Shoppers on Oxford Street. At least one of them will be crying. Photo: Getty
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Why is it so shameful to cry in public?

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. But it hasn’t got any easier.

“Vern, get a picture of the depressed London millennial,” I imagine one of the American tourists sitting near me on the Piccadilly Line whispering to her bulbous, khaki short-clad husband.

Vern, perhaps, obliges. For real, the space in front of my closed eyes, the place in which I currently exist, turns from black to red, then back to black in a flash. A camera flash.

I’m only just sentient enough to notice it happen and think, in between spasms of embarrassment hot enough to turn my Oyster card into a mini blue cowpat, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

What a thrill, though, to be part of two tourists’ “authentic London experience”. Maybe, when they paid £22.99 a head for plates of rancid fish and chips and two pints of Stella, in one of those pretend West End English pubs, it occurred to them just how tough things must be for members of everyone’s least favourite generation, living in one of the world’s most expensive cities. OK, maybe not. They probably sat, in abject silence, gagging on their expensive mounds of oily, foodish matter, thinking about how, back in Des Moines, you can get a burger the size of an infant for $6.99.

I have a suspicion though that they’ve recognised something essentially London about this publicly distraught pile of young woman.

My head is in my hands and my eyes are in a highly advanced state of shutness. Emergency shutness. “I’m about to cry in public” shutness. But the tears have broken the seal. And there are a lot of them. I sniff as quietly as I can, but I know that I’m officially “making a scene” now. I might as well be naked from the waist down. Why do I feel like my bush is proudly on display to an entire carriage of tourists, commuters and scared children?

A baby starts crying. When I’m not having a public meltdown, I use a special trick to transform the sound of a child wailing into comedy gold. I close my eyes and pretend I’m listening to a hoover dying. It’s never failed to make me laugh to myself like an utter sociopath. And, trust me, having a few strangers judge you to be a nasty and unfeeling human being is way less painful than twenty minutes of unfunny screaming. But, being a complete wreck right now, the hoover trick isn’t working. It’s just me and a baby crying. Me, a 26-year-old grown-ass woman, and something so young and vulnerable that it spends all day shitting itself.

I’ve been a grown-up public crier pretty much since reaching adulthood. It started, I think, with an ostentatious display of angst – again, on a train – when I was twenty and freshly dumped by my first girlfriend. I remember leaving her house and bursting into some tears in which I remained throughout both the mile long walk to Brighton station and the hour-long train ride back to London. I felt like I was whipping out my bush back then too. After all, crying is one of the most private things you can do. “It is such a secret place, the land of tears,” writes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in The Little Prince.

In fact, moments before another one of my more elaborate public cries, I managed to choke back the inevitable for a good fifteen minutes before realising that, around Oxford Circus, there’s nowhere “good” to cry. I was looking for a public toilet. Sometimes, tragically, it’s easier to cry in the same place you shit than to let anyone see you do it. I even tried the Oxford Street Topshop toilets, but there was a long queue for them. I wasn’t ready to risk crying in a toilet queue. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that.

This particular cry, which ended up taking place on a bench in Soho, was the result of an ill-advised attempt to get into advertising. I’d just been to an interview for a place on quite a fancy creative course. It was at an ad agency full of stupid furniture and smart people. People much, much smarter than me. People much better looking, much more grounded, much better dressed and much taller than me. It was a group interview, which I wasn’t expecting. The guy who ran the course, a middle aged ex adman so jaded he practically spoke in clouds of dust, declared, “I fucking hate adverts,” before telling us to spend ten minutes coming up with a new ad campaign for Babybel, before presenting it to the group (about twenty people plus a panel of hugely successful creatives). Anxiety disorder notwithstanding, I felt like I’d just been told I was going to be having a rectal exam in an auditorium full of the world’s most judgemental supermodels. My presentation went about as well as you’d expect it to, given the circumstances. At the very least, I managed to hold off the tears until way after I’d left the building.

But why is public crying so shameful? For me, I’ve realised, it’s partly a gender thing. Being seen (even by complete idiots) as a woman who can’t hold it together – a madwoman in the attic, where the attic is actually a train – is, well, extremely shitty.

So here I am, feeling extremely shitty again. On a train. I’m crying because I’m feeling shitty and I’m feeling shitty because I’m crying. And salty trails of snot are running into my mouth. And I keep on wiping my nose on my shoulder, where it’s leaving the world’s saddest and grossest snail trail. This time, the cry was brought on by a perfect shit storm of starting a new antidepressant and having just been dumped (a classic, I suppose). As soon as I saw the train coming, I knew I was powerless to the cry.

I’ll never know whether Vern really did take a picture of me in my sorry state. But, in a way, I like to think that – on his Facebook page – I’m there in an album called “London 2015” alongside Big Ben and a selfie with Kate Middleton’s waxwork.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

YouTube
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"It's just a prank, bro": inside YouTube’s most twisted genre

Despite endless headlines and media scrutiny, catchphrases such as "it was a social experiment" and "block the haters" have allowed YouTube's dangerous pranking culture to continue unregulated. 

A year and five months after the worst prank video ever was uploaded to the internet, its crown has been usurped. In November 2015, YouTuber Sam Pepper made headlines after he filmed a video entitled “KILLING BEST FRIEND PRANK”. In the video, Pepper kidnaps a man before forcing him to watch his friend be “murdered” by a masked figure. Rocking on the chair he has been tied to, the victim sobs and shouts: “We’re just kids”.

Last week, an actual child – aged nine – was victim to a similarly distressing “prank”. Michael and Heather Martin, of the YouTube channel DaddyOFive, poured disappearing ink on to their son Cody’s carpet before – in Heather’s words – “flipping out” on the child.

“What the fuck did you do,” yells Heather to summon Cody to his room. “I swear to God I didn’t do that,” screams and cries Cody as his parents verbally berate him. His face goes red; he falls to his knees.

You won’t find either of these videos on either of their creators’ channels today. After considerable backlash, Pepper deleted his video and DaddyOFive have now made all of their videos (bar one) private. The Martins have faced international scrutiny after being called out by prominent YouTuber Philip DeFranco, who collated a video of clips in which Cody is “pranked” by his family. In one, Cody appears to be pushed face-first into a bookcase by his father. In another, a visibly distressed Cody sobs while his father says: “It’s just a prank bro.”

These five words have been used to justify some of the most heinous pranks in YouTube history. Sam Pepper famously called a video in which he pinched the bottoms of unsuspecting women, a “social experiment”. Usually, though, creators’ excuses follow a pattern. “It was just a prank,” they say. Then, if the heat doesn't subside: “Actually, it was fake.”

Three months after his “KILLING BEST FRIEND” prank, Pepper claimed the video – and all of his other prank videos – were staged. In a video entitled “Family Destroyed Over False Aquisations [sic]” the Martins have now also claimed that their videos are scripted. “We act them out,” says Michael. It seems many on the internet remain sceptical. The Child Protection Services website for Maryland – where the Martins live – has crashed after Redditors encouraged one another to report the family. If the Martins’ videos are indeed staged, Cody is one of the shining child actors of our time.

Though the Martins might yet face severe consequences for their pranks, it wouldn’t be surprising if they didn’t.  The “Just a prank”/“No it’s fake” cycle means that despite multiple headline-grabbing backlashes, YouTube pranking culture continues to thrive. Boyfriends pretend to throw their girlfriend’s cats out windows; fathers pretend to mothers that their sons have died. YouTubers deliberately step on strangers' feet in order to provoke fights. Sometimes, yes, pranksters are arrested for faking robberies, but in the meantime their subscribers continue to grow in their millions.

At present, there is no regulatory body that examines YouTube. Pranksters who break the law are arrested, but children whose daily lives are filmed for the site are not protected by the same regulations that safeguard child actors from being overworked or exploited. Though the communications authority Ofcom has guidelines about wind-up calls and consent, it does not regulate YouTube. The BBC were famously fined £150,000 by the body after Russell Brand and Jonathon Ross prank called Andrew Sachs, yet internet pranks remain out of its jurisdiction.

Though YouTube removes videos that breach its “Community Guidelines”, it seems illogical that we trust the service to police itself. Since the invention of the radio, we have assumed that independent bodies are needed to scrutinise the media – so why you should the largest video-sharing platform on the planet be exempt? No one is truly looking out for either the pranking victims or the children of YouTube. God forbid, like Cody, if you are both.

It is also arguable that YouTube pranks need more regulation than those broadcast on TV. Britain’s favourite pranking shows revolve around humiliating comedians themselves – Trigger Happy TV, Balls of Steel, Jackass – or are very soft (think a man pretending to be both a mime and a policeman) in nature. When someone is outright humiliated on TV, it’s because they are seen to be “fair game”, such as in Comedy Central’s Fameless Prankers, where people desperate to be famous are forced into increasingly humiliating situations. On YouTube, there are no consent forms or waivers to ensure filming remains ethical, and YouTube pranksters often target more vulnerable people.

“There’s an element of power here with the parents and it seems this is very top-down,” says Jonathan Wynn, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts who has written on pranks in the past. Wynn explains that traditionally pranks mock status and hierarchy, such as when court jesters taunted kings. When pranks come from the top down, Wynn says they allow a group to bond emotionally – arguably something the Martins are attempting as a family. Nonetheless, Wynn notes this would work better if the children also pranked their parents equally. “In this case the status differential is quite high, when you have children and parents.”

Traditionally, the mainstream media has had little room for this type of content. In 2012, two radio DJs attempted to prank the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton by calling the hospital she was staying at, but instead tricked two nurses. When one of these nurses, Jacintha Saldanha, died by suicide days later, the episode seemed the ultimate illustration of the recklessness of pranks that “punch down”.

Conversely, status differentials are a large part of YouTube prank culture. Rather than attacking people in power, YouTube pranks are often played by those in power (the YouTube famous) on those who have lower social status. Frequently, boyfriends prank girlfriends, for example, and since 2014, white pranksters have filmed “in the hood” pranks provoking young black men. In “The N Word Prank!!” famous internet prankster Roman Atwood goes around saying “What’s up my neighbour” to people of colour, knowing that it will be misheard as a racial slur. In the context of this pranking culture, a parent pranking a child to the point of tears seems almost inevitable.

Perhaps, then, it is easy to understand why Michael and Heather Martin “prank” their children – it is harder to understand why anyone is watching. The DaddyOFive channel has over 750,000 subscribers, with over 7,000 of these subscribing after Philip DeFranco’s video accused the family of “abusing” their children. In order to defend themselves, the Martins initially employed another YouTube rhetoric, on top of “just a prank bro”. In a since deleted video, they invited their fans to “block the haters”.

This phrase is ingrained in online culture, and has allowed internet celebrities to dismiss criticism for years. By painting anyone who is critical as “jealous” or a “hater”, YouTubers can ensure their fans ignore their words and therefore stay loyal. In a video response to Philip DeFranco, the Martins riffed off a popular meme and placed spoons over their eyes to symbolise this mentality, and now fans as young as 12 are copying this action to show their support. When I search the hashtag used by the family’s supporters to see if anyone might be willing to explain why they still love the channel, I am faced with the reality that most of DaddyOFive’s fans are children. Though YouTube’s minimum sign-up age is 13, there is nothing really stopping children from watching – and normalising – harmful content, particularly when it is disguised as a “prank”.

In this context, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether a prank is faked. Sam Pepper might have asked his friend's permission before he fake-kidnapped him, and perhaps Michael Martin was only pretending when he pushed his son into a bookcase. Neither of these facts will prevent children – 19 percent of whom have a desire to be famous – from copying these actions in order to promote their own YouTube channels. Even if a YouTuber is punished for a dangerous pranking video, there are thousands of other pranksters ready and willing to take their place. 

It remains to be seen whether the Martins will continue with their YouTube channel. At the end of their now infamous invisible ink prank, Michael asks Cody to “do the outro” – the concluding section of a YouTube video. Wiping his nose and still red in the face, Cody rattles off his script at alarming speed.“Thank you guys for watching this video if you like this video and want to see more videos like this one leave a comment down the section below and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat… and don’t forget to… Like and Subscribe.” 

Since the backlash, Michael has added a new line into the “About” section of the DaddyOFive YouTube channel. After reiterating that the videos are fake, he writes: “no child was harmed in the making of our videos”. 

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

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