Would You Sell Your Grandma for Likes?

Some people say TV is dead. I don’t agree. Sure, I believe the people who think Netflix is the best thing since sliced bread. That said, traditional broadcasters still produce content worth watching, especially if you lack the time and the stamina to sit through yet another box set.

This Dutch documentary – not available in English, I’m afraid – explores one of TV’s main competitors: Youtube. It’s no secret that Youtube offers unprecedented opportunities for creators to connect directly with their audiences and make significant amounts of money in the process.  Still, I had to hold my chin with both hands to prevent it from dropping to the floor as I was watching (a messy and somewhat unappealing sight).

I’m not opposed to people making money – those bills won’t pay themselves after all. Advertising is not exactly a new phenomenon, and while you can question its ethics, I don’t think getting paid for promoting products and services is inherently wrong. I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable, though, as I was watching the interviews with famous people I, as an old person, had never heard of.

Kwebbelkop, a Dutch gamer-turned-entrepreneur with millions of subscribers, is one of the Youtubers who has managed to turn his hobby into a successful business. His persistence is impressive, especially at his young age, but I’m not sure I’m liking the revolution he represents. Seeing a young man surrounded by people dressed in suits and ties, talking about how they can make yet more money off this guy working himself into a fit while playing a shoot-em-up game made my heart sink a little bit.

And then there’s his extremely questionable posting of a video of his father in a hospital bed. If someone had filmed one of my parents in such a vulnerable state, I would be on them like a ton of bricks. Sure, making money is fine, but I’m not sure I’m happy to see illness and suffering turned into nothing but clickbait.

I was also surprised to see how people uncritically accept Youtube’s business practices. The company’s lack of transparency would bother me, if my livelihood depended on it, but few of the Youtubers featured in the documentary seemed to even consider it. Yet the stakes can be high: one creator explained how he lost much of his work when some Youtube minion decided to delete his account without explanation. Making money by posting videos sounds great, but how sustainable is it really? And how is this wealth actually generated?

But what annoyed me most, perhaps, is the utterly vapid nature of much of the content that’s uploaded. Of course many Youtubers use the platform as a medium to share their love for art, music, science, or other interesting subjects. Many of them don’t, though, and post videos that can be summarized as nothing but a repeated me-me-me message. If I sound grumpy, it’s not because I’m an elitist without a sense of humour. I just can’t help feeling cynical when I’m watching Youtubers who seem to be driven by nothing but a desire for fame and money, posting content I can only describe as timewasting crap, to be seen by impressionable young people.

I don’t think technology is inherently bad. It’s changed my own life for the better and I’m always excited to hear about new developments. But the uncritical stance some people take when it comes to social media and online activity bothers me. The functionality of platforms like Youtube depends on how we, as users, choose to work with them. If we don’t question the way these platforms operate we risk turning them into nothing but cynical money-making machines. That would be a shame, for the opportunities technology offers could bring us a so much good.

Criticizing platforms such as Youtube tends to make you sound like your dad, a dinosaur, or a Luddite. My point is not that platforms like Youtube shouldn’t exist, or that Youtubers shouldn’t be making money, or that they should only be making high culture content I like. The world would be a fairly boring place if it was organised according to my standards and the last thing I want to promote is censorship. But just as most people wouldn’t drive their car with their eyes closed, it wouldn’t hurt to stay vigilant. Ask yourself where the content you enjoy comes from, why it’s been created, and whether the image it creates bears resemblance to how you’d like the world to be.

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