With the coming of the New Year, we rang in many new hopeful beginnings: the start of the Winter Olympics in February, the highly anticipated royal wedding and the possibility of ordinary people travelling to the moon. 2018 seemed to revive the once cliché notion of a “brand new chapter,” especially as 2017 brought with it many events that we’re rather eager to forget. But alas, we can’t have it all, and that sliver of hope of wiping the slate clean was quickly snatched away by the painfully shameful downfall of social media figure Logan Paul.
As this story has already been covered by countless news outlets and YouTubers alike, I'll keep the recounting of it short and sweet. On December 31st, Paul, a prominent YouTube star, posted footage of a suicide victim hanging from the trees of Japan’s Aokigahara forest (also infamously known as the “suicide forest”). While the face of the man and some of his torso were slightly blurred, Paul ensured that such effects wouldn't get in the way of his 15 million subscribers getting a graphic look at the body. The camera continued to roll to show his and his friends’ raw reactions: they were riddled with laughter and cracking jokes. The video was deleted late New Year’s Day, but not before rapidly climbing YouTube’s top ten trending list and acquiring well over six million views.
What followed was an inevitable wave of public outrage in which a multitude of people of all ages and backgrounds took to various social media platforms to express their distaste for Paul’s actions and clear lapse in judgement. Numerous celebrities and fellow YouTubers didn’t hold back as they vocalised their honest opinions and critiques on Paul.
While the many expressions of disappointment and disgust were wholly merited, I couldn’t help but notice a much more concerning issue at hand – one beyond the Youtube persona of Logan Paul himself. Pop culture is no-doubt influenced by Gen Z and Gen Y’s love affair with technology and social media in ways it’s never been before. But having grown up in a world where the absence of WiFi is a crime, and where over fifteen hours a week are dedicated to scrolling through a smartphone, it would be odd to expect that lines wouldn’t be blurred between our physical and digital realities.
With our digital age empowering just about anyone to become a creator, an artist, a singer or an entertainer, we are confronted with the double-edged sword of such creative liberty: while the playing field is levelled, our digital spaces are constantly bombarded and saturated with an overwhelming amount of content. This surplus has ultimately led to the pushing of moral and ethical boundaries and heightened tendencies to go to the extreme, all in a desperate attempt to be set apart from the plethora of content that already exists. It is here that the lines are blurred and the question of “just how far will they go?” is asked time and again.
Prank culture: fueling the flames
It is also at this very crossroads that YouTube’s genres of controversial “prank culture” and narcissistic “daily vlogging” intersect. Logan Paul and his channel encompass not one, but both genres in bizarre and sometimes even frightening ways.
But Paul’s 15 million subscribers – endearingly nicknamed his “Logang” – continue to support and praise the social media star even after his questionable moral lapses and dangerous stunts. Even more startling is the fact that the video featuring the suicide victim had garnered over six million views and a whopping 550,000-600,000 likes before the backlash really began to ensue.
Paul had previously established his presence through the now-defunct looped video platform Vine back in 2015, and was already famous by the “standards of millions of 14-year-old girls.” Consequently, his fan-base is mostly composed of teenagers – many of them under the age of 16.
These very fans were the first to jump to Paul’s defense – excusing his unbelievable behaviour by alluding to his “young age” and even posting short vlogs themselves in which they begged YouTube not to terminate his account as he is “their hero.”
It’s almost as if Paul has developed a cult-like following, if he hasn’t already. But while it is understandable that these young fans are having difficulty stomaching the gravity of the situation and the topics of suicide and depression, it must be remembered that this is definitely not the first time that Paul has had controversial debates surrounding his content.
Before the preposterous dead body video, Paul had uploaded a vlog in which he faked his own murder in front of a slew of his young fans. It was clear that he felt no fear in potentially deeply scarring any one of his underage fans. His other vlogs from his trip to Japan are not only absent-minded but flat-out dangerous: he is seen throwing Pokéballs at strangers on the street, leaving raw fish on a taxi that’s driving by and even jumping on moving vehicles. The way he treats Japanese citizens shows nothing short of utter disrespect for them and their country.
And yet his subscriber count amazingly only seems to rise. The issue therefore lies in the very fact that much of late generation Z – these young, growing individuals – are looking up to Paul as their “role model”. While it would be folly to classify all such members of this generation to be followers of Paul, it does not change the fact that the vast majority of his viewers fall between the mere ages 8-16.
At a glance, this positive correlation between the number of his subscribers and he, himself as a person, seems to be absolutely illogical. How could someone so blatantly disrespectful, ignorant, and delusional be seen as anything even close to a “role model”? But it is here that the real damage is being done.
It is our society as a whole that has quietly built the culture that has paved the way for individuals like Logan Paul – we have empowered narcissism through platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat, we have encouraged mindless browsing with no form of intellectual stimulation through new-age “news” publications such as BuzzFeed, and we have normalised passive engagement from behind the screen.
We must be pointing kids to tangible learning and self-regulating experiences – books, journaling, simply going outside and running around with friends – away from pixels on the screen. Our technology has already become dangerously disruptive in so many of our lives, but the balance between the digital and the physical must and can still be achieved. It is only by learning to toe this fine line that society can prevent the next “Logan Paul incident,” or at least see it coming from a mile away.