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“It’s just a prank!” What started as a playful trend has turned into an embarrassment for the internet. It’s not “just” a prank anymore. 

Prank videos were once the darling of YouTube. But somewhere between the classic gags of surprising someone with an airhorn under their chair and the recent death of 22-year-old Pedro Ruiz, who was shot in the chest during a failed stunt video for YouTube, would-be entertainers have gotten desperate for attention. That desperation has turned what were once innocent gags into lowbrow exploitation for thirsty YouTubers itching to go viral. 

Online, every day is effectively April Fools’ Day. And when the game is to constantly shock and awe your audience, things can turn nasty real quick.

Innocent beginnings

In the beginning, when times were more pleasant, these types of prank videos would stay in the family. Pranks were between friends, couples, or parents and their children in an all-out war that played out across their YouTube videos.

Being mean to our loved ones would eventually lead to one of the most celebrated series of all time: Jimmy Kimmel’s “I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy” gag, an annual tradition where parents film their children’s reactions after telling them they ate all of their Halloween candy. Pretty cruel, but also pretty hilarious.

Pranks between family and friends seemed innocuous enough. You still have to live with these people, right? But things first took a turn when YouTubers brought their prank videos to the streets.

YouTuber MagicofRahat, who now boasts a whopping 4.9 million followers, popularized one such on-the-street prank that has gotten increasingly out of hand. He started out making videos involving magic and card tricks, but in 2011, he brought his amateur magician skills to his local drive thru.

The drive thru jokes started out innocently. But, eventually, it became clear that these YouTubers were flat-out taking advantage of people working in low-paying jobs by messing with them while they raked in AdSense dollars. 

Sure, watching the reaction of a McDonald’s employee while someone sloppily grabbed their ice cream cone by its creamy top was comical the first time around. Throwing an alligator through the drive thru window, however, is assault with a deadly weapon.

The beginning of the fall

People taking advantage of innocent passersby on the street for YouTube views came at an important time in internet history. Propelled by the explosion of viral media and social outlets like Twitter and Facebook, prank videos became somewhat of a guilty pleasure. It was the internet’s version of the prank phone call, even if some of the videos teetered outside the bounds of the law. YouTube prank videos became the Jerky Boys on crack. 

YouTube prank videos became the Jerky Boys on crack. 

Sites like Break, BuzzFeed, The Daily Dot, UpWorthy, ViralNova, and Mashable started seeing huge traffic from sharing viral videos. And where there are clicks and money, there are brands. Guerilla-style viral marketing campaigns started taking advantage of the trend, turning prank videos into an opportunity to push a product or make an announcement. 

In October 2013, an admittedly hilarious prank aimed at unsuspecting coffee shop patrons turned out to be a promotion for a reboot of the classic horror film Carrie. Following in its footsteps, a small agency named Thinkmodo terrified unsuspecting New Yorkers with the “Devil Baby Attack” in January 2014, which was later revealed to be a promotion for the horror movie Devil’s Due. The clip has since racked up more than 53 million views, which is likely more views than the movie itself. 

The internet loses all morality for clicks

Meanwhile, as Vine stars emerged from the 6-second platform and YouTubers began making a real name for themselves, the viral internet star was born. People used to scoff at the idea of being internet famous, until they saw how much money they could make. 

The thirst for going viral became increasingly demanding, and people resorted to one-upping each other with more extreme videos to remain in the spotlight. Those hungry for viral fame would do just about anything for attention, even sexually harassing their targets.

People used to scoff at the idea of being internet famous, until they saw how much money they could make.

Harrassment as a prank tactic has become more and more commonplace online. It was brought to international attention when Big Brother UK cast member and YouTube star Sam Pepper was finally slammed for his alleged sexually assault in the name of YouTube attention. He was brought down after sex ed YouTuber Laci Green penned an open letter to him, attempting to rationally explain why the internet had put him on blast.

Pepper temporarily erased himself from the internet after the ensuing backlash, but not before tricking Vine star Sam Golbach into thinking his friend Colby Brock was about to be killed in front of him. Pepper  later claimed he faked his prank videos, including the ones featuring sexual harassment. Pepper did eventually return to YouTube, where he continues to produce pranks and challenge videos.

It seems as if there is no line drawn for what’s “too far” when it comes to going viral. Until, of course, that line is crossed and people push back with overwhelming force and numbers. The prank video is YouTube’s Milkshake Duck.

And then it all came crumbling down

Fast forward to 2017. Mike and Heather Martin, the parents behind YouTube channel DaddyOFive, were enjoying the success of what was later deemed emotional abuse against their adopted children in their series of prank videos. The couple saw police action when YouTuber Philip DeFranco made a clip that called the family out. After DeFranco’s video was released, Mike and Heather lost custody of two of their children to their biological mother. “I am ashamed,” Mike Martin said in a tearful apology video following the incident. “It started out as family fun. It started with me and my kids, but then it was just about making a video and then making the next video more crazier than the next.”

And in what may be the saddest, lowest of all-time lows for prank videos on YouTube, 19-year-old Monalisa Perez from Minnesota was charged with manslaughter after she shot and killed her 22-year-old boyfriend, Ruiz, in a failed YouTube stunt. 

According to BuzzFeed, the couple was attempting to make a video of Perez shooting a book that Ruiz was holding, thinking that the book would withstand the force of the bullet. 

KVLY, a local news station in Fargo, North Dakota, reports that Pedro told his aunt Claudia Ruiz that the couple wanted to perform the stunt “because we want more viewers, we want to get famous.”

So what’s next?

The concept of the prank video has been an embarrassment for the internet for quite some time now. With allegations of sexual assault, racism, child abuse, and now the death of Ruiz, we’re well beyond the tipping point.

It’s not funny anymore. It’s not “just” a prank. So what’s next? Hopefully nothing resembling any of these videos. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the whole internet to move past trends, and the only way to do that is to stop watching. Stop clicking.

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