Column: What I learned from 5 days of binge-watching YouTube

Mary McNamara spent five days watching YouTube — and lived to tell about it.
(Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett / For the Times)

Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and get out. This was one of those times.

After five full days spent falling through the wormholes of YouTube, I finally had to wrench myself away. Even if it meant I would never know how to hydro dip my Nike Air Force 1s or see what happened when Morgan Adams’ cat met Shane Dawson’s cat for the first time, or make it even halfway through the Bucket List Family’s 50 countries in 100 weeks.

Otherwise I feared my family would find me slumped over my laptop, clutching a reporter’s notebook filled with strange and increasingly illegible phrases like “VSCO girls,” “Vlog Squad,” “Mukbang,” “Jana Wedding,” “Jeffree Star” and “Emma Chamberlain.”

It had started, as madness often does, from a place of love. For years now, whenever I ask my younger daughter “What are you watching?” she inevitably answers “YouTube.” When I ask her for the 957th time to be more specific, she will sigh and say something like, “Well, the Bucket List family took their kids somewhere with penguins and ...,” which sounds harmless enough, and boring, so I stop listening, which is no doubt exactly what she intended.

Then I started reading about all the concerns over YouTube’s inability to regulate what its younger viewers see — how easily a child-friendly video can lead to images of violence or sex or just seriously weird human behavior. I decided it was time to log in to her account and check out her history to see what, exactly, my daughter meant when she said she was “watching YouTube.”


The good news: I found nothing more objectionable than far too many scenes from “Dance Moms” and the fact that by watching YouTube on her brother’s TV, she had been able to bypass restricted mode to watch 30 minutes devoted to the “recovery” of a cheesy potatoes addict on “Freaky Eaters.” (Good news bonus: I will never again eat cheesy potatoes.)

Other than that it was pretty much just a lot of young adults with limited camera skills saying, “Hi guys, it’s me” before talking about themselves, and many products, in a variety of “Let’s do this random and possibly sponsored thing”: make a plant-hanger from a T-shirt, visit the haunted rooms of the Queen Mary at night, go on a juice cleanse, pretend we have a child, buy outfits for each other, give another YouTube star a makeover, eat a bunch of food in the car.

The bad news: Once I was in YouTube land, it was difficult to get out.

If you think Netflix is an algorithmic Slip ‘N Slide of “new” and “recommended” that has turned television into a digital pie-eating contest, you are not ready for the howling vortex of time-suck that is YouTube.

But like so many digital time-sucks — Twitter, Facebook, all those Wayfair emails you get if you buy one stinking hammock — the 15-year-old, Google-owned platform is part of a powerful, multibillion-dollar shadow culture, shadow entertainment industry, shadow economy, well, shadow everything.

So it deserves as much time and attention as, you know, Marvel movies and the location of the state of Alabama.

Many of us go on YouTube to discover all manner of things — how to clean AirPods or fix a dishwasher or make a wig. Watching YouTube, well that’s different. As with my daughter and “Dance Moms,” many people go to YouTube to watch what was once known as TV, curated into the best bits of late-night, sporting events or reality shows. But original content remains king and star-maker. As heartbreakingly documented in the recent documentary “Jawline,” digital media has created a whole new level of celebrity, and YouTube is still ground zero for “influencers.”

When PewDiePie, a Swedish gamer and “online personality” became the first individual to hit 100 million subscribers, it was big news; his is the second most popular channel on YouTube, with T-Series (Indian music videos) and 5-Minute Crafts (self-explanatory) ranked first and third, which gives you the merest glimpse of YouTube’s wildly diverse native species.

Even prepped by almost two decades of watching TV professionally, I lost my footing almost instantly, sliding into a greased-up game of Chutes and Ladders during which the sun rose, set and rose again while I just keep clicking on things like “Bath Bomb fail” or “Organizing my squishy collection” or Mr. Beast’s “I Opened a Free Car Dealership.”

Although I found much of it a bit wearing — at almost every given moment I would have preferred to be re-watching, say, episodes of “House” — I am not here to hate on any specific channel or the YouTube experience in general. At a time when watching TV often means binging 10 hourlong episodes only to get to another cliffhanger and much of social media, not to mention the 24-hour news networks, is filled with partisan hate, 20 minutes spent watching a really good makeover or an amiable brother and sister try to go through a day in Los Angeles without spending any money can be quite soothing.

If you can watch only that and maybe some cute baby videos.

I couldn’t.

Oh, I tried to limit myself to just one or two things at a time, say Shane Dawson’s much-touted series in which he talks to fellow YouTuber Eugenia Cooney about leaving the platform to get help for her eating disorder. But then somehow I was watching a video of Dawson, Morgan Adams, Ryland Adams (Morgan’s brother, Dawson’s fiancé) and Garrett Watts spending the night in the haunted rooms of the Queen Mary, which took me to BuzzFeed’s “Unsolved Supernatural” doing same, and Lady Like’s “We Wore Hoop Skirts for a Day.”

Next thing I know, there’s Emma Chamberlain getting ready for Coachella and then a bunch of people rating how all the YouTubers looked at Coachella (according to the general consensus, Chamberlain looked great) which lead somehow to LaurDIY’s “Thrift Store DIY Challenge,” “Becoming a Visco Girl” and then “I went to the jake & tana wedding lol.”

Once you hit anything to do with Jake and Tana, you’ve pretty much gone over the edge. Certainly it is time to break out the earthquake emergency canned goods and water packets because now the wormholes have their own reaction-wormholes and you may have to do some Googling on the side (isn’t it handy that YouTube is owned by Google?).

Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau’s recent wedding was a big hairy YouTube deal since everyone was there and viewers paid 50 bucks to livestream it. Then many other YouTubers, including Mongeau, said it was fake.

Jake is also the brother of Logan Paul, one of the most successful and controversial YouTube stars, whose most recent exploit — he filmed a body hanging in Japan’s “suicide forest” — cost him many subscribers and millions in business deals.

Mongeau, meanwhile, is the Tana of TanaCon, a video convention she hosted last year at the same time and place as VidCon, with such disastrous results that Tana’s partner, talent manager Michael Weist was forced to declare bankruptcy. Dawson, who has done several series about other YouTubers, including one in which he called Logan Paul a sociopath, made a three-part series about how bad it was.

And now we’re back to Dawson, who’s either spilling tea with makeup guru Jeffree Starr or reuniting with former girlfriend Lisa Schwartz to pitch her new book, “Thirty-Life Crisis.”

Honestly, the only truly linear feature about YouTube may be Shane Dawson; somehow all roads lead back to him.

Feuds, missteps and apologies abound on YouTube. Do not get me started on James Charles, another makeup guru (there are many) whose recent behavior, including a break with collaborator Tati Westbrook, left him “cancelled” (though he recently broke the Internet by sending out his own nude after he had been hacked.)

Following the Charles reactions was just about when I realized it was either life or YouTube, and I chose life.

There is much to learn on YouTube, including how to identify a Mukbang (a video/show in which a person eats a lot of food while talking to the audience) and a VSCO girl (oversize tees, stickered Hydro Flask, puka necklace, scrunchies, Birkenstocks and photos edited on VSCO).But I am going to have to pull myself together and tie a rope around my waist before I ever return.

Seeing me emerge from my foray into her world, foaming at the mouth about all the drama, my daughter just shook her head.

“Oh, my God, Mom,” she said when I started rattling off where I’d been, what I’d seen, “you can’t get too caught up in all that; those people are crazy.”