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Who’d have thought it

Penguin’s Great Ideas series is too Eurocentric, too male – but at least it’s made it cool to pull a

Just over a year ago, the Bookseller announced the third and final series of Penguin Great Ideas. According to Adam Freudenheim of Penguin Classics, "Sixty [three batches of 20] feels like a lot of great ideas, and if you went beyond that, you would begin to be scraping the barrel." But here we are, a year on, with yet more Great Ideas coming out and plans in hand for a fifth series; and, it has to be said, there is little sense of any barrels having been scraped.

The series, which began in 2004, has been one of the conspicuous publishing triumphs of the new millennium. Penguin took a mixed bag of out-of-copyright texts - a bit of philosophy, a bit of political polemic, some belles-lettres - some of them obscure, none of them an obvious crowd-pleaser, and, with clever repackaging, turned them into a highly commercial proposition. Almost two and a half million books have been shifted so far. Simon Winder, publisher of Penguin Press, offers John Ruskin as an example of the series' success. The standard Penguin Classics selection of his writings, with an introduction and explanatory notes, sells a steady hundred or so copies every year; Ruskin's On Art and Life, the first of two selections published in Great Ideas, stripped of apparatus and given an attractive floral design, has sold 35,000 in five years.

The original great idea was Winder's, though he is careful not to hog the credit, much of which he insists on passing on to the Italian series the Piccola Biblioteca Adelphi. Winder first encountered these slim, elegant editions through a volume of Schopenhauer at a railway bookstall in Italy. What struck him was where the books were being sold, their weight, and their cheapness. At the time he was, he says, uneasy about the extent to which Penguin Classics, conceived by Allen Lane and E V Rieu as a way of getting great literature into the hands of the general public, had been "encased in ownership material".

It is not hard to identify the sort of thing he means: M A Screech's much-praised complete edition of Montaigne's essays springs to mind - some of the most transparent writing in western literature, so armoured with explanation and context that it becomes practically unreadable. The Great Ideas were a way of giving the reader "a direct line to the author". Publishers have regularly made efforts to pre-digest great thinkers of the past on behalf of the reader - Oxford's Past Masters, say - but there has been a surprising reticence about inflicting the actual writers, in their own words, on an unprepared public. Plunging unaided into The Social Contract, you may not grasp everything Rousseau is saying, but what you are getting is Rousseau, undiluted, unmitigated.

The Great Ideas are cheaper and less forbiddingly bulky than Penguin Classics, but what really sets them apart is their beauty. Design has always been one of Penguin's strengths, but David Pearson's treatment for Great Ideas takes paperbacks into a new league: strong single colours (red, then blue, then green) on debossed card. Pearson's background is in typography, and the first series relied on words alone, re-creating the look of a title page from the appropriate period - 18th century for Swift's Tale of a Tub, modernist severity for Freud's Civilisation and Its Discontents; the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius looked like an inscription on a Roman tomb. For the first time it was cool to pull a volume of Edmund Burke from your pocket. Winder recalls standing in Foyles on Charing Cross Road, watching people snapping the books up "like candy".

Not everybody loves Great Ideas without qualification. The series has been criticised for being too Eurocentric, too male. It's true that of the first 60 books only four were by women - Virginia Woolf, Mary Wollstonecraft, Christine de Pizan and Hannah Arendt; the latest batch of 20 adds only another selection of Woolf's essays. It's also true that an overwhelming number of the writers are white. But I think Winder is right to meet these complaints with a shrug. Great Ideas represent the view from here, not from some imaginary, neutral mid-Atlantic or mid-Pacific territory. The series has, on the whole, resisted tokenism in favour of continuities of debate: what was satisfying about Frantz Fanon's appearance in last year's third series, in the shape of an extract from The Wretched of the Earth, was that he stood alongside Burke, Trotsky and Ruskin - that he was treated not just as a post-colonial thinker, but as a philosopher arguing on equal terms about the nature of politics, violence and freedom. And the problem with female writers is that they have been marginalised, and too many of the significant ones are still in copyright: Simone de Beauvoir's publishers refused Winder permission to republish her work.

Harder to counter is the criticism that too many of the works are extracts from longer books. Winder himself agrees that this can be a problem - last year's batch included a chunk of Foucault, "which, even as I was reading it, struck me as a waste of time". But, he says, "If you really want to read Schopenhauer, you're better off getting a proper edition. But if you want to know why you should read Schopenhauer . . ." This is reasonable but ignores the real problem: not that the books contain extracts only, but that they are not clearly marked as such. It would be easy to buy a copy of the John Locke in the latest batch and not realise that you were getting sample chapters from his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Locke is one of several gaping holes plugged by this new batch, along with William James, on behalf of American pragmatism, and Immanuel Kant, whose brief essay on the meaning of Enlightenment (in summary, it is freedom through the use of reason) could be taken as an apologia for this entire series. The English tradition of essay-writing is beefed up by the presence of Samuel Johnson, Thomas De Quincey and Robert Louis Stevenson (somewhat out of fashion as an essayist). Some writers get a second outing: Woolf, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Marx (even though mystifyingly we get a selection of his newspaper journalism, when such great polemics as The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon are begging for a popular reprint); Orwell makes a third appearance.

For the first time, the series tries fiction - the Grand Inquisitor episode from The Brothers Karamazov, which stands comfortably on its own; and a selection of soliloquies and short scenes from Shakespeare on the themes of "Power in government", "Power in the family", "Power in war and violence" and "Power in love". In justification, Winder cites someone who told him that although Shakespeare is one of the great Renaissancethinkers on power, we have to sit through those tedious plays to get to the good bits. Yet Shakespeare is a dramatist, displaying thought through plot, action and character; stripped of context, his ideas look dull and unsubtle.

The biggest revelation is Joseph de Maistre, the arch-critic of the Enlightenment, usually encountered through the filter of Isaiah Berlin. He is a strikingly old-fashioned, conservative thinker, but his anticipation of strands of American conservatism is patent, and it is a smart riposte to Kant (although Kant wins, naturally). The outstanding volume in this batch, though, is Why Look at Animals? by John Berger - thanks to the intervention of Geoff Dyer, the first living writer to be featured in Great Ideas. Berger's writings on man's place in nature can be annoyingly gnomic, but the theme could hardly be more timely; and he has delivered a batch of drawings of mice and a new short story on a mouse theme. This book is also notable for its cover, a homage to Fifties Pelicans by Pearson and Joe McLaren.

Elsewhere, it must be said, Pearson et al seem to be running out of steam. For the first time, with W E B Du Bois and Abraham Lincoln (The Gettysburg Address), he resorts to drawings of the author, and neither is successful (Du Bois ends up looking like Lenin). Some of the covers feel like rehashes: the Johnson, Consolation in the Face of Death, is printed on a black background, as was Burke's The Evils of Revolution last time round. William James has a picture of an abattoir - marvellous, but little to do with the book's theme.

Still, the overall standard is very high. Stevenson's An Apology for Idlers gets an amusing half-drawn cover. The title of Orwell's Decline of the English Murder becomes a headline in a postwar newspaper. An anthology of Zen fables - paradoxes and enigmas irritating beyond words, to my mind - gets a simple "O" painted with a brush, but underneath is the zinger, a tiny violet pictogram of a penguin.

There are still gaps to be filled, and the fifth series will include Heidegger, Descartes, Mill and Dickens's journalism. Winder now says a hundred volumes feels "about right". But as long as there are writers yet unpublished (Aristotle? Coleridge? Bentham? A Huxley or two?), or with more to say (Hume? Hobbes? Adam Smith? Darwin?), that barrel looks awfully deep.

The Great Ideas series titles are published by Penguin (priced £4.99 each)

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

Mike Lombardo via @moreMiLo
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“I was almost brainwashed by him”: How male YouTubers get away with preying on young fans

A multitude of YouTube stars have been accused of taking advantage of young fans, but little is being done to tackle the problem.

In June, a 24-year-old YouTuber named Austin Jones was charged with two counts of producing images of child abuse. Court documents allege that the internet personality – who has more than half a million subscribers to his YouTube channel – solicited explicit videos from two of his young female fans. According to the criminal complaint, Jones asked one of the teenage girls – known only as Victim B – to dance for him, and said: “Bounce again and smile at the camera while you bounce. And while you bounce, say ‘I’m only 14’ 3 times throughout the video.” Jones has been released on bail and is awaiting trial. Jones’ attorney Gerardo Solon Gutierrez points out that the singer is “innocent until proven guilty”.

A few weeks later, a YouTuber known as Durte Dom was accused of filming a 15-year-old girl from behind while she danced at a party, without her consent. “He filmed my ass dancing,” the girl wrote anonymously on Twitter. Dom responded to the allegations via the social network, writing: “the party was 18+, the girl snuck in. don't fool yourself.” He says he will now “start having people sign release forms” before he films them.

These allegations are not isolated. In 2014, a Tumblr user called Olga accused the YouTuber Tom Milsom of coercing her into sexual activities when she was 15 and he was 21. Milsom did not comment publicly on the accusations and was never charged. Only a month earlier, a YouTube musician, Mike Lombardo, was jailed for five years on child pornography charges after soliciting explicit photographs and videos from 11 of his underage fans. 

These events set off a series of other allegations. Vlogger Alex Day admitted to having “manipulative relationships with women” after 14 women and teenage girls accused him of manipulation and abuse. One anonymous 15-year-old wrote on Tumblr that Day had sex with her knowing she was underage and “didn’t listen to me when I asked to stop”. Day denied any sexual relations with underage girls, and none of his alleged victims pressed charges. Another YouTuber, Ed Blann, admitted in a now-deleted Tumblr post that he “manipulated” an of-age fan into sex even after he was “repeatedly told to stop”. Like Day, Blann never faced any charges, but, also like Day, he apologised for his actions.  

 In September 2014, a 19-year-old woman accused the YouTube prankster Sam Pepper of raping her, and another woman filed a police report accusing him of rape. Pepper denied the accusations, was never arrested and charges were never filed. He did, however, apologise for YouTube pranks that included pinching women’s behinds while wearing a fake hand.

A Tumblr post set up to track emotional and sexual abuse in the YouTube community to date features allegations against 43 YouTubers.

***

Social media revolutionised the concept of celebrity – and celebrity-fan interactions. YouTubers are both incredibly adored and incredibly accessible. Products they design sell out overnight and their live events fill arenas. At the same time, fans are often just a few clicks away from engaging in private, one-on-one conversations with their heroes.

“I feel like I was kind of blinded to the whole situation, like I was almost brainwashed by him,” says Ashley LaPrade, a 16-year-old who claims that when she was 15, Austin Jones coerced her into creating sexualised videos on the messaging app Kik. She posted screenshots of their conversations on social media after the news of Jones’s arrest broke.

“It was kind of casual at first and he asked me to model his merchandise for him... so I did. I took a couple pictures and I’m a gymnast so I was trying to like impress him and I did like splits and stuff,” she says. She alleges that Jones asked her to film herself from behind while bending down or dancing. “I didn't want to upset him and make him not like me,” she says.

LaPrade explains that as a young 15-year-old fan she “looked up” to Jones and was initially excited by his interest in her. After she began to feel uncomfortable with his requests, they stopped talking, but she continued to listen to his music and go to his concerts. She says that she only realised the severity of his actions after his arrest.

Many young fans like Ashley are initially unable to comprehend that anything wrong – legally or morally – has happened to them. Neesey Pathan is a 20-year-old student and YouTuber who claims she was sexually harassed by Sam Pepper when she was 15. In 2014, she posted a YouTube video of her allegations, showing screenshots of alleged conversations with Pepper in which he asks her to “do a naked a dance” and show him her cleavage.

“As a young naïve 15-year old girl, I just wanted to keep talking to him because I was a huge fan,” Neesey tells me. “When he started to get inappropriate with me, at the time that made me feel uncomfortable but I didn’t understand how serious that was, because of how young I was.

“I wanted him to stop being inappropriate with me but I didn't want him to stop speaking to me.”

***

Since the concept of celebrity was invented, nefarious individuals have used their fame to manipulate and take sexual advantage of young fans. In the 1970s, Lori Mattix was a “baby groupie” to musicians – alleging in a Thrillist article that she lost her virginity to David Bowie aged just 14. When the guitarist Ted Nugent couldn’t legally marry 17-year-old Pele Massa, he became her guardian instead. Anna Garcia met Prince aged 15 and began a relationship with him aged 17. “I guess it’s kind of a dream to a young girl of 17,” she said in the Nineties. “You can be influenced very easily and stuff like that because he’s 12-13 years older than me.”

It now seems as though a slew of YouTubers have taken advantage of this imbalanced fan-creator relationship, and have deliberately exploited the naivety of their young fans. Ashley and Neesey both claim they were emotionally manipulated.

“I think I put him on this pedestal, which put him in a position to very easily manipulate me and get what he wanted,” says Neesey. “I was just so excited to get to speak to someone who I had looked up to for a long time.”

Ashley claims that when she wouldn’t film increasingly explicit videos for Jones, he treated her coldly. “He went on about how he was in a bad mood now and he didn’t want to talk any more,” she says. “If I did something wrong to him, like if I didn’t blow a kiss or something, then he would make me redo [the video].”

In 2015, Jones was first accused of asking his underage fans to film themselves twerking. In a video entitled “Setting The Record Straight”, he admitted to asking for the twerking videos and said he became suicidal after this news became public. “I’m a pretty insecure person... I began researching different suicide methods. I started planning my suicide. It’s something I was very, very serious about,” he says in the video. 

“A lot of times when we were talking he was talking about how he was going to therapy so I kind of felt bad for him and that’s why I didn't really say anything [to the authorities],” says Ashley.

The American National Domestic Violence Hotline outlines on its website that threatening suicide can be a form of emotional abuse. “If your partner regularly threatens suicide, particularly whenever you’re not doing something he or she wants you to do, or when you’re trying to leave the relationship... this is a form of emotional abuse.”

According to Neesey’s screenshots, Pepper flippantly mentioned he was “suicidal” when she refused to show him her breasts. In Olga’s blogpost about Tom Milsom, she alleges: “he’d like sob and cut himself in front of me he threatened weird suicidal shit a lot”.

“Obviously, if someone is saying to you that they're suicidal, you want to help them, because obviously they don't mean it but as a young person you think they do,” explains Neesey. “And you don't want to be held responsible for them hurting themselves and you maybe care about this person because you’ve been watching them for so long. So you’re manipulated into carrying on contact with them because if you don’t, what will happen...” 

***

To date, Lombardo is the only YouTuber who has ever been jailed for sexually abusing his fans. There are a multitude of reasons for this. Some victims are too afraid to press charges, fearing backlash from a YouTuber’s fandom. Many victims are unable to see the severity of their abuse until they are older. More still are manipulated into silence. Parents can’t comprehend YouTube stardom, and fail to understand what is happening in their children’s lives. Some victims simply don’t know which authorities to turn to.

“I'm kind of steaming about this whole issue,” says Michelle LaPrade, Ashley’s mother. “I can’t even look at a picture of the guy. It makes me want to punch him.”

At the time, Ashley never told her mother about Jones’s behaviour, but Michelle overheard conversations about it between her daughter and her friends. “I feel like a bad mother. I never even really investigated it. Because I know girls and their drama and you know, [they] overreact sometimes.”

After Jones’s arrest, Michelle wanted to report his interactions with Ashley to the authorities, but she found her local police department unhelpful. “I don't know who to turn to,” she says.

Many more victims are unaware that a crime has even occurred. “When I was 15 I didn't see how problematic it was,” says Neesey. “I knew it was a bit strange, and I did feel uncomfortable, but I didn't realise that he was actually sort of committing a crime in terms of asking a minor, as an adult, to do these things...

“It wouldn't even have crossed my mind to go to the police.”

While the UK has the large-scale Operation Yewtree into sexual abuse by celebrities, there is no equivalent for YouTube. Despite the multitude of allegations spanning half a decade, there is no single helpline or dedicated investigation into YouTube abuse. When questioned on this, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“We cannot allow social media platforms to be looked upon as a safe space for predators to target our children and share indecent images. It is vital that communication service providers have easily identifiable reporting systems for people to flag inappropriate or illegal content – and that they are clear about what is and isn’t allowed on their sites.”

A YouTube spokesperson said: “We have clear policies against harassment and we enforce these policies by removing both flagged content and comments that break our rules as well as terminating the accounts of repeat offenders.”

Sam Pepper is still on YouTube, where his channel has over two million subscribers. Alex Day returned to YouTube in December 2015, and now has over 80,000 subscribers. Austin Jones’s YouTube channel remains live, though he is not allowed to use social media before his trial.

***

“I feel like it is really hard to be taken seriously,” says Ashley. On social media, people are prone to victim-blaming Ashley and other alleged victims, saying that they should have stopped replying to the YouTubers harassing them. “Yeah, we did send stuff back but it was... we were being pressured into it and we didn't want to upset him or anything like that,” Ashley says. Her mother tells me she is glad Ashley “took the high ground” in not sending overtly sexual videos to Jones.

Unsure which authorities to speak to, many victims turn to social media to discuss their abuse. Accusations play out on Tumblr, Twitter and YouTube itself. Ashley tweeted screenshots of her interactions with Jones, while Neesey created two videos about her conversations with Pepper. Although this is an effective, and unprecedented, way for victims to get their voices heard, many online are distrustful of complaints that didn’t go through the authorities. Many more leave misogynistic and hateful comments.

“People will just be absolutely horrible to you and call you demeaning things... I got called a flirt, I got told it was all my fault because I continued speaking to him...” says Neesey, of the reaction to her videos. “I think that's a lot of the reason why people sometimes don’t come forward, because they don't want to go through all that stress again. They’ve already dealt with the situation; why would they want to deal with the stress of people being horrible to them about it?”

Some commenters criticise Neesey and other victims who have made YouTube videos and claim they were doing so for attention. “No one in their right mind would do it for attention because the attention you get is negative,” Neesey says. “I honestly don’t believe that someone would sit down and accuse someone of doing something if they didn’t mean it. So I really think it should be taken seriously.”

Whether it makes sense to those outside of the community or not, many victims' first recourse is social media, not the police or authorities. The accusations about Durte Dom – the YouTuber who allegedly filmed a 15-year-old dancing – were publicised by another YouTuber, Elijah Daniel, on his Twitter page.

Damon Fizzy is a YouTuber who called out Austin Jones after the initial accusations in 2015, and continues to do so on Twitter now. Although he agreed to speak with me, he was unable to find time to do so over a series of weeks.

For many YouTubers and their victims, social media is more important that the traditional media. Perhaps this makes sense – when the Mail Online covered the arrest of Lombardo, the YouTuber who solicited child abuse images from 11 underage fans, they added inverted commas around the word “star” in their headline. If the media and the authorities can’t take YouTube seriously, how seriously will they take accusations of YouTuber abuse?

***

In the past, YouTubers have often been good at self-policing. Hank and John Green are American brothers who run the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, which has over three million subscribers. They own a record label, DFTBA, and run the annual YouTube convention VidCon. Lombardo and Day were DFTBA artists, and were dropped from the label after the accusations emerged. The Green brothers also banned Pepper from VidCon.

After the storm of accusations in 2014, an enormous number of popular YouTubers made videos in response. Hank Green explained consent to his audience, while the comedy YouTuber TomSka created a guide to YouTube gatherings. The popular YouTube duo Jack and Dean even made a music video about consent. The community came together to exile those who weren’t being punished in other ways. The subscriber numbers on the accused’s channels dropped dramatically.

Yet within a few months, many disgraced YouTubers can return to the platform to harness a new generation of fans, many of whom might not be aware of the accusations.

“YouTube still allows them to create content and make money off it, and that to me is just communicating that the behaviour is just not that bad. It’s sort of equivalent to a slap on the wrist and it doesn't convey the extremity of the situation of what they’ve done,” says Neesey. “I think they should be completely ostracised from the community, and have their status stripped from them, and I think YouTube should support that. Because they’re criminals.”

On Twitter, YouTuber Damon Fizzy claims he received backlash from Jones’s fans when trying to speak out years ago. “It’s crazy the backlash I received versus now. I was literally treated worse than the person who uses his underage fans for sexual gain,” he wrote.

And it’s true that YouTubers’ leagues of adoring fans can make it difficult to speak out about abuse. It is hard for many adults to understand how consuming being a young fan can be, particularly when manipulation is involved. When I ask both Ashley and Neesey what they would say to young female fans who start talking to YouTubers, they both say this is fine. Neesey warns that when a youngster becomes uncomfortable, they should end communication, but both she and Ashley feel that safe, normal fan-creator interaction is fine, indeed desirable.  

Sapphire Putt is a 20-year-old who claims a YouTuber coerced her into filming videos of herself dancing when she was 16. When I ask if she thinks it would be OK for the YouTuber to return to YouTube, she says she would be “cautious” but “wouldn’t throw the possibility of maybe giving him a chance again”.

“If he actually shows that he’s learned, you know, I would give it a chance and if he would mess it up again then that’s it, you know.”

When I ask Ashley what she would say to people who remain fans of Austin Jones she says: “I’d say that I probably understand... but they also need to understand that what he’s doing isn’t right and no one should be treated the way he is treating people.”

***

The NSPCC is currently calling for an independent regulator to scrutinise internet companies and fine them if they fail to keep children safe.

“We want the government to draw up a list of minimum standards that internet companies must observe to protect children, and children should be automatically offered safer accounts that protect them from grooming and harmful content,” an NSPCC spokesperson says.

“We know from our Childline service that online sexual exploitation is increasing so it’s vital that more is done to protect young people from abusers who use social media to target and manipulate them.”

For now, Ashley is simply glad things didn’t go further. “It's scary not knowing what could've happened, knowing that I was brainwashed like to believe it was OK, and I'm just happy he's not able to message other girls at this point,” she says.

Neesey hopes that schools will get better at teaching consent. “As a young person, I knew I felt a bit uncomfortable but I just thought that I was being dramatic... so I think people need to be educated, for sure.”  She says education needs to be improved not just in schools, but in the media.

“Unfortunately, people are sort of used to it now, after quite a few YouTubers, so it’s sort of like, ‘Oh another one.' People aren’t talking about it as much – not that it’s old news, but it’s not as shocking. People aren’t giving it as much attention as it needs.”

The NSPCC advises that if a child is worried about an online situation they should talk to a trusted adult or contact Childline on 0800 1111. Parents can find out more about talking to their child about staying safe online by searching Share Aware or visiting www.nspcc.org.uk

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?