Homelessness is a crisis that, if you’re lucky, never happens to you. Many, however, live in a suspended state of perpetually tenuous living called houselessness. Houselessness is denoted not so much as a lack of roof over one’s head but rather looks like the problem of too many roofs. Houselessness means a vulnerable position that’s also invisible: the roof or sublet or room or couch or yeah, sure, just crash here for the weekend is a mask that keeps concern at bay. Strangers, employers, even relatives are short on empathy for those who they assume are at least meeting the physiological minimums in the famed hierarchy of needs. As a society we are bad enough to people who certainly aren’t. It isn’t a competition to be sure, for houselessness makes a poor consolation prize, more a transient condition punctuated by periods of homelessness, stability, houselessness, and back again. A delayed check, closed office, changed schedule, misread address, an administrative shutdown, an overlooked email—the frustrated reminders that slow still exists in a world where messages cross the ocean in less than a breath—might mean the difference between living or not. This is the usual.
And, then, sometimes the circumstances that tip the scale are more divinely wrought: sometimes crisis begins in fire.
On April 7, 2012, a fire broke out in an apartment complex in the Pennville neighborhood of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Though no serious injuries were reported, one woman—in whose home the fire started—was treated for smoke inhalation, and five units were damaged, displacing several families and depriving many more of electricity. KFOR-TV, an NBC affiliate, reported the story, which included a brief interview with one of the residents, Kimberly Wilkins, who ran for her life as the building burned.
On camera, the light is enough to make out the smoke-stained wall behind her, yet it’s unclear how much time separates the witness exclusive from the event witnessed. Wilkins, shot from the shoulders up, her head nearly filling the frame, appears on camera with all the warmth of a ghost (ashy, as someone less sympathetic might say). Whether washed by fear, stress, or the spotlight, it’s also hard to tell. The pixie cut mostly hidden in a neatly knotted scarf might be wrapped for bed or ready for some fifteen seconds of fame.
Watching Wilkins I am reminded of those unfortunate souls on The Bachelor, or any other show in which personalities are made from a single serendipitous sound bite. I remember learning how contestants are manipulated into showing their worst selves, kept awake at ungodly hours and plied with many, many glasses of whatever libations ABC is willing to pay for. What does it feel like to be on camera at your most vulnerable, whether intoxicated, tired, or really, really scared? Reporters have a habit of following black people at our most exhausted moments—sports media, for one, depends on it. It’s funny when these subjects garble overwrought platitudes like “win some, lose some,” as if anybody else could do better when mic’d up for the whole world to hear after sprinting for four quarters in an arena temperature-controlled for the comfort of spectators, not their entertainment. It’s amazing that the words come at all.
Of course, these and other considerations are considerations only available in retrospect. Recorded live in the moment nobody has the time. On April 7, 2012, a fire broke out, a woman was unhomed, and, camera on, the words came. On April 7, 2012, a fire broke out and Kimberly Wilkins, newly homeless, spilled out the words that forever immortalized her as Sweet Brown, viral video star: “Lord Jesus there’s a fire.”
During the rise of Sweet Brown, I laughed with everyone else. I laughed at the ashen mouth with lips split a thousand ways. I laughed at the scarf. I laughed at the various songs that appeared on YouTube, Brown’s voice chopped, auto-tuned, and remixed over electro rhythms as is customary. I laughed until I heard “ain’t nobody got time for that” in the mouth of a tiny speck of a white girl, and then suddenly I wasn’t laughing and she wasn’t laughing, but she still was in a way. I wasn’t laughing; I was sick.
In 2008, Diane Lane starred in Untraceable, a movie about a Saw-type serial killer who streams the deaths of his victims live at the slippery false-front website KillWithMe.com. As the URL suggests, users who visit the website become implicated in fatal torture; the intensity of method, and subsequent pace of death, is directly proportional to the site’s hit count. Lane plays an FBI special agent (naturally) named Jennifer Marsh who makes the killer her single-minded mission (naturally), working alongside Colin Hanks a.k.a. Agent Griffin Dowd. (He eventually bites the dust when submerged in a bathtub filled with an increasingly concentrated solution of sulfuric acid.)
Untraceable was too bad to be taken seriously and too committed to gore porn, per genre standard, to make for an honest satire of the practice it also revels in. It was also too predictive to be of its time. Lane’s antagonist is ultimately revealed to be a tech prodigy, while her nemesis throughout the film is really tech itself. Before Periscope, before Snapchat, when Twitter was just a year and a half old and live video was only tentatively so, Untraceable imagined an internet where the bandwidth for death is endlessly expandable and servers are immortal, even if we aren’t.
But it was 2008. Few wanted to believe tech was the enemy in 2008. Few wanted to believe that that world was our world. “Morally duplicitous torture porn,” the New York Times called it; “sleazy and gratuitous,” said USA Today. One critic at the Apollo Guide waited a whole year and a half to call the movie “prototype Internet conspiracy drivel.” Altogether, consensus rendered the film’s plot a too-convenient bit o’ techno imagineering for an ultimate pursuit of gore and bits, as contrived as the instruments of death themselves. They were halfway correct. The internet that Untraceable envisions exists—the movie was technically accurate—but its victims do not. Untraceable is far too white to pass for reality. White death may be sensational, but it never goes viral.
Viral video was once a much tamer thought, populated by cute baby Brits named Charlie, doped-up unicorns (also named Charlie), and rock bands on treadmills. Nobody feared “going viral” because going viral, far from having any sinister connotation, was the goal. We can’t hope to fathom the storage space remaining to this day reserved for the preservation of all the foregone viral wannabes—a regular island of misfit megabytes still searching for their fifteen minutes of “Keyboard Cat” fame. You can’t blame anyone for having tried. This was a golden era, where a working webcam might land you a spot on Good Morning America and from there the world was yours, provided you could monetize this newfound relevance faster than public’s capacity to forget. This was before “trending,” or maybe back when trending rather meant the beginning of something, not someone’s end.
Blackness gave virality its teeth. Turned it into trauma. Cops killing black people is too traditional, too historical, too common, so that it’s not only cliché but writing about it has become so. Newspapers and magazines only, and still reluctantly, cover black death when the buzz borders on frenzy—not because it happened but because it went viral. The media sits and waits for a name to trend that doesn’t belong to a (yet) public figure. Then they make them public. They trot out their Negro writer du jour and the Negro writer produces an aching tribute to being black in America. And another. And another. Et cetera.
I don’t watch the videos. I can’t and never will.
The cliché is so maybe because it seems cliché to remind everyone of something so cemented, so much in fact that even academia marks its evidence. “Race-based stress and trauma” is now a concept safe enough for Psychology Today to put on glossy paper; for a book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, to be nominated and robbed; for an album, Lemonade, to be nominated and robbed; for Between the World and Me to be nominated and win. We know enough what video of this kind does to living black people, what it actuates and what it signifies. What it says about us. Watched or unwatched, black people are over and again witnesses to an event that forms the horizon of our existence. That’s who we are, who we become. We repeat this and we repeat repeating this and marking the repeating in words and data and poetry and find ourselves as we know ourselves to be. We know what going viral says about us. But what about everyone else?
If someone consumes anything at the pace and frequency that the internet consumes trauma with black subjects, we say something is wrong, that they have a problem. Drugs, hoarding, furries, video games, whatever, the new millennium has invented a myriad of resources to help a person and their loved ones deal with newfound obsessions enabled by the internet age. It seems we only don’t consider gluttony a social sin if the thing gorged on is a black person in distress. In that case, the gratuitous replays and retweets aren’t disordered, just the internet as usual. Topless women and bare asses get deleted from most social media platforms, but videos of black people in trouble are left untouched. Google Search won’t recognize the word “blow job,” but type in Philando Castile’s and Jazmine Headley’s names and the engine autofills an invitation to the abuse.
America is addicted to hurting black people. America is addicted to watching itself hurt black people. The internet didn’t invent this kind of spectacle, nor is it the source of the disease, but rather collaborates with the country’s disregard for the black lives without which it wouldn’t exist. Black people taught the internet how to go viral. But when virality became enterprise, black people were seldom to be found.
Logan Paul has more than twenty-one million subscribers on YouTube. He is in his early twenties and part of the class of online stars called YouTubers. He, as does his younger brother Jake, uploads video blogs almost daily, along with short comedic skits and musical numbers. In a video called “No Handlebars,” the blond, blue-eyed, denim-clad twenty-two year old delivers rudimentary rhymes over a trapified interpolation of the alt-hop group Flobots’ 2008 single “Handlebars.” He brags about his ability to have sex with another man’s woman “with no handlebars” as per the chorus. The video has more than forty-one million views. In another video, “Kong Killed Another Animal … ,” Paul talks to the camera while he brings a small dog outside to frolic in the snow, drives around with his brother, and encounters fans who’ve brought him dinner plates, an in-joke referencing a running gag in Paul’s videos where he smashes a plate on the floor in front of his assistant, Ayla, a fellow YouTuber. This is a job. Forbes once estimated Paul’s yearly earnings at $12.5 million, slightly ahead of his brother’s $11.5 million. Apart from millions made on YouTube through high view counts on videos monetized through ad revenue, Paul can earn around $100,000 per Facebook or Instagram post and has been sponsored by HBO, Nike, Verizon, and Pepsi.
I was introduced to Logan’s work at the nail salon when the owner gave her pint-size relative control over the large smart TV mounted in the back corner. By her deft selection, the room was dragged into the wild world of YouTube’s elite, a colorful, high-energy, pitched-up world that made me feel ancient, although the performers and I are basically the same age. I had heard of Logan only briefly before as the subject of a trending controversy a few months prior. Early in 2018, Logan vlogged his walk through Japan’s Aokigahara forest—a common site for suicides—including the moment he and his friends encountered the body of a person who died by apparent suicide. Though his posse cut the excursion short and contacted authorities, Logan still posted the video, which swiftly attracted attention well beyond his regular viewership. He took a compulsory hiatus, ending a streak of daily uploads lasting from September 12, 2016, to January 1, 2018. He returned a month later, reaping millions of views on videos such as “We Rescued a Baby Duckling!” and “Releasing My $10,000 Albino Turtle!”
As I learned that day in the salon, Logan is not a fluke in the system by any means. Though he lives closer to the top of the mountain than most, he merely represents an echelon of YouTubers who are all striving for the same thing. Some are more inclined to pranks, some play video games, some do makeup or orchestrate elaborate DIY crafts, some film heavily choreographed videos on soundstages for auto-tuned songs that sound like they come from a twenty-five-cent candy dispenser. All are reaching for something more precious than gold: attention. They are a long way from their predecessors, more like sophisticated fracking rigs compared to pioneering viral sensations who landed on fame by accident. In a booming market with not enough eyes and ears to go around, they’re vying for a mere fraction of what Kimberly Wilkins struck simply fleeing for her life while a building burned. Unlike Wilkins, though, some from this new breed of internet sensations see themselves paid handsomely for the trouble.
In the race to figure out just how to make a buck or two or millions from social media stardom, there was never going to be room for everybody. While time and attention seem like limitless quantities when it comes to teens and young adults, they, too, have only twenty-four hours a day and more responsibility to manage that time wisely than any other generation in history. YouTubers are well aware that they need to reel audiences in fast and for good—as are advertisers. In the world of YouTube, money has a way of stratifying things, putting premiums on some content over others. Without it, the playing field would be more level, giving at least the appearance that anyone might get lucky enough to strike a following. YouTube was once this way. Vine, too, while it lasted. When Vine was shut down by Twitter precisely because it didn’t want to make its platform more amenable to creators getting paid, many viral sensations on that app, many young and black, lost their audiences in an instant.
Companies of all kinds eventually learned how to employ YouTube sensations to the best advantage, not just through the ads we sit through but through coveted real estate in the mouths of the YouTubers themselves, delivered straight to viewers who would take years to develop discernment for that type of thing. When the money got involved, it had that way of doing what money always does, following the path of least resistance en route to more money, more capital. Like Logan spitting bars on a bike in a Canadian tuxedo, many of the most famous YouTube celebrities are very, very white. White and light faces are the safest gamble, the money decided, better yet if they can fashion a creole persona—black aesthetics on a visage that’s anything but. It’s a reciprocal relationship, though advertisers hold the power. YouTubers get an influx of funds to pay for studio time, better equipment, or rent. Companies get a roster of pale to spray-tanned beauty gurus, for example, who speak a snappy heygirlheyohsnapslaytreatyoself! dialect learned from hours of internet use and NBC programming. Or, maybe just wiggers like the Pauls, or gamers and comics who do nothing but be safely not black. It’s not guaranteed insurance. In 2017, user PewDiePie—93 million subscribers and counting—whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, called someone a “fucking nigger” during a livestream. This was months after Disney and YouTube Red, YouTube’s subscription streaming service, severed ties with Kjellberg for paying two Indian freelancers on Fiverr to write “Death to all Jews” on camera. (It was not his first dip into anti-Semitism.) And shortly after Logan received scrutiny for his Aokigahara forest video, video of Jake surfaced on TMZ showing the slightly less popular Paul freestyling about “little-ass niggas.” Jeffree Star (fourteen million), Tana Mongeau (three million), and KathleenLights (four million), influencers from the glam corner of the ’Tube, have each been caught saying the N-word at least once. The counterbalance to virality is stardom.
Like the old Negro adage, being black on YouTube means being caught in the mire of twice as good, half as much. Only maybe more like ten times as good for a tenth of the glory and financial security, growing worse as the platform becomes more saturated. The more YouTube wants to resemble traditional mass media, the more old media rules define new media venues. For every Kingsley and Franchesca Ramsey, for every hilarious black person who’s found shine after toiling on YouTube for more than a decade, there are thousands of mediocre white talents fast-tracked to relevance. And to make the leap from YouTube to the more traditional, more solid, better-paying gigs, the work must be the best of the best—akin to Issa Rae or Donald Glover.
I am at this very moment transfixed by a YouTube channel belonging to someone named Jay Nedaj. Nedaj writes, directs, stars in, and edits an offbeat novella set on a plantation called Word on the Crops: If Slaves Had a Reality TV Show. The name itself is a riot, relocating “word on the street” to the cash-crop fields, an irreverent calling-back that defines the terms of the show. In the opening sequence Nedaj walks in slow motion down a suburban deck, which here functions as a sweeping Southern veranda. Here he plays the role of Carla, wearing a sweater, an apron, and a long brown skirt. He keeps his facial hair, mustache, and goatee. Carla twirls in slow motion while the show theme plays, a work song sung by Ed Lewis and recorded by Alan Lomax in the thirties. “I’ll be so glad (uh huh) when the sun goes down (when the sun goes down). I’ll be so glad (uh huh) when the sun goes down (when the sun goes down).” The show’s fifth episode begins with Carla in prayer. “Dear God, or whoever you are, why are you doing this to me? I’m trying to believe in you. But it’s hard.” There’s a low, rhythmic hum in the background. The show whips into a musical number: set to “Brown Betty” from a 2015 Broadway cast recording of the musical The Color Purple. I’ve never seen anything like it (Tarantino wishes). Nedaj’s following, presently under a hundred thousand subscribers, is modest by YouTube standards. If Nedaj were white, the next season of Word on the Crops would surely be slated to appear on Netflix already. Perhaps an exaggeration. Perhaps not.
Elsewhere, it is not so hard for black people to bring in viewers. Just die and die spectacularly at the hands of the state. Don’t rely on the officer’s dash- or bodycam, though; those have a tendency to skip ahead or go dark at the most inopportune moments and then your death will have been in vain—and no, no one will care about some witness’s elaborate statement if the officer can show a ruddy bruise on his upper cheek. Make sure someone is filming. Make sure they have a Twitter account. Make sure they have several, for when the first account is suspended for anti-cop hate speech. Make sure they know the consequences. They will likely be the only one serving time when all is said and done.
Going viral sounds like immortality, but it is ultimately the user who craves it. It’s a short trip to turn black people into bits. Images, mannerisms, language captured forever in looping GIFs and autoplay, cycling at inhumane speeds long after lips have stopped moving. It can only be by design that we are uniquely lubricated for the tubules that make up the networks that spider across borders, under oceans, into space, into homes, into hands. We live and die by the internet. The internet asks for more.
Lauren Michele Jackson teaches in the departments of English and African American studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of the book White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.
Excerpted from White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation, by Lauren Michele Jackson (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.