Prank videos have been slowly polarising the YouTube community for some time now. As the cost of shock value increases, pranks are creating a divide – between people who find public harassment, casual racism and privileged antagonism funny, and sane people.
It all came to a head in September of last year, when ex-Big Brother contestant, alleged rapist and YouTube pest Sam Pepper broke the internet with his fake-hand-bum-pinch-but-actually-street-harrassment prank video.
The internet’s reaction resulted in Pepper frantically backpedalling by claiming it all as a “social experiment”, being dropped from his talent network Collective Digital Studios, a defamatory open letter written by Laci Green with over 100,000 signatures, and several people coming forward with allegations against him of sexual assault and soliciting of sexual activity – some being minors at the time.
And yet, despite rumours of an arrest and a very temporary suspension of his channel, the LA-based Brit has been free to continue uploading and pranking to his shrivelled little black heart’s content. This has culminated in yet another atrocity to the good name of internet video, in which Pepper traumatises the best friend of his collaborator Colby, by staging a kidnapping of them both and shooting Colby in the head in front of him.
At a time when gun violence and murder is fresh in the minds of Americans with yet another shooting this weekend in Colorado Springs, this video is a prime example of shameless tent-poling on social issues, in the most gross and subversive ways. But despite him being dismissed and shunned by the YouTube community, Pepper’s trainwreck style of pranking is probably the key feature of a greater problem that lies within the site.
Controversial prank and ill-intentioned “social experiment” videos have been allowed to run rampant on YouTube to a point where, as mentioned, the bar for outrage (and subsequent viral success) has been consistently raised; while viewer standards are proportionately lowered.
Straight white dude-types go out into the world under the banner of inane channel names like “BroPranksTV” (literally a real channel) and harass women, antagonise racial minorities, fake kidnappings, and generally see just how far they can go in any capacity without being arrested (usually pretty far). But as long as they hurriedly cry “It’s just a prank! A prank!” then of course all is well, and they can go out and continue their japes another day. And of course, their audience lap it all right up, and will defend these creators en masse against any criticism.
And like Pepper’s latest video, individual targeting in pranks for the sake of “comedy” is equally a problem. Prankster Roman Atwood, not content with his viral success from last year – where he traumatises his girlfriend by pretending to kill their infant son – decided to do it AGAIN in October. Only this time, with more explosions.
But somewhere in the dark sludge of Prank YouTube, particularly Pepper’s latest upload, there’s a faint glimmer of hope. This video is still fairly new, not yet 24 hours old; but looking through up to nine hours of comments, it’s hard to find a single one that’s positive or supportive.
Yes, apparently even for the audiences of prank videos, there is a line to be drawn somewhere; and not even the millions of fans that have blindly stuck with fame-chasing Pepper for the past year can deny that line has been crossed (it’s a shame that the line is drawn at “fake-shooting a cute boy” and not, y’know, “literally groping women”, but we’ll take what we can get).
For those in the community/industry that don’t benefit from the ad revenue of viral pranks in any way, pranksters are considered a black mark on YouTube’s already less-than-gleaming reputation. Some YouTubers routinely do their part to have the worst of them removed, despite the backlash from the more toxic audiences.
On top of this, most prank channels (especially Pepper) are banned from major YouTube-dedicated events like VidCon and Summer in the City, which is another sign that the community at least is doing its part to ensure the safety of younger audiences. But what are YouTube themselves doing?
Ah. Cashing in.
Despite any and all backlash against the site for allowing and supporting this type of content, YouTube is making minimal effort to actually do anything about it. But not enough people are holding them accountable, and instead going after individuals like Sam Pepper, one garbage video at a time. While this might provide some short-term satisfaction (and it does), time and time again they come back to repeatedly offend; because they can, and they know they’ll generate outrage, and little is being done to improve the condition of the community.
Prank videos survive on two things: the support of their audiences, and the blind eye of YouTube. From the comments above, Pepper is clearly losing one of those; and we can hope that as the outrage level reaches Olympian heights, so will the other pranksters. But what about the other thing?
We’ve written a little about how YouTube is apparently doing more to support the growth of its creators; but this is not enough. It also has an obligation to support their safety and comfort, and allowing the insidious grossness of privileged prank culture run unchecked across the site is showing millions of impressionable young ‘uns everywhere that this kind of behaviour is a-ok, as long as you have a video camera and yell “prank!”. And when you pair that up with Pepper’s additional allegations, this creates a very, very unsafe space.
TL;DR: Objectivity in journalism be damned, everyone thinks Sam Pepper needs to stop, and prank culture on YouTube needs to be either regulated, or obliterated.