Arts

@LARGE | Michael Andor Brodeur

YouTube apologies may signal a cultural shift

‘I’m so sorry about this, Logang. This is supposed to be a fun vlog.”

That’s 22-year-old YouTuber Logan Paul, moments after seeing his first dead body — in this case, a man hanging from a tree in the “suicide forest” of Aokigahara, Japan, where Paul had led his ragtag crew of friends and human tripods to make a “fun” video in a series of “fun” videos from their Japanese adventure.

Confronted with their certainly anticipated discovery, they marveled at the color of the man’s hands, speculated as to how long he had been there, and live-processed the sight they were taking in. It seemed like the kind of slowly dawning realization that might ultimately have led to the deletion of the video. Nope.

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“We came here with the intent to focus on the haunted aspect of the forest,” he says in the clip, since removed but still circulating via copies around the Internet. It’s worth noting that the “haunted aspect” of the Aokigahara forest exists only because of the extreme number of suicides that take place there — a grim distinction topped only by the Golden Gate Bridge — making Paul something of an actor as well as a vlogger. 

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Paul posted the video on Dec. 31 to his account — where it reached nearly 16 million followers and joined other videos from his trip to Japan which found him throwing Pokeballs at cars, dancing down the street in a kimono, and shouting that “Tokyo is a real-life cartoon,” broken up by sporadic reminders to himself that “Japan is all about respect.” 

The next day was a new year, and the Internet was not taking Paul with it. Fellow vloggers and the Twitterverse at large lambasted him for the idiotic stunt, and he quickly issued the kind of bleary-eyed apology you get from a sleepwalker who had no idea where he’d relieved himself. “I made a severe and continuous lapse in my judgment, I don’t expect to be forgiven, I’m simply here to apologize.” This week, YouTube removed Paul from Google’s Preferred ad platform and nixed him from the fourth season of the YouTube Red series “Foursome.”

This past Wednesday, another high-profile YouTuber, Shane Dawson, was royally dragged by the Internet after a heavily-edited video stitching together a series of offhand comments and jokes the vlogger made about pedophilia from an episode of his “Shane and Friends” podcast recorded four years earlier. (The video, originally titled “Shane Dawson is a Pedophile. Here’s the proof” has since been removed, along with the entire channel where it originally appeared.)

Though the video was certainly edited intentionally to remove any context that would make clear Dawson was joking, the inevitable 15-minute apology video it inspired Dawson to post hardly absolved the vlogger. “I loved the feeling of making somebody shocked and laugh because they couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth. I wasn’t confident enough to make smarter jokes. I was making the easy jokes.” And a scan through his channel reveals this isn’t his first apology for attempting to offend his viewers.

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These are just two YouTube apologies, and on YouTube, apologies are as commonplace as the offensive videos that force them. But in the vastly different cases of Paul and Dawson, there is a common signal of a cultural shift. Shock and entertainment may be on the outs. 

Since its launch in 2005, the popularity of YouTube has been buoyed by content that celebrates its own unfiltered directness. From fail videos and street pranks to the overwhelming supply of cute-20-somethings-with-cameras-and-no-shame, shock has long been the stock-in-trade of YouTube, attracting billions of clicks and generating as many dollars.

Like the “easy jokes” Dawson broadly referred to in his apology (likely pointing to his 2014 dalliance with blackface), the quest for shock often comes at the cost of decorum, decency, respect, and regard for others (otherwise, what would be shocking?) — all things that, right now, feel in critically short supply. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of shock for Americans to process on a daily basis, all of it more exhausting than entertaining. (It may be the same phenomenon behind the gasp-and-groan comedy of Louis C.K. and Dave Chapelle suddenly falling flat for many longtime fans.)

It could be that we’ve simply lost our appetite for losing our appetite; what might be decried as “political correctness” or cultural hypersensitivity may in reality be more akin to a gag reflex, an actual inability to digest more shock, cruelly paired with pangs of hunger for the opposite.

With each foul new utterance that drops from the mouth of our current president (oh here comes another!), with each subsequent blow to decorum, with each offense to common sense, with every vaporized norm and vanquished institution, it becomes harder and harder to recall the feeling of those formative first few years on YouTube, when recoiling felt like a rush, when the new freedoms of the Internet begged to be tested, and when a trusty normalcy anchored us from slipping into the unimaginable. 

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It may be good news that we’re gradually stemming our craving for shock; but heaven help us if we ever lose our capacity for it. 

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.