This article is part of Watching YouTube, a Slate series about YouTube.
On Tuesday, a San Diego woman named Nasim Aghdam entered YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, and shot three people before killing herself. For years, Aghdam had maintained several channels on YouTube, featuring homemade videos in which she danced, exercised, and extolled the virtues of veganism, among other things. Over the past year, Aghdam’s earnings from her vlogs had apparently dwindled, an outcome she ascribed in some of her videos to deliberate interference and censorship by YouTube. We don’t yet have the full picture of what led Aghdam to commit so horrible an act. But the setting and known circumstances of the shooting certainly resonated with some creators on YouTube, who quickly began posting videos expressing their feelings about what Aghdam had done.
As they reacted on their channels, I watched, hoping to process the aftermath of the YouTube shooting through their eyes. A few weeks ago, my editors and I had come up with an idea: Watch YouTube obsessively for a couple of weeks, as I did last fall with Fox News, and attempt to come up with a novel theory or two about the content on it. The vloggers’ collective reaction to the shooting turned out to be its own kind of education into what it’s like to live on YouTube in 2018. They ran the gamut from smart to sorrowful to smarmy to stupid, just as YouTube itself spans all those modes and more. But one constant in these videos—and I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing—was that almost all the creators found a way to make the news of the shooting somehow about themselves.
Although YouTube hosts content in every genre you can imagine—plants listening to heavy metal, old people playing video games, cooking in costumes—the humble, direct-to-camera vlog might be the online video platform’s iconic format. The vlog puts the you in YouTube, because literally anyone can be a vlogger. All you need is a camera, a measure of narcissism, and a willingness to record yourself on a regular basis, even and perhaps especially if you have nothing to say. It’s democratizing, with all the possibility as well as the baseness that term can imply.
One thing it almost has to be, however, is everyday, bro—as vlogger and noted dipshit Jake Paul put it in a usefully stupid joke-rap track last year in which he bragged about how he vlogs literally every day. (The song has 188 million views and counting.) To Paul, “it’s everyday bro” is both a catchphrase and a mission statement, suggesting that YouTube stardom is a function of production capacity moreso than quality or novelty. The rest of the song, in case you somehow missed it, features Paul and his friends talking about how rich and successful they are thanks to vlogging. This boasting is well and proper. If you want to make it big as a vlogger, you need to make it about yourself.
Paul is an expert at making things about himself, and his brief video about Tuesday’s shootings did not buck this trend. While Paul seemed sincere in his sorrow and confusion—“My heart hurts, like, I’m devastated, I’m pissed off, I’m angry, I’m confused. I wanna help. I, and, like … no one should have to go through these things. It is so surreal to me … this could happen to the people that I’ve met with, the people that allow me to be able to be a YouTube creator”—it’s also notable that he chose to emphasize the ways in which the shootings affected him, in that he had visited YouTube headquarters before and knew people there.
Popular YouTuber Casey Neistat also spent much of his shooting-reaction video reminiscing about the times he had visited YouTube headquarters and the people he had met there. But he also prefaced his Wednesday video by saying that while he had originally planned to release a video announcing his plans for future videos—I don’t know, apparently there is an audience for that sort of thing—those plans were scratched when Neistat “learned of what happened yesterday in San Bruno, at YouTube headquarters.” He went on: “And it certainly affected me in such a way that I couldn’t have, I couldn’t post a video the next day that was about celebrating and fun and all the things that I want to do here without first acknowledging the events.” This is a double-dose of narcisissm, and also a subtle teaser for the content that will soon be posted on Neistat’s channel.
Some vloggers made the incident about themselves in classic cable-news fashion, by using it as an opportunity to make political points while still promoting their own personal brands. The YouTube user who goes by American Gun Chic stuck to her usual shtick in a video that looked to be hastily filmed in someone’s backyard: “I just got news that there is an active shooter at the YouTube headquarters in California. That’s all I know, I don’t know any other information, but I just wanted to say real quick how this is a reminder of why we should always have our guns and always carry them and always have self-protection. Because, also, the YouTube headquarters? That is the epitome of no guns.” Usually, American Gun Chic films herself shooting guns, holding guns, and destroying watermelons painted with the logos of “biased” television networks, so in some ways this gun-free vlog was a model of restraint. But when your name is American Gun Chic, you are basically locked into making everything about guns and their merits, even and perhaps especially when commenting on a shooting at YouTube headquarters.
Many vloggers like to meander to their points. Their work reminds me of the old movie reviews at Ain’t It Cool News, in which the reviewers spent 2,000 words describing their drive to the theater and how good the popcorn tasted before finally getting around to discussing the movie itself. This throat-clearing is annoying enough under normal circumstances, but it seemed particularly weird to watch some vloggers stall for no good reason before finally deigning to talk about a shooting that sent three people to the hospital.
The peak example of this was when the vlogger Justin Bravo spent the first four minutes and 45 seconds of a video titled “THE YOUTUBE HEADQUARTERS SHOOTING” explaining how his MacBookPro was running out of storage and subsequently visiting Best Buy to purchase an external hard drive. Eventually, he got around to the news that there was an incident at YouTube headquarters. “Wow,” he said, exhaling. “Man. I wasn’t expecting this to go this way today. I guess nobody does … Makes me super sad, especially, you know, being that I’m a YouTuber. And to see it happening at, you know, YouTube headquarters—man, that’s awful. I don’t know any details. I … it literally is probably still going on right now.” (To be clear, this video was edited before it was posted.)
The best vlogs—I do not count Bravo’s video among them—can get away with this sort of aimless rambling, because among YouTube personalities, persona is a lot more important than wisdom, observation, novelty, narrative, humor, or concision. User DCIGS, who is known for posting as a character he calls “Angry Black Man,” made the shooting about himself—or at least his YouTube persona—but he did so in a way that was at least sort of clever: “Guys, I am not the YouTube headquarters shooter. Everybody hitting me up on Twitter, on Facebook, on all these social media network sites, making jokes, taking about ‘DCIGS finally got his revenge on YouTube’: No.”
I also enjoyed the simple video uploaded by the user AsKaGangsta, who discussed the shooting while wearing his trademark red bandanna over his face: “I have some more updates about the YouTube shooting that happened yesterday. My heart goes out to everybody involved. It’s just crazy. It was unexpected. And really sad.” He then went silent as he watched a news report about the shooting. “Crazy, man!” he finally blurted. “It doesn’t mean you gotta go …” He trails off and clasps his hand to his head. “Wowwww.” Here was a case of someone realizing that he didn’t have anything to say, and then choosing to not say anything, to just sit and take in the news instead. Watching someone else watch and react to the news can be inherently interesting, even if that person’s face is entirely covered with a red bandanna.
The strangest and saddest response vlog I watched came from a user called Its Becky Boop, who, in a video titled “YOUTUBE SHOOTING – The shooter wasn’t wrong,” went so far as to mount a provocative defense of Aghdam’s motivations. “The crazy part isn’t that this happened. The crazy part is that it didn’t happen sooner,” she said.
YouTubers have been talking for months about the negative changes that YouTube has made to their platform. I mean, I’m one of them. I stopped YouTubing full-time last year, because it impacted the viability of me making a full-time living. And we now know that the YouTube shooter did this because of the changes made in February that demonetized small creators and made it infinitely more difficult for them to make money on the platform.
To be clear, we do not definitively know why Aghdam shot up YouTube headquarters; we know that she was upset with YouTube, but other issues may have affected her judgment. But, as Its Becky Boop noted, other YouTubers have also seen dips in their earnings, thanks in part to recent changes in the YouTube Partner Program, which allows video-makers who reach certain traffic thresholds to earn money from the ads YouTube serves on their videos. At the beginning of the year, YouTube adjusted those thresholds in such a manner that made it harder for small-scale creators to monetize their content. Since then, many of these creators have been focused on trying to reach these new thresholds—at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 cumulative hours watched over the past 12 months—and sustain the sort of viewership necessary to earn meaningful cash. Some of these changes have come as the platform has sought to clean up or disincentivize all manner of unsavory behavior on the platform, from fake news to conspiracy theories to videos designed to traumatize children. Some of these changes were in response to an insensitive video posted by Jake Paul’s brother, noted dipshit Logan Paul, involving a visit to a Japanese “suicide forest.” But YouTube is a vast ecosystem, and these changes have impacted a great variety of creators who had become used to earning money through their vlogs.
Whatever their particular gimmicks, YouTube’s dedicated video-makers are unified by one common goal: successfully monetizing their content. Profit is not the primary goal for every creator and every video, of course, but the profit incentive at least lives somewhere in the back of every hardcore YouTuber’s mind. This is perhaps one key to understanding YouTube’s infinity theater of narcissism—and it will certainly help orient my thinking as I write this series.
To an extent, I identify with the vloggers of YouTube. I, too, produce online content for money, and often find myself generating personalized and opinionated takes in response to news events—although, importantly, I get paid the same for my wan takes as for my spicy ones, and I’m edited to hopefully ensure those takes meet editorial standards and contribute to a broader conversation. For the most successful vloggers—some of whom do have teams of professionals working with them—all of those ideals are secondary to exhibiting a distinct persona, one that is consistently engaging enough for people to watch their videos because they enjoy their company, regardless of what they saying or do at any given moment. And sometimes what they’re doing is reflecting on a mortifying event through the only prism that might matter on YouTube: their own.