Search for ‘prank’ on YouTube and you’ll get around 33.3m results. The major results, most of which have tens of millions of views, range from asinine in content to questionably dangerous. There’s a multi-part epic called the ‘gold digger prank’, with screen-shots focused on scantily clad women; an artfully titled number ‘Stepmum tries to have s3x with cameraman prank’; and one with four men in masks entitled ‘bank prank gone wrong (arrested at gunpoint’. Each of these is typed in all-caps and feature much misused punctuation. Turn to Google with the same search and things get considerably darker. The top story centres on a 20-year-old woman pleading guilty to second degree manslaughter after shooting her boyfriend through the chest during a ‘prank’ gone wrong. The shooter was pregnant at the time and the couple’s three-year-old child was standing nearby, according to reports.
During the past week of anger and confusion over the seemingly never-ending case of YouTube star Logan Paul, who became the subject of controversy after uploading a video of a dead body he found in Aokigahara (also known as Japan’s suicide forest), I started to think a lot about these so-called pranks. Paul, one of the site’s most popular personalities, made his name as a Vine star before moving to YouTube once that platform shut down. Expanding from 7 seconds to 10 minutes and more, with a video released each and every day, saw Paul (and his younger brother, the equally notorious Jake) delve into new areas of entertainment. Search for ‘Logan Paul prank’ and the results shouldn’t surprise anyone following his most recent mess. Some are pretty benign, like filling his brother’s pool with Jello or stacking a million Lego pieces in his car. Others inspire fear just by glancing at the screencap, like ‘My Dog Got Hurt’, featuring a giant pair of bloody scissors, or the infamous faking his own death.
That video opens with footage of dozens of screaming Logan fans watching him from his hotel room. They cheer his name and take photos while he films from the window. Behind him is a friend with a fake shotgun, which he ‘fires’ at his head. Blood splatters against the window. The kids, mostly young pre-pubescent boys, look on in shock. Some scream.
Before he posted the now infamous Aokigahara video, he had already made himself infamous in Japan through various videos of rude, hostile, and questionable behaviour he continued to label as ‘pranks’. He threw Pokémon balls at bystanders and passing cars; he traipsed through shops and manhandled property while holding a severed octopus tentacle; he caused havoc at a fish market. Think of every possible misdemeanour a bratty white American tourist could accomplish in Japan and the chances are Paul achieved it. The country’s authorities were understandably furious, even before the Aokigahara video went viral.
And yet none of this has hurt Paul’s subscriber numbers. Indeed, he seems to have slowly gained new followers since the incident. They do say any publicity is good publicity, but it’s still astounding to see it in action.
Paul may be the most recent example of despicable YouTube personalities exhibiting asinine behaviour in the name of views, but he is a mere symptom of a much larger problem. The 22-year-old vlogger did not originate prank videos on YouTube, and he’s not even the most awful of the bunch. That in and of itself is a disturbing revelation. There have been multiple faked death pranks that caused controversy, as well as fake arrests, borderline sexual assaults, ‘jokey’ thefts, and much more. All of these unnerving videos, many of which have tens of millions of views, further call into question how to define ‘prank’. The word suggests something playful, although its official dictionary definition does include the term ‘sometimes malicious’. When I was a kid, pranks were frivolities, like putting the ‘kick me’ sign on someone’s back: Potentially mean, but by and large taken in the spirit it was intended. The act has escalated to include actions of such baffling callousness that one wonders how YouTube allowed it in the first place.
Then again, that answer is quite simple. They allowed it because it makes them money. Logan Paul makes YouTube a staggering amount of money. Like the top stars of the site, the ad revenue from even the stupidest of videos can justify their shaky business model for a little longer. It’s one of the reasons PewDiePie was allowed to fester into an impossible to ignore problem before it could be nipped in the bud. Yet even PewDiePie, the once and possibly future king of YouTube, saw consequences more severe than Paul. He was the one who removed his own video, not YouTube, who seemed to ignore the issue of having a screenshot of a suicide victim on their top trends page for as long as possible. Their responses so far have been weak and barely mention Paul at all. They have made no further comments on the bigger issue at hand of prank videos and their ultimate danger either.
Children are Paul’s target audience. As with many of YouTube’s biggest stars, he has found a lucrative way to tap into the site’s most profitable demographic of kids aged between 8 and 14. Take a look at Twitter and see the ages of his most ardent fans, who continue to defend him even as he called for them to stop doing so. For parents who don’t wish to monitor every hour of their kids’ media consumption, YouTubers like Paul seem harmless enough. He’s just a big kid having fun with his pals, what’s the big deal? Yet the seeming innocence of the site is partly what has led to its poisonous lack of accountability. Everything is seen as silly and no real bother to the outside world. It’s just YouTube, after all. Yet look at the fervent loyalty people like Paul, PewDiePie and the like inspire. The site gives power to the notion of perennial underdogs who fight the crusty old dogs of Big Media and will one day change the world. Having the personality that you love talk to you every day through the camera lens, their eyes seemingly focused solely on yours, has a hypnotic effect. Imagine that potency when you’re a pre-teen who just wants something to love. It’s one of the reasons so many Paul fans, who call themselves the Logang, are insistent he’s done nothing wrong. It’s not him, it’s us. We just don’t get it. It was all a prank.
The prank problem of YouTube has become irrevocably toxic, but it’s too big a money-spinner for the site to take action. The collateral damage of these videos can’t be ignored. People are hurt, humiliated, and unwittingly turned into public spectacles by people like Paul. He, and others like him, probably won’t stop doing this either, as the business model has been repeatedly rewarded with top dollar ad revenue and outside investments. It seems that YouTube will have to be publicly embarrassed into making changes, as they did when the extent of the disturbing children’s videos problem was revealed.
According to Social Blade, Paul has continued to gain on average over 42,000 views a day since Christmas. His last 30 days of ad revenue earnings could be anywhere between £53.9k - £862.7k. This ‘prank’ worked for him. It’s made him more visible, richer, and more impervious to criticism. As his fans become more loyal than ever, YouTube must take action against him and others like him who flagrantly break the terms and conditions and put people’s safety and dignity at risk. To do otherwise would be to reduce everyone else to mere jokes.