Absurd politics and tomfoolery in the YouTube reptile community

Weekly YouTube Pick

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 5/20/2008)

Once upon a time in the mid-1990s, the internet shifted from its status as a resource few people used for military and academic purposes to a widespread pop culture phenomenon. It enhanced the globalization of goods, services, and ideas; provided quick access to news and other information; enabled email communication between friends and family, as well as anonymous discussion in forums and chat rooms; and made free porn available to anyone willing to pay by the minute for a tedious dial-up connection.

Fast forward to 2005. With the advent of YouTube, any Average Joe/Josephine Jackass who could afford a digital camera could post videos of just about anything and hope to become overnight internet celebrities.

About 6 weeks ago, a couple of my friends stumbled upon YouTube’s self-proclaimed “Reptile Community.” In it, dozens of people post short videos of their “herps” (the broad category of any reptile or amphibian) and hold contests. It sounds harmless. Just a bunch of nerdy kids with too much time on their hands who want to talk about their pets, right?

Wrong. A whole world of absurd politics and intrigue seethes under the thin veneer of dorky innocence. The pets become secondary to the cliques, flame wars, the 1-to-5 star video rating system, bad spelling and grammar, and vlog subscriptions. And don’t forget shout-outs.

“You’re a nobody in the community if you don’t get shout-outs,” said Jacob Heppner, junior in LAS.

As an example of the grotesque dynamics of the community, Jacob described one popular member that I will refer to as “PUFFDADDY2.” A 23-year-old from Virginia with almost 150 videos and over 1600 subscribers, many consider PUFFDADDY2 to be the foremost community spokesman – and a fascist. If you play nice and agree with his methods of animal care, he’ll commend you in his videos and help you gain subscribers. But if you criticize him, he will command a swarm of teenage drones to attack you with negative feedback and 1-ratings on all your videos.

Sometimes PUFFDADDY2 creates tribute videos to himself by piecing together a montage of clips from his old videos and playing a totally rad song over it, like “How to Save a Life” by The Fray. When the property manager of his condo told him to lose the pets or lose his cable, pool, and package privileges (so he can’t receive the crickets he needs to feed his pets), he posted a series of “PUFFDADDY2 Fight for Freedom” vlogs demanding that his minions make tribute videos to show support for his righteous cause.

“You got all these people on YouTube that have a superiority complex where all they care about is the number of subscribers they have and the number of friends they have, and they use it as a sign of status,” said Brice Nelson, junior in LAS.

Oftentimes their superiority complex compels them to cite false facts about pet care and breeding. According to one so-called expert, putting sand in leopard geckos’ cages can hurt them. According to another, mealworms’ heads should be cut off before using them as pet food because the worms can gnaw at reptiles’ insides. Too bad leopard geckos are desert animals whose natural habitat includes sand, and mealworms die instantly upon ingestion.

As Jacob said about PUFFDADDY2, “He claims that he’s the king of YouTube reptiles even though he doesn’t know shit.” I don’t think it would be unfair to assess that YouTube – and the internet in general – is full of quacks. Why even bother to participate in such silliness? For the laughs, of course.

Isn’t that part of the postmodern charm of the internet? Fools pose as experts and experts pose as fools in a never-ending cycle of misinformation and hilarity. This is why Americans faithfully shell out hundreds of dollars each year to money-hungry ISPs. That and free porn.