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Is My Internet Generation Finally Coming Unstuck?

Sexually abusive vloggers, Twilight-loving racists and Harry Potter misogynists.

by Sam Wolfson
10 October 2014, 3:30pm

A screengrab from Sam Pepper's "Fingering Strangers in Public" YouTube video

A screengrab from Sam Pepper's "Fingering Strangers in Public" YouTube video

Harry Potter and I grew up at the same time, but our lives have taken quite different paths. When he was smashing it at Quidditch, I was being called a “fucking Jew” every time I missed a pass in rugby at sports day. When he was figuring out whether he fancied Cho Chang or Ginny Weasley, I was doing enough K to pluck up the courage to tell Hannah Burton I liked her, only for her to look at me the same way you would a banana that had been left at the bottom of your bag for weeks.

Apart from the fact that we both grew pubes in the late 90s, what links Potter and I is that, on our 11th birthday, we both experienced life-altering changes. He got accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. I got a 56k dial-up connection.

I was part of the first true internet generation. While kids a few years older went to the park after school, my friends and I would sit on MSN Messenger for hours, telling each other our darkest secrets, then copy and pasting those secrets into nine other chat windows. Instead of learning how to steer a bike with no hands and open beers with our teeth, we learnt how to be backstabbing, gossipy little shits.

And, in the last few weeks, being raised in this catty, cliquey culture has come back to shame and incriminate us.

First, misogynist threats were made against Emma Watson after she delivered a speech on feminism to the UN. The mainstream media pinpointed the original source of those as 4Chan, a website that had once been full of obsessive Harry Potter fan fiction, but now seemed to be turning on Hermione Granger. Then FKA Twigs experienced a torrent of racist abuse, seemingly because she was dating Robert Pattinson. (Yes, there is now a generation of people who adore an actor for portraying a 600-year-old vampire who falls in love with a teenage girl but says he can’t fuck her because he’ll fly into a rage of domestic abuse, yet can’t handle him dating a woman of colour.) And then, most alarmingly of all, YouTube vloggers found themselves in a spiralling sex scandal, with one story about YouTube star Sam Pepper harassing women on the street for a viral video triggering a string of girls and women to come forward with more serious sexual assault claims. 

To understand how we ended up here, you have to understand how the internet changed the way we experienced culture. Like every generation of teenagers we had books, films and TV shows that defined us: The OC, Melvin Burgess’s Junk, 10 Things I Hate About You and, above all, Harry Potter. But we also had Quizilla, a site where you could sit for hours answering questions to find out which Hogwarts house you were in, and slash fiction where Draco Malfoy brushes his hand against Cedric Diggory’s inner thigh. It doesn't sound like much, but before the internet, youth culture had largely been a one-way street. The “youth” were the fans, and the culture was made for us by distant adults.

Once that flow of information had changed, it allowed us to write ourselves into the worlds created by the cultural phenomena we used to define ourselves in adolescence. With that creativity, though, also came a sense of entitlement. We were suddenly able to talk back at our heroes, and – as it was when we were bitching about each other – we rarely had nice things to say, whether it was bullying them for not following back on Twitter or hounding their significant others just for existing. It’s a mentality that, in the extreme, led 4Chan users to believe they had the right to look at non-consensual photographs of nude celebrities and supposed fans of Robert Patterson to believe they could demonstrate their adoration by calling his girlfriend “an ugly monkey shit bitch”. 

Teenagers aren’t fully versed in dealing with social complexities. It’s why boys, upon discovering porn for the first time, huddled together on grubby message boards where they would make jokes about which girls from which schools give head. It’s why the girls I went to school with seemed to use MySpace as a sort of bullying round robin, using bulletins to call out “sluts” and “backstabbers” with abandon. Unlike the real world, there was no grown-up intervention. We just kept fucking each other up, embedding a misogyny and thuggery that never went away. None of us drew the links to the epidemic of self-harm and severe depression that was going on at the same time. Why would we? We were just teenagers. But we were also sowing the seeds of our own downfall.

Obviously, most of us grew out of internet hi-jinks and touched base with the real world. But others just carried on at university, graduating into 4Chan internet pranks, Uni Lad banter and fat-shaming in Daily Mail comment threads. And, in the last couple of weeks, there have been signs of this hard-wired generation finally coming unstuck. It’s sort of like the Harry Potter generation has had its own miniature Yewtree moment, only 60 years earlier.

The scandal started to blow up after Pepper released a controversial "prank" video, in which he uses a fake hand concealed inside a large hoodie to pinch the arses of some women in the street. The video was basically trying to score lols of off street harassment, and was pretty bad in itself, but then other, more unsavoury stories regarding Pepper began to emerge.

In a video posted to her YouTube channel, a vlogger named Dottie Martin alleged that, when she was 16 and Pepper was 23, he asked her on a date after spying her at a meet and greet. “He had his hand on my leg and started moving it further up my leg, which I really wasn't comfortable with,” she told BBC Radio 1. “He was holding my hand and he put it on his crotch area and moved it closer, but I pulled it away.” After they left the cinema they were at, she says that Pepper “literally ran away”. When she texted him to tell him he was horrible, he replied, “You shouldn’t have tricked me, then."

Just before she tells this story on her YouTube channel, she asks the viewer to withhold their judgment because, “as JK Rowling said, there’s light and dark in everyone”.

Other girls have come forward, though, including one who had screengrabs of a conversation she claims to have had with Pepper when she was 15. Pepper allegedly invites her to his home, and she initially thinks it’s to be in one of his videos, to which he replies, “You won’t be in my videos you slut, we can watch them.” Pepper repeatedly asks that if she comes she keeps it a secret, “because of the age thing”. He later asks for “a naked dance” from her. Since then, four other women have come forward with claims of abuse. Pepper has not yet responded directly to the allegations, but his legal team told Newsbeat he "denies any and all accusations that have been made against him." At the time of publication we have also reached out to Pepper – so far unsuccessfully – for comment. 

Until recently the only press coverage vloggers would receive was dumbstruck reverence for this new generation’s technological nous and creative ability, but these accusations highlight just how insular the world has been. A recent Observer piece explained how vloggers were “setting the future shape of marketing and advertising”, as well as “print publishing and television”. Radio 1 have just launched a new show spotlighting the best of vloggers' hosting abilities (as it turns out, they're not great). And, although there is plenty written about trolling and online bullying, 4Chan is often described in playful terms in (a perhaps fearful) popular media as “anarchic and influential” or “iconoclastic”. It is all of those things but it is also frequently cruel.

But for those of us who grew up on the internet, we knew about almost all of this already. We knew that 4Chan is routinely littered with death threats and misogyny. The FKA Twigs racist abuse is abominable, but again, for those people who use anonymous “ask me anything” sites like Formspring and Ask.fm – the successor to MSN Messenger – receiving horrendous attacks because of your race is pretty much par for the course. And, to an extent, we also knew about the abuses going on in the vlogging community.

"How's That" by FKA Twigs, who received racist abuse after her relationship with Robert Pattinson was made public

Not only did young people know about the alleged sexual offences of young people by YouTube stars – they had extensively chronicled them. And in the process of doing so they’ve been meting out their own form of social justice.

Accusations have been made against popular vloggers by others in the community for months now, mostly in private Tumblr posts. On this master post on the Unpleasant Miles Tumblr you can see a ton of sexual harassment allegations against YouTube stars, as well as response and analysis. I first started following these posts in March, but it’s only since Sam Pepper that mainstream news has paid any attention.

Tumblr does not have the same legal stringency as a court – obviously. But the fact that these claims are largely unverifiable hasn’t stopped them being taken seriously. The community accepts that these are just accusations, but they do not assume that most of these young girls are making this stuff up – they give them the benefit of the doubt, in line with stats that say only 2 percent of rape allegations are untrue.

A lot of what these YouTube stars have done would be very hard to get a conviction for. Although there are accounts of actual sexual assault, in a lot of the stories, consent was given – however reluctantly. Many of the posts are about these guys lying about not having a girlfriend or applying heavy pressure – but not forcing them – to have sex. But even if these YouTube stars aren’t rapists, they are still unbelievable assholes, and the community is happy to persecute them as such.

In grown-up sex scandals, the accused just deny and deny, but the byproduct of such relentless Tumblr campaigning is that people wind up basically confessing. Here’s a quote from a post by Alex Day where he accepts he's done "shitty things to good people":

Here’s another quote from a post by Ed Blann:

This is far from justice in the traditional sense. There are a lot of lies and hoaxes floating around and if anyone is experiencing harassment they should go to the police. But the legal system falters with online abuse cases because it’s not used to the technicalities and it misreads the culture. There is genuine retribution going on here – these YouTube-ers are getting banned from key conventions and other lucrative channels have withdrawn support. It’s certainly no match for criminal justice, of course, but at least Alex Day seems to have been kicked off YouTube for good.

The rest of the vlogger community finally have something worthy to talk about. There have been some outstanding posts by female vloggers in response to what’s gone on, such as this one from a 16-year-old girl talking about the aftermath of sexual abuse, which displays an emotional maturity far beyond anything I saw as a teenager.

A lot of what my generation – and the one that came after – has done on the internet was terrible. Punk, rave, jungle, garage – those were subcultures for people cool enough to know about them. But vlogging opened up youth culture to the silent majority. Teenagers, often with very little to say, could talk to hundreds of thousands of people via their YouTube channels. We replaced counter-culture with a meaningless and ill-informed commentariat. We institutionalised online bullying by supporting sites that guaranteed anonymity. But in our response to these misdeeds, we have found a bizarre sense of purpose.

It was kids on Tumblr that brought the focus of Emma Watson’s speech back to its content – not with the blind adoration of Harry Potter fans, but by challenging and discussing her feminism (albeit using Drake gifs). It was vloggers who pulled apart Sam Pepper’s response that his video was “a social experiment”.

Perhaps it takes horrible crimes from people within your own pocket of culture to realise how significant they are. It’s the same thing that happened with ravers when they found a political element to their hedonism upon having to respond to the Criminal Justice Bill in 1994. Comparisons can also be drawn with Anonymous, which once had a strict policy of only engaging in internet tomfoolery “for the lulz”, but found political impetus when they started to respond to digital piracy.

Maybe, for the Harry Potter generation, it’s taken horrendous acts by members of their own community to realise there’s more to online culture than stories about Crabbe fisting Goyle.

@samwolfson

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