It starts out as an Internet fandom fairy tale.
You’ve been following your favorite YouTuber for years when he follows you back on Twitter, then sends you a DM that he wants to talk directly to you. Overjoyed, you start communicating regularly. Innocent chatter gives way to flirting, and then he asks you for pictures. Then he suggests what you show him in the pictures. When his tour comes through your town, he tells you to meet him afterward. You go back to his hotel, and some of the things you do make you feel uncomfortable, although you never directly told him no. He stops talking to you after, and now he’s dating another famous YouTuber.
What’s happened to this fictional fan is not far off from allegations of sexual misconduct across digital communities in recent years, where the interplay of access, fame, and power combine to encourage a murky situation that’s threatened to disrupt community trust and destroy reputations. A group of young women inside the community decided last year that something needed to be done to help their peers, and so Uplift, an educational series dedicated to “combating sexual abuse in online communities through education and advocacy,” was born.
Why is this necessary?
The history of sexual abuse in the YouTube community stretches back as far as 2012, but in 2014 there was a concentrated outpouring of allegations that mostly prominent male creators were taking advantage of their female fans and fellow female creators. As stories came to light across platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, the YouTube community began to take stock of the dangerous combination of celebrity culture and a lack of sexual education.
“It started out with one person,” explained Uplift co-founder and co-Executive Director Katie Twyman, a 23-year-old who works in preschool education. “And when it comes to things like sexual violence, the more you see people finding the support after coming out that they need, the more comfortable people tend to feel telling their own stories. We all had this incredible desire to do something about it, but when you have these giant communities like you do with YouTube, it can be hard to know how to actually work together to get something done.”
Twyman and her fellow co-Executive Director Sahitya Raja are both Nerdfighters, part of the fandom around Vlogbrothers duo Hank and John Green, which was at the epicenter of much of the sexual violence issue on YouTube, since several accused abusers were part of their DFTBA music label. Raja sent a message to John Green after talking with fellow co-founder Grace Miller about actions the community could be taking in response. Green shot a message back, pledging that the Vlogbrothers could back up this effort if they went forward. And so they did.
What is being done?
Originally, Uplift was born as YouCoalition, a task force organized on Tumblr specifically to target survivor resources and education for the YouTube community, but the founders quickly decided to broaden their scope to Internet communities in general.
“We started out just as a blog that was talking about how do you recognize problematic behavior, how do you speak about boundaries, how do you intervene as a bystander, how do we update people in the community on what’s happening,” said Twyman. “It just grew from there to something that’s a lot bigger and inclusive of different communities as well.”
From there, Uplift moved to the hub of its community, YouTube, to start a webseries with host Kat Lazo under the tagline “real talk for real change.” Episodes cover topics like how to get help—physical, emotional, or legal—after an assault. There are also panel-style episodes that welcome prominent YouTubers to discuss subject matter like power dynamics between fans and creators and the implications of that on sexual relationships.
While digital is the focus, the Uplift team knows that the problematic behavior comes often when the digital screen is lifted and fans are in physical contact with their idols at meet-ups, tours, and conventions. With the Green brothers’ support, Uplift had a presence at VidCon 2015 with a no-frills booth. GeekyCon and LeakyCon founder Melissa Anelli is also on the Uplift advisory council, and so the team plans on working with those events as well. In addition to being a presence for attendees, they’re also aiming to consult on codes of conduct and institute training programs for volunteers at those cons to help them prepare to deal with issue.
“We’re here to help people take back their communities, and make their communities feel safe again,” said 27-year-old Communications Director Jennifer Dorsey. “We want to start in the communities we know and start training those.”
Twyman added: Uplift wants to teach “how to prepare volunteers for if they witness something dangerous, or if someone approaches them to report something. We have had a few other cons that have reached out to us, where we haven’t been at before.”
The YouTuber convention scene varies widely: Some are just thinly veiled money-generating autograph events, while others are well-established events with diverse panels and attendees that range from industry to community. But all of them ultimately aim to give fans in-person access to their idols. While Uplift has developed within the convention communities of VidCon and GeekyCon, there’s a wider world of cons that don’t have the ingrained social justice and community aspects, like MagCon, which caters to fans of a particular sect of teenage Vine boys that historically include creators like Carter Reynolds, the 19-year-old Viner whose nude video of him pressuring his then-16-year-old girlfriend for a blowjob went viral and sparked debates over sexual pressure and abuse.
“MagCon in particular commodifies the excitement and passion these fans have for this very stratified social situation,” said 22-year-old Operations Director Grace Miller. “Something we’re really trying to work on is ways to reach the fans and creators to have conversations with them about this kind of dynamic. So when it comes to being in those physical spaces it doesn’t becomes a fervor. There’s not so much idolization going on in the physical space.”
For Uplift, that means starting the conversation before the event starts in the space where all the stakeholders are gathering: online.
“The best way to prevent a bad situation at MagCon or Digitour is doing that outreach before getting into that situation,” Miller said. “Consent is applicable not only within sexual situations, but in almost every facet of your life. That’s another reason why those foundational interactions and resources are important.”
How has the community responded?
At this summer’s VidCon, Reynolds showed up on site and was removed by convention planners from the official hotels because he was a “threat.” While some of the convention’s 20,000 attendees called him trash and applauded the decision to have him removed, others were still vocal supporters, claiming him as one of their favorite digital stars despite the controversy.
“It is really challenging as a viewer and a fan to admire someone’s work and then to disconnect yourself from it so abruptly,” said Twyman. “I think that’s something we do see people struggling with a bit. There’s a disconnect between supporting the idea of pulling away from people who are doing things that are hurtful to others, and actually doing that when someone you’re a fan of is doing something that’s hurtful to others.”
Miller continued: In “his case and also the case with Curtis Lepore [a Vine star who took a plea deal following rape allegations by fellow Viner Jessi Smiles], both of these people have ‘proof,’ quote-unquote. You have a video, in Carter Reynolds’ case, for example. Part of what makes it a gray area is people don’t understand what consent is, people aren’t taught what consent is, and people aren’t taught what sexual assault looks like.”
Community members are confiding in the organization and reaching out for help.
Uplift approaches this by starting with the foundations: defining assault and consent.
“That’s where we are coming from in our work,” she said. “You can’t have a conversation about it unless you’re on the same page.”
Overall, the Uplift team says they’re seeing strides, especially when they show up in person to an event. Community members are confiding in the organization and reaching out for help.
“People come up and tell us things that were happening to them,” said Dorsey. “They didn’t want to report necessarily, saying, ‘I didn’t want the drama,’ or ‘I didn’t realize it was wrong until someone told me it was wrong.’ It’s not the full-on abuse, but it’s inappropriate touching, not respecting boundaries, not taking no for an answer. It’s just enough to see those patterns beginning. And that gets worse when you’re dealing with famous people.”
While the issue of sexual misconduct isn’t completely relegated to heterosexual cisgendered men preying on their heterosexual cisgendered female fans, those relationships make up a vast majority of the problems that have come to light in the community to date.
“At our booth at VidCon, almost every girl stopped, while a good third of the guys looked at the poster and kept walking,” said Dorsey.
Overall, there’s a large swath of male creators with female fan bases, many of whom want to be supportive of Uplift’s goals and messages, but Twyman said there’s some hesitation around what it’s appropriate for them to be saying in support.
“That’s a conversation we had a lot at VidCon with both male creators and male attendees, about how can you use your words to support the women who are experiencing these things more directly,” said Twyman. “That’s the biggest suggestion we’ve given people. If you haven’t had these experiences, and you are in a position of privilege or power, then you have the responsibility to elevate the voices of people who are fighting the battles against these particular issues.”
“John [Green] said many times, ‘I can’t do much but give you my full support and my money.’ In reality, that’s exactly it,” laughed Dorsey. “A big part of our conversation is what can you do to help us elevate these voices. We’ve seen very little hesitation from the male cis het community.”
How are the platforms reacting?
Once a creator has been accused of inappropriate behavior, his or her future can be affected both by the reception of the community and by the platform itself, if it chooses to deny that creator service. YouTube does not have a direct policy that disallows users with a history of sexual abuse from using the platform, but there are several content restrictions that, depending on how interpreted, could eliminate specific content from those users. There’s a rule against “nudity and sexual content,” “harassment and cyberbullying,” and even “hate speech” that can be applied to specific content if users flag the videos for violations.
However, in the cases of these sort of allegations, the company enters a murky area of passing judgment and limiting someone’s income—or even opening them up to litigation. For those reasons, Uplift strives to educate the platforms as well as the users.
“One thing that I would encourage these platforms, these big platforms that are hosting so many different kinds of content, to [do is] step away from is the idea that in order to do something they have to condemn somebody,” Twyman said. “That’s where they get hesitant. I said, ‘If you want to support this issue but don’t want to become liable for taking away this person’s livelihood, you can still say: ‘Hey, online sexual violence and emotional abuse is an issue. Let’s talk about what the issue is.’ It does not necessarily have to be in a place where you are putting yourself in a legally compromising position.”
“They don’t spend as much time in their communities,” said Dorsey. “Maybe, for example, YouTube is too big. But if they aren’t careful, that’s going to backfire on them. People love their platforms because they’re communities. It’s about, ‘who the heck uses my platform and should I care?’”
What is the endgame for this kind of work?
In September 2014 Internet prankster Sam Pepper uploaded a video in which he pinched unsuspecting women on their behinds, sparking a debate over prank culture, sexism, and consent on YouTube. For Pepper this also unearthed other accusations of sexual misconduct with women he knew in real life, including a formal complaint filed in Los Angeles.
While the offending videos have been removed under YouTube’s nudity and sexual conduct rules and Pepper was dropped by his multichannel network, he still uploads videos on a monthly basis for millions of subscribers. Others accused of misconduct have left the platform completely, abandoning channels with thousands of followers. One of the biggest debates among community members is how to advise people on dealing with those accused of abuse who stay in the community. For Dorsey, there are distinctions depending on what kind of behavior someone is accused of and where their long term place is in the world of digital entertainment.
“The community belongs to the survivors now.”
“There are two areas,” explained Dorsey. ‘There are people who are making really bad videos with sexual jokes or who are doing things that are much more culturally problematic. Then you have people who … have done things that are full-on abuse. I don’t think it’s OK for them to be in the community anymore. I think it’s great for people to forgive them; I think that’s healthy. I don’t think that their growth and their change … belong in that community because the community belongs to the survivors now.”
As for the other side?
“It was a dumb decision,” she said. “But if they prove they’ve made changes and they don’t screw up anymore, [that] they’re willing to listen and say ‘I’m actually sorry,’ not ‘I’m actually sorry, but…,’ slowly but surely it may be possible for them to work back in. Will everyone forgive them? Maybe not.”
“The ultimate priority has to be the survivors feeling safe,” emphasized Twyman. “If the presence of a certain creator jeopardizes the safety or mental well-being of the survivor, that has to be placed above all else.”
Illustration by Jason Reed