This article is the final installment of Watching YouTube, a Slate series about YouTube.
For as long as home video cameras have existed, kids have used them to film themselves doing very stupid things. It’s part of growing up, or at least it was when I was growing up. My high-school television and video production classes were stuffed with goofy teenagers who liked to film themselves cavorting atop mail trucks parked outside the post office, bathing in tubs filled with milk and cereal, annoying the shopkeepers in my hometown’s business district, and eating any number of inedible substances. These videos were gross and immature a lot of the time, but they were also really fun to watch—delightfully dumb and transgressive in the way lots of art from the margins is supposed to be.
Thanks to YouTube, homemade video is no longer a marginal art form, and the same sorts of boisterous kids whose prank tapes would once have only been seen by their friends are now becoming worldwide celebrities for their dumbass behavior. In my day, my friends and schoolmates risked injury, parental censure, and other adults’ disapproval just to make themselves and their friends laugh. (Indeed, repulsing the adults who watched the video was often one of the points.) Now, plenty of kids (and adults) are making and posting stupid videos for the same reasons—but with the added temptation, or perhaps main objective, of being stupid in the service of gaining subscribers and living that sweet vlogger lifestyle. In between then and now, of course, was Jackass, which proved that prankish, good-natured body horror could find a wide audience.
Thanks to the present-day manifestation of that audience, the YouTube vlogosphere is overpopulated with young men who have built brands on their willingness to pull moronic stunts in public. These stunts can be seen by millions of people, and some vloggers can be handsomely compensated for their work via YouTube’s partner program, as well as through direct merchandise sales to their fans. They compete with other prankish vloggers for the public’s attention, which inherently fosters a sort of competitive spirit among vloggers to see who among them can make the most money doing the dumbest shit.
Last week might have given us a winner in this race to the bottom. Kanghua Ren, a Chinese-born vlogger currently living in Spain, was arrested after he posted a video of himself giving a homeless man some Oreo cookies in which the creamy filling had been replaced with toothpaste. The man apparently felt sick within minutes of eating the doctored cookies. Ren, who vlogs under the name ReSet, allegedly earned about $2,500 from YouTube ads that ran with the video. Now the vlogger may face prison time for this “crime against moral integrity,” which is apparently a category of crime in Spain. The video is no longer up on ReSet’s channel.
ReSet has long been a fan of eating stunts, often with himself as the primary victim. In this video, he drinks a bottle of hot sauce to ill effect:
Here, he ups the ante by drinking what appears to be a bottle of glass cleaner, though I have my doubts about its actual contents:
Here, ReSet shows his range by leaving the gross foodstuffs aside as he and a friend have fun shocking themselves with some sort of lie detector–ish device:
In each of these videos, which are all in Spanish, the thrust is basically the same: Let’s watch this clown debase himself for our amusement. I’ve got no problem with that. The difference between these videos and the one that got him into trouble, obviously, is the difference between punching yourself in the stomach and grabbing a stranger’s arm, hitting the stranger with it repeatedly, and yelling “Why are you hitting yourself?”
The toothpaste Oreo stunt was dumb and cruel and ReSet deserves the scorn he is currently receiving, if not the possible jail sentence. What’s more, it wasn’t even a good prank. The fun of watching a videotaped prank is that you are in on the joke. But there’s no fun in being in on a joke that is born out of entitlement. It might have been funny if the homeless guy had fed ReSet a toothpaste cookie. But it’s hard to land a joke when the punch line involves the comedian poisoning a vagrant.
As I wrote at the beginning of this series, the line between good-natured prank humor and obnoxious entitlement is very thin, and it’s incumbent on pranksters to make sure that they are punching up—or at least punching at their own level—rather than targeting people who are less powerful than them. The problem these days is that YouTube’s most successful vloggers wield more power than most people. I’ve written a lot about the Paul brothers, Jake and Logan, over these past few weeks because they epitomize this disconnect. In their videos they present themselves as goofy kids doing stupid things, much to the dismay of the straight-and-narrow world. But it’s hard to credibly maintain that roguish veneer when you are among the most successful users of what has become a mainstream entertainment network.
YouTube has shown signs that it is trying to grow up—to an extent. Most notably, the platform bounced vlogger Logan Paul from its premium ad program after he posted a tasteless video involving an actual dead body around New Year’s. It has also “demonetized” many smaller-scale YouTube channels, effectively tightening the criteria for what sort of content can earn ad revenue, in what was said to be an effort to impose higher standards on its higher-profile users. The wider world is paying more and more attention to what YouTube’s creators are saying and doing, and with that increased attention comes increased outrage when those creators say and do indefensible things. YouTube wants to keep raising awareness while reducing opprobrium.
There is, of course, a thin line between moderation and censorship. YouTube would quickly lose much of its appeal if it were to go full standards-and-practices with its creators. The site’s users are basically free to say and do what they want in their videos, and by and large this freedom is what makes YouTube great. The platform is wondrous and strange and endlessly rewarding when you hop down its better rabbit holes. But YouTube is also a business, and it is under no obligation to pursue and sustain ad-revenue partnerships with jerks, charlatans, and other bad actors—especially when the negative attention brought on by these dimwits can give people the (wrong) impression that YouTube is a net drain on society. As YouTube continues to grow up—Monday, April 23, will mark 13 years since the first video was uploaded to the site—it’s probably time it found some new and better ways to disincentivize performative sociopathy.