The Fall of Paul & Shock Value

If you want views, you need to be creative to get them.

The King of Bounceback!

(This article was originally published in Her Culture’s February 2018 issue. Read here.)

On December 31, 2017 — barely a few hours until the new year — Logan Paul, the famed Vine-turned-YouTube star uploaded a daily vlog like he normally does to his 16 million plus subscribers. Only this video seemed to be chillingly different. Entitled “We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest…”, it leaves little to the imagination of what a young viewer may find, but nonetheless, Paul assures us that “this isn’t clickbait” — and unfortunately, he’s right.

Paul and friends visited Japan in a number of vlogs around this time, where they acted like their typical goofball selves, and they continue in the majority of this video. The trip turned dark, however, when Paul visited Aokigahara, Japan’s well known but oft-hidden “Suicide Forest,” named such due to the number of reported suicides there over many years. In the contents of the video, Paul and co. end up “stumbling upon” the hanged dead body of a man, whose face is only spared from the camera. Immediately, Paul’s demeanor changes, in an effort to conclude how to react to such a thing. Paul spiels about how “suicide is not a joke” and the like, but continues to film the body on and off for the next view minutes. He claimed (painstakingly) the video was not monetized, and the description listed phone numbers for Suicide Prevention. But unsurprisingly, while the reaction was understandably acerbic, it garnered over 6 million views within the first 24 hours.

Shock videos (and by further extension, clickbait) exist for the sole purpose of getting someone, anyone, to click on the video out of (morbid) curiosity. It’s happened many times before on YouTube and it’s bound to happen again. The bigger problem with Paul’s situation lies in his young, impressionable viewers. Older browsers of YouTube probably won’t be able to stand watching a Paul vlog for more than a minute, but to his wide audience of young teens, he is a messiah of new media. There’s no reason to expect otherwise the contents of his vlogs being any different than funny comedy (even if his comedy ability is questionable, and it’s likely that those who clicked the video assumed the same. Unfortunately, this type of shock video was a long time coming.

The culture of YouTube is positively intriguing, with stars being born from nothing to something, and fast, in recent years. The push for getting views no matter what the cost — i.e., clickbait titles, thumbnails in excess — has driven us to the point we are at today. Paul recorded a large chunk of this man in the forest, and subsequently, his and his friend’s reactions; he or someone of his team edited the video, placing carefully targeted sad piano frills; and he uploaded the video and chose the title and thumbnail, while waiting for the views to pour in. The point is that Paul, in every step of the way to creating and finishing a video, had time to think to himself, “Maybe this is not the content I want to be putting out to my viewers.” Rather, in a delusional fashion, Paul believed this would start a conversation about suicide and mental health, shown in his unapologetic first apology letter he posted on Twitter. Paul claimed to not do it for the views, amongst blaming other things, but it’s obvious that it was either a PR move or a headline move, because Paul or someone had to know that this would garner public notoriety. Forget the days of sexual objectification for views — now, the mainstream is to show graphic content.

The internet is vast, and if you wanted to find videos or pictures of dead people, it’s quite easy. There are sites and forums dedicated to it. The difference is, you have to manually search and find the content, and you have to have a good stomach to do so. In addition, children are barred from the sites. That’s not saying if they wanted to look, they couldn’t lie and do it, but most children, even in our internet age, wouldn’t actively look for such a thing. And they shouldn’t. But when something like this is brought to the forefront for young children to see, it’s almost unavoidable. The mixture of disgust and intrigue makes a finger click, and every smart YouTuber knows this. It’s why the news is often skewed to show only the disturbing content — views. What does this say about our world today? Almost too much.

The fact that Paul attempted to pass this video off as a springboard for mental health discussion is sickening. Paul may not possess malice towards this rhetoric, but it sure as hell didn’t seem that way. Other large YouTubers have used their platform in a positive way to spread word about mental health awareness, even among their similar clickbait-filled videos. How anyone assumed this would fit into that role is baffling. It was an insensitive and horrid thing to post, and luckily there have been repercussions for Paul following the fiasco, including being dropped from a YouTube Red show and removal of Paul’s channels on Google’s preferred ad program. However, the impact and sheer explicitness of the video and its subsequent public reaction remain the poster child for what not to do on the net’s main stage.

YouTube possesses the extraordinary ability to create ordinary people into idols and millionaires. Behind every camera lies an individual, with their own opinions and thoughts. It’d be impossible to screen these new celebrities for a bad seed, and it’d stifle general creativity on the platform, so that is not a solution. Rather, we as a society need to take a step back and consider the voyeuristic nature of vlogs and the heavily edited facade showcased to an audience. Rarely are the true colors of a YouTube star are revealed to the general public. In an age of manufactured, expertly targeted content, we need to constantly reevaluate the media we consume — and hope that someone else won’t glorify, exploit, and capitalize on something as serious as suicide.

Let’s hope the rest of 2018 brings us something better.