Alex Casey talks to Henessey Griffiths, a 22 year-old Dunedin student who just finished her dissertation about one of Youtube’s most controversial stars.
Content warning: this article contains mention of suicide, please take care
Yesterday afternoon in Dunedin, honours student Henessey Griffiths sent a tweet that was a year (or rather, five days) in the making:
The 22-year-old had just handed in her dissertation entitled What, You’ve Never Stood Next to a Dead Guy? YouTube, The Attention Economy, and the Facilitation of Outrage to the University of Otago, one step closer to completing her Bachelor of Arts with honours, majoring in communication studies. She had spent most of 2019 analysing Logan Paul, an American YouTuber with nearly 20 million followers, who is probably most famous for vlogging next to a dead body and then getting cancelled for it.
She never thought he would actually see her tweet.
After the dust had settled and the likes had slowed to just a couple hundred an hour, we talked.
Henessey, why did you do this?
Okay so within the broad field of communications, my specific focus has been memetic studies, which is the study of memes. I've always loved internet and meme culture so I thought 'hey, why not study it?' I didn’t know what I was going to write my dissertation about for ages, but when I started researching I realised that there had been no scholarly work about YouTube since 2016.
I thought it was interesting that there’s this huge gap in research and there’s so much that has happened online since then. So I started joking around like 'wouldn’t it be fucking funny to write a dissertation about Logan Paul' and then that really good joke then turned into a cripplingly depressing reality. The meme went too far, and now I've actually done it.
So what is the dissertation about?
The dissertation is about the attention economy of YouTube and uses Logan Paul as a case study. Broadly, everything on the internet works within the attention economy now, because there is a surplus of information and a scarcity of attention. Because there is so much different cultural knowledge being shared around, I was interested in people's decisions about who or what is going to get their attention.
I was also looking into YouTube as this massive conglomerate with all this corporate secrecy within the platform and nobody actually nobody knows what is going on. So on the one hand someone can make a career on YouTube, but what we are now seeing is content creators having to rely more and more on clickbait to attract an audience to gain attention and ad revenue. That promotes increasingly controversial content, which leads us to Logan Paul.
Okay. So can you please explain who Logan Paul is.
Logan Paul is a 24-year-old YouTuber who first found fame on Vine, the six second video-sharing platform, and then started making daily vlogs on YouTube in 2017 about his life. He started to build a lot of popularity through these vlogs and reached the point where he had around 15 million subscribers in 2017. The thing that is really important to note here is that the majority of his subscribers are aged 8-14, so a very young fanbase. He definitely pandered towards that, he'd do very clickbait titles like 'You’ll Never Guess Which Girl I kissed' or 'I Just Bought a $15 Million Lamborghini' – shit like that.
Why do YouTubers like Logan Paul matter?
YouTubers matter because they represent the convergence of so many things in our mediascape right now. There's this concept of the microcelebrity, which is a new breed beyond the old idea of a celebrity who was this ubiquitous star that was completely unattainable. These days, the rise of influencers means that everyone has the potential to pick up their phone and change the course of history with a single video. That is now an acceptable idea.
The other reason why they matter is that they earn so much money. Logan Paul is estimated to earn about $11,000 for every minute of video he uploads. He made about $16 million last year. It's so crazy to think about how much money people make off this stuff, but nobody seems to be really thinking about it critically because it still seems like a leisure activity. It’s so much more than that. And that’s why we need to talk about it.
Can you describe what happened with Logan Paul’s infamous cancellation?
During 2017 he went on a vlogging vacation to Japan with a couple of friends and uploaded the travel vlogs in about four parts. The video that I analysed was the last installation. He posted a video on the 31 December titled 'We Found a Dead Body in the Japanese Suicide Forest'. It starts off with this monologue, which is actually one of the most interesting parts of the video. He tells us "this is not clickbait, this is the realest thing I’ve ever posted", which is really weird.
The video then shows him and mates travelling into the Aokigahara Forest, more commonly known as the Japanese suicide forest. It is this big sea of trees where quite a few people have taken their lives. Him and his friends decide to camp there and they treat it all as a big joke, wondering if there will be ghosts and stuff. Then they actually stumble across a real dead body hanging from a tree.
Logan doesn't put down the camera at all, he never stops vlogging, he just keeps filming between his friends' reaction, his reaction, and the dead body. You can hear his friends telling him to stop filming, but he just doesn't. They leave the forest, the call the police, and at the end of the video he tries to frame it like it was a suicide PSA, telling people to reach out for help if they need it. But, realistically, he was clearly using a dead body as clickbait.
And what was the backlash to that video like?
He posted a follow-up video saying he had made a terrible lapse in judgement, but the whole time you can actually see his eyes wander off-camera like he's reading from a manuscript. He posted that apology video, which was framed around the idea of 'be here tomorrow' and saying he was donating $1m to a suicide awareness trust. He posted that, and then took a three week hiatus – another common YouTuber move.
His first video back after that hiatus is him framing it like everything has moved on. What's even more interesting is that at the very start of it, he plugs his merch hard and says that YouTube and Google have cut his Ad Sense so everyone needs to buy his shit or he can't keep his house. He immediately puts all this guilt on the user. The craziest thing is that he gained about a million subscribers in the weeks after the controversy.
That’s extremely f***ed up.
It’s so f***ed up. It blows my mind. There was a lot of backlash and people calling for him to be cancelled and everything, but the way that the attention economy works is that there is an inevitable shift in attention towards whatever new controversy that pops up. We no longer care about Logan Paul, which was another big motivator for me because every time I told people I was writing about Logan Paul, people would say "oh yeah, I forgot about that."
That's the key thing for me – how quickly people forget about these really awful, controversial things that we really shouldn’t be forgetting so easily. But because we are constantly in this influx of information, we can't stay focussed on one thing. And YouTube has a hand in redirecting the shift, because they want people to start watching kids eating Tide pods instead and stop asking questions about how they enable such egregious behaviour in their big content creators.
There’s a funny circular nature to this, like you have tweeted it out now and Logan Paul has tweeted it and DM'ed you and now you have all this attention.
I know. I didn't expect for this to happen. It crossed my mind that he might find out about it, but I did the tweet to celebrate handing it in. And then he retweeted it, and now the tweet has like 10,000 likes and I’m getting hit up by you and all these other media outlets. I have now been directly interpolated into the very thing that I am studying. I am the living embodiment of what the attention economy is. In a week's time, nobody is going to be talking about this. It’s so in and of itself, it's so meta, I can't even explain how much it is f***ing me up.
Someone needs to do a dissertation about you doing this dissertation.
I hope so. The thing about going viral is that you know it's not going to last forever, but at the same time, it's all you can think about. You get addicted to seeing how popular you are, because our whole sense of validation now is around like, follows and retweets. So I am watching this all from a critical angle but I'm also aware of the part of me that can’t stop refreshing my Twitter and seeing what everyone is saying about me.
What do you think is going to happen next? When do you get your marks back?
I don't even know. All I want is to do is sit with a gin and tonic and a Port Royal and just question why. That's all I want to do. Studying the internet makes it really hard to enjoy it, because I’m constantly thinking about the ideological implications of why I'm looking at it. So I feel like I need to distance myself from this but also make the most of my 15 minutes of fame. Put it this way: if Logan Paul makes a bloody video about me, I better get a payout. He better pay off my bloody student loan.