My Life As the Worst Kind of Nerd

My name is Ollie, I’m 21 years old and I’m a YouTube nerd.

I can’t remember when it started exactly. I have memories of my dad showing me YouTube videos when I was about 10 and it just seeming like a wonderland. I could watch whatever, whenever. Before this, my family was running a second-hand Macintosh: a large beige box from the late 90s. It had some games, Microsoft Word and little else. It was slow. We cancelled our internet in about 2000 and didn’t get it back until 2006 when we upgraded to a Mac desktop: a sleek, white rectangle with an LCD screen. Even then, it sat in communal areas. Eventually it was moved to my room, which then involved my parents coming into my room in order to burn CDs.

Flash forward to 2007 — our neighbours had bigger, better and faster computers than us with awesome retro games, music and, the king of tween entertainment, YouTube. These were the days before monetisation and regulation. These were the days of Charlie The Unicorn, Potter Puppet Pals and ASDF movie. This content was kid friendly but still a breath of twisted fresh air away from our other options, which were an increasingly commercialised MTV, an increasingly sanitised ABC and increasingly clapped-out episodes of The Simpsons. The absurd plotlines and distorted realities where the stories took place informed my sense of humour, which was confusing to my parents and others in my life who lived outside of the Internet Meme Bubble. When I was a teen my diet consisted mostly of makeup tutorials like Michelle Phan, and then the YouTube equivalent of Brit Pop boybands —­ vloggers like charlieissocoollike, Alex Day, Tom Milsom and all of the people who would appear in their videos like Michael Aranda, John Green (yes, that John Green) and Eddplant.

The Brit Pop content, however, had a far more disturbing underbelly. Behind the friendly façade of happy-go-lucky ukulele songs, experimental chiptune, blue hair dye and doctor who fandom was a horrifying secret. Members of the community, namely Alex and Tom, were found to be sexually exploiting women, some of them underage. This was the first time I was really shaken by this sort of revelation — how could these nice, funny guys be so awful? I could barely wrap my head around it. I deleted all their songs from my computer and threw away my DFTBA shirts. I had found comfort in these guys. I was weird at school — a band nerd who played the French horn and was into The Wombats and Scott Pilgrim and Sylvia Plath. These aren’t particularly alternative to anyone now, but given the low bar of a high school that was the cultural equivalent of Clive Palmer memes, I was voted the “Most Hipster” upon my graduation. For a long time I was robbed of a world that celebrated otherness instead of shamed it.

Since entering late adolescence and then adulthood I’ve discovered my proverbial binge-food: gaming YouTube. I’ve been a lifelong gamer, but have hidden my passion behind closed doors for many years. Anyone who isn’t a straight, white, thin, cis, heterosexual male faces immense discrimination in this field. There’s a horrifying amount of racism, including for instance, HH the Pewdiepie scandal of 2017 and the disgusting comments on immigration made by JonTron, aka Jon Jafari. Both are YouTube superstars with millions of subscribers and commercial contracts with Disney.

Charlie of Penguinz0/Cr1tikal deserves an honourable mention too, as a complex and challenging online personality. He was one of my first experiences with the difficulties of navigating the landscape of privilege as a neurodivergent person. For a long time he remained a faceless deep voice who loved to slide the word “nipples” into every sentence as many times as possible (a gag which I personally find hilarious, but I can appreciate why people would find problematic or offensive). He has carved out his niche in creating gameplay/commentary videos on obscure and AAA titles, telling funny and emotional stories about his life, and a series in which he dubs over infomercials and other bizarre artefacts of late capitalism and daytime television.

Charlie stayed anonymous for a very long time but eventually came out of his shell, telling his story in a number of different videos. It’s as long and complicated as any of our stories, but the part that was most important to me was him talking in depth about his experience with OCD and how he learnt to manage it. I also have OCD, as well as CPTSD and ADHD. It is an incurable but treatable disorder and one that has made my life over the past few years a living hell. It was nice to have a voice in the void that validated my own experience, some other person as tortured by this wretched condition as me; a condition that’s ruined a lot of my relationships and skewed my perception of reality. It was nice to see someone going through that experience who had found healthy coping mechanisms and a way forward, and a large community of fans and followers who supported him during hard times — it gave me a lot of hope when things seemed hopeless. When Charlie was unemployed, he was able to use the advertisement money from his channel to support himself. It gave me hope for myself, that maybe my own existence wasn’t doomed.

That said, a lot of Charlie’s commentary is … uncomfortable. He never really says anything explicitly bad, but there’s always this weird tinge of misogyny to his videos. There’s one in particular where he describes this experience of him going to a bar, getting really wasted, chatting up a girl and taking her home. Nothing unspeakably bad happens, but it did bring up a lot of traumatic memories of the way disgusting drunk men have treated me in bars in the past. Again, I sort of don’t know how to interpret it — is it meant to be some kind of funny self-deprecating story, or a confession of intense guilt? I can’t say that either of these options make me feel comfortable – that girl is out there, and this content is ostensibly public. Has she seen it? Does she know how the drunk guy from the bar told over a million people about their uncomfortable date while footage of Overwatch plays in the background? I think I’d feel incredibly distressed if I were her. And that one’s nothing on the fellatio story in his FNAF play through. Again, I feel as though any validation of my own identity that I’ve been afforded by Charlie’s open discussion of his struggles with OCD have been thrown under the bus. Any comfort, enjoyment or safety I get out of Charlie’s content will always be compromised by knowing that if I ever try and engage in the community, I’ll likely be unfairly targeted because of my own identity and story, and especially because of my apparent femininity.

That said, there are some YT gamers out there who aren’t completely objectionable. PushingUpRoses has been on the internet forever — she plays obscure DOS games and does a lot of wholesome educational videos about the intersection of mental health, death and videogames. Roses is queer too, although she hardly ever makes reference to it. Online gaming communities sideline us even more than regular society does, and my guess is that something about the lack of face to face content seems to bring out the most bitter hatred from peoples’ hearts. On that point, Roses is also white — I’ve never encountered a queer person of colour in online gaming. The saddest part is, while it would invariably put those content creators in the line of fire, the need for positive representation in gaming is immense. The risks in being non-male, a person of colour, openly queer, or inhabiting any identity that diverges from the master narrative exist on different layers — these are risks of being a target of overt discrimination, not only online, but from real-life harassment and stalkers.

And maybe if I didn’t feel threatened as a non-male, queer gamer I would’ve been more invested in this world, instead of ignoring my passion for years. I feel like my experiences as one of the first generations to grow up with the internet have illustrated some of the key issues with how our digital world is developing. It’s allowed me to fully embrace a lot of niche interests and given me access to plenty of knowledge, but it’s also shown me just how uncomfortable people are with certain kinds of otherness. There is the otherness that is accepted and made space for, and the otherness that isn’t. Hopefully these niches continue to expand to provide a home for those who live in intersections of otherness, at the proverbial crossroads of shared experience and interest in a large, scary and complicated world.