TRIGGER WARNING: The following blog post includes discussion of rape, sexual assault, and underage sexual behavior. Please be careful and read at your own discretion.
Say “YouTube” and what comes to mind for most people are cat videos, grainy home footage of dads getting hit in the crotch with tennis balls and rakes, and comment sections populated by anonymous trolls who are most likely actual Neo-Nazis. What the average Joe doesn’t know, or knows only in passing, is that for nearly two million viewers, many of whom are teenaged girls, the name of the website brings to mind almost subconsciously the word “community,” tacked onto it like a shadow.
The community is comprised, on the one hand, of a group of people who make YouTube videos for a living (“content creators”), and, on the other, of the fans who tune in on a regular basis to keep up with their favorite artists. For these people, YouTube can be a refuge from ordinary life, and a place to make likeminded friends. Most of the time, the community is warm and inviting, and whole videos may go by with nary a racial slur.
In March of 2014, however, the YouTube community was shaken to its core when sexual assault and rape allegations against at least nine high-profile male YouTubers emerged on the blog-hosting site Tumblr. Fans’ reactions to the news typically fell on one of two very different sides of the fence: visceral horror and outrage on behalf of the victims, or a reflexive defense of the beloved YouTubers.
My own response to those defending the rapists and sexual harassers was disgust, and I wrote them off as young, impassioned teenagers who had completely missed the point. Caught up in their own feelings, they were reclassifying the perpetrators as victims in need of protection, instead of empathizing with the young women who experienced sexual assault at the hands of content creators who had age, experience, and celebrity all pulling to their advantage. I didn’t understand how so many responses could be lacking any sense of measured, thoughtful distance from the shocking news.
But then, allegations appeared targeting a YouTuber I followed. Alex Day is a 24-year old white British male, an irreverently funny entrepreneur whose vlogs amplify the comedic element of day-to-day minutiae. He is also, it turns out, an expert emotional manipulator who admitted to coercing young female fans into sexual behavior they had explicitly refused.
Until this past March, I had watched Day’s videos regularly since 2011. When the accusations came to light, I had to actively restrain myself from responding with pity for Day, and redirect my emotions to where I logically knew they belonged: with the victims. Yet I felt a personal sense of betrayal, hurt, anger, and disappointment, including, but going far beyond, a natural empathy and sadness for the young women who were stepping forward.
Handily enough, YouTuber Anthony D’Angelo uploaded a video in response to the sexual harassment scandal called “The Science and Dangers of YouTube Celebrity” explaining this very phenomenon, which discusses “para-social interaction” as a reason for the knee-jerk desire to defend our favorite celebrities against negative claims. Para-social interaction is a sociology term that can be defined as “one-sided intimacy, at a distance.” Mass media is rife with opportunity for one-sided intimacy to manifest, as it offers viewers at home frequent chances to develop a feeling of community with content creators. The nature of YouTube engenders a seemingly personal connection, blurring the line between performance and reality. YouTubers often vlog from their bedrooms on a weekly basis, and many don’t use scripts. While the intimacy is fictitious, it can feel incredibly realistic.
Over the course of three years of watching his videos, my brain constructed a pattern of fondness for Alex Day, developing something that is, chemically at least, very akin to friendship. I was therefore deeply resistant to the criminal allegations that upset my expected patterns of his behavior. Instead of immediately setting aside my enjoyment of Day’s work and writing him off, I felt both the urge to defend him and a sense of betrayed friendship.
These are false feelings that must be set aside in order to fully support and honor the victims and survivors in the community. As D’Angelo says in his video, the phenomenon of para-social interaction is especially common on YouTube, “which, by its connective and egalitarian nature, puts celebrities closer to fans than ever before.” Such closeness, however, is a fabrication. While we are eagerly watching someone whom our brain has counseled us to recognize as a “friend,” we must always remember that the person on the other side is merely staring into the impassive eye of a camera.
Marie is a writer and editor who lives with her feral cat, and, like most people, prefers dance parties to homework.
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