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It's Time To Talk About "Prank" Culture On YouTube

In this week's newsletter: I address a popular kind of content that's built the careers of the platform's biggest creators — but walks a line between entertainment and abuse.

Posted on February 26, 2021, at 8:00 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

Can prank videos be moral?

YouTube / The Prince Family, The ACE Family

This week’s newsletter is inevitably going to invite reactions from people who think I’m dampening their fun. I’m writing this newsletter to ask: Are YouTube pranks fun? And for whom?

The stickiness of online pranks is something I’ve been thinking about for years while covering usually the worst versions of them. But this week, the issue became front and center after reporting on Joseth “Seth” Francois’s accusation that David Dobrik’s prank on him in 2017 was sexual assault. (Dobrik did not return my multiple requests for comment.)

I won’t rehash all of the details, but the conflict centers on Seth coming to terms with David intentionally duping him into kissing someone without consent. The video has been viewed 10 million times, and he has had to live with that trauma publicly. (I’m also aware of the accusations that Seth allegedly “posted revenge porn” against another Vlog Squad member, Erin Gilfoy. When I asked Seth to address the allegation, he denied posting any “revenge porn,” but said instead he posted a video that “highlighted Erin confidently saying” the N-word. I would also like to say that there is space to talk about one person’s victimhood as we also hold them accountable for their possible wrongdoings.)

Seth’s victimhood represents, to me, the toxicity of “prank” culture. It’s become a popular genre on YouTube and walks a tightrope between entertainment and, in some cases, allegations of abuse. From fairly benevolent pranks, to something more troubling — like YouTuber parents Cole and Savannah LaBrant filming their 6-year-old daughter Everleigh’s distress after being told her puppy had been given away — prank videos follow a similar script. (They did not return a request for comment at the time.) The person who comes up with the prank holds the power; they know the truth and their intent is to manipulate the truth for laughs. The other person is the pawn in the game; they must either participate in the manipulation or, if they don’t want to, risk being invalidated and maybe told to “lighten up.”

In Seth’s case, and in almost every case, the power dynamics can be more equal if there is total consent. Had Seth, or anyone part of a prank, known beforehand they were being pranked, then it wouldn’t be as exploitative. But would it be as joyful for the prankster or as deviously satisfying to watch for the viewer? No. Pranking works because there is enjoyment from the person being pranked not having a say, and being duped in any small or major way.

YouTube / The LaBrant Family

Pranking on YouTube is so pervasive. It’s embedded in the ethos of YouTube culture. There are tons of video compilations with millions of views dedicated to the “best of” pranks from Dobrik’s Vlog Squad or Jake Paul’s Team 10 universe. I don’t know if these channels would be as successful as they are today if not for these hijinks. It’s like the vloggers’ entire identity; the way these friend groups operate is built on clowning and tricking each other.

This is where things are tricky for me: I can also acknowledge that these videos are enjoyable for millions and millions of people. At points in my life, I was tickled by these kinds of videos too. This is getting a little bit away from the subject, but Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry cartoons operate similarly. I can’t deny that they served their purpose and were outrageously amusing to me as a kid. (Although, now that I am reflecting on it more, I always had a soft spot for characters like Tom and Wile E. Coyote.)

Anyway, back to the counter-narrative: Prank videos also bring people a lot of joy.

Less of a gray issue, at least for me, are family channels on YouTube. Huge accounts with millions of subscribers, like The ACE Family, The Prince Family, and The LaBrant Family have built empires on pulling pranks, and perhaps most concerning, the parents pulling pranks on their children. In 2019, I reported on the backlash and gross feelings people had about ACE Family channel dad Austin McBroom filming himself taking a child to a sex shop and buying her a phallic-shaped lollipop. (McBroom did not return a request for comment.)

In 2017, the infamous DaddyOFive channel woke people up to how brutal parents could be toward their children, and it all was publicly accessible online. Parents Michael and Heather Martin filmed videos that showed them shoving their children, yelling at them until they cried, and screaming obscenities. Viewers were so distressed to see what the parents were doing in the name of “pranks” that Child Protective Services were called, and the Martins lost custody of their two youngest children.The Martins’ lawyer said at the time that as much as their videos were “insensitive, cruel, bad decision-making,” the parents had “no real intention behind it.”

Then there are spousal pranks — pranks partners in a relationship or marriage pull on each other. It may not be the same abuse of power as that between adults and children, but it’s sometimes just as grisly to watch. While there are countless low-stake pranks on YouTube, like putting spiders in each other’s beds, there are also some treading into “emotional torment” territory. Couples love to prank in order to incite jealousy and pretend to break up with each other for...funsies? In 2018, people were disturbed by a prank a woman named Vanessa pulled on her partner, Zavi, after she faked a miscarriage, sending him into a panic. Something that’s become normalized, that I find particularly strange, is that these kinds of spousal pranks almost always include a “*HE/SHE CRIED*” or “*HE/SHE GOT ANGRY*” detail in the video titles, as if that’s an extra selling point. (Neither Vanessa nor Zavi, who are known as Team VZ on the platform, responded to my request for comment.)

Then there are simply dumb pranks that are a public nuisance. In 2017, a YouTuber called Lil Skitzz pissed off a lot of people by filming and posting videos of himself sleeping on the conveyor belt at a Walmart checkout, holding up a line of customers, and then another video of himself trying to steal gas from a woman. In defense of his sketches, Lil Skitzz said he believes they’re “funny,” “daring,” and intentionally “shocking.”

The prank genre is expansive, so I don’t want to conflate more benign stunts with ones that have serious psychological consequences. Prank success on YouTube probably says a lot more about our society and its values than it does content creators. But perhaps it’s time we engage in honest dialogue about this form of entertainment that’s been around for decades — as long as media has existed — and why it’s so popular.

If you want to call me a wet blanket for questioning the integrity of things you enjoy, that is fair. I generally subscribe to the philosophy of “let people enjoy things.” But if you feel defensive, I ask you what you’re defending.

If you feel protective of prank culture, what — and whom — are you protecting?

Until next time,

Tanya

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.