A Racialized Online Environment: YouTube’s Profit-Driven “Hood Pranks”

In 2005, three former PayPal employees launched YouTube as a “consumer media company for people to watch and share original videos worldwide through a web experience.” In 2006, the platform became the fastest growing website on the Internet. YouTube’s content managers quickly realized that they were not fully realizing the financial potential of their creation and, as a result, introduced video advertising the next year. The website is projected to generate more than a billion dollars in marketing revenue alone in 2014. Users, who typically receive 55% of the income, are therefore incentivized to post controversial and, in the case of “hood pranks,” immoral content in order to increase their online viewership and personal salaries.

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A “hood prank” on YouTube is typically characterized as a video in which an amateur comedian enters a predominantly African-American neighborhood in order to elicit violent behavior on camera. The proliferation of such videos on YouTube can be traced to a Russian male, Vitaly Zdorovestskiy, who in 2012 decided to dress up as a zombie and terrorize African Americans in Miami’s historically black downtown area. The video quickly went viral and received nearly thirty million views. Despite the video’s inconspicuous title—“Miami’s Zombie Attack Prank”—Vitaly’s motives are blatantly clear. In a span of three minutes, the user chases after eighty African Americans and makes a deliberate effort to show he is filming near Miami’s MLK Drive. Based on contemporary estimates, the video generated over sixty thousand dollars for Vitaly Zdorovestskiy.

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As the genre of videos was popularized, profit-driven users felt the need to create increasingly lewd and disturbing videos in black neighborhoods. As a result, African Americans defended themselves and were unfairly characterized as irrational and violent. OckTV, an account managed by the Ettayim brothers from New York, became one of the worst perpetrators of the trend in early 2014. With titles like “Domestic Abuse in Public!” “Stealing Strangers’ Money Prank!” “Selling Cocaine to a Security Guard!” and “Can I Kick You!?” the two males quickly garnered national attention and received millions of views on each of their videos. Viewers repeatedly racialized the understandable and rational reactions from innocent pedestrians in uncensored YouTube comments.

          Despite international condemnation, OckTV continued to post videos every month and accounts were generated in an effort to profit from the controversial practice. Today, many new comedic users attempt to establish themselves through this medium. With small initial fan bases, these users often push the racialized standard in a self-perpetuating process for revenue and fame. A recent video in Oakland, for instance, features a young man impersonating a police officer and slapping handcuffs on individuals walking on the sidewalk or engaged in conversation with friends and family members.

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Unfortunately, this trend will continue as long as YouTube continues to allow users to profit off of racist “pranks.” Indeed, the most disturbing financial aspect of these videos is that Google and YouTube also profit from them. As previously mentioned, the company receives nearly half of the revenue from each video. Clearly, there is an imperative for institutional intervention that has gone unacknowledged for far too long in the online community. The media is powerless in stopping the trend on its own. On the contrary, media attention generates more viewers and incentivizes unscrupulous users to participate in the lucrative practice. Despite the efforts of users like RicemanTV, people will unfortunately continue to make and watch “hood pranks” for personal enrichment and entertainment. It is sad and discouraging that people even feel the need to make such videos. I look forward to the day when people will cease to think in racial terms. Until then, online content managers will need to police cases of discrimination in a manner that creates a safe online experience for every user, regardless of their background.

Works Cited

“Are Black Guys Violent? (Social Experiment).” YouTube. September 10, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bb4GfbR98EE.

Broderick, Ryan. “Meet The Two Brothers Behind The Shocking “Hood Prank” YouTube Videos People Can’t Stop Sharing.” BuzzFeed. August 7, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/meet-the-two-brothers-behind-ocktv-hood-pranks.

“Can I Kik You Prank!?” YouTube. September 2, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaiaaEbbkwE.

Faughnder, Ryan. “YouTube U.S. Ad Revenue to Cross $1 Billion This Year, EMarketer Says.” Los Angeles Times. September 11, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014.

Freeman, B., and S. Chapman. “Is “YouTube” Telling or Selling You Something? Tobacco Content on the YouTube Video-sharing Website.” Tobacco Control, 2007, 207-10. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/20748159.

Garrahan, Matthew. “YouTube Advertising Revenue Surges 50% to $5.6bn.” Financial Times. December 11, 2013. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/377ed152-6220-11e3-bba5-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3K7hCL3z1.

Glenn, Pia. “I Only Hope That the Hood Pranks…” Twitter. July 25, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. https://twitter.com/PiaGlenn/status/492818268843810816.

Kaufman, Leslie. “Chasing Their Star, on YouTube.” The New York Times. February 1, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014.

“Miami Zombie Attack Prank!” YouTube. June 2, 2012. Accessed November 25, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4awVqRr1eCo.

Readhead, Harry. “Pranksters Warned.” The UK Metro. July 12, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://metro.co.uk/2014/07/12/pranksters-told-they-are-putting-their-lives-in-jeopardy-after-latest-jokes-turn-violent-4795567/.

Schilling, Dave. “Stop Using Black People as Props for Viral Videos | VICE | United States.” VICE. June 27, 2014. Accessed November 25, 2014. http://www.vice.com/read/ranking-the-racism-of-the-hood-pranks-phenomenon-twir-845.

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