It's Time To Talk About Dangerous Stunts On YouTube

By Gizmodo UK on at

It turns out that after you turn 30, life is basically just a series of reminders of how old and past it you are. The Olympics just becomes a parade of people who are younger, fitter and more successful than you. Listening to “new” music becomes discovering another album by that band you like from 2005. And perhaps most weirdly, clicking around YouTube becomes an exercise in radicalising yourself to become Helen Lovejoy of “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” fame.

You see, it turns out that there are a bunch of young YouTube vloggers who have won fame and success by skirting along the fine line between health & safety, and danger & criminality. And who are their biggest fans? The kids.

Now, I don’t want to be an old fart starting an illusory “moral panic”, as I’ve long been on the other side of the argument when it comes to, say, video games, but in these stunt videos, the old man trapped inside me can’t help but join in with Helen Lovejoy’s battle cry.

Nightscape and Ryan Taylor

The two best examples of what I’m talking about are two London-based vloggers: Urban explorer Nightscape, aka 20 year old Harry Gallagher, and 24 year old Ryan Taylor, who performs BMX stunts. They have around 800,000 and 900,000 subscribers on YouTube respectively.

They’re both clearly very talented filmmakers, having learned or intuited the visual grammar that makes vlogging such a unique and compelling medium. They talk direct to camera, they use lots of GoPro footage, they remind viewers to “like” and “subscribe” constantly. And they know how to tell a story. Though I’m about to condemn them, I have to admit, they are weirdly compelling to watch.

So what are their videos like?

Take a look at this one, by Nightscape, for one of the most tame examples. He’s doing some flips with his parkour pals around Waterloo Bridge. He’s very talented when it come sto this sort of thing.

Now take a look at this one - in which he trespasses into a building site in Stratford’s East Village, and scales the partially constructed tower:

It’s actually hard to watch as you remember there are literally no safety checks going on. No harnesses. No precautions. It makes John Noakes scaling Nelson’s Column look almost sickeningly tame.

Ryan Taylor is pretty similar, but has an attitude to authority that, as I’m an old man now, riles me up. Here he is taking his BMX on to the slanted roof of London Metropolitan University, on Holloway Road. As you’ll see in the video, mid-way through the police are called and, rather amazingly, he then runs away from them and seems to get away with it.

In this video, he barges into a leisure centre and jumps his bike off of the diving board as the poor beleaguered staff chase after him.

And in this video there is simply an astonishing amount of anti-social behaviour: he holds on to a bus while on his bike (with no thought to how the bus driver might feel), he cycles into a building site (with seeming disregard for all health and safety etiquette), he rides up a slide in a children’s play area (sorry, council officials who have to maintain it), and after a bunch of tricks on public works of art (like the thing on the corner of London Bridge and Tooley Street), we see him climb across some ironwork and jump on to the top of a bus.

(Amusingly, in the same video he talks about how his actions have attracted police attention. “Why are they trying to kill the vibe?” he asks – which is indeed a question that would baffle someone who has lived a life so free of any consequence.)

One of Taylor’s regular features is an “overnight challenge”, in which he attempts to get into a building and spend the night there doing BMX tricks. For example, in the below video he attempts to stay the night in B&Q – but is thwarted when the police turn up and deploy police dogs. He is, of course, quickly released.

If you look through his YouTube channels, there are countless videos like this, all flagged up with things like “police helicopter”, “captured” or “arrested” in the title, to tell the viewer how exciting it gets.

What I find particularly infuriating about Taylor in particular is that when caught, he’ll often argue back with whichever authority figure is preventing him from acting like a dick – and will attempt to paint himself as the victim, and will often then attempt to escalate any confrontation that he himself has caused. Nightscape, by contrast, in the videos I’ve seen is much politer – and once caught out tends to realise it is game over much more quickly.

Why does this matter?

So why does this matter? On an individual level, I think the disregard and lack of empathy from these kids is pretty astonishing. Each of these videos means that the people involved are going to have countless meetings to explain security lapses, they might cost people money if they have damaged anything or if something needs inspecting to make sure it is still safe to use.

At best, the likes of Nightscape and Taylor are inconveniencing people. At worst, they might end up costing poorly paid frontline staff their jobs. Not to mention the police time and resources spent every time one of their incidents is reported.

Yes, I too have just realised that I’m basically arguing “kids today have no respect”.

And you could be forgiven for asking: What else is new? Beside, back when I was a kid – back when we only had to live in the shadow of 9/11 rather than the collapse of the American-led world order – our generation was equally bad, right?

What scares me now - aside from all progress and change now that I am an old man, is YouTube.

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YouTube has fundamentally transformed the economics of behaving badly.

Before the advent of social media, if you wanted to dick around on your BMX, the only way you were able to monetise this lifestyle was petty theft.

Today, by contrast, Nightscape, Ryan Taylor and dozens of others like them are all global stars, in receipt of sponsorship money, advertising revenue and merch deals. For example, Taylor is sponsored in at least one video by MVMT Watches, a perennial sponsor of new media content, and at the end of each video, Nightscape will plug his merch store, in which he sells poster prints of the (impressive) photos he has taken atop some very tall buildings. Both channels are, of course, in receipt of standard YouTube monetisation revenue.

So… isn’t YouTube directly incentivising this sort of dangerous behaviour? Why aren’t we more worried about why this could be bad?

It is clear from these videos that like their slightly more sedate YouTube rivals, like Zoella or whoever, these daredevils are doing pretty well from it. According to his videos, Ryan Taylor lives in a luxury penthouse apartment in North London, and is apparently on the verge of moving to a similarly palatial setup in Los Angeles. Like other famous YouTubers, he also has what appears to be an expensive car.

Arguably, they deserve their riches. They’ve found an audience, are providing content that people enjoy watching and have pioneered vlogging as an artform. There is definitely a skill to how they construct their videos (such as the brief teaser clip at the start showing viewers what to expect), and create a sense of community for viewers of their channels.

But ultimately, this is built on top of behaviour that if not illegal, certainly, umm, feels like it should be. And more importantly… it is just bad.

I wonder if it could escalate too. Because of the way YouTube and viral content works, these creators will surely be compelled to take part in increasingly dangerous and more outlandish japes, in order to continue growing their channels while keeping existing audiences interested.

I’d say I wouldn’t be surprised if the incentives provided by viral content and YouTube’s revenue model lead to someone actually dying. But… well, they already have.

And perhaps even worse, I wonder what sort of influence these stunt channels could have on the kidz.

Take a look at this video. Taylor steals some traffic cones and uses them to block off part of Charlotte Street to perform stunts. So far, so ordinary. But look at who has turned up to see him: dozens of young kids.

Similarly, in the video described earlier, in which Taylor jumps on top of the bus, we later see him encounter some other young fans who clearly massively admire him - they shout his stupid catchphrases and the like back at him as he passes on his bike.

So thanks to YouTube, we have a situation where these daredevils are doing all sorts of bad things, and are being rewarded with clicks and attention. If they want to continue making money and growing their channels, the rules of virality mean that they are surely going to have to keep escalating the scale of their stunts. And there are millions of kids watching them do it, who all have phones that can shoot video, and who may also be tempted to try recklessly climbing buildings themselves.

Thanks, technology.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of any sensible solutions to this problem, or any way to quell my moral panic: I don’t think heavy-handed moderation is the answer. I’d be a hypocrite if I said these channels should be banned as I do find them maddeningly compelling viewing. As a liberal, I don't want more heavy-handed laws restricting their behaviour.

So I guess it is lucky then that I am now old and past it, and no one will listen to me anyway, so I don't need to come up with a solution. Instead, I’m just going to sit by the fire with my Werther's Originals and wonder:

Won’t somebody please think of the children?