Not many adults will know about the Tobuscus riot of September 2012, by the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park, but it makes for one of the best sequences in Beeban Kidron’s documentary film about teens and the internet, InRealLife. Tobuscus, the hideously hyper, pretty-as-a-pony YouTube performer, tweeted his followers to suggest a ‘meetup’ when he was visiting from LA. About a thousand turned up and lots of them got hysterical. Tobuscus had to escape over iron railings, impaling his hand as he did so. ‘Did you die for our sins, man?’ a follower wrote on Instagram. Police came and broke it up. ‘YouTube is a beast,’ Tobuscus says in Kidron’s movie, mugging and sniggering in a way that makes it difficult to tell if he’s upset or only acting, which is what he’s always like. He films himself so much and so often, he probably doesn’t know for sure himself.
I’ve been watching Tobuscus for a while now, not because I think he’s good – I can’t stand him – but because my nine-year-old son admires him, only slightly less than he admires the even more appalling Annoying Orange and the unspeakable Fred. My son, I think, got into this stuff via Minecraft, the hugely popular Swedish building game, which quickly draws you into a worldwide ‘community’ of aficionados, many of whom post unbelievably long and boring vlogs of themselves playing the game on YouTube. Tobuscus, whose real name is Toby Turner, has a YouTube channel called TobyGames (5.5 million subscribers) devoted to gaming. Another, Tobuscus (4.88 million) features mildly satirical clips and sketches. The TobyTurner channel (1.7 million) uploads ‘lazyvlogs’ from Turner’s iPhone with ‘new videos every day’. Observers reckon he can earn about $2000 a day under the terms of the YouTube Partner Program. My son has friends who plan careers as YouTube vloggers, and although most of me thinks this is tragic, I can also see that in economic terms they may be acting more rationally than I am in writing this.
It must be obvious to everybody by now that the internet has changed and is changing most things – it long since became ‘the basis of society’, as Nicholas Negroponte puts it towards the beginning of Kidron’s film. It’s also obvious that vast amounts of the stuff on it is just trashy clickbait of one sort or another. But in the noise between these givens it can be difficult to tell which middle-aged-parent fears have any useful substance and which are just old-fashioned moral panic. Intentionally or otherwise, Kidron’s film finds a brilliant metaphor for this confusion: a really horrible, scary, creaking noise that recurs throughout the film, over images of sewers, bits of dust, Google HQ, cracking icebergs. Bits of the film are lovely: long, sensitive interviews with young people about their relationships with their devices. Other bits of it less so: overstated soundbites from those pundits I always mean to read but never quite get round to. Crash, bang, melting icecap, dopamine, independent selfhood. Evil Google, evil Facebook, and a sweaty-looking Julian Assange.
The film is a certificate 15, presumably because one boy talks about what he considers to be the ‘addiction’ to online porn that has ‘ruined’his ‘whole sense of love’, and a girl talks about being so dependent on her online networks, she turned tricks with boys to get a new Blackberry when she lost her old one. So yes, on the one hand, squalid and depressing. On the other, isnt it great that today’s youth are able to talk so openly about such difficult things? And how can you not feel for a boy who talks about his daily porn ‘slot’ in the bathroom, just before his bedtime shower, as ‘the only time that’s mine’? Other than that, the film seemed fine for a much younger audience, so I cut off the porny bits on my computer and watched the rest of it with my son.
The bits he was most struck by were the ones I’d found most annoying: when Kidron asks dopey questions about ‘the Cloud’, and acts astonished when she is told that it isn’t really a cloud at all, but a vast and profit-driven infrastructure of warehouses and wires. My son seemed genuinely not to have known that this is, to follow a line of Kidron’s, ‘where’ he ‘goes’ when I ‘outsource’ him: ‘I thought it was meant to be wireless,’ he said. ‘I thought it was just in the air.’ Kidron is one of the founders of the charity Filmclub, which lends out films to schools for screenings and group discussion. I’d love it if versions of InRealLife were shown in schools to people of all ages. And I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the discussions afterwards.
Internet culture is so fast-moving and all-embracing, it’s difficult to talk about with precision, without banalities of one sort or another, utopian or dys. A couple of months ago, in a café in Glasgow, I was loudly complaining – as usual – about how I hate the way my son fries his brain on Minecraft, obsessed, addicted, blah blah. A woman at another table said that Minecraft is a great game, active and creative and aesthetically honest. Instead of going on about my fears about my son’s fascination, I ought to play it with him and find out how it works.
The woman turned out to be the net artist Olia Lialina who, as well as being a pioneering practitioner and archivist of internet folkways, is a mother of three children. I did what she suggested and yes, I now like Minecraft OK. But also, I looked up Olia’s work and was enchanted by it, especially In Memory of Chuck Poynter (2011), which has the most wonderful 8-bit tune on it and which I watched for days.
Shortly afterwards, I noticed that my son seemed to be busting my broadband allowance by trying to make his own YouTube videos while I was upstairs working. So I banned him from the internet completely and started checking the usage monitor supplied by BT. That’s how I learned it wasn’t him but me who was the data-hog in the household, and that probably the thing that pushed me over the limit was Olia’s gif.