Baltimore's Mark and Heather Martin ran a successful YouTube channel called DaddyOFive. Their videos, which featured the couple “pranking” their five children, garnered over 8,00,000 subscribers and millions of views at the peak of the channel's popularity. While this may read like a YouTube success story, the couple's tale has a far darker side.
As pointed out by popular YouTuber Philip DeFranco, the couple's “pranks”, whether real or staged, were closer to child abuse than comedy; regularly featuring physical violence, bullying, and verbal abuse. The worst affected by these pranks was the couple's youngest son, nine-year-old Cody, who was regularly reduced to tears, and was once even left bloodied by his father, all as part of a “prank”.
While the couple were initially unrepentant, even calling critics haters, they have since apologised for their content and taken down most videos. On 2 May, 2017, the couple lost custody of two of their children, Cody and Emma, owing to mass outrage over the content of their “pranks”. While some may view them losing custody as justice served, and the end of the conversation, that is not the case.
Instead, DaddyOFive serves as a useful entry point into a much bigger conversation – the disturbing lengths that people are willing to go to for views, in a time when anyone can reach a wide audience thanks to social media and platforms like YouTube.
The shock factor sells
To be fair, the shock factor has always sold. Whether on radio, TV, or in print, provocative content has always done well. However, there was a major difference in the past, where visibility has always been curated by the gatekeepers of media.
In today's world, however, everyone potentially has a voice, and visibility is highly incentivised as it can also be monetised. The end result is an unregulated environment where hitherto unknowns are ready to do anything for their 15 minutes of fame.
In India, YouTuber Crazy Sumit was arrested for "pranks" where he sexually harassed women.
While the Martins are the most recent example of this approach, they are by no means an isolated instance. Many creators before them have done scandalous, stupid, and sometimes potentially criminal things, all for cheap views.
In India too, we had the case of Crazy Sumit, a YouTuber who landed in police trouble for a “prank” that involved him sexually harassing women by kissing them without permission. While he was clearly in the wrong, his was only the latest in a string of similar videos that have been made globally and have, in some cases, garnered millions of views. The Martins too have millions of views.
The success of these videos, despite their clearly problematic premises, is what encourages creators like Crazy Sumit and the Martins to do what they do. Clearly, the demanding and desensitised nature of today's audience plays a part.
However, these viewers will continue to exist and, with them, so will content creators like Mike Martins. The question then, becomes one of how to regulate content, to avoid, if not the stupid, then at least the criminal.
Curbing the criminal
YouTube is currently under fire from a load of brands, including Volkswagen and Tesco, who advertise on YouTube. YouTube, these brands claimed, allowed their adverts to appear on or alongside problematic content, thereby damaging their brand value.
In response, YouTube immediately implemented a string of measures that ensured that content deemed unsuitable for advertisers was immediately ineligible for ads and the ad revenue that came with them. While the system is far from perfect, with a number of LGBT and news videos incorrectly being flagged as inappropriate, it is the start of a push back against problematic content.
Without the ability to earn off these videos, creators may stop making them.
While it will not end the demand for such videos, nor stop content creators from doing provocative things for views, it will discourage both significantly. Views alone will do nothing for creators, and, without the ability to earn off these videos, may put an end to this sort of content. However, before YouTube's ad algorithm can be lauded, there is still a lot of tweaking that needs to be done to avoid hurting innocent content creators.
The real solution, though, is not an algorithm, but the online community itself. In the case of the Martins, it took months before they were finally called out for child abuse, a worrying display of apathy. However, when someone from the YouTube community, in this case Philip DeFranco, did speak out, things were resolved quickly enough.
It is this attitude - of calling out the problematic - that needs to be normalised in order to ensure channels like DaddyOFive are nipped in the bud. While YouTube really ought to step up its game, the sheer volume of content means that self-regulation by the YouTube community will, at least in the short term, be the most effective way of curbing these sort of videos.
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