Mainstream media hasn’t been the best lately. Routinely slated for extremely legitimate reasons, and slanted to whichever end of the liberal or conservative scale you fancy, it just hasn’t been reliable. The public’s trust in journalists and TV anchors is at an all-time low and for good reason.
For nearly a decade now, a generation has been deciding for themselves who they want to listen to, and social media has already outstripped TV as the go-to news source for 18- to 24-year-olds. This is no huge surprise: People on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are infinitely more relatable—guys and girls like you and me, not members of the mainstream media, who have apparently been lying through their teeth to us for the past ten years.
Recently, though, old media has started to bite back, threatening the autonomy and income of established online personalities.
PewDiePie rose to fame via one of the most fascinating aspects of YouTube culture: the desire people have to watch others play and react to video games. Valentina Palladino of Ars Technica proposes that this may be due to something called “mirror neurons”—essentially, that a part of our brain lights up when watching someone do something we enjoy doing—just as likely the same empathetic connection is formed between viewer and host. They’re like us, these people. They play games, they fart around, they like memes. They’re not Michael Palin swanning around Calcutta. So viewers relate to them not as celebrities, but almost as friends, like the chat-room pals we all made in the early days of the internet.
Problem is, traditional media judges itself and others by entirely different standards and metrics, which has created an interesting dichotomy. It’s why, when someone like PewDiePie—hero to millions—hires two Indian men via Fiverr to dance around and wave a placard reading ‘”DEATH TO ALL JEWS” and then posts the video on his channel, the reaction of the mainstream news and Pewd’s army of fans is considerably different.
PewDiePie cracking wise about the Holocaust means nothing to his fans—just another zany prank to file along with the rest. In outlets like the Wall Street Journal, however, it’s met with shocked disapproval—first that he would think to do something like this, and second that he would receive such overwhelming support from his subscribers.
This, of course, is by no means the wrong take to have; you don’t have to be Tipper Gore to think people shouldn’t make anti-Semitic gags. However, it’s no surprise the WSJ is confused by the reaction of his fans, as stars like PDP have a very different relationship with their followers to the one WSJ has with its readers. When a public figure is your friend, you give him or her the benefit of the doubt, just as you would a friend in real life. Even if what he or she does is totally fucked up, you’ll use all the mental gymnastics available to you to alleviate your favorites of responsibility.
The main tool utilized here is the word “context”—the great get-out-of-jail-free card for YouTube stars who make jokes that would never ever be acceptable in the mainstream media (or polite society). In some way, you feel it isn’t just the context of the words they’re talking about, though. It’s also the context of YouTube itself, as a phenomenon. Either way, the majority of the time the context maxim doesn’t work; it just exposes the willful ignorance of these people, who often refuse to take responsibility for their actions. And why should they? What the mainstream press has to say about them is largely irrelevant; their fans will still subscribe, their ads will still generate millions in revenue and their work and money won’t be affected.
Only, now, the tables are beginning to turn.
After Pewd’s blunder his deals with Disney’s Maker Studios—which was originally set up by YouTubers—was terminated. Since Disney acquired Maker in 2015, the company has been plagued by staff layoffs and criticisms from YouTubers, and the move to excommunicate PewDiePie only encouraged more vitriol. Many on YouTube—and the internet at large—began to turn on the press for highlighting Pewd’s indiscretion and Maker for cutting ties with him.
Beyond the Maker deal, PewDiePie himself seems largely unaffected by the controversy; at this point, he’s just too big for even a Holocaust gag to send him under. However, the same can’t be said for other channels with influences that aren’t quite as gigantic.
Many channels have begun to complain that their videos are being demonetized. This, they say, is due to YouTube tightening the rules on what’s deemed controversial: If a video isn’t appropriate, a brand won’t want to run ads on it. But the site’s definition of “controversial” seems to have changed. Any allusion to religion, violence, bad language, and sex are now undesirable. The established model of meritocracy—if you get views, you get money—seems to be changing, and some YouTubers are looking to jump ship.
H3H3, the husband and wife king, and queen of YouTube, who we profiled earlier this year, have been embroiled in a heated debate with the Wall Street Journal and journalist Jack Nicas. At the end of March, Nicas penned a story in which he claimed YouTube is monetizing offensive and racist videos and showing brands like Coca Cola’s ads before scandalous content. As a result, H3’s Ethan Klein—as well as many other popular YouTubers—claimed that their videos had become demonetized without any warning, causing them to lose a great amount of revenue. He then made a video in which he claimed Nicas had falsified evidence in his report and doctored screenshots of ads shown before offensive videos, but subsequently took it down and apologized for the hasty conclusion he’d come to (though the apology was primarily aimed at his fans and not Nicas). The conspiracy was debunked all within a matter of hours.
It’s not just those directly affected who are joining in with the conspiracy either. Videos like the one above offer their own takes on why the mainstream media would want to jeopardize the incomes of YouTubers. Is it jealousy, malice, or subterfuge? To these people, it’s unthinkable that mainstream coverage of YouTube drama is just regular reporting. It must be something larger. It must go straight to the top because it always does.
This kind of discourse—these near-immediate reactions and subsequent unravellings—could only ever take place online. When Ethan Klein speaks his mind, his hordes of fans will defend him to the bitter end, right or wrong, and people like Jack Nicas will bear the brunt of that reaction. Because he’s attacking their friend, and what do you do when someone attacks your friend? You beat the shit out of them.
For something as vastly influential as YouTube, it’s bizarre that the mainstream media has so far kept such a distance. Perhaps it just assumed its hegemony was untouchable—that it can change and adapt, write live-blogs and put up paywalls. Or maybe these people just don’t want to look it in the face, because the rate of change is terrifying—mini cultures and trends incubated, disseminated, and killed off in days.
The two would have quite happily existed separately from each other, but they’re now beginning to sniff around each other’s butts. Controversy has been courted, and this creates potential problems for both sides. While previously YouTubers might not have cared about what the Wall Street Journal has to say, now their incomes are being affected, and they’re going to be forced to pay attention. And the battle is only likely to get more vicious.
Celebrity is changing, but this is different to Zoella filming her everyday life and selling makeup, or Instagram stars, or any of that garbage. This is about people with millions of fans getting political and calling journalists falsifiers, as well as a brewing war between old and new. Ultimately, the victor will be decided by what the people care about more: friendship or scandal.
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