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On Etika and Authenticity

The YouTuber, whose body was found yesterday, was mocked for seeking attention. With hindsight, it was a cry for help many ignored—caused by cynicism of an inauthentic creator class

When 29-year-old Ghanaian-American YouTuber Desmond Amofah, known to his hundreds of thousands of fans as Etika, went missing from his Brooklyn apartment last Wednesday, some people questioned whether to raise the alarm with the authorities.

Amofah had gained a reputation amongst some of his peers for what they viewed as attention seeking — twin episodes in October 2018 and April 2019 that had seen Amofah in the throes of a mental breakdown were cast by some as attempting to attract controversy to his YouTube channel, bringing him money, fame and power.

Certainly, some of Amofah’s behavior encouraged that viewpoint: he began one interview with Daniel “Keemstar” Keem, a YouTuber who hosts DramaAlert, a TMZ-like series covering the controversies of the world of online video by comparing himself to the antichrist, and saying “I’ve come to purge the planet of all human life.”

What could have been considered by cynics as flagrant attempts to court controversy have been shattered with the benefit of hindsight. A body was fished out of the East River over the weekend after a handheld games console, wallet and driving license belonging to Amofah were found on the Manhattan Bridge. Just before 1pm Eastern on Tuesday the New York Police Department confirmed the body was that of Amofah.

It can be hard to remember, when looking at the charmed lives of online video personalities, that they are ordinary people, too. Their status as digital celebrities affords them various luxuries, including for many inordinate amounts of wealth, a power and prestige over their captive audience, and opportunities to travel the world that many would dream about. But mental health problems are not an illness suffered only by the common man; they cripple those in the public eye, too.

One in five American adults experiences mental illness in a given year, according to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental health charity based in Arlington, VA. And though they live rarefied lives, behind the camera YouTubers can be incredibly depressed too.

YouTube — and the ad hoc community that has built up around this emerging media platform — has recognized that. The company provides some mental health support to creators, while conferences for its personalities and fans, including VidCon, which opens on July 10 in Anaheim, CA, have entire panels dedicated to mental health and wellbeing.

I chaired one of those panels at VidCon’s London event this February, featuring four YouTubers who spoke eloquently, openly and frankly about their struggles with mental health. One, a 28-year-old called Gabbie Hanna, was particularly forthright. Sharing her life with her audience on such a public platform, without many filters, had “poisoned her mental health,” Hanna said. She considered the worth of her videos to equate to her real-life self-worth — a concern that social networks are now tackling by starting to downplay or entirely remove metrics from posts.

The pressures of being an online video creator are numerous. These people are less like celebrities and more like entrepreneurs who happen to perform almost daily for an audience of millions who are willing, eager and ready to scrutinize their every move, action and word. One London-based YouTuber, Lucy Moon, told me in August 2018 that although she may not feel like posting videos some days, the site’s algorithm and the cut-throat competition from other creators means she feels compelled to. “You don’t really want to be sitting down and putting your life on the table, saying: ‘Hello, I have all these problems and this is why I can’t make videos just right now’,” she explained. “It’s a difficult one because you never want to seem ungrateful. With YouTubers there’s a big guilt complex: ‘I’m not working hard enough, I should be really grateful for this life.’”

There is also the odd duality of a life lived online, and the attempt to preserve some element of privacy while competing for the eyeballs of highly fickle viewers. On one hand, YouTubers are encouraged to tamp down any bad feelings they may have; they’re asked to dial down moroseness for fear of alienating an audience that doesn’t have the same luxuries they do in life. But on the other, YouTubers often feel the need to ramp up their emotions, to generate “drama” (confected conflicts with other creators), and to draw attention to themselves. It’s the reason why a 22-year-old high school dropout from Ohio, Jake Paul, will occasionally set fire to furniture in the empty pool of his Californian home.

So when someone bares their soul and expresses concern about their mental health, that cry for help can often be seen as something designed to attract more views. It’s an unwelcome footnote to the untimely death of Amofah at the age of just 29 that his final video, uploaded automatically a few hours after he disappeared, boosted the average number of daily views his videos received by 500%. (The video was removed by YouTube after it became clear the young man was missing, and long before his death was confirmed; though third-party reuploads of the video continue to be posted to YouTube even in the minutes before this was published, I will be following Samaritans guidelines and not reporting any of the contents of what was clearly meant as a suicide note.)

That was the case for Amofah in the last nine months. In October, the YouTuber told fans on Reddit, another social network, that he had spent the last “three days in the sunken place” after having “a fucking meltdown”. Days previously he had posted to Reddit “And now, it’s my turn to die. I love you all. Keep fighting for me, ok? I’ll miss yall”. In April, Amofah tweeted similar threats to take his own life; he was restrained by police and treated for his problems.

Both were seen at the time by some as a cry for attention, but not someone who was mentally unwell. It was seen as an attempt to stand out amongst the torrent of people trying to make a buck in the online video world.

We now know that belief was false. What was construed as a craven attempt to draw attention to oneself was in fact a cry for help. And a good number of people ignored it and discounted it.

We have grown cynical, in a world where “influencers” have been shown to advertise a range of products and events that have proven to be nothing more than shams, about the veracity and earnestness of what we see online. In the same way that TV shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians introduced a new term — “structured reality” — into our vernacular and made us look with an arched eyebrow at everything that happens on-camera, so the commercialization of “Broadcasting Yourself”, for years YouTube’s motto, has turned us cold on the idea that people posting provocative things is nothing more than a self-interested attempt to make money.

Desmond Amofah’s untimely death should disavow us of that cynicism. And we should believe more of what YouTubers tell us — and step in to help where needed.

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

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