YouTube Community Remembers to be Awesome
How Internet kids dealt with sexual harassment at VidCon
Sometimes, when you see how teens and young adults are behaving online, you fear for the future of humanity. This is not one of those times. This is also not one of those times where a woman speaking out about harassment or sexism is bullied online.
Last week, VidCon — the fourth annual unofficial YouTuber’s conference, whose attendees include children and teens — dealt with their first publicly known sexual harassment incident. A group of young men filmed themselves picking up unsuspecting women — literally grabbing women by the waist and carrying them a few steps despite their protestations and screams to stop. The resulting video uploaded lastWednesday was titled “How to pick up girls at VidCon” and when the outraged comments via social media started rolling in, the young men told everyone to chill out and get a “better sense of humor.” This was all just “a prank,” meant to be “a joke,” okay? And now… they’re banned from the conference.
A sexual harassment incident (or two, or even three) is, sadly, the norm at conferences or conventions. I’ve never heard of a mass gathering where this didn’t happen. And yes, it’s proof of the sexism — whether blatant or subtle — that still exists in our society. Compared to incidents at other cons (and another more serious incident involving my friend at this VidCon), the “How to pick up girls at VidCon” incident is pretty tame fair. But that doesn’t by any means make the incident any less upsetting, and the quick reaction of the organizers and community was refreshing. The offenders were banned immediately, as were the guys that touched and harassed my friend.
Normally, when women speak out about sexual harassment at a conference or convention, the resulting backlash gets ugly, fast. I am talking death threats or lose their job kind of ugly. Sometimes, the conference doesn’t get around to banning the offending males, leading women to solutions like handing out cards at the hacker conference DEFCON to raise awareness of inappropriate behavior.
The young women that were featured in the “prank” video or spoke out against it on Twitter were not flooded with hateful messages on YouTube or Twitter, and the community is pretty much in agreement that what the young men did was wrong. The offenders removed their videos from YouTube, but that didn’t stop mirrors and re-uploads. Male vloggers opined on the incident, and author C.J. Redwine’s post explaining rape culture to one of the offenders was circulated on Twitter, Tumblr and in YouTube comments. Even those who were sympathetic towards the offending males admitted it was a violation of personal space.
As for the level of discourse around the incident, it was mostly mature and civil — surprising when you remember this is the YouTube comment section we are talking about here.
Why do these teens and the young men and women of the YouTube generation get it, while the adults on the rest of the web do not?
Part of that may lie with the organizers John and Hank Green (aka the VlogBrothers), affectionately known as “the older and wise uncles of YouTube” for their educational videos and New York Times’ best selling books. The sibling pair have built a web video empire around their slogan “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome” (DFTBA) and their dedicated community of one-million-plus fans call themselves “nerdfighters” and celebrate things like Esther Day. Perhaps many of the young adults at VidCon believe in the nerdfighter ethos of being a respectful and loving person on a mission to “decrease world suck.”
In many ways, the Greens lived up to their reputation in how they approached the incident. In a public statement on his personal Tumblr last Thursday, John Green addressed the controversy and announced greater security measures, a hotline to call to report harassment at VidCon, and the banning of individuals:
“Those who assault or harass people (many of whom are children!) at Vidcon will not be allowed back at the conference ever. Period. We have your names. You cannot come back. If you try to sneak in (it seems some of these people may not have had tickets), you will be arrested.”
Part of it is also the environment — VidCon is family and teen friendly by design, with children as young as 8. Musical acts — however adult on the web and regardless of how many adults are in attendance that day — are encouraged to keep it PG, and those that didn’t this year are not coming back. There were no booth babes or sexy spectacles to be had in the convention hall, nothing that could be viewed as exploitative of women. No conference is the place for this, but at VidCon that sentiment is explicit and part of the conference’s policies.
While I am not saying all conferences and conventions must cater to a family friendly environment, there is something to be learned from how swiftly VidCon dealt with their first public sexual harassment incident. There will always be bad apples, but it’s how you deal with them that counts.