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The never-ending cycle of YouTuber apology videos

Do they even mean anything anymore?

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

It’s been a big month for apology videos, just like every month for the past several years has been a big month for apology videos. What was once the domain of the Notes app, in which celebrities would share screenshottable statements from their iPhones, has been replaced by a more personal kind of ritual: the YouTube apology (or Instagram Live apology, or TikTok apology, or, when it’s a brand at fault, the aesthetic Canva apology).

This week’s Saturday Night Live managed to explain several of the latest internet scandals in a single sketch: “Viral Apology Video,” in which Kyle Mooney cosplays as a YouTuber who is very, very “sorr.” We begin with a group of YouTubers called the “Prank Posse,” a reference to David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad, whose members over the past year have been accused of harassment, abuse, and rape. But the inciting incident actually involves the posse finding “mouse bones” in their Apple Jacks cereal, itself a nod to the man who recently claimed to find shrimp tails in his Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and then was accused by several women of having been an abusive manager and boyfriend. (It’s been a weird few weeks!)

Long story short, Kyle Mooney-as-YouTuber is forced to make an apology video for his past misdeeds. Then he makes another “prank” video in which he throws a giant TV on his friend JP’s head. Smash cut to: “Hey guys, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for dropping a TV on JP’s head.” The result is a series of abuses followed by apology videos with lines like, “I know a lot of you thought my last apology was insincere. You were right. I was lying. But this time, I mean it.” and “It was cool, it was funny, but it was wrong. That’s why, out of respect, we are gonna delay the release of the ‘tricking JP into kissing my penis’ video until next Thursday.”

Over the past decade, professional YouTubers have had to contend with the fact that in relentlessly documenting their lives and chasing more views and subscribers, they’re often providing the evidence for their own downfalls. What the SNL sketch nails is how shameless so much of influencers’ supposed “bad behavior” is. It’s not as if they’re trying to hide it; “Tricking JP into kissing my penis” is right there in the title. This week, a pair of actual YouTubers were sentenced to probation and community service for a 2019 video in which they pretended to be bank robbers and led an Uber driver, several witnesses, and police officers to believe they were fleeing a crime scene (they could have faced up to five years in jail). In the original video, they laugh and brag to a group of people about fooling the Uber driver and the police being called.

Nearly every major internet personality has made some kind of public apology video; 2020 alone saw mea culpas from YouTube A-listers Tana Mongeau, Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, Jenna Marbles, Colleen Ballinger, and Tati Westbrook, as well as TikTokers Chase Hudson and Charli D’Amelio. The “YouTube apology video” has been a meme since at least 2015, and blew up in 2018 when PewDiePie made a video ranking YouTuber apologies, including his own. Some of the most common tropes: start off with a big sigh to show that this is going to be ~serious~, shift the blame onto someone other than yourself, and play the victim.

The latest big-name example, aside from Dobrik, is James Charles, who apologized for the growing list of underage boys who say he privately messaged them inappropriate or sexual content or sent unwanted flirts. Charles said that he had used Instagram and TikTok “like a dating app,” and that “It sucks, and it’s ridiculously embarrassing to admit this, but I’m desperate.” (Charles also claims that the accusers had told him they were 18 or over.)

This is roughly the fourth(?) or so major scandal of Charles’s, which have included allegations of inappropriate comments and attempts to coerce straight men into relationships. It likely won’t be the last. The YouTuber apology is now such a staple of mainstream culture that all of them seem to follow the exact same trajectory, where as long as you apologize (and it might take a few tries to get it right), and then stay silent for long enough, your career can remain pretty much intact. Because ultimately, creating drama and scandal is one of the main reasons why people follow YouTubers in the first place. As long as you’re keeping them entertained, subscribers don’t really seem to care all that much what else you do.

These kinds of quasi-cancellations happen on an almost-daily basis, and one thing I’ve noticed more of is that the more people who get canceled, the less meaning any of the supposed cancellations have. What we lose, then, is the magnitude of their misdeeds: A YouTuber having made an offensive joke a decade ago shouldn’t rise to the same level as, say, soliciting minors for sex (if that’s indeed what was happening), but we’ll still be talking about them in the same breath. People are obviously capable of discerning between those two orders of magnitude, but I’m already exhausted at the rate at which these kinds of scandals are being discussed and deliberated over and — just as quickly — completely forgotten about.

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