I came of age with the internet. Born in 1997, I fall somewhere in the murky waters between millennials and Gen Z. I’m old enough to remember hunching over the humming brick of a desktop in my family’s “computer room” but young enough to have never used Myspace or AIM.
Laptops and touchscreen devices became commonplace while I was in elementary school. By the late 2000s, YouTube was the epicenter of youth pop culture. Clad in Aéropostale logo tees and Uggs, my friends and I would giggle over viral videos like Keyboard Cat, “Chocolate Rain,” and “The Duck Song.” Before there were “influencers,” there were “cewebrities” who created the idea of using social media as a career path, making creative content that attracted a growing number of viewers and eventually lucrative ad and sponsorship deals. The first YouTube channel I remember following consistently was Smosh, a collaborative effort between two nerdy guys whose lip sync videos and silly homemade sketches ultimately grew into a digital comedy empire. I fastidiously kept up with their latest uploads and rewatched older videos in between, often to the point of memorizing them verbatim. Throughout middle and high school, I loved vloggers like Joey Graceffa, Tyler Oakley, and Ingrid Nilsen, all of whom garnered millions of followers simply by sharing their lives on camera. This first cohort of internet fame paved the way for today’s biggest stars, like Jojo Siwa and Charli D’Amelio.
I loved being immersed in the Disneyland version of young adulthood that vloggers offered.
These YouTube videos appealed to me because of the simulacra of a connection they created. They were like television shows, but much more personal because the “plot” was a real person’s life. As such, personality was part and parcel with the platform. It was more about whom you were watching rather than what was specifically happening in their videos. I loved being immersed in the Disneyland version of young adulthood that vloggers offered — sunny days spent getting lunch and shopping with friends or figuring out how to afford rent in San Francisco. Watching these little snippets over time felt like we were developing a relationship, albeit a one-sided one. YouTubers represented the chic older siblings I never had and the confident, happy twentysomething I hoped to become. The impromptu, handheld way these videos were shot seemed to promote the underlying subtext that they just so happened to film these particular scenes.
There was also a notable group of immensely popular comedy channels on YouTube at the time. In a similar vein to Smosh, creators like nigahiga crafted character-based sketches that became ubiquitous on the platform. These were the common denominator that everyone my age knew. Even if our specific taste in vloggers, gaming channels, or makeup videos differed, we all knew Fred and Annoying Orange and stayed up late watching their videos at sleepovers and quoting them ad nauseam at school.
While YouTube’s lack of gatekeeping was arguably an incredible catalyst for creativity, it also opened the door for unsavory content to slip through. In contrast to the vetting and FCC standards of mainstream media, YouTube requires nothing more than a person, a camera, and an internet connection. A young person with less-than-stellar judgment and a few thick layers of hubris could easily take advantage of the platform. Because of this, some YouTube comedy of the era leaned into the most inappropriate reaches of satire. Two early titans of YouTube comedy, Shane Dawson and Jenna Marbles have made headlines recently as they reckon with the ramifications of their past content.
Even if our specific taste in vloggers, gaming channels, or makeup videos differed, we all knew Fred and Annoying Orange and stayed up late watching their videos at sleepovers and quoting them ad nauseam at school.
Though I wasn’t a die-hard fan of Shane or Jenna growing up, I certainly watched their videos. They were both deeply influential to the point that their names were practically synonymous with the term “YouTuber.” Jenna Marbles, sometimes dubbed the Queen of YouTube, racked up over 1 billion cumulative channel views with quirky, offbeat, slice-of-life humor that often featured her dogs. If she were the queen, Shane would most certainly be the king. His content has evolved over the past decade, from character sketches to short films to whimsical food videos, across two channels that have garnered over 4 billion cumulative views. Starting in 2018, Shane pivoted toward producing several hours-long docuseries about controversial subjects — including makeup mogul Jeffree Star and besmirched prankster Jake Paul — that attracted significant mainstream media attention. As a senior in college at the time, I noticed that even my friends who hadn’t watched YouTube in years remembered Shane from their childhoods and tuned in to see what the buzz was about. Consistent throughout Shane’s evolution has been his sense of humor — self-deprecating, provocative, always reaching for shock value. Though it was common knowledge among viewers and the media that Shane’s older jokes were risqué, it seemed that his previous apologies had been accepted and he had not been “canceled.” While some noted that his new documentarian persona might have been a calculated attempt at reputation rehabilitation, his endeavors were, for the most part, accepted with open arms (and open wallets).
In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Jenna took the preemptive step of addressing insensitive clips from her past by posting a now-deleted apology video. Through tears, she directly addressed footage of herself wearing blackface and mocking Asian Americans, among other missteps. She acknowledged how she might have hurt her viewers and, in an unprecedented act of reflection, announced she is leaving the platform “for now or for forever.” While Jenna’s video was met with mostly positive reception, Shane’s attempt at a similar mea culpa backfired. He made an umbrella apology video attempting to “own up to everything I have done on the internet.” Shane described his thought process at the time, saying, “I’m in a weird category where I can say whatever I want. And I did. And now it’s the biggest regret of my entire life.” This self-awareness came too little, too late.
Shortly thereafter, the old clips in question resurfaced and reignited outrage. Public perception of Shane went downhill rapidly after Jaden and Jada Pinkett Smith publicly chastised him over an utterly disgusting joke made about Willow, who was then only 11 years old. In the landslide of negative press over the past few weeks, all three of Shane’s YouTube channels have been demonetized, his makeup line dropped by Morphe, several of his documentaries taken down through copyright claims by Sony, and his books pulled from the shelves at Target.
There was no accountability, even when jokes were taken too far. Perhaps the entire YouTube community needs an about-face.
Among the many problems addressed in his video, Shane apologized for doing blackface and repeatedly drawing on racist stereotypes in his work. As surprising as this confession may be, growing up as a little Black girl in the rural South, I didn’t know the word “blackface,” much less the history behind it, until I was much older. When my white classmates and I first watched these videos on the cracked screen of an iPhone 3g, I was completely oblivious to the fact that Shane was making a mockery of people who look like me and reinforcing stereotypes that stem from structural racism. Shane has also come under fire for graphic, vile jokes about the Holocaust, rape, and child abuse, among other things. Though this is all deeply disturbing to me now, it went over my head as a kid. I can only hope it went over my classmates’ heads as well.
Luke Alexander, a 20-year-old South African Australian student who posts critiques and commentary videos about internet culture, echoed this sentiment in a recent video on the drama, saying, “What is really, really scary is a lot of people, like me at the time, enjoyed that content. When Shane Dawson was making that content, I was only 9, 10, 11, [or] 12 years old. I didn’t realize that it was wrong. … A lot of young, impressionable people will watch his videos and think that that is okay.”
What Shane was seemingly going for with the off-color jokes is what Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff has referred to as “ironic bigotry.” But, à la media theorist Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. YouTube is an entirely different ballpark. Enjoyment of the platform is predicated on the concept of authenticity — the idea that the persona you’re seeing is at least proximal to the true essence of the person behind it. It is clear to adults that YouTube represents a sideways version of reality rather than reality itself, but sometimes tweens lack the nuance to parse that. I remember what it felt like to be wrapped up in the princess-pink froufrou of my twin-size bed, eyes glued to the screen of my iPod Touch in search of amusement. As pop star and fellow Gen Z/millennial cusp Lorde once wrote, “maybe the internet raised us.” If so, what did it teach us?
To make matters worse, in the midst of these serious calls for accountability, Shane is also embroiled in a petty feud with fellow YouTuber Tati Westbrook, who released a tell-all video about the spiderwebbed chaos within the platform’s makeup community. Tati described Shane and Jeffree as manipulative, implicating them as the masterminds behind an infamous ongoing spat between herself and beauty guru James Charles. The gratuitous middle school drama of it all is difficult to keep up with. Shane’s subsequent rant on Instagram Live was criticized by Twitter users and YouTube commentators as being immature and shortsighted given his more pressing accusations and the dire state of the world overall.
While a few YouTubers have come to Shane’s defense for both the drama and the old content, most have been silent or vaguely reprimanding. Though many early YouTube celebrities are distancing themselves from Shane now, let us not forget that in the early 2010s, when he was producing the content he is currently in trouble for, they were eagerly collaborating with him. At the time, even squeaky-clean creators would boost their cool factor through proximity to his provocative, illustrious aura. As early as 2014, Black YouTubers sounded the alarm about Shane’s content, but their concerns went largely unaddressed. Pushing the envelope in the name of humor was encouraged. There was no accountability, even when jokes were taken too far. Perhaps the entire YouTube community needs an about-face.
When an accusation comes out against a mainstream Hollywood celebrity, people often ask if it is possible to separate the art from the artist. But with YouTubers, the artist is the art: They are the product they’re selling. While my memories of the “golden age of YouTube” are still blurred by the glow of youthful fondness, looking back and realizing these issues were festering beneath the surface all along makes me feel quite disenchanted. Most of my longtime favorites have stuck around through it all and stayed out of trouble, but times are definitely changing.
With YouTubers, the artist is the art: They are the product they’re selling.
Smosh broke up years ago, but they continue to make content separately. Joey Graceffa still vlogs several times a week. Tyler Oakley has leaned further into activism in addition to maintaining his lifestyle content. And Ingrid Nilsen — who revolutionized the platform by inventing the “vlogmas” format and later made headlines with her incredible journey of queer identity — recently announced she is leaving YouTube to pursue other opportunities. Publicly, she is one of the few major influencers who seems to have never made a misstep. With the indelible changes in the community writ large, I fully expect other longtime “unproblematic faves” to follow Ingrid’s lead and move away from the platform they built.
This moment seems to mark the end of an era: an inevitable reorganization that has been a long time coming. In recent years, a new wave of inappropriate, sensationalized content — such as the infamous Logan Paul “suicide forest” scandal — has come about with the rise of influencer houses and increasing algorithmic pressure. The YouTube I knew as a child, the quixotic digital world that my favorite vloggers built, is gone. It’s confusing to navigate my nostalgia in light of recent events. When a TV show gets canceled, there is a sense of narrative containment: You watch the series finale and then wait for the reruns. But with YouTube, everything exists in a continuum that is inarguably both past and present at once. As Shane’s scandal has shown, old content lives in perpetuity — for better or worse. We can revisit it whenever we want — but, when recontextualized in the present, it tends to elicit a much different reaction than it did at first blush. Recognizing the problems of a community I once held in the utmost regard feels like the slow, painful process of growing up. Maybe the internet did raise us and now it’s time to leave the nest. ●
Jaime Gordon is a freelance writer. She is a graduate of Duke University, where her research focused on digital media and popular culture. Her writing has previously appeared in USA Today and MTV News.