It's easy to hate on Logan Paul. A 22-year-old YouTuber with 15 million subscribers, Paul made himself the poster child for shallow and gross behavior this weekend by posting a graphic video in which he finds the body of a man who died by suicide in , a sacred site at the base of Mt. Fuji. The video gained a million likes before Paul took it down.
Bad enough that Paul yuks it up in the video while dressed in what can only be described as 21st century clown gear, the archetypal ugly American abroad. Worse still was the entirely self-centered apology that came Monday ("This is a first for me, I've never faced criticism like this before"). In a second apology, this time on video, Paul claims to be dejected, yet still had time to coif his hair in its perfect proto-Trump configuration.
But if you focus all your ire on this ridiculous manchild in particular, you'll miss the bigger picture — which is that YouTube is broken. The Google video subsidiary allows unfiltered young stars to get away with ever-more outlandish provocations because it still has no idea of its power — and is ignoring some very basic common-sense solutions.
It's been nearly a year since Felix Kjellberg, a similarly air-headed YouTuber better known as PewDiePie, was hurriedly dropped by Disney. This was because the Wall Street Journal watched a bunch of his YouTube videos, pointing out Kjellberg's frequent use of swastikas and other Nazi imagery. Intending to shock, he'd paid a bunch of people around the world to hold up anti-Semitic signs. Apparently it took him until the Nazi rally at Charlottesville in August to realize this was a bad idea.
It was easy for Kjellberg to make himself the center of attention in the whole affair. He inserted himself into the Paul affair too, ridiculing his fellow YouTuber's thought process in a tweet. He's a troll; that's what he does. (He has also attracted infamy for yelling the word "rape" repeatedly and using the n-word.) Less noticed was the fact that Nazi-based trolling videos from one of its biggest stars had evidently passed muster with YouTube itself. It should not have taken the Wall Street Journal to point them out.
YouTube has been routinely made aware of disturbing content by the media, acting only after it starts to generate bad headlines.
But it does. YouTube has been routinely made aware of disturbing content by the media, acting only after it starts to generate bad headlines. At its core, YouTube has a content policing problem. This was made abundantly clear in November when Mashable uncovered dozens of amateur videos aimed at children that featured familiar cartoon characters pulling out automatic weapons. The videos weren't just featured on regular YouTube; they'd made it to the supposedly safe space of YouTube Kids.
The video service apologized for this and other disturbing videos featuring child actors. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote in a blog post that she aimed to bring "the total number of people across Google working to address content that might violate our policies to over 10,000 in 2018." (This has been repeatedly misreported as YouTube planning on hiring 10,000 moderators.)
Don't mistake this for some sort of actual reckoning. YouTube is still trying to come up with a way for it to cut humans out of the equation and resume its "don't blame us, we're just a platform" role. Wojcicki has placed a lot of faith in the service's machine-learning algorithm, boasting of many thousands of violent videos that had been removed by its artificial intelligence system. This same obliviousness was evident when YouTube released a statement Tuesday on Logan's video:
I just received an official statement from a contact at @Youtube regarding the outrage and controversy around Logan Paul’s (now self-removed) “We found a dead body” top trending Youtube video.
I’ll save my personal comment for later. Just wanted to pass this along. http://pic.twitter.com/JNTQDMVvT4
— Philip DeFranco (@PhillyD) January 2, 2018
YouTube faces the same challenge as every other platform including Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and many more. There's just so much stuff — and so much terrible stuff — that it's legitimately hard to constantly police.
What's different on YouTube is that a person like Paul is particularly amplified due to his following. Missing in YouTube's statement was the fact that Logan's video had made the "Trending" section of YouTube unhindered — or that he only had one of three possible strikes against him. His method of making money via advertising on the site, estimated to bring him more than $1 million a month, remains in place.
It doesn't take 10,000 people to watch all the Trending section's videos. Wojcicki could theoretically do that herself and not take too much of a dent out of her work day. There are less than 100 content creators on YouTube with more than 10 million subscribers; you could assign five people to watch each of those channels like hawks, 24/7, and still have 9,500 left over to police the less popular parts of the service.
Because here's the screamingly obvious thing: not all YouTubers are created equally.
Because here's the screamingly obvious thing: not all YouTubers are created equally. If a video features violence but has under 100 views, perhaps that should be dealt with after having words with PewDiePie about anti-Semitic content he pushed to 50 million subscribers. Or having a video of a suicide victim on a channel particularly popular with young children.
If more attention is paid by viewers to the top 1 percent of videos, that's where YouTube should put the bulk of its attention too — maybe even hiring producers to work solely with popular but inexperienced twentysomethings, especially the ones whose on-screen personalities are basically trolls.
These producers could function as they do in the TV world — as gatekeepers for bad ideas. If a video is insensitive to the very real societal problem of suicide, they could simply refuse to publish it.
Putting such checks and balances in place runs the risk of losing some of the biggest cash cows on YouTube; after all, the service takes a 60 percent cut of all ads on these videos. This is probably why Wojcicki treated PewDiePie with kid gloves, congratulating him on his 50 million subscribers even as those Nazi and sexual assault joke videos were in plain sight.
But let's be real. Where else are they going to go? Vimeo and Daily Motion are nice services, but no channel on them has more than 200,000 subscribers. If you want to be insanely popular, as most of these narcissists do, YouTube is the only game in town.
Wojcicki is holding all the cards. Logan Paul is entirely dependent on her continued munificence, not the other way around. It's time YouTube started acting like it — before another dumbass platinum blond twentysomething gets the message that shocking us is a better business model than entertaining us.