Apology videos by YouTube influencers are so inescapable that they have blossomed into a recognisable format. The set-up is carefully planned so viewers are not distracted by mansions, sports cars and other evidence of YouTube-generated wealth. Wacky jump-cut edits and visual effects are also out. The idea is to demonstrate total sincerity while staring damp-eyed into the camera and asking fans (and advertisers) for forgiveness.
In the past fortnight, two of YouTube’s longest serving and biggest stars — Jenna Marbles and Shane Dawson — have uploaded mesmerising examples. Ms Marbles, a 33-year-old usually adorned in goofy colours and accompanied by tiny dogs, looked sombre as she apologised to her 20m subscribers for dressing as black pop star Nicki Minaj and making fun of Asian people in videos. She ended by declaring that she was stepping away from YouTube.
A day later Mr Dawson, a 31-year-old fond of skits and conspiracies, apologised for “all the racism” he had put online, including wearing blackface. Mr Dawson, who has become a sort of YouTube Boswell by making documentaries about other influencers, also attempted some meta-analysis:
“Every apology video I’ve ever made has been through fear,” he said softly. “It’s me sitting at home thinking the whole world hates me and crying and hyperventilating and then just turning on the webcam and just saying I‘m sorry and hoping people know I’m a good person and then it will go away. And that is just stupid. It’s something a child does. Not something a 31-year-old man does.”
The racism highlighted by Black Lives Matter has left many millennial influencers floundering. Some of YouTube’s most popular creators have long made racist jokes under the guise of “dark humour”. For those who leave the platform or whose videos no longer carry adverts, the financial fallout will be significant. “I loved you, I looked up to you, hell I thought of you as a father figure,” wrote one fan under Mr Dawson’s video. “But honestly I’m disgusted, and . . . I’m gonna have to burn some merch.” YouTube responded by suspending monetisation on Mr Dawson’s channels.
For YouTube, the cultural reckoning is a chance to reassess the chaos of user-generated videos. Like Reddit, Facebook, Twitch and Twitter, the company is keen to prove to regulators and advertisers that it takes a firm stance on malevolent content. It already allows advertisers to avoid certain types of videos. Last week, it announced an inexplicably delayed decision to ban white supremacist channels. For now, it has avoided an advertiser boycott, unlike Facebook.
That’s just as well. In February, parent company Alphabet cracked open YouTube’s financial details for the first time and showed how important it was to Google’s business. Gross annual advertising revenue was over $15bn in 2019 — equal to about a tenth of the group total.
Ad boycotts could therefore be a serious problem. Created in 2005, YouTube has consistently struggled to cope with grotesque content uploaded by users. When Google bought the platform in 2006 for $1.65bn, it had 50m users, but the cost of streaming videos exceeded sales. Advertisers had to be persuaded that homemade videos were a good fit for brands; over the years, they have repeatedly suspended accounts, complaining that YouTube put adverts alongside unpalatable content.
The headache for YouTube is that removing content risks the anger of popular creators, particularly those on the far-right who claim bias against them. The controversy over YouTube’s “Rewind” 2018 overview of the year is a perfect example. The decision to leave out of the video popular but controversial creators like PewDiePie, who has joked about anti-Semitism and Nazis, in favour of brand-friendly creators was unsubtle. It became YouTube’s most disliked video, with 18m thumbs down.
Professional content circumvents some of these problems. Unfortunately, it is not very popular. YouTube has more than 2bn monthly users, while its TV subscription package had just 2m subscribers at the end of last year. So DIY videos will remain the core of the business. Like all social media platforms, YouTube will have to continue to muddle its way through the impossible conundrum of neutrality and responsibility. If it struggles to explain its decisions, at least it knows how to apologise.
Get alerts on Digital Media when a new story is published