People could never influence or ostracise someone as much as they can nowadays and it is the Internet’s unexpected by- product. Online people become super famous but also lose that success instantly because there is no hiding place from viral trends that condemn them. Alex Day was one of the first big UK vloggers whose rise and fall has been told on this blog two and a half years ago. Now he’s penned a book about his experiences- good and bad- on YouTube and beyond. Some people don’t want him to tell his story but it is not just a story about Alex Day. It’s an insider’s view of the explosion of online life and how it has evolved. It’s also the story of a public figure being vilified over behaviour that, while bad, never saw him charged or convicted of anything yet in the eyes of thousands he is someone who did things that he didn’t do or was never even accused of. In the days when even the US President boils complicated political issues to a Tweet it is a timely if harrowing account of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the Internet `deciding` something.
I won’t sift through the full details again but basically in 2014 Alex Day was accused of sexually manipulating women. Judging from what observers have said I’m sure there are some who hold him complicit in global warming as well. He has admitted some of the early accusations are true – though not the ones of sexual assault- and in the book describes sitting in his house for days waiting to the police to call. But they never did. Was his behaviour OK? Of course not. Was it the same as many men’s behaviour? Undoubtedly. In the book he lists subsequent accusations from women or girls he never even met. They are still believed whatever they say.
It all starts off breezily enough. In at the beginning of the YouTube explosion, Day’s channel seems a harmless typical mixture of fun and songs. In this book he does appear to have a nonchalant attitude to vlogging success though and I suspect some of this may well be filtered through a `wise after the event` prism. Nonetheless it’s a tale of a new media finding an identity as it goes along, its creators innovating all the time. Slowly the media they thought was their own expands and becomes absorbed by the wider media. Before too long the narrative moves from the niche Doctor Who orientated songs of the group Chameleon Circuit playing at VidCon to Day trying to achieve the UK Xmas number one with his song `Forever Yours`. It reached number 4 making him the highest charting unsigned artist in history to that point.
The scenario is intensely collaborative- there is a dazzling retinue of names who worked with him and it feels like all these people knew each other. Even in retrospect Day does not colour these friendships with the bitterness you might expect and you can tell how the creative whirlpool sucked them all in deeper and deeper.
One somewhat surprising revelation from the book is the involvement of pop impresario Jonathan King, himself the subject of accusations, who seems to become a sort of advisor. Not so much because of King’s reputation, but this does make Day seem less like the `new media` star many publications declared him to be as a lot of creative decisions seem to fall to King.
The quote Alex Day uses on the book promo is about someone saying to him she’s never met anyone famous before and him replying that she still hasn’t. Disingenuous perhaps but maybe that modesty explains how he managed to start juggling the affections of more than one woman at a time. YouTube demands a youthful vigour from its performers which is why nowadays there are people turning 30 still wearing colourful clothes and playing with balloons. The format does not encourage maturity and it’s easy to see how this sandpit led to so many subsequent allegations of immature behaviour or worse.
The book is drawn out in parts because the minutiae of making videos and meeting various friends is not especially gripping yet you get a sense of how the people at the epicentre of it changed from, as Day himself suggests, wanting to bring others into the fold to becoming competitors. All the way along in the background YouTube is becoming more like a conventional business.
The most absorbing part of the story –inevitably- comes when the golden bubble is shattered by the allegations which he recounts in unswerving detail and you wonder what you would do if there were thousands of people you didn’t know accusing you of all sorts. “I felt like I had swallowed a football” is his unusual description of his first awareness of the public accusations especially as the very first one was untrue. His mistake- which he admits- was to initially try and ignore it without grasping how toxic his name had become. As he loses followers, book deals, agents and friends, he boldly addresses how he felt then and now. Not that all of these other people come off especially well- his former collaborator Charlie McDonnell for example easily caves in to pressure and cuts him off probably mindful of his own career. And there’s Marilyn who seems to be a pseudonym for someone well known and determined that Day should never be allowed to do anything public at all again ever. Any time he surfaces she is there to try and stop him.
The story also mirrors the evolution of YouTube which like everything else that becomes popular online soon develops more business like approaches and with its office, meetings and managers could be any large corporation. Interestingly many of it’s subsequent stars have moved into more traditional media like radio, tv and books. Alex Day has little time for them; he’s especially cutting about Dan and Phil. Today’s big YouTubers owe Alex Day and other early vloggers with a career they can develop in this way though you’d be hard pressed to find any of them admitting it.
Is there a happy ending? Well there can’t be can there? In every respect the damage is done but the last four years see Day seeking answers both to his own behaviour and his future in various forms. He meditates, attends retreats in the Far East, cuts off his hair, lives in an old police station and even on a boat. He still has friends and (fewer) followers and still makes videos and music from time to time. He is content in the moment yet haunted by the ghosts.
It’s a weird but fascinating read and now that this public vilification happens on a larger scale frequently a timely one too. Some of the people accused are innocent, others reformed, some guilty but the rush to publicly decide without anything like evidence condemns them all equally. This month it’s James Gunn. No doubt it’ll be someone else next month. Apologies, atonement and even punishment never seem enough for some people because an online life is one of arrested development. The point of the book is not- as his detractors have it- either to justify what he did or make money – but to show what it is like to be at the heart of a storm, whether the growth of YouTube or the subsequent accusations.
And all the way through you can’t help thinking that there is something that we can all learn from this sort of thing. None of us is perfect, all of us do bad things and some are rightly punished. However the court of online public opinion is neither a reliable or safe place for judgement to take place.