By Alison K Lanier
The young, Internet-dwelling generation grew up immersed in “stranger danger” programs, with a strong emphasis on the perils of giving out personal information on the web. This same generation is now deciding the nature of social networking sites. Many are now becoming YouTube personalities, minor celebrities with followings of thousands who regularly tune in to listen to the bloggers’ life updates and personal opinions. Other YouTube users become viral sensations overnight. Their images find a way onto news programs, but not always in the most positive light. This new environment raises the question: is it possible to maintain that same original idea of safety and online anonymity when personal information is essentially the medium for these young people’s new forums?
A Generation of YouTube Celebrities
Many adult professionals—authors, moviemakers, stars and celebrities—have moved to the web. Author John Green and his brother Hank Green have a notable following of nearly a million devoted fans on their YouTube channel. British gymnast Jennifer Pinches made the Nerdfighter fan sign at the London Olympics. Anthropologists, musicians, and a host of other “vloggers” or video bloggers use their channels to showcase a broad range of informative, thoughtful or simply entertaining material.
British gymnast Jennifer Pinches making the Nerdfighter fan sign. Nerdfighters is a website devoted to nerd culture that features video blogs or vlogs.
Younger YouTube stars have been building steam for years. Young adults like Charlie McDonnell, a British singer and songwriter, and Hayley G. Hoover, a young comedian and blogger, gather enormous followings that number into the thousands, according to their YouTube channels. These YouTube users have a spectrum of personalities, with themes from social justice and personal vlogs to music and teenage humor. This younger generation of video bloggers is defining how the social medium of web videos is going to be continued to be used by this generation that’s grown up with the Internet at their fingertips. And while they aren’t entirely serious—a great deal of a YouTube user’s popularity sprouts from a bubbly, fairly childish sort of humor—they are a growing, vocal and remarkable brand of celebrity.
Stranger Danger: Putting a Face with a Name
These vloggers are defining their media as a forum, using their specialized celebrity to create a message and an image to go along with it. Unfortunately the medium for this message is highly personal. It flies in the face of the safe anonymity that the distance and size of the Internet is supposed to ensure.
While some YouTube users garner a million or more fans, some people who use the Internet to voice their opinions do not. They, too, bring their ideas to the web via YouTube or blogs, but their opinions receive backlash. Infamous cases—at least within Internet circles—include the self professed “nice American girl,” a former UCLA student, and her “Asians in the Library” video along with the more recent rant against “brown” neighbors by a Canadian teen. Both of these young women accompanied their statements with images of their faces. The UCLA student, once she gained recognition online, was immediately recognizable inside of her relatively closed community at school and eventually left school because of the furious response and the concern for her personal safety. The Canadian teen went further, spelling out her name and address to thousands of viewers. She was placed under police protection.
These young stars—at least the intentional ones—become personalities online by being just that, a personality. Sharing their voices, faces, opinions and humor with their subscribers, these teens turn the sharing of a fairly personal nature into a commodity.
Of course not all YouTube users are quite so blunt about their names and residences as, for example, the young Canadian woman whose video landed her police protection. Unfortunately being mute about personal details isn’t a guarantee that Internet popularity won’t lead to real-world consequences. One very popular vlogger, Laci Green, made brief and passionate social media chatter in July when she received death threats attached to images of her apartment, according to the Daily Dot website. Green’s YouTube channel went silent for an unspecified period with an explanatory message.
Seeking a Solution
Unlike social networking sites where members can manage who can see their information and message them, young vloggers can only loosely control what their viewers are able to infer from their videos. How much of which information gets released is taken out of their hands. Despite being carefully mute about one’s age, residence and personal facts, there are always situational details that give away more information than the vlogger intended. Recording videos in a dorm room could be recognized by a subscriber who goes to the same school. Accidents and coincidences like this one, though, are a real danger for well-known and opinionated vloggers, despite their precautions.
Especially with the age of these vloggers, the old stranger danger mentality shouldn’t go by the wayside. These young, popular personalities can certainly be careful about what information they let slip in their videos, and many of them are, but many others, like McDonnell, build actual celebrity around their online appearances. And others, like the young Canadian woman, are all too eager to be recognized.
For more information on how to stay safe online, especially when posting videos on YouTube, visit YouTube’s page on Policies and Safety. A privacy complaint can be filed via the website through a series of six steps. Google’s Family Safety Center has more information as well.
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