Loyal readers may remember that I wrote a piece on the Youtube ‘prank’ culture some weeks back. I highlighted some examples of these ‘pranksters’ producing content which essentially boiled down to them being mean to people or being deliberately provocative in order to make more ‘entertaining’ content.
Towards the end of that original blog post, I spoke about how some of these content producers label their work as a ‘social experiment’ in an attempt to try and legitimize what they are doing. One of my main examples in that section was the Youtuber Sam Pepper, who will be the primary focus of today’s follow-up blog.
For those of you who don’t know him, or have purged him from your minds, Sam Pepper is an American Youtuber and one-time Big Brother contestant. He has a following of just under 2.3 million on Youtube and typically produces prank videos. He gained notoriety last year after releasing a video in which he would ask unsuspecting women for directions and then pinch their backside while they were distracted. This led to people highlighting his previous content featuring harassment, such as handcuffing himself to women (and releasing them in exchange for a kiss) and lassoing random women on the street. The negative reaction of the ass grab ‘prank’ also led Pepper to lose a number of endorsements and a number of women came forwards with allegations of harassment and even rape. However, things seemed to cool off with nothing apparently coming of the allegations (at least, that’s what my research suggests). That is until yesterday when Sam Pepper was once more thrust into the negative spotlight. The Youtube community is once more ablaze after Sam Pepper posted a ‘prank video’ in which Sam Pepper organises a fake kidnapping and execution for two Vine (a video platform which only allows for six-second videos) ‘stars’. One of them, the one that is ‘executed’, is in on the whole thing and the victim of this ‘prank’ is the other Vine personality, who is also confusingly called Sam.
So why have I taken the time to tell you all this? For those who read my last blog on the topic of pranks, you will remember my detailing of a prank that featured the faking of a suicide so this elaborate set-up is nothing new in the field of internet gotchas. Well firstly, kidnapping and murder are not topics that the average person find funny in the slightest, especially taking into account the current state of the world, that is a world still recovering from a few hellish weeks (Paris attacks, downing of a Russian airliner etc.) but the second major problem comes from the video’s climax. Many news sources are beginning to draw links between the method of ‘execution’ in the video (the ‘victim’ is kneeling with a bag over their head and is subsequently shot in the side of the head) and one of the methods of execution favoured by ISIS. Take this SJW fearmongering as you wish but the parallels are there. As I noted last week, there are stupid people on the internet who will post stupid memes about ISIS but this is something in a league of its own. For my third point, please take a moment to examine the image below:
That is a still from the video. Tied to the chair is the ‘target’, Sam from Vine, about to get shot is Colby from Vine and the gunman is an unnamed confederate. Turn your attention to Sam from Vine. Look at his face. That is the face of someone fearing for their life. That is someone who believes that they are about to watch their best friend die. To me, it looks like he truly believes that he is going to be next. As a psychologist, I try my best to understand human behaviour but for the life of me, how is this funny? How does this even vaguely qualify as a prank? Like, can someone give me a genuine answer?
So why do we see this kind of content? Well, one of the big problems is that just about anyone can get famous on Youtube. Young people can be catapulted to digital stardom and unlike actors and musicians and other public figures, it is unlikely that these internet stars will have wranglers and PR teams making sure that there is a line these people do not cross. There is no-one telling Sam Pepper: “You want to do what? No, that’s just wrong on so many levels.” and so there is no filter between the star’s brain/sense of humour and the internet. Furthermore, while the media will wantonly paint a picture of the current generation being apathetic monsters who don’t care about the world around them or even worse, monsters who find delight in incorporating aspects of the real world in their work, the sad truth is that these internet stars probably don’t take the time to consider how their work interacts with the world. In Sam Pepper’s case, he has 2.3 million people who subscribe in order to be kept up to date with his work and so he can’t consider the ramifications of every single video. This is in no way a justification of his behaviour; it’s just another way of looking at the situation.
Now for the million dollar questions- has the Youtube pranks culture gone too far and what will the fallout of this incident be? While many people will very verbally scream yes in answer to the first question, the sad truth is that a vocal group will shout no. People like Sam Pepper and other controversial Youtube pranksters have a backing of millions, and while some of them will object to content such as the kidnapping and execution ‘prank’ I have been talking about today, there will be many, even tens of thousands, who will rise up to defend the content creator. They will argue that no-one gets hurt and that it’s ‘just a bit of fun’. But how long can this last? There is a countdown clock started by the universe, counting down to the moment that one of these pranks goes wrong in a way that can’t be used as content. Someone is going to get hurt. I guarantee it. And that’s the potential fallout of an instance like this. However, as we’ve seen in the past, the Youtuber often gets away with just a slap on the wrist. Popular gamer and prankster KSI was banned for life from the popular EuroGamer convention as of 2012 after numerous reports of sexual harassment at the convention but as of 2015, he is due to release an album, a movie and is raking in the revenue from a pseudo-biography he released back in October. In Sam Pepper’s case, despite numerous women coming forward last year with allegations of sexual harassment, assault and even rape, Pepper still has a following of over 2 million, which means he still rakes in profits of his video views. People are going to tut and shake their heads at this latest debacle but we’ll move on with our lives after a little while. Sam Pepper will continue creating content and controversy.
Youtube is a wonderful platform. In this world of rapid technological advancement, Youtube is everything from a source of entertainment and a modern news outlet to a source of income and a livelihood for many people. However, perhaps it is time to take a step back and evaluate what this service is doing. Pranking videos only represents a fraction of the traffic on the site but it could potentially become a piece in Youtube’s downfall if this content continues to escalate. Pranking is just as competitive as any other sector on Youtube and to maintain high view counts, prank videos will have to outdo each other. This will only speed up the countdown clock and could potentially ruin Youtube’s credibility and image.