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While View Counts Soar, YouTube ‘Prank’ Videos Are Hitting New Lows

·Tech Columnist
While View Counts Soar, YouTube ‘Prank’ Videos Are Hitting New Lows

On some level, a good prank can function as an incisive social experiment: Discreetly subvert some routine situation, see how a typical person (aka “victim”) reacts, and let the viewer reflect on what that says about human behavior.

Lately, however, a surge in the popularity of prank videos on YouTube has added up to a slightly different social experiment: Just how awful and pointless can pranks get — and still become wildly popular?

The prank video has evolved in recent times into a YouTube genre unto itself, with examples ranging from the clever to the crass.

That’s meant attention not just from YouTube-centric news sites like Tubefilter and New Media Rockstars, but also from more mainstream outlets.

More to the point, it’s meant view-count numbers in the low millions. Basically, prank videos have never been more popular.

And if you actually watch some of these popular videos, it’s hard to keep the phrase “despair for humanity” out of your head.

So before I go any further, a caveat: While I’ll be linking to a few videos to make my points (and to prove that I’m not just making things up), I’m not endorsing any of the clips that follow.

Here, to take a comparatively mild example, is a recent video from a YouTube channel called PrankvsPrank: A guy tricks his romantic partner into believing that her beloved cat has just plummeted to its death from a high-rise window.

Needless to say, she reacts with hysterics and tears. This uncomfortable scene goes on for a minute or two. Then the prankster apologizes profusely — albeit while continuing to document the incident with his phone.

The video has 6.5 million views, and helped make PrankvsPrank (basically a series of clips in which this couple tries to out-prank each other) a “top gainer” among the 50 most popular YouTube channels last week, per Tubefilter.

OK. So what’s the payoff? Basically nothing. Maybe there’s a visceral thrill from seeing someone else’s genuine suffering documented. Maybe you have had a brief moment of laughing at the pain of a stranger.

But, to put it mildly, that’s a pretty empty result.

Sure, on some level, YouTube prank videos are nothing more than a grass-roots version of an established entertainment category that’s ranged from Punk’d to the various experiments of Sacha Baron Cohen.

But on a different level, they’re a case study in what happens when the means of media production shift from large networks and cable channels to anyone with a recording device.

Surprise! In this case, it doesn’t get better.

Pranking then and now
Before the Internet, there was Candid Camera (and before that, apparently, there was Candid Microphone, which according to Wikipedia first aired on ABC radio in 1947).

The show was, of course, an ongoing compilation of media-documented pranks.

But as a psychology professor explained to The New York Times Magazine some years ago, the payoff was often a point about human nature — our tendency to conform, the way we respond to authority, and so on.

Still, the show probably wasn’t popular because it was enlightening. It was probably popular because it was funny.

And in the YouTube era, home-grown prank videos still strive for laughs — but they tend to leave aside any broader psychological insights and instead compete to see who can be the most shocking or outrageous.

For instance: The “Sniffing Strangers Prank,” as it’s titled, involves popular YouTube prankster Vitaly Zdorovetskiy approaching, and conspicuously “sniffing,” African-American strangers — and fending off their understandably angry responses until he reveals that they are on camera, and it’s all just a prank.

Funny? Revealing? Not to me. As far as I can tell, the video demonstrates that obnoxious attempts to offend people are, in fact, offensive.

Whatever your answer, the clip is a hit, with nearly 2 million views a week after its release. (Earlier this year, it was announced that Zdorovetskiy and similarly minded “YouTube prank artist extraordinaire” Roman Atwood, will be the subject of a film, Natural Born Pranksters.)

Another band of YouTube pranksters made a clip in which they wandered around a dangerous New York neighborhood approaching tough-looking African-American strangers and offering to sell them guns. The joke was that the YouTubers only had water guns on offer.

And the punchline, I guess, takes a literal form … when one of them gets punched in the face.

It’s a profoundly uncomfortable viewing experience — with 3.2 million views. New Media Rockstars cited it as an example of “an odd new trend” in prank videos this past summer: “getting your ever-living ass beat.”

Yeah, but the context is a little more disturbingly specific than that: Venturing into “the hood” evidently means provoking African-American men who seem to correspond to a dangerous stereotype, in what adds up to a willful attempt to confirm that stereotype. Yet all this “prank” really proves is that the pranksters are jerks.

The joke’s on whom?
Of course not all of the new pranksters resort to racial provocations.

Many prefer to devise mean pranks designed to victimize women.

Possibly the most notorious prank video to date is one that was removed from YouTube shortly after its release last month. A popular YouTuber called Sam Pepper (his channel has 2.3 million subscribers) sparked instant outrage with a clip in which he apparently used a fake hand to distract women on the street — while he groped them with his actual hand.

His reported defense? It was all a “social experiment.”

Pepper’s most popular video involves him and a friend bothering people on elevators. Probably by accident, this echoes a classic Candid Camera bit, in which confederates faced the wrong direction (away from the door), prompting an unsuspecting rider to do the same as a function of conformity.

Here the prank is just seeing how people react to wildly annoying behavior.

Result: 5.7 million views.

Pepper hasn’t been posting lately, and seems to have other problems at the moment, but many of the more recent clips on his channel are “pranks” that in one way or another involve manipulating, or simply humiliating, women.

This connects them to the truly sad subculture of “pickup artist”-style advice. And as it turns out, this connection goes both ways: A YouTube channel called Simple Pickup (generally devoted to tips on “pickup lines” and interviews with “hot girls”), recently had a major viral hit — 12 million views and counting — with its own “social experiment” video.

In short: A woman who looks young and fit on the hookup app Tinder arrives for a first date in makeup and prosthetics that make her look overweight and unappealing. Naturally the horny studs who show for a coffee meet-up respond boorishly.

The video proved to be a major boost to Simple Pickup’s audience.

The channel also produced a version of the same “experiment” involving a surprise “fat guy.” It’s popular, too — but not as popular.

Hm, I wonder why?

Actually, no, I don’t. Because I think that to the extent these newer iterations of the prank video are still “social experiments,” they say very little about the pranked, or even the prankster.

The only experiment now is to see how low you can go and still score a viral hit. No need to worry about exploring human psychology or turning up some interesting sociological phenomenon: What innocent person can be hoodwinked, to confirm which dumb stereotype, in order to rack up maximum views?

After spending time researching prank videos, I am here to tell you: If this is a social experiment, we all just failed.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.