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The internet is for 12-year-olds
Plus: Listen to me on The Daily
I had an excellent time talking with Katrin Bennhold about MrBeast on The Daily earlier this week. You can listen to the episode here or listen to the transcript here. (If you haven’t read it, the article on which the interview is based was in The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago.)
On this podcast and a couple others now I’ve backed myself into a position regarding MrBeast that ends at something like “could be worse!” I think this is true if not precisely a defense, and which events continue to bear out. Last week, to pick a timely example, YouTuber Colleen Ballinger was accused of “grooming” for having inappropriate conversations with underage fans.
Read Max is NOT for 12-year-olds. It is for 37-year-olds and those who love them. Please support its efforts:
As is my practice with most things that can be described as “YouTube drama,” I’ve done my level best to keep at arm’s distance all knowledge and information about the YouTuber Colleen Ballinger, and character “Miranda Sings,” but for the sake of this newsletter I have allowed space in my pristine mind palace to be invaded; for those of you similarly unaware of what is happening with Ballinger, Vulture has an extremely long description of the entire controversy. The headline accusation is that she allegedly sent lingerie and sexual images of another YouTuber, Trisha Paytas, to some underage fans; in general, she seems to have had extremely inappropriate relationships with her most devoted fans:
“Colleeny’s weenies” was a group chat on Twitter reserved for Ballinger’s inner circle of fans — what members have said were mostly minors, at the time — to vent, talk about the fandom, and send memes with Ballinger herself. In one message to the group, McIntyre, who was around 15 at the time, asked the group for questions to be used in a YouTube Q&A. Dahl’s alleged screenshot appears to show that Ballinger, who was in her early 30s, responded “Are you a Virgin?” and also asked McIntyre what his favorite sex position was. In another alleged screenshot, Adam tells the chat his “ass looks good today” and Ballinger appears to respond “pics adam.” Ballinger has yet to comment on these screenshots. In Ballinger’s 2023 response, she did not directly comment on the screenshots. Dahl also agreed with McIntyre’s claims that Ballinger would “trauma dump” on the group of tweens she called friends, especially when she was getting her divorce from Joshua David Evans.
One of the things that is amazing to me about the Ballinger story is the glimpse into this backstage area of YouTuber life, in which a subset of highly visible fans, who are all like 14 years old, are hanging out in group chats with their YouTuber idols, gossiping and bullshitting and sometimes doing the odd social-media management gig. Without excusing Ballinger, this is so patently stupid and insane I’m surprised that there aren’t more incidents like this, where YouTubers cultivate an audience of adolescents to whom they have unfettered access and, at best, forget that they’re talking with literal high school freshmen.
One thesis of the Read Max newsletter is that a huge portion-- much more than you might imagine--of content produced on the internet’s big social platforms is consumed by 12-year-olds. I like to cling to this thesis when I encounter something particularly strange and alarming on YouTube or TikTok: If I can remind myself that a video was likely made to appeal to people much younger than me, with less-developed skills for identifying obvious personality disorders, it helps me move past the content and sleep soundly at night.
But the consequences of this fact for content creators like Ballinger and MrBeast are pretty obvious: Because the audience online so wildly over-samples 12-year-olds relative to the population, and because all social platforms work like highly competitive marketplaces, you are constantly being disciplined into creating content that is essentially, though not explicitly, for 12-year-olds.
For various reasons, this basic fact is rarely acknowledged by the platforms and creators. I think YouTube would be much more comprehensible in general if every video had a large banner at the top saying “THIS VIDEO IS FOR 12-YEAR-OLDS,” but at the same time, admitting explicitly that your content is for 12-year-olds would make it much less interesting to the 12-year-olds who are increasingly in command of their own content consumption. The overall point is that there isn’t really a special “young adult”section of, say, YouTube, so every video, even those that might otherwise be enjoyed by adults, is under constant pressure to be more adolescent than it would be in most other venues because the audience is more adolescent.
At the same time, thanks to this ambiguity about who the “real” audience is, there’s no adult institutional mediation between 12-year-olds and their content creators besides whoever is tweaking the recommendation algorithms. There are no hallmarks of young-adult entertainment; YouTube videos have no winking adult jokes inserted for a presumable audience of half-attentive parents, no moral lessons woven in to signal wholesomeness--just pure, unhinged, what-will-12-year-olds-click-on[-within-the-context-of-the-present-algorithmic-settlement] content.
This lack of mediation was obviously a problem for Ballinger. But it also seems possible one aspect of MrBeast’s success is to have, in the guise of his various contests and charities, re-inserted some of that after-school special wholesomeness into the adolescent content of the YouTube era--the kind of thing that parents, reporter dupes like me, and, maybe most importantly, the people in charge at YouTube will see as differentiating, and will therefore tolerate and enable.
Smarter/younger content creators, like Read Max interview subject Henry De Tolla, are well aware of this: “I don't actually care about this stuff. But most of my viewers--I would say it's geared towards, like, middle schoolers and high schoolers.”
A possibly related phenomenon is the fact that “Young Adult” fiction and its incessant controversies seem these days to be exclusively the purview of actual adults.
This is why the only truly adult content on YouTube is, like, videos of Canadian plumbers showing you how to re-ignite the pilot light on your boiler--stuff that no 12-year-old would ever be interested in watching, and so is therefore never pressured to increase its appeal to 12-year-olds.