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YouTube has exploited the pleasures of hanging out

Logan Paul’s “We found a dead body in the Japanese Suicide Forest” vlog is exactly as advertised. He and his entourage enter the famous site, claiming they’re looking for ghosts, and they come across the body of a recent suicide, filming it and themselves around it, alternately looking somber and cracking awkward jokes. “This marks a moment in YouTube history,” Paul remarks, sounding proud. The body appeared in the video’s thumbnail.

In the aftermath, it did seem to mark a moment in YouTube history — the moment when the behavior of the platform’s stars sparked outrage beyond the confines of the YouTube fan community, the tens of millions of (mostly teenage) fans whose lack of crossover with traditional media makes them largely invisible to over-25s who aren’t parents. There have been repeated outcries against YouTube content creators for a variety of actions — like Sam Pepper’s “prank” in which he (graphically) faked a kidnapping and execution, or when the parents behind DaddyOFive were not so subtly abusing their youngest child on video as a form of funny “teasing” entertainment — but YouTube’s response has tended to be slow and tentative. It took them 10 days to respond to Paul’s video, and even then, though Paul lost his Google Preferred status and was removed from an original YouTube series called Foursome, the company did not take down his channel entirely or strip him of any of its 16 million subscribers. It didn’t even take down the video; Paul did that himself in the wake of the controversy.

YouTube stars did not invent the personality cult, but they stand to inherit what long-developing structures of politicized fandom, celebrity, and intimacy have crystallized

Normally, that would be the end of things, until the next mini-crisis erupts. But this incident has had broader repercussions. While condemnation was loud within the YouTube community — even PewDiePie, YouTube’s top star by subscriber count, who has generated controversy himself with numerous anti-Semitic and racist jokes and slurs, criticized Paul and the platform’s response — there was additional criticism from more mainstream outlets, who combined outrage at Paul specifically with a sense of appalled discovery more generally at what YouTube has become for its power users.

Paul’s fans, the “LoGang,” have largely stood by him, defending him to anyone who would listen. Paul himself took a brief hiatus after the scandal but returned in late January with a suicide-prevention video, including an interview with a survivor, and announced he would be donating a million dollars to suicide-prevention charities. Some critics have given his PR team the win, arguing that he has done the right thing with his notoriety. Through it all, he has gained about 400,000 subscribers. Only on February 9 did YouTube temporarily halt ad sales for his channel, citing a “pattern of behavior” in his posts after a new video had footage of him tasering dead rats.

That some people would subscribe to controversial YouTubers in the immediate aftermath of a scandal out of prurient interest is to be expected. But why do so few fans leave? Why does the public uproar and opprobrium seem to increase fans’ devotion, especially when the behavior of these often relentlessly narcissistic, racist performers appears indefensible?

The Logan Paul incident has brought a spotlight to YouTube’s negligence, but we should also be using it to shine a light on the fan armies YouTubers are amassing. While controversy occasionally leads YouTube to partially demonetize channels, YouTubers almost always continue to grow their subscriber base despite this, as this roundup of past YouTube violators shows. PewDiePie’s “BroArmy,” for instance, has gained 7 million new subscribers since his scandal, and a number of sponsors have quietly returned to supporting his content. Indeed, having a fan team that will stick by you through scandal is one of the commonalities among big YouTubers. Creating a branded fandom is a major part of a YouTuber’s staying power. Many have official names for the fandom, but unlike “trekkie” or “bronies,” which emerge spontaneously out of communities of interest, the hashtagged YouTube fandom names tend to be assigned by YouTuber celebrities themselves. Louise Petland (Sprinkleofglitter) has the Glitterinos, Dan and Phil have the Phandom, and so on. This conscious team-building project is common on the other side of the camera too, as with Logan Paul’s brother Jake and his vlogging crew, Team 10.

The demagogic celebrity personality is hardly new to the U.S. political scene. In the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin, a fascist radio-broadcasting priest, created a movement of perhaps millions across the country through his anti-Semitic programs while the more recent careers of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Alex Jones reflect the same tendency. The seeming intimacy and warmth of radio — of a voice at a microphone transmitted directly from the speaker into your ear and your home — provides a shortcut to trust and affiliation that other broadcast mediums have lacked.

Until YouTube. YouTube’s format produces a symbiotic relationship between producer and fan community, more intensely than radio, grounded as it is in the immediacy and intimacy of social media. You follow your favorite celeb in all their personal spaces; you get their thoughts and feelings up to the minute. The YouTuber seems more like a friend, a real presence in your life.

YouTube stars did not invent the personality cult, but they stand to inherit what long-developing structures of politicized fandom, celebrity, and intimacy have crystallized. In the void left by the collapse of unifying (false) narratives of progress, science, god, and the spread of freedom, entertainments and devotees proliferate: Around every popular piece of cultural production fan sites, conventions, wikis and other infrastructure bloom, reflecting an attempt to wring as much happiness and meaning as possible from what limited sources of pleasure our planet-destroying, inequality-magnifying capitalist culture provides.

But of course, such desperate pleasures produce desperate fans. The hate that floods the inboxes of those who venture even mild criticisms of beloved video game or comic book franchises attests to that. And when the fandom is allied to an individual, as with the YouTuber, rather than, say, the expanded Star Wars universe, the promise of a more direct, politicized kind of fandom-team comes into focus.

This tendency is shaped by YouTube’s platform approach, which drives YouTubers to produce constant, differentiated content to see what gets recommended by the algorithms. Content producers are responsible for driving their own numbers: This means they must produce a lot of videos to see what clicks, and they must produce increasingly self-referential videos that strategically emphasize belonging and the merchandise that signifies it. They are incentivized to intensify the feelings of us vs. them, because embattled loyalty churns clicks and sells shirts.

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To understand how YouTube forms defensive, proto-politicized fandoms, we have to understand how its business model promotes overinvestment on behalf of both fans and content producers.

As with the platform economy more generally (Uber, Airbnb, Task Rabbit, etc.), the shift to a personalized digital-distribution system drawing on a decentralized labor force largely functions to drive down wages — in this case in the entertainment industry. Even a YouTube channel with apparently high production values requires far less budget and support staff than legacy TV productions. And most of the content is made not to pass muster with human producers or gatekeepers but through a mating dance with the platform’s algorithmic recommendation system. Where once there was a team of cast, crew, executive producers, studio heads and marketing execs standing between an idea for programming and its being distributed to millions, now there are just the Paul brothers and their ilk. Content providers supply videos on spec, on a trial and error basis and in bulk to find out what can entice the algorithms to feed the content to viewers and generate ad revenue, with YouTube profiting through brokering the deal.

YouTube’s format produces a symbiotic relationship between producer and fan community. The YouTuber seems more like a friend, a real presence in your life

The seeming haplessness of YouTube in the face of its own algorithms, then, is not accidental. It has become conventional wisdom that YouTube has lost control of its platform to its algorithms, which, for instance, automatically restrict any and all LGBTQ+ content but encourage people to watch Nazi and alt-right content and create child-traumatizing clickbait. But rather than a loss of control, these outcomes prove YouTube is functioning as intended. By design, YouTube has little direct control over what its platform shows to any particular viewer compared with, say, NBC. Despite making some shows, YouTube’s primary business is not producing or even curating content; it is brokering as many matches as possible between content, viewers, and advertisers.

The tendency of YouTube’s algorithms to push reactionary content shows the extent to which algorithms can reproduce the dominant oppressive dynamics — which are highly profitable — while allowing those writing and administrating those algorithms to disavow these results. As new books by Virginia Eubanks and Safiya Noble have argued, technological and algorithmic “fixes” for poverty, social services, racial problems, and criminal justice serve to wash the hands of civil servants, to displace responsibility for amoral, racist, and oppressive decisions. As part of the backlash against the social movement victories of the 1960s, repressive control moved increasingly into “apolitical” technological centers. As Eubanks notes in an interview, “technology became a way of smuggling politics into the system without having an actual political conversation.”

As with most social media platforms, YouTube’s algorithmic sorting structures a highly visible competition among content producers for attention, with foregrounded metrics providing a scoreboard. More attention from viewers fuels more attention from algorithms, generating an all-or-nothing stakes. Content is made not to inform or entertain but to win, and this encourages increasingly team-like differentiation among programs and their fan bases, and the instigation of drama between them (for which creators and not YouTube appears responsible). Conflict pumps up the intensity of viewership and gives meaning to the otherwise insignificant stylistic or taste differences between producers’ channels, and to the endless stream of largely interchangable videos.

YouTube has made commitments to hire more content moderators. Given that Logan Paul’s suicide forest video was approved by a human moderator, it’s not clear this would do much to remove problematic content — even if there was a consensus of what constitutes a problem. But ultimately, YouTube’s business model precludes it from ever hiring enough moderators, content managers, and community relations to make it a healthy place. The only way platforms like YouTube are profitable is by deregulating the content space and getting users to produce the majority of the value by providing the content, the moderation (through flagging mechanisms, which are often abused), and the promotion (through likes, subscribes, and shares). Users also bear the brunt of the risk, whether it be in the form of the production costs for videos, the fallout stemming from how they are received, or the mere exposure as viewers to material that can traumatize in any number of ways.

This is not to romanticize the culture industry’s old way of doing things. It’s hard to imagine the Paul brothers successfully producing anything as awful as Get Hard or The Interview or Cops: That’s the kind of ideological violence only big money and big teams can buy. The “from below” ideological production of the PewDiePies of the world will never be as slick or subtle, and it won’t come backed by broad cultural legitimacy or massive marketing campaigns. One horizon for YouTube is to follow Netflix and Amazon and move further in the direction of emulating the studios they “disrupted,” producing and distributing a limited amount of content in the conventional way, now that they have secured a share of the attention market.

But it is hard to imagine the platform would surrender the new form of stardom it has facilitated in the YouTuber, and the new sort of fandom that accompanies it. The shift to the YouTuber, and the devolution of ideological power from the television channel, movie studio, and record label to the stars themselves engenders a transformed relationship and meaning of fandom. Increasingly, it politicizes it.

Celebrity and intimacy are seemingly contradictory ideals. A celebrity is defined by their distance — they are a star, after all, not of the planet on which you live. And for the wealthy and famous, notoriety and intimacy are often seen as incompatible: Are new friends and lovers there because they like you, or because they like being someone who knows you, or because of your money? The whirlwind of attention, bad-faith hangers-on, demanding family members, self-doubt, paparazzi, and studio power has created a long history of addictions, mental breakdowns, bankruptcies, and suicides. As much as stars are loved and admired while they rise to the sky, the public equally enjoys consuming their suffering on the way down — especially if she’s a woman. From envy to schadenfreude, it’s a violent relation of consumption the whole way.

But if the hierarchical relation of star to fan is characterized by implicit antagonism behind the fascination, the lateral relation among fans in a community offers something more warm and unifying — the undeniable pleasure and intimacy of shared knowledge, the theories and languages of the fan community, the posters on your bedroom wall and fan-fic stories on your phone screen, not to mention the affective ecstasy of dissolving yourself into a pack of hundreds or thousands of fans, screaming in unison at a concert or public event. The experience of fandom combines these affects: It is all about an intensity of desire and knowledge overcoming boundaries and producing, somehow, a relationship, an intimacy — impossibly distant but very close.

New media forms have intensified the cult of celebrity’s pull in both those seemingly opposed directions at once. Stars can participate more openly and directly in their publicity, making a seamless blur of their life and their image, while deepening their aura with unfathomable follower counts and engagement metrics. Their relation to fans becomes at once more intimate and more mediated. At the same time, this infusion of celebrity publicity into social media provides a template for how to use these tools to produce new celebrities across all sorts of niches and subcultures, incubating the same sort of fervency through a multiplicity of channels.

Fandom is all about an intensity of desire and knowledge overcoming boundaries and producing, somehow, a relationship — impossibly distant but very close

The YouTube star exemplifies and accelerates the possibilities of contemporary celebrity’s “intimate distance.” Like the reality TV stars before them, many YouTubers don’t come to fame through conventional performing skills — through acting, music, or other modes of performance art — but directly, through an entrepreneurship of the self serialized as entertainment. For this, some unique combination of charm, humor, creativity, extreme narcissism, intense disinhibition, work ethic, and strategic cleverness is required. Although many YouTubers are entertaining, producing things that resemble ordinary TV shows or music videos, most of them typically intersperse this with intimate daily-life content, video-game “let’s plays” (where they appear in one corner of a game screen while they play and talk), vlogs, and video diaries. These videos reify the pleasures of simply hanging out with them. And many of the most popular YouTubers produce only this kind of content.

Unlike standouts in other forms of media, YouTubers produce constant streams of content, often posting multiple times a day — although frequently they will post a lot of their daily content output on other platforms, particularly Instagram stories and Snapchat. That content is made available exclusively in and through “their” spaces — their personalized accounts on massive tech-company platforms. As opposed to other teen idols of acting or music fame, vloggers are life loggers, an always-there fun friend, in your pocket or in your hands, constantly making new content around the clock.

Though it’s widely understood that the most famous and successful YouTubers have publicists, producers, and agents around them, they maintain an aesthetic of less professional production values — for example the trademark jump cutting, the kept-in bad takes and outtakes, the giggling and errors that often mark the genre’s humor.

The aesthetic amateurism of the YouTuber corresponds with the fact that everyone who likes YouTube stars could also be producing their own YouTube content. YouTubers are distinguished from reality TV stars in that their fans can, with just a phone and an internet connection, seemingly do the exact same activity they do, that they used to become stars. Of course, not everyone becomes a YouTube celebrity. It helps to be conventionally attractive, and being white, straight, and cis is a big boost; it also helps to already be wealthy or have connections in the conventional entertainment world.

Just as e-sports enable fans who play the exact same games as their heroes to realistically aspire to playing a few rounds with them, YouTube foments the fantasy that famous YouTubers started out just like you, and you can vlog your way into their firmament. This is part of the medium’s vicarious appeal, another aspect of its intimate distance. The spectacle of a few incredibly rich Paul brothers hides the hundreds of thousands of aspiring stars producing free content and data for Alphabet Inc. every day.

There is a certain arbitrariness to the YouTuber: They are just a person sitting in front of a camera, like anyone else, like any of their fans. This makes them much more like our friends and loved ones, who are on some level arbitrary, personal, sublimely subjective. In every partnership and friendship there is a commitment to another individual that we recognize, often through insecurity or jealousy, could just as easily be offered to someone else. This arbitrariness of the YouTuber means that to become a fan of this particular star involves a similarly arbitrary commitment — a friendship pledge.

YouTube foments the fantasy that famous YouTubers started out just like you, and you can vlog your way into their firmament

The YouTuber appears on your phone, on a glass surface that you stroke and touch constantly. They show up everyday, a few times a day, and they can appear everywhere you go, in your bed, at school with you, on the bus, and that the entirety of the product they are selling is the fun of hanging out with them. They are your friend: When people attack them, as “outsiders” and the media do during a scandal, those people become an enemy, it becomes a political conflict rather than an entertainment scandal. Although YouTube uses the word “subscriber,” Twitter and Instagram’s term “follower” is closer to the mark, to say nothing of Facebook’s “friend.” It’s no wonder so many YouTubers have a hashtag name for their fandoms.

For Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, the defining character of the political as such (as opposed to the moral, cultural, social, scientific, etc.) is the distinction between friend and enemy. Wherever this distinction operates, politics are present, and only conflict, up to and including war, can solve a confrontation. The increased intimacy of the YouTuber — the collapsing of the distance to the star — creates the kind of political in-group: a community of Schmittian friendship. Watching the videos is an act of allegiance, a way of refining the us and them that makes the community meaningful.

But crucially, this politicized relationship to the YouTuber only works because the YouTuber cannot actually become your friend: The distance from them, their celebrity is what allows people to invest the energy, obsession, and community of the fandom experience. We can see this by distinguishing the YouTuber from the livestreamer. With livestreamers on Twitch, for example, the chat function means you can and often will interact with the streamer: They will read your best jokes out loud, respond to you, say hello and goodbye. Even on bigger streams, where the chat moves too fast for them to interact with everyone, they often have donations or subscription buttons that cause a pop-up to emerge on stream, often featuring an automated voice reading text the donator wrote, allowing for (paid) engagement. With a livestreamer, if you follow them enough and chat and interact enough, you might really become friends, or at least a mod. They maintain much less of the distance part of the equation.

The YouTuber, by contrast, posts completed videos, with live interaction largely restricted to social media. So the experience of fandom, friendship, and participation is more one-sided, more similar to traditional celebrities. It is sustained through sharing, reaction videos, and the like. This distance is required for the fandom relation: We can’t be fans of people we’re actually friends with, not really.

The devolution of power from the network to the individual star, then, combined with this collapsed intimate distance, increasingly creates the conditions for political micro-fiefdoms ruled by entertainment demagogues. It’s no surprise that we have one as president. But rather than an apotheosis, Trump is merely a preview of the political formations to come, as his personalized, idiosyncratic, and idiotic modes of representation, fandom, and meaning making become increasingly common.

In the immediate aftermath of the controversy surrounding his video, Logan Paul released a barely apologetic apology. Critics jumped on the fact that he even signed off on his mea culpa statement with his fandom hashtag: #Logang4Life. People discussed this as reflecting Paul’s failure to recognize the stakes of the moment, a furthering of his insensitivity. But they were wrong. That was the most canny and political part of the otherwise mealy-mouthed apology, because he is letting his friends, his fans, his followers know that nothing has changed, that this is a political conflict and if they stay by his side he won’t go anywhere. He’ll likely continue adding subscribers.

For now, there are no actively, consciously politicized major YouTubers, although the far-right recognizes YouTube as an important ground for spreading their ideas. Celebrity fandom was first feared as a mass hysteria of unleashed female desire — think Beatlemania-style tropes of teens tearing the clothes off their idols. While that fear lingers for some, fandom has proved itself an incredibly useful model for both the entertainment industry and representative government, where personality-driven “presidential-style” campaigning has become the go-to method for systems of “no-choice but the ruling classes” to hide their elitism.

While left-wing YouTubers exist, the platform is much less copacetic to the revolutionary ideals of critique, self-examination, questioning, and transformation. YouTube structures content around fandom and friendship, cult and follower, around defensive in-groups and hated enemies. Opportunists and relentless self-promoters like PewDiePie and the Paul brothers flourish in such an atmosphere. But it’s not hard to imagine there’s a more weaponized, politicized YouTuber waiting in the wings: a Father Coughlin for the 21st century.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of TEAMS. Also from this week, Robert Minto on being swallowed by the crowd, and Tom Thor Buchanan on making an enemy of your body.

Vicky Osterweil is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Philadelphia. She is the co-host of the podcast Cerise and Vicky Rank the Movies, where they are ranking every movie ever made, and the author of In Defense of Looting.