YouTubers are risking their lives for our clicks
As far as YouTube video titles go, Jeff Wittek’s choice of “HOW I BROKE MY FACE” doesn’t necessarily stand out. In fact, a search for that title brings up hundreds of videos, often accompanied by gory thumbnails, all hoping to tap into YouTube’s collective love for shocking content.
What sets Wittek’s documentary series apart from the rest is the 30-year-old’s deep dive into just how damaging and traumatic it can be to take on dangerous stunts in the name of fame. Wittek’s new YouTube series, a self-made account of his near death experience and road to recovery, comes after many months of injury-focused speculation by fans of his usual series, Jeff’s Barbershop. In his highly anticipated mini-documentary, the veteran content creator has finally revealed what happened to him last year, and how it left him with life-changing injuries.
While being swung from an excavator for a YouTube video — in circles via a rope above a shallow lake — Wittek was flung into the body of the construction vehicle he was rotating around at high speed. The influencer had a lucky escape, but with multiple injuries: torn ligaments, a broken foot, a broken hip, a shattered eye socket, and a skull that was fractured in nine places. The incident almost cost Wittek one of his eyes, and nearly ended his life. Seasoned YouTube viewers may not have been entirely surprised. The Vlog Squad, the YouTube group Wittek was filming for when the accident took place, is well-known for its dangerous stunts. In fact, injuries related to Vlog Squad videos have become so commonplace that there are round-ups of the most gory ones on YouTube. Footage has recently resurfaced of Vlog Squad members claiming that their leader, David Dobrik, wanted them to get injured.
“Engagement — in the form of views, comments, and so on — is critical to YouTubers' success and financial prospects,” Jacqueline Nesi, a Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University whose research focuses on social media, tells Mic. “I think that these types of stunts do tend to drive greater engagement, and so YouTubers are likely responding to that.”
It’s easy to see, then, how the constant need for fresh content and competition among influencers, can turn into something sinister, and it seems that a pattern is forming. Wittek is, unfortunately, not the first to have his life turned upside down while pursuing YouTube fame. YouTuber Zvidaly Zdorovertskiy, for example, broke his neck and back in a skydiving accident at the end of last year. A month later, YouTuber Saa Fomba broke his skull diving into a lake for a video. Other stories are much darker. YouTube content creator Stanislav Reshetnikov, while receiving encouragement and payment from his fans, abused and eventually murdered his girlfriend on a livestream. He was convicted last month and sentenced to six years in prison. “You kind of get a sense that you have to one up yourself every time. You gotta come up with a new idea, and that idea has to be better than the video you did last week,” Wittek says in the first video of his docuseries, when discussing the pressures of content creation.
His narration forces viewers to acknowledge the elephant in the room: YouTubers are pushing themselves to extreme lengths in order to impress their fans, who readily consume this kind of content. It seems that these kinds of ‘pass-me-the-popcorn’ theatrics are what keep us — the viewers — coming back for more, and the stakes are getting higher and higher each year.
“If their audience responds to a video of a stunt, the natural next step is to perform an even more extreme stunt to build on that prior success,” Nesi says. “It's easy to see how this process could spiral somewhat out of control, particularly given the sheer volume of content on YouTube — at any given time, there are many other YouTubers out there who are willing to perform a stunt that's even more outrageous, more risky, or more extreme than you — so I'd imagine there is a certain amount of pressure to continue taking stunts to the next level.” According to Mayra Ruiz-McPherson, a London-based social media expert and technology ethicist, our amoral appetite for bloody content could come down to the blurred lines of vlogger-viewer relationships.
“Wittek and Dobrik — as virtual reality stars — are in relatively unscripted and real-world settings, many of their antics are ‘manufactured fictions’," Ruiz-McPherson tells Mic. “In other words, the scenarios we see these Vlog Squad members participate in are purposefully created rather than realistic happenstance. When media users are viewing and consuming influencer content that falls into this differentiated arena of ‘real-but-unreal,’ then clear delineations of fiction and nonfiction become rather blurred.”
Ruiz-McPherson goes on to say that this way of thinking can cause a disconnect between viewer and influencer, quelling any worries we may have about their safety. “The media user does indeed feel an affinity towards the performer, but such feelings or actions tend to be contained or restricted to the singular viewing episode. In other words, whatever one may feel towards a media performer is bound within the session spent consuming the content.”
Obviously, viewers can’t be held responsible for the decisions that vloggers make. However, when we take Nesi and Ruiz-McPherson’s observations into account, we must also consider that we may not have the best interests of these internet superstars, who we so often put on pedestals, at heart.
“When viewing YouTubers, we can have this especially appealing combination of people who seem relatable or "just like us," but who also feel somewhat distanced from us, so there may be less concern about their safety than if, say, you were watching a close friend perform this kind of stunt,” Jacqueline Nesi adds. What is difficult for many of us to acknowledge is that these influencers act as mirrors. They are puppets tied to strings that we, the viewers, hold. The things they perform back to us are the ones which gain the most views, bring in the most subscribers, and make them the most money. They are showing us what we want to see. Unfortunately, we seem to be hungry for blood.
As commentators on and consumers of the world of YouTube, we are very good at holding influencers to account for poor behavior or abuses of power. Stories seem to regularly break about the ways in which YouTubers have failed the communities they represent - with prominent examples including James Charles, David Dobrik, and the famously controversial figure Jake Paul. While it will always be important to discuss and analyze such matters, Wittek’s accident — and resultant docuseries — has shown us that it might be time to start thinking just as critically about our own motivations for viewing and encouraging such risky content.