Digital Publishing and Why the YouTube Shooter Opened Fire

Nasim Aghdam is a 21st-century Willy Loman, the hapless protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

The eccentric vegan activist who shot up the headquarters of online video giant YouTube epitomized today's forgotten man – or, perhaps, the forgotten woman, as is the more accurate case.

Not long after Aghdam's shooting, which left none dead but herself, did her attempted murder spree drop from headlines.  At a time when any crime involving a firearm is scrupulously deconstructed to establish a case for curtailing the Second Amendment, Aghdam's was not.  This, despite her easily purchasing a 9mm Smith and Wesson under her own name at a local dealer shortly before her fatal scheme.

Surely, the breeziness with which she bought a gun, ambled into a corporate headquarters, and sprayed the place with bullets, while even affording herself enough time to replace an empty magazine, should have inspired yet another gun-control march on the National Mall.  But there was nothing.  Even in death, Aghdam was ignored.  She made it into the paper but still fell into her "grave like an old dog."

Aghdam's obvious mental illness wasn't even trotted out as an excuse.  And judging by her strange, pastel-colored, and overly artsy videos, it was clear she had a screw or two loose.  This was not undiscovered genius; a tortured Van Gogh she was not.  Aghdam was like many aspiring YouTube personalities: obsessive about her craft to the point of it becoming an indulgence.

And yet, somehow, it paid.  Otherwise, why would she be driven violently mad?  In an online message written under a nom de plume, Aghdam railed against the source of her penury: "Youtube filtered my channels to keep them from getting views! There is no equal growth opportunity on YOUTUBE or any other video sharing site, your channel will grow if they want to!!!!!"

The ghost of Willy Loman, bellowing, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!," can be heard in her frustration.  Whatever market existed for Aghdam has been dissipated by YouTube's more stringent advertising standards.  Last December, the social media giant attempted to remove ads from offensive videos.  The result cut off an estimated 80% of revenue from creators of inoffensive content.  In applying a one-size-fits-all fix to its image problem, YouTube de-monetized its own talent base.

The same self-inflicted harm can be seen on a great scale on Facebook, currently the king of the hill in the cutthroat digital publishing business.  Back in January, CEO (Chief Emperor and Overlord) Mark Zuckerberg announced that the platform's newsfeed function – the life line of many publications – would be stanched to prioritize postings by family and friends.  "You'll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media," Zuckerberg explained.  "And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard – it should encourage meaningful interactions between people."

This was vacuous P.R.-speak for saying Zuckerberg and a close clique of executives would decide which postings get preferential treatment and which go unnoticed.  The result has been nothing short of a mass foreclosure.  Almost overnight, big-name sites shut their doors, their digital traffic cut by nearly 75%.  Little Things, Cooking Panda, Rare – all were forced to shut down as views precipitously dropped, like a rock-climber nearing the summit when his carabiner snaps.  Even more are expected to face massive monetary losses, including big names like The Atlantic and The New Yorker.

While there is schadenfreude watching a bitterly leftist publication like Slate shed readers, the social media-based industry as a whole is in for a great deal of suffering.  Within a brief period, money-making channels are being closed off with little warning.  Creators who counted on running advertisements on their products are seeing revenue plummet, sometimes drying up completely.

Loman found himself in a similar situation, unable to adjust to the market's changing demands.  His age and failing mental health only exacerbated his falling out with what was a young man's game.  He too was cut off from his ability to earn a living.  The pressure of providing for his family overwhelmed him.

None of this excuses Aghdam's attempted murder, just as Willy losing his job didn't excuse his selfish suicide.  The key lesson of Death of a Salesman is that attention must be paid to those left behind in capitalism's relentless churning of profit.  YouTube doesn't have to de-monetize videos.  Facebook doesn't have to limit its newsfeed functionality.  That they choose to suppress their own means of profitability pours salt into the wounds of many who have their livelihood stripped out from under them.

The dilemma is made worse by the fact that Facebook and YouTube were built to enable publishers and producers the ability to profit off their creative energies.  In Facebook's case, the social network revolutionized digital publishing to the point of nearly monopolizing the industry.  And now Zuckerberg and company are comfortable pulling the plug, disregarding the time, money, and resources many put into the very model they were incentivized to support.  Just as Loman was let go of the company he slaved at for 34 years without so much as a handshake, an army of online content-creators is being thrown to the unforgiving vagaries of the marketplace.

Of course, a concession must be made: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the like are free to restrict their products.  But technological disruption, like the diesel engine replacing the horse and buggy or textile looms making sewing by hand obsolete, is never easy.  Losers are created in the short term; sometimes they don't find the mental strength to become winners again.  Even George Mason University's Tyler Cowen, as ardent a market libertarian as there ever was, admits that the Industrial Revolution lifted living standards but helped cause the rise of Marxism when that ideology's prophet "vividly described the transition costs and the economic volatility" of innovation.

As social media companies continue to clamp down on the ability of people to earn money off their platforms, we should expect to see more violent outbursts.  It's an unfortunate truth.  When men are pinned up against the wall, talk of ethics, morality, and the law can't dissuade their survival instinct.  They lash out, like an animal protecting its young.

No analogy is perfect, and Aghdam doesn't have Willy Loman's best trait: his endearing faith in America.  To his end, Loman dreamed the American Dream.  He was "a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine."  The same can't be said of would-be social media stars, who have come of age in a crucible far more competitive than the simple buying and selling of Lowman's day.  The ersatz communities that are Facebook and YouTube won't be enough to temper the brewing backlash.

Nasim Aghdam is a 21st-century Willy Loman, the hapless protagonist of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

The eccentric vegan activist who shot up the headquarters of online video giant YouTube epitomized today's forgotten man – or, perhaps, the forgotten woman, as is the more accurate case.

Not long after Aghdam's shooting, which left none dead but herself, did her attempted murder spree drop from headlines.  At a time when any crime involving a firearm is scrupulously deconstructed to establish a case for curtailing the Second Amendment, Aghdam's was not.  This, despite her easily purchasing a 9mm Smith and Wesson under her own name at a local dealer shortly before her fatal scheme.

Surely, the breeziness with which she bought a gun, ambled into a corporate headquarters, and sprayed the place with bullets, while even affording herself enough time to replace an empty magazine, should have inspired yet another gun-control march on the National Mall.  But there was nothing.  Even in death, Aghdam was ignored.  She made it into the paper but still fell into her "grave like an old dog."

Aghdam's obvious mental illness wasn't even trotted out as an excuse.  And judging by her strange, pastel-colored, and overly artsy videos, it was clear she had a screw or two loose.  This was not undiscovered genius; a tortured Van Gogh she was not.  Aghdam was like many aspiring YouTube personalities: obsessive about her craft to the point of it becoming an indulgence.

And yet, somehow, it paid.  Otherwise, why would she be driven violently mad?  In an online message written under a nom de plume, Aghdam railed against the source of her penury: "Youtube filtered my channels to keep them from getting views! There is no equal growth opportunity on YOUTUBE or any other video sharing site, your channel will grow if they want to!!!!!"

The ghost of Willy Loman, bellowing, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!," can be heard in her frustration.  Whatever market existed for Aghdam has been dissipated by YouTube's more stringent advertising standards.  Last December, the social media giant attempted to remove ads from offensive videos.  The result cut off an estimated 80% of revenue from creators of inoffensive content.  In applying a one-size-fits-all fix to its image problem, YouTube de-monetized its own talent base.

The same self-inflicted harm can be seen on a great scale on Facebook, currently the king of the hill in the cutthroat digital publishing business.  Back in January, CEO (Chief Emperor and Overlord) Mark Zuckerberg announced that the platform's newsfeed function – the life line of many publications – would be stanched to prioritize postings by family and friends.  "You'll see less public content like posts from businesses, brands, and media," Zuckerberg explained.  "And the public content you see more will be held to the same standard – it should encourage meaningful interactions between people."

This was vacuous P.R.-speak for saying Zuckerberg and a close clique of executives would decide which postings get preferential treatment and which go unnoticed.  The result has been nothing short of a mass foreclosure.  Almost overnight, big-name sites shut their doors, their digital traffic cut by nearly 75%.  Little Things, Cooking Panda, Rare – all were forced to shut down as views precipitously dropped, like a rock-climber nearing the summit when his carabiner snaps.  Even more are expected to face massive monetary losses, including big names like The Atlantic and The New Yorker.

While there is schadenfreude watching a bitterly leftist publication like Slate shed readers, the social media-based industry as a whole is in for a great deal of suffering.  Within a brief period, money-making channels are being closed off with little warning.  Creators who counted on running advertisements on their products are seeing revenue plummet, sometimes drying up completely.

Loman found himself in a similar situation, unable to adjust to the market's changing demands.  His age and failing mental health only exacerbated his falling out with what was a young man's game.  He too was cut off from his ability to earn a living.  The pressure of providing for his family overwhelmed him.

None of this excuses Aghdam's attempted murder, just as Willy losing his job didn't excuse his selfish suicide.  The key lesson of Death of a Salesman is that attention must be paid to those left behind in capitalism's relentless churning of profit.  YouTube doesn't have to de-monetize videos.  Facebook doesn't have to limit its newsfeed functionality.  That they choose to suppress their own means of profitability pours salt into the wounds of many who have their livelihood stripped out from under them.

The dilemma is made worse by the fact that Facebook and YouTube were built to enable publishers and producers the ability to profit off their creative energies.  In Facebook's case, the social network revolutionized digital publishing to the point of nearly monopolizing the industry.  And now Zuckerberg and company are comfortable pulling the plug, disregarding the time, money, and resources many put into the very model they were incentivized to support.  Just as Loman was let go of the company he slaved at for 34 years without so much as a handshake, an army of online content-creators is being thrown to the unforgiving vagaries of the marketplace.

Of course, a concession must be made: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the like are free to restrict their products.  But technological disruption, like the diesel engine replacing the horse and buggy or textile looms making sewing by hand obsolete, is never easy.  Losers are created in the short term; sometimes they don't find the mental strength to become winners again.  Even George Mason University's Tyler Cowen, as ardent a market libertarian as there ever was, admits that the Industrial Revolution lifted living standards but helped cause the rise of Marxism when that ideology's prophet "vividly described the transition costs and the economic volatility" of innovation.

As social media companies continue to clamp down on the ability of people to earn money off their platforms, we should expect to see more violent outbursts.  It's an unfortunate truth.  When men are pinned up against the wall, talk of ethics, morality, and the law can't dissuade their survival instinct.  They lash out, like an animal protecting its young.

No analogy is perfect, and Aghdam doesn't have Willy Loman's best trait: his endearing faith in America.  To his end, Loman dreamed the American Dream.  He was "a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine."  The same can't be said of would-be social media stars, who have come of age in a crucible far more competitive than the simple buying and selling of Lowman's day.  The ersatz communities that are Facebook and YouTube won't be enough to temper the brewing backlash.