“Lazy Sunday” was blasting out of my dad’s office when he called my sisters and me in to watch Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell rhythmically talk about Narnia and Magnolia cupcakes. At the time, I wasn’t completely sure what was going on in the small video box on the screen, but I laughed along because all the older, wiser members of my family were. Quickly, Samberg’s voice was followed up by the blaring tune of “Numa Numa” featuring an overweight man gesticulating wildly on screen — and my introduction to YouTube was officially complete. “Numa Numa” played us out.
Born in the digital age, I never had any difficulty grasping the concept of YouTube. While it was foreign in the face of adults who were still wrapping their minds around DVD, YouTube was just another format on the continuously growing list of platforms that allowed me to publicize my life to friends and strangers alike. I would obsessively watch MadTV’s Stuart squealing, “Look what I can do!” and track down bootlegged episodes of “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” while simultaneously loading low-quality, pixelated versions of PG-13 movies at the scandalous age of 10. The buffering symbol was the bane of my existence as a child, but little did I know that the Internet was preparing me for an acid wash that no chemical compound could sustain.
So let’s take it back, to Natalie Zak circa the seventh grade. Privileged and spoiled, I was blessed with the opportunity to go to London at age 11, an age where I could at least pretend to appreciate world cultures (while in reality I was slightly confused about how geography works). I remember boarding the plane while still fuzzy on the concept of countries and land masses; even then, a casual onlooker could tell my future was bright.
A trip highlighted by art galleries and carefully selected Gap Kids outfits, it marked a substantial shift in my adolescence and personality. Turning on the TV in the hotel room to find YouTube an available application, my sisters and I immediately logged on and were greeted by the fateful words that will forever be seared in my memory: “Alex Reads Twilight: Chapter 1.”
I was doomed before we even finished the video. Like any adolescent, I was experiencing my middle school excursion into Anglophilia that involved Union Jack T-shirts and a feigned passion for The Beatles (whom I couldn’t have known less about at the time). Had it not been for the video of a scrawny, overly opinionated British teenager, I could have escaped this phase unscathed. Instead, I came out bruised and bloody on the other side, having lost years of my life to an endless series of five-minute rants and ramblings.
“Alex Reads Twilight” served as my entrance into the world of British YouTube, and I was immediately hooked. I took in everything Alex Day said as the word of God even though his godless existence preached nothing of value. His outlandish ideas and championed causes became ones I ran around proclaiming. Through a platform of easily manipulated tween girls, Day built his career.
From the snarkiness and sass of “nerimon,” I moved to the lighter, more cheerful Charlie McDonnell, otherwise known as “charlieissocoollike.” While watching him dye his hair red and adorn token glasses, I learned of a little button underneath the video that urged me to make the relationship binding — “subscribe.” My digital footprint expanded as I moved from 90-pound “Doctor Who” fanatics to a 30-year-old nerd sitting at home building a brand off of the blind devotion of 13-year-old kids.
And I was one of those 13 year olds. I couldn’t help it — the community made me feel superior. Looking back, it may have been the first time I felt a sense of culture and belonging. Never before had I been a part of such an expansive community of shared interests. I never commented on a video and I never attended any gatherings, but somehow I still felt a part of a larger movement, and that’s what made it special. I was a small part of a community that mattered.
It’s too bad though that it took me. Young and easily manipulated, I adapted aspects of these clever entrepreneurs’ personalities and opinions, proudly declaring myself a nerd because a 35-year-old man told me I was “awesome.” And maybe, just maybe, I was right to be full of awe as I stared at these great figures looming before me. Gazing up at their carefully cultivated backdrops, wardrobes and makeup, I laughed as they divulged dark secrets, instructed how to make the perfect cup of tea and reacted to a reaction of a reaction video of a cat. I knew them, and though they didn’t know me, that didn’t matter — I was still a part of a community that cared.
I never commented on a video and I never attended a gathering, and that made all the difference. Because when the realization of this toxic culture began to dawn on me, I was able to escape with a shred of dignity. As I scrolled through comment sections of videos, I would stop and stare at the Arial font that scrawled either love letters or death threats. Disagreement and conflict guaranteedly spiraled out of control under each video as I watched my heroes, astonished, react to the backlash against their carefully scripted words.
Words are words, but on the Internet, especially YouTube, they become battle cries, tabloid magazine headlines and national crises in a matter of seconds. I watched helplessly as videos were torn apart because a well-meaning girl stumbled over her words for a split second and lost half of her fans. I watched, seething, as a loud-mouthed boy encouraged hatred and spats within his audience because their fierce beliefs were their own problem and they should know better than to take him seriously.
This deniability and failure to take responsibility was rampant in these videos. From Ben Cook to Alex Day to even poor Dan Howell, all I began to see were young boys in tight pants claiming it was the viewer’s fault for taking their words seriously. It was the 10-year-old girl’s fault for thinking her hero was serious when he said fat girls couldn’t be superheroes.
And then came the sexual assaults. Lack of accountability couldn’t have been more evident when the stories came out back to back about how these glorified celebrities had taken advantage of young girls and boys who trusted them, idolized them, would do anything for them. How these 20-somethings with their inflated egos took advantage of children because a video that got a million views made them feel justified in doing so.
Not all the YouTubers I watched and romanticized were criminals, but like any community, it is defined by the few mistakes, not the many “My Morning Routine” tags. There are, of course, the shining figures that rise above the grime and filth, but even they still hold unfathomable power that no young adult sitting in their bedroom with a camera should have.
My education in the scandalous, nerdy and unprecedented was completed by YouTube. I learned most swear words, entered a dark phase defined by time travel and realized what true human incompetence looked like. I feel obliged to thank it for my introduction to far-fetched worlds and ideas, but nothing more than obliged. There is a perpetual pit in my stomach when I think of the pedestal on which I once placed these average individuals.
The pedestal came crashing down my freshman year of high school, and I narrowly escaped gasping for air. Now, in retrospect, all I want back is the 99 cents I spent on each of these monstrosities’ music singles. Sadly though, youthful naivety has its cost and mine was heavily invested in the repeated failed attempts to get a tone-deaf teen to number one. My iTunes library is scarred by their poppy, overly produced tracks and maybe that’s why I find myself dependent on Spotify these days, immediately X-ing out of iTunes when it dares to show its face.
“YouTube’s mission is to provide fast and easy video access and the ability to share videos frequently,” it says on their homepage. And that’s exactly what it achieves. It is a platform for creativity and innovation in a digital age. It is a platform for talent and humor to be shared and advertised. It is a platform for abuse and manipulation. Careers can be made or destroyed over the course of one YouTube video, and a life can hang in the balance of one YouTube comment. It is concurrently a collaborative, multi-platform video database of innovation and a cesspool for toxic behavior. It’s up to the owners, the users and the viewers to find a balance between the two.
As I scroll through the pages of my old YouTube stars, I can’t help but wonder after the book deals, short films and viral video clips, what remains of the person behind the camera. What inspires them, drives them to turn on that camera every day and address the adoring eyes of strangers that hang on their every word? And above all, what is life after YouTube? Do they just cease to exist? And did we ever find out where the hell Matt is?
I have nothing against the use of YouTube as a place to exhibit one’s talent and skill, but it’s the cult followings that arise from the especially talented or vivacious that unsettle me. There’s an air of entitlement and anonymity surrounding all partakers in the YouTube community; individuals on both sides of the screen develop the idea that they deserve views and videos, while maintaining the presence of half a person. The people we see on screen are as authentic as editing tools allow them to be — a hollowed out projection of fame. But 11-year-old girls don’t know what editing software or authenticity is; all they know is the cute, sardonic boy on screen makes them laugh when he makes fun of “Twilight.”