First things first: The shooting at YouTube’s headquarters speaks to a familiar problem that has nothing to do with the site of the disaster — America’s ubiquitous issues with gun control, and by extension, the ongoing inability to flag dangerous behavior before it reaches a breaking point. Nevertheless, the shooter’s rage reportedly stemmed from a distinct sense of entitlement that has emerged with the rise of YouTube, Facebook, and the many other platforms that depend on user-generated content to drive their businesses. The brutal truth in the age of democratized content is it never actually existed.
In November 2005, nine months after YouTube launched and changed online video forever, co-founder Chad Hurley positioned the platform as a new form of television for the internet age. “We’re the ultimate reality TV, giving you a glimpse into other people’s lives,” he told USA Today. “People have a lot of different experiences out there, and want to share them.”
Hurley’s idealism highlights the lie of DIY: the idea that anyone with a camera and a computer can become a sustainable global phenomenon. In truth, it’s predicated on the use of for-profit platforms that control how that content is seen — and it’s their prerogative to pull the plug at any moment.
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Nearly 13 years later, Hurley’s assertion sounds downright quaint. In the wake of the shooting at YouTube headquarters by a user reportedly distressed by the site’s impact on her video revenue, it’s also ominous. The rise of online video accelerated the perception of content democratization, but it also created a false sense of authority, and this tragedy brings the ramifications into sharp focus.
At this writing, we don’t know the full motivations that led Nasim Najafi Aghdam, 39, to storm YouTube’s San Bruno facility and shoot three staffers before turning the gun on herself. However, reports of Aghdam’s idiosyncratic YouTube channel (now taken down) reflect a pattern of solipsism and self-empowerment.
With a backdrop of cheap green screen effects and onscreen text, she extolled the virtues of veganism, parodied American media, and shared workout tips. Whether she intended it or not, the absurd tableaux created an ironic contrast with her straight-faced demeanor, and struck many as a joke; the absurdity turned her into a viral star in Iran.
Internet culture operates like a crowdsourced carnival, with audiences delighting at peculiar, enigmatic, and even ostracized voices, pushing them from anonymity to overnight fame without regulation. It has made celebrities out of amateur singers and stuntmen, pop-star superfans, overmedicated children, and clumsy pets. Too often, this contributes to a broader sense that every viral hit has a humorous undercurrent, even when the source of the punchline isn’t funny. But Aghdam wasn’t joking, and the result may be the first terrorist attack instigated in part by the viral video age.
Aghdam embraced her internet celebrity, enough to believe that she was entitled to revenue from a company that always had the luxury to change its policies. Of course, Aghdam’s actions say more about the challenges of a society in which mentally unstable people can arm themselves and avoid detection. As others have pointed out, this dichotomy is essential to parsing the shooting; the bulk of internet celebrities aren’t psychopaths. Nevertheless, because she made a public cause out of her online status, it becomes a cautionary tale.
Years ago, Francis Ford Coppola expressed a dream for the democratization of filmmaking: “People who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. Suddenly, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.” In early days of the digital video boom, when movies like “The Blair Witch Project” showed the prospects of turning microbudget resources into blockbuster material, Coppola’s words seemed especially prescient. But what he failed to grasp was the sheer volume of people who might want to become the new Mozart once anyone could.
And yet, somebody has to keep the lights on. In January, YouTube made several dramatic changes to its revenue policies. “These higher standards will also help us prevent potentially inappropriate videos from monetizing which can hurt revenue for everyone,” YouTube executives Neil Mohan and Robert Kyncil wrote. They also noted that “size alone is not enough to determine whether a channel is suitable for monetization, so we’ll continue to use signals like community strikes, spam, and other abuse flags to ensure we’re protecting our creator community from bad actors.” In other words, YouTube can apply whatever rubric it wants to determine who qualifies to make money on its platform.
Like many other file-sharing sites, YouTube flags content it deems inappropriate, illegal, or harmful. In recent times, that included PewDiePie’s ISIS videos and the Nazi imagery, and he was punished with demonetization — but he wasn’t booted from the site. It’s in YouTube’s interests to hook viewers with popular content, but no creator can fully control how a work is surfaced, or the benefit it can yield.
This reality check is not exclusive to the Google-owned site. Facebook can, and does, change its algorithms at will, impacting millions of people and businesses. Kickstarter and IndieGoGo can raise funds for all kinds of projects, but no one has a god-given right to tell their stories on a corporate entity’s homepage.
Artists have dealt with these challenges for years. It’s no secret that making stuff without maintaining control over its distribution can cause any number of hardships, including issues of ownership and suppression. Responsible users keep backup copies, recognizing that no platform is ever secure, and keep an eye out for new places to showcase their work.
However, the excitement surrounding innovative delivery methods has also attracted obsessive personalities, reckless behavior, and delusions of grandeur. Among the more alarming observations to come out the narrative surrounding Aghdam’s actions is that she was emboldened by the same company she decided to target.
With its absence of traditional gatekeepers, the online video age led to all kinds of new voices charting original paths to fame and influence, new forms of activism, and expansive representation. However, it also created the false perception that the information super highway is the Wild West. Although no single character has control, someone’s always in charge. The power struggle is a constant aspect of the online ecosystem. Hurley’s assertion about YouTube didn’t go far enough: When everyone’s the star of their own reality show, the result isn’t a level playing field; it’s civil war.