the Democrats chose congressman Joe Kennedy, a great-nephew of President John F Kennedy, to give a response to Trump’s State of the Union address.
Then there is the US’s widespread “legacy” programmes — in which universities give preferential treatment to applicants who are related to alumni of the institute. Oxbridge is often, rightly, accused of being a bastion of privilege. But it’s nothing compared with the US’s elite higher education institutions, in which your last name seems to be more important than your grades. It was reported last year, for example, that Harvard’s incoming class of 2012 is one-third legacy students.
So, if incessant news about the royal baby has turned you into a raging republican who is mortified about Britain’s outdated monarchy, take some small solace from the US. The monarchy may well be anachronistic, but at least it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise.
Earlier this month, Heinz asked Americans a difficult question: Should the company release a combined mayonnaise-ketchup product? This is not actually a revolutionary innovation, as various people pointed out. People eat it all over the world and it is called everything from fry sauce to salsa rosada to “absolutely disgusting”. But, you know how it is. Nothing truly exists until a multinational corporation creates a viral social media campaign around it. So, there we go; mayochup is coming to the US. It may not be the condiment the country needs, but I fear it is the condiment it deserves.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Arwa Mahdawi is a writer and brand strategist based in New York.