O2L Gay Controversy: A Lesson in Being A Responsible Creator

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“With great power comes great responsibility” — that is a thing that Spider-Man says. I know that because I am a gigantic nerd. However, it is also a true statement which has been made, in various less compact forms, by philosophers from Machiavelli to Thomas Jefferson. All celebrities have power, in the form influence with their fans. Last night the fandom for former YouTube supergroup O2L was torn apart, as fans debated whether several members of that group had used their power irresponsibility.

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According to rumors and a series of screen-captured tweets now deleted, someone tweeted a fake “coming out” message on the Twitter account of Joseph Hernandez, a roommate and collaborator of Caylen and Lawley. The tweet was then shared and mockingly congratulated by both boys. The incident, quickly revealed as a prank, launched a heated discussion among fans about why the two young creators would use the coming out experience in a derogatory way. The debate prompted a reply from two of Lawley and Caylen’s former collaborators Ricky Dillon and Connor Franta, both of whom condemned the jokes. Franta, who himself recently came out, was particularly vocal, tweeting “It’s 2015. Being racist, sexist, or homophoic in any way does not make you cool. It’s not funny and should not be joked about.”

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Both Lawley and Caylen have since apologized for their part in the joke. Lawley tweeting in part, “This isn’t the only mistake I’ve made & I’m sure I’ll make more. But I sincerely apologize to those I have affected. (Frown Emoji)” Caylen similarly tweeted that the joke was not intended to do harm and that he regretted any bad feeling it may have created for fans. Whether fans and fellow creators choose to accept these apologies or not is less important than the questions that this incident raises. Do creators with large, young fanbases have a responsibility to temper their speech and to exhibit better behavior on social media, or are we expecting too much of young creators with limited education and life experience?

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The YouTube revolution has created a new wave of stars unlike any the entertainment world has seen before. Creators have millions of fans, many of them young, who follow their every move and statement — not just in videos but on social networks like Twitter and YouTube. For many their voices speak loudly and their actions are inherently taken as examples. Traditional celebrities may have the option to partially escape their position as role models. They have handlers who often control their social media accounts, write their public statements, and filter every interaction they have with fans.

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The relationship between a YouTube creator and their fans is, and has to be, different. The nature of the medium demands that creators present themselves authentically or at least give the appearance of being authentic. Fans expect an honest, transparent, two-way relationship, and for most creators, having a strong and constant social media presence is part of the package. After all, having hundreds of thousands, or perhaps even millions of Twitter followers could be seen as a perk of the job. However, with that amplified voice and following comes a need to educate yourself.

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It’s a lesson that creators like Nash Grier have learned the hard way. When Grier, a Vine star, released a Vine insinuating that AIDS and HIV were purely “a gay thing,” he may not have been fully aware of the impact his words could have. He was quickly corrected by a firestorm of backlash from fans and fellow online personalities. He has since issued a series of apologies that have helped to gradually restore his reputation, such as it is. It remains to be seen whether Lawley and Caylen will need to go to such lengths to redeem themselves. So far it seems that fans, and their fellow creators, may be content to let the matter rest and chalk it up to a learning experience as Lawley’s tweets suggest.

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This isn’t the last time we’re likely to hear of a creator slip-up like this. The internet has made stars of many young people precisely because audiences enjoy their unfiltered take on life. However, removing the filters and hand-holding of traditional media comes with a consequence. New media stars are prone to speaking their minds in ways that may not make us happy. This incident may serve as a good test case for the future. Fans were quick to call out bad behavior and both boys quickly issued well-constructed apologies. No careers needed to be destroyed, nor did hurt feelings go unaddressed. If we’re lucky, the online community will manage future conflicts with just as much efficiency.