Last March, it sort of felt like everything was falling apart in the YouTube fandom. More than 70 different accounts were published (an overwhelming amount from underage or teenaged girls) throughout the web detailing sexually manipulative, abusive behaviors and even cases of sexual assault by prominent YouTube-famous personalities.
It was a time when a lot of the people in that community felt unsafe and heartbroken over their idols letting them down, but also a time when users wanted to take action and make some real changes. That's how Uplift: Online Communities Against Sexual Violence first got started -- as a task force to respond to the surge of disclosures and assess the community's needs.
In a matter of days, the women behind Uplift -- Sahitya Raja, Katie Twyman and Grace Miller -- had sent over a proposal to John and Hank Green of the VlogBrothers, two leaders in the online video community, and started connecting with other influential YouTubers. Soon after, they developed the idea for a series of videos and a community-wide pledge that would foster a dialogue between creators, fans and everyone in-between. Within a year, they became a full-fledged non-profit.
They teamed up with Kat Lazo (TheeKatsMeoww on YouTube) and Kelly Kend to produce videos that would help engage members of the community in those oh-so-important conversations. As host, Lazo gently guides viewers through the scary and confusing process of coming to terms with or identifying an assault or abusive situation and what their options and resources are. She offers consistent reassurance that nothing is their fault and that there are people who care and want to help. It's like you're sitting in the bedroom of a wise older sister, getting some much-needed advice, but it never feels like you're being lectured.
While they are the first to say they are not counselors or trained advocates, the members of Uplift want to show that certain behaviors just won't be tolerated in online communities (whether it's YouTube, Tumblr, Vine, etc.) and make sure victims and survivors know that they are not alone, that they have resources and options, and that they can remain part of the communities and fandoms they love.
"We wanted to make sure [Uplift] was about comfort, support and the passion of the community," Jennifer Dorsey, communications director of Uplift told MTV News. "We created our program for people to take ownership back of their communities, making sure they feel like they belong to them."
Standing Up And Speaking Out IRL
Uplift manned a table at VidCon this year, offering up a full-sized poster of their Safer Community Pledge for attendees to read and sign (they'd filled 3 posters since we last talked.) But that wasn't the only symbol of their mission at the convention: on each of the attendees' badges, there was a clearly written code of conduct that let everyone know the kind of behavior that was expected of them, and listed a number for a hotline they could use to report anything that made them uncomfortable.
"For Con attendees to see that actual physical presence really means something," Raja said. What was once pretty undefined and dangerous about internet convention etiquette was spelled out in the open. Shady situations that were once only whispered about were clearly and openly condemned by the community and event organizers.
"Something that we’ve been prioritizing is coming up with resources that detail exactly that," Grace Miller, operations director and co-founder, added. "Because these kinds of communities are so new, everyone is collaborating together to create these new social norms."
How To Change The Culture
A large demographic in the YouTube community is young women, aged roughly 13 to 17. Most of the women who shared stories of manipulation, coercion or assault belonged to that demographic and experienced those behaviors with older, male YouTubers who were well-known and loved in the community. TLDR; they had all the power.
"I just want to convey that this community is made up of individuals," Sahitya Raja, co-executive director and co-founder told MTV News. "We’re talking about an overall culture that can be changed by individuals. The more people talking about this, the more change."
For Uplift, that change starts with better understanding of the relationship between the creators and fans. While it may seem like "YouTube Famous" people are more accessible -- they interact closely on social media and seem so familiar in their videos -- they are still celebrities, Raja said.
"It may seem like you get to know every inside detail of their lives, but these are celebrities that hold social power," Raja said.
That power, even if it doesn't seem like such a big deal, can cause an imbalance that makes gaining consent more difficult. That's one of the reasons Uplift is also working with people on the other side of the camera: to determine how to pay better attention to these power dynamics, and really change the relationship between creators and fans for the better.
"It’s not the responsibility of the person with less social power to make sure they’re safe, it’s the responsibility of those in power," Miller said.
For more information on Rape Culture and Sexual Assault resources, visit Look Different.