I’ve referred on a few occasions to the surprisingly insular world of political commentary on YouTube, where opposing networks of highly opinionated “celebrities” battle it out for online views, or advertising revenue, often in direct response to each other. Over the last three years this politicised niche within the platform has been deluged with videos, and counter-videos, and counter-counter-videos, by would-be activists and “thought-leaders” attacking each other. I occasionally dip in and out of these contests, reminiscent of the flame wars of old, usually drawn by some snarky tweet or comment elsewhere on the internet, only to find myself in the middle of a fight where the participants expect the audience to be familiar with every aspect of its history, no matter how obscure. This only adds to the impression of a closed, hermetically sealed world, like a floating hulk filled with cannibalistic rats preying on each other to survive.
Artist and writer Jonny Ruzzo summarises the negative side-effects of this partisan navel-gazing on YouTube viewers and users in this piece for The Baffler:
To become a successful YouTuber, you must become well-versed in its content and stay up-to-date on the latest viral videos or makeup trends or controversies—depending on your preferred YouTube subgenre. You must also attend VidCon or PlaylistLive or VloggerFair, befriend the other comedians or beauty gurus, collaborate, organize tours or meet-and-greets. YouTube therefore becomes almost the only media you consume; it creates a small galaxy with room enough for a few planets and distant stars. In short, the deeper you delve into YouTube’s reality, the farther removed you become from our own.
This unseemly foam merges solipsisms, isolated bubbles of consumption and participation. It also explains YouTube’s reactionary, anti-PC humor, which thrives because YouTubers invest most of their concern in controversies having to do with the platform itself; meanwhile real-world issues are pushed to the background.
In this respect, the YouTube stars’ claims to activism are hard to accept; they amount to little more than a few tweets…
Considering the media we consume informs our values—you are what you eat and whatnot—it’s troubling to see the degree to which the platform affects these eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old binge-watchers’ perceptions of the Real World.