site banner

Whence coddling? Or: why is everything boring now?

This is just a quick-and-dirty thought I had while browsing the roundup thread tonight, and I figured I'd just dash it out here since I want to post something else in the big thread and not clutter it up.

Part of what spurred this was a recent video by Rimmy Downunder, who you might recognize as the Australian guy who uploads a lot of edited videos about Arma 3 and other kinds of simulationist-type games. It's an hour-long video, so to quickly summarize: if you are a big creator on YouTube, you should never ask Team YouTube for help on Twitter whenever one of your videos gets demonetized or age-restricted, because in the name of consistency, they will just go through your channel and do the same thing to all of your videos, making your algorithm performance and monetization drop even further. Contained within this video is discussion of new rules for advertiser-friendliness--specifically, the guidelines around profanity and the severity, frequency, and latency with which it is uttered in a video--changes that weren't exactly announced by YouTube, along with new policies for how YouTube reviews creators' appeals against the dings they get.

This post isn't about recent drama on a social media platform so big that it should really be regulated as a common carrier, or even about the constant frustration with inconsistent enforcement of rules, but instead, it's about the degree to which our modern society seems to be drilling down on making things all sanitized and offense-free.

Just to talk about YouTube a little more, I've been aware for a while that the entire design of YouTube--what is allowed, what is punished, and what is incentivized, whether that be through the algorithm or the automated content-policing systems they almost certainly have deployed--is set up to push creators into making the absolute safest content possible. I don't feel like digging up all the videos that talk about this phenomenon, but as an example: if you want to maximize your potential ad revenue on YouTube as a gaming channel, you need to play kid-friendly games (like Minecraft and Fortnite), say absolutely no swear words (at most, you might get away with TV-friendly minced oaths), and basically treat any copyrighted material (or even anything that could plausibly get claimed by some anonymous third party) like the plague. Add on sponsorships and upsells of patronage sites, and it makes for content you or I might consider...banal.

But again, this is about the direction we're all being pushed in. I could ramble here about how excellence and hard work aren't rewarded on a particular website, but this goes beyond YouTube and all social media platforms. Why is it that we've moved from a culture that was permissive with expression (to put it a certain way) to one where something even slightly outre is left to wither on the vine? (Okay, sure, you can find weird and shocking modern art, but probably a lot of said modern art is made to help sell people on the idea of Marxism or whatever, as opposed to something like Dilbert 3 [NSFW] which presumably isn't trying to push any message and just exists, well, because.)

Likely, you're already aware of how the modern Culture War has had its effects on pop culture and media, where any work that gets advertised on TV or pushed to the front shelves of your local bookstore or recommended online often has to fit in with modern sensibilities, so I won't rehash the history of that here. Creators often subscribe to various versions and formulations of progressive ideals, people will judge past works through the lens of today, and what was perfectly acceptable within the tits-n'-beer liberalism milieu of old is often scrutinized today.

There's also the other cultural aspects of this coddling/infantilization/whatever-you-want-to-call-it memeplex. Many Americans are becoming more and more like the hikikomori of Japan, one of the less-inflammatory ways of describing the current state of the battle of the sexes is that the male gender role has been razed and not rebuilt (this was the post that spurred this one, but this topic has come up before), and we may have accidentally re-invented segregation because it's easier to not interact with those outside our specific demographics rather than trying to interact with them and risk reputational homicide.

So, the question I have is: where did all this come from, and why? Is it what some call "safetyism," the impulse to prevent harm at all costs and take no risks whatsoever? Relatedly, is it because legal liability is treated as a mortal risk, because lawsuits can be a punishment in themselves? Is it because of the unkillable zombie Boomers who, even in their old age, and with all of the pains they've suffered in their long lives, keenly remember the trauma of troubled childhoods the most, and have used their power as the current generation of power-holders to make sure that no child ever grows up feeling hardship?* Is it some combination of all three things, where nobody really complains about the effect it has on the broader culture so long as some politician's (grand)kids are doing okay?

I'm not necessarily advocating for edginess for edginess' sake (though I think that could have value), but I think American society has somehow forgotten how to masterfully blend novelty, maturity, and creativity, and right now, it seems like the only people who take risks are the same people who can't handle them (or, at least, they tend to make a poor showing once they start doing whatever it is they do).

*Granted, some of the people responsible might be Gen Xers instead, such as YT's current CEO and possibly their content moderation team, too.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

If you're looking for some kind of Golden Age where coddling such as you describe didn't exist, you're not going to find it. If you do find it, it's going to be uncomfortably recent and remarkably brief. The first prominent Twitter ban was of internet troll Charles C. Johnson in the spring of 2015. The first Twitter ban of anyone who was well-known for something other than being banned from Twitter was Milo Yiannopoulos's ban in the summer of 2016. Twitter was founded in 2006 but wasn't relevant until around 2009, so that's 6 or 7 years of virtually unmoderated Twitter. Reddit started banning its more controversial subs around 2015 as well, but it didn't start to become remotely popular until 2011ish, and didn't reach the kind of cultural prominence of Twitter until well after the censorship had been implemented. Youtube has always imposed some level of censorship (e.g. no porn), but started demonetizing videos advertisers found distasteful around 2016. YouTube is a special case, though, because while it's been popular since practically its launch in 2005, most of the early videos were all reposts of traditional media and stupid home videos, with occasional how-to content. The idea of making a living from YouTube doesn't really arise until around 2012, with the emergence of PewDiePie, and most of these people would be putting out that kind of crappy content designed for teenagers until around 2104, when the idea of producing quality, documentary-style content would start to take hold.

So we're looking at what was, at most, a 5 year period where Americans weren't being coddled, starting sometime in the very late '00s and ending in the mid-'10s, when the major social media platforms were prominent enough to have cultural relevance but were relatively uncensored and unmoderated. But what about before that? Facebook was limited to college students before 2008. Most of the others didn't exist before 2004. There were blogs, of course, but there are still blogs, and no one really moderates them anyway. They aren't as culturally important as they used to be, but that's because most of the popular ones were anodyne enough that their creators had no problem fitting into whatever restrictions the social media companies are enforcing. Before 2000 the internet was a buzzword and media curiosity, not something that was central to people's lives or replaced anything particularly relevant. It was also viewed by most people as a pointless cesspool, precisely because of it's totally unregulated nature (I remember when the content of most arbitrarily selected chatrooms was profanity-laced outbursts from teenagers). It should be mentioned that this was also a time when the most popular ISP was AOL, notorious for their "Walled Garden" approach.

Before 1995 the internet was the exclusive domain of enthusiasts and hippies who thought that the medium had the power to transform consciousness and make the world a better place. This was also a time when the internet had little to no cultural relevance. The dreams of these early adopters were shattered in the latter part of the decade when the masses came online and promptly shattered any dreams of a new utopia. In the 1990s the average American's ability to contribute to the public discourse was limited to call-in talk shows and newspaper letters to the editor, and you better believe that they had standards on what they would allow. The only place on television to see tits or hear the F-word was HBO and Cinemax. The YouTube equivalent was public access cable. There was various pearl clutching about goths, Marilyn Manson, Mortal Kombat, Law and Order, and a bare ass on NYPD Blue. Prior to NYPD Blue, even mild swearing was rarely heard on TV.

Prior to the 1980s songs were regularly banned from radio for being suggestive, or sometimes for having unintelligible lyrics that might be suggestive. Prior to the 1970s pornography was virtually impossible to come by; Playboy didn't show pubic hair until 1969 I think. George Carlin's "7 Words" bit led to FCC standards that prohibited certain material from being aired during the daytime. Of course, before this, such standards were unnecessary, because no one would even think to air such material. In the 1960s mildly vulgar comedy like Lenny Bruce was enough to get you sentenced to 4 months in a workhouse. Books like Naked Lunch were banned in some places and hard to find in others. From 1933 to 1968 Hollywood was bound by the Hayes Code following an uproar in the content of films. Nothing in pre-code Hollywood would be particularly objectionable by today's standards. Prior to the 1930s Ulysses was banned in the US. Prior to that there were Comstock laws. Prior to that was the Victorian Era, the most notoriously prudish period in Western history, where many of our most cherished euphemisms come from. And I don't know too much about the Regency period, but if you have to go back that far your argument sucks anyway.

The point I'm trying to make is that censorship doesn't happen in a vacuum. The censorship of social media was a direct response to its increased reach and popularity. Of course advertisers don't want objectionable material on YouTube; they don't want it on cable TV (which is unregulated), so it would be ridiculous to expect them to not want it elsewhere. On the whole, society is much more permissive than at any time in the past. To you it may seem like things have gotten more restrictive, but I suspect that that's because, as an admittedly always-online person, you were participating in communities that only mattered to other always-online people, which isn't most people. Once these communities became mainstream, there was pressure to sand off the rough edges to make them palatable to mainstream tastes. If you want to publish edgy content you still can, you just have to publish it in places where it will only be viewed by a small community of devotees and won't make any money.

In 2010 Canada decided that "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits was now too edgy for Canadian radio.

Mid 1990s - early 2010s have been described as an "interglacial period" where there was a lot of freedom to discuss ideas and cover edgy topics in entertainment aimed at adults.

It turned out to simply be a censorship interregnum while our conservative overlords were replaced by progressive overlords.