Laugh Now, Cry Later:The Downfall of YouTube Pranksters
by Phoebe Robertson (she/her)
It's 2014 and you're watching YouTube on your parents' computer in the family's computer room. Perhaps a sibling is looking over your shoulder, or maybe you've locked them out. Your eyes keep flicking to the clock in the left-hand corner of your screen: 3:45. You still have an hour before your parents get home from work. As you surf your homepage, you're greeted by titles such as "I'm Dating Your Girlfriend PRANK", "Involving Strangers in Drug Deals PRANK", and "Flashing Children PRANK". And yes, that list was meant to worsen as it progressed.
Originating from a handful of YouTubers dating back to 2008, YouTube pranking channels rose to fame due to their unique ability to entertain and engage audiences through a perfect blend of humour, surprise, and social experimentation. It also didn’t hurt that YouTube was flooded with kids looking for quick entertainment. By 2012, prank communities were extremely popular on the site. During the early days of YouTube, creators like Vitaly Zdorovetskiy of ‘VitalyzdTv’ and Roman Atwood paved the way by embracing the platform's potential and pushing the boundaries of comedic content. Their viral videos, featuring outrageous pranks and public stunts, catapulted them into the limelight, amassing millions of views, shares and comments. Other notable pranksters like ‘PrankvsPrank’, led by Jesse Wellens and Jeana Smith, showcased mischievous antics in a series of lighthearted pranks among friends and partners. Collaborations with popular influencers like ‘FouseyTube’ and ‘The Royal Stampede’ further expanded their reach - introducing their content to wider audiences. Active engagement and audience participation became cornerstones of channels like 'JoeySalads', who encouraged viewer interaction and suggestions for pranks. As these channels grew, monetisation opportunities emerged, turning pranking into a serious business.
This contract was never signed, and the money was never handed over before the unhoused man's untimely demise.
Back in their prime, it seemed like nothing could burst the growing prank channel bubble. However, a visit to YouTube today reveals a rarity of those nostalgic titles. So, what brought about this change? In 2014, YouTuber Josh Paler Lin posted a staged prank titled "How Does A Homeless Man Spend $100?" The original video garnered over 50 million views and sparked a fundraising campaign for the unhoused man, amassing over US$150,000. However, the situation took a tragic turn when the man was discovered dead shortly after the campaign. To make matters worse, it was revealed that Josh had presented the unhoused man with an unsigned contract stipulating that US$20,000 had to be returned to cover Josh's ‘expenses’. This contract was never signed, and the money was never handed over before the unhoused man's untimely demise.
The incident not only sheds light on the dark underbelly of the YouTube pranking scene, but also serves as an example of one of its pitfalls: fake pranks. By 2014, it seemed like everyone and their dog was trying their hand at pranking on YouTube, creating an oversupply that exceeded the demand. To gain more success, YouTubers resorted to staging pranks that allowed them to engage in otherwise illegal or indecent acts. Key players like FouseyTube, Vitaly, Joey Salads and Roman Atwood admitted to staging fake pranks. Once the general public discovered these deceptive practices, they turned on these prank channels. YouTube's viral obsession with overtly racist "In the Hood" pranks further contributed to the downfall of these pranksters, with the wider YouTube community eventually distancing themselves from these videos and the racist stereotypes portrayed by numerous pranksters. In essence, viewers lost interest in pranks on a widespread level when their fakeness and racism were exposed to the masses.
Despite the decline in popularity of pranking, YouTube pranksters still marked an iconic era. In 2015, over 100,000 people signed a petition demanding the removal of Sam Pepper from YouTube after he posted a video titled "Killing Best Friend Prank", which staged the murder of a fellow YouTuber in front of his best friend. And who could forget the 2016 "Killer Clown" sightings that led to New Zealand shops pulling clown costumes off their shelves? This era was filled with countless insane moments that would require an entire magazine to cover them all.
As we reflect on this era, it is essential that we learn from history and advocate for responsible and ethical content creation on YouTube and other platforms moving forward.
However, even after the sensation hit its peak, YouTube pranking culture continues to wreak havoc. In 2017, a woman shot her boyfriend during an ill-advised prank attempt, while the family vlogging and prank channel ‘DaddyOFive’ had their children taken away by child services due to harmful content involving their kids. The year 2017 also saw the shocking murder of Kim Jong-nam, the older brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, by two girls who believed they were participating in a prank TV show. In 2019, the Stokes Twins held up an Uber driver at gunpoint for another ill-conceived prank. In February 2021, a teenager was fatally shot in a parking lot after allegedly approaching a group with butcher knives as part of a misguided prank. And as recently as April 2023, a YouTube prankster was shot by a victim of one of their pranks.
In essence, the rise and fall of YouTube pranking channels have left an indelible mark on the platform's history. Initially, these channels gained fame because they entertained us. However, the revelation of staged pranks, exploitation, and racism caused a decline in public trust and interest. Viewers became disillusioned, leading to the inevitable decline of prank videos. Yet the negative impact of YouTube pranking culture lingers. Incidents involving harm, danger, and even death serve as reminders of the serious consequences that can arise from poorly thought-out pranks. As we reflect on this era, it is essential that we learn from history and advocate for responsible and ethical content creation on YouTube and other platforms moving forward.