Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the lesser-reported news from South Africa and further afield. This week: When vlogging turns dangerous.
If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a thousand times: the internet is a dark place. If Jung was correct about the collective unconscious, he’d have had a field day with the web – a largely uncensored expression of humanity’s weird and wonderful. And also the less wonderful.
A few days ago, CNN reported that a young woman had shot dead her boyfriend on YouTube in an effort to get more hits for their channel. Monalisa Perez, 19, shot 22-year-old Pedro Ruiz lll through a book he was holding up to his chest, believing the book would act as a shield. (Guess they didn’t follow the Oscar Pistorius trial.) The cherry on top: Perez is seven months pregnant.
I’m trying not to judge here, but I’ll admit I’m not trying very hard. Ruiz’s aunt told media the couple were very much in love and that it was a prank gone wrong. The channel, you see, broadcast stunts and pranks, and the pair hoped the shooting would go viral.
Well, go viral it did, but not in the way that they’d hoped. Let’s park that head-scratcher for the moment, though.
Just a few days later another YouTuber narrowly missed a sticky end. Zhang, a health vlogger – emphasis on health – poisoned herself live on YouTube by eating a toxic plant. She had ill-advisedly plucked two giant leaves of deadly Agave Americana, believing it to have health benefits. Fortunately for her, she did still have conventional medicine on speed dial and she survived after being rushed to hospital to have her stomach pumped.
If the Darwin Awards introduce a new category for deaths by vlogging, remember you read it here first. In the meantime, though, one can only marvel at the peculiarities that seem to draw an astonishing number of viewers. Buckle up – we’re going down the rabbit hole.
Ask a Mortician is just what it says it is: all the gory stories that people apparently want to ask morticians. With over-the-top, Ghostbusters level cheesiness, Los Angeles mortician Caitlin Doughty tackles such cheery topics as coffin birth and decomposition. It’s about as much fun to watch as it sounds. Nonetheless, Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, an organisation intended to dispel death anxiety. Frankly, though, after watching her show, I’m thinking one or two meetings in you’ll be a quivering ball of panic attacks, clinging to the nearest person’s leg and weeping.
Doughty’s channel may be helpful to anyone considering an exit via Heaven’s Gate, though. Remember them? The 90’s UFO cult that donned matching tracksuits and ate phenobarbital-laced apple sauce washed down with vodka to commune with aliens? Turns out they’re still active. The group has a webpage and is still maintaining the YouTube channel, which includes recruitment videos, documentaries, and the leader’s teachings.
Then there’s the collection of channels, genres and videos that boggle the mind simply because one cannot figure out their purpose at all. Meet The Licking Guy, who licks buildings, plants and objects in a ski mask and sunglasses and films it. He’s licked the YouTube offices, a cactus, a crane. Why, we do not know. Why people watch it, we also do not know. But his video of licking YouTube has been watched over 330,000 times and liked nearly 10,000 times. (Again: why, we do not know.)
There are thousands more channels which are stranger and serve no apparent purpose. One, namely JonDrinksWater, contains around 5,000 videos of one man… drinking water. I’m trying to interpret this with Warhol-inspired generosity, but those are minutes of my life I’ll never get back. One video alone has around nine hours of footage of said man drinking said water. For busy viewers, the video editors thoughtfully created a condensed version that was only three minutes long, but we recommend you view the full version in case you miss anything (joke).
AdamDiddy, who has 16,000 clearly very bored subscribers, has based his channel entirely on what he can flush down the toilet. Every day, he tries to flush something else. Can he flush rice? Can he flush pizza? Once, he tried to flush a bicycle. I’ll give you a guess how that went.
Staying with sanitation (sort of) ToiletFan is strangely endearing: a child who is, of all things, a toilet enthusiast. He films toilets and reviews them, discussing features, models, and flushes. This includes vintage toilets and sanitation systems, which leads one to believe we may be dealing with a particularly single-minded boy genius. (He may grow up to rival this French elevator enthusiast.)
Confusion aside, modern YouTube users are a far cry from the original YouTube stars. A little history: the first YouTube video was uploaded on 23 April 2005. Me at the Zoo showed co-founder Jawed Karim at the San Diego Zoo. Fast-forward to October 2006 and YouTube was set to be bought out by Google for $1.65 billion. The first adverts were rolled out in August 2007.
Early online wonders like Olga Kay and Michael Buckley were largely content-driven and mimicked television broadcast style far more closely. Today’s users have carte blanche. Anything goes, and they can bring in millions of dollars in sponsorship deals if they can get enough hits. Comedian PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, is the highest earning YouTube star. He has over 43-million subscribers, and earned $12-million before tax in 2015 which increased to $15-million in 2016. Second in line in 2016 was Roman Atwood with $8-million.
A couple more stats to raise your eyebrows: today, six out of 10 people prefer online video platforms to live TV. By 2025, half of viewers under 32 are expected not to subscribe to a pay-TV service. Even in 2016, eight out of 10 adults aged 8-49 watched YouTube. In 2015, the same age group spent 4% less time watching TV, while the time they spent on YouTube shot up by a staggering 74%.
And with those numbers in mind, it’s perhaps no wonder that the world and its neighbour wants a piece of the pie. But like every gold rush, it comes with a price and a large number of casualties. The trick is not to shoot yourself in the foot. Or, for that matter, anywhere else. DM
Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.