the bizarre world of the true crime youtube influencers

A cottage industry of beauty influencers moonlighting as true crime correspondents is racking up tens of thousands of views on YouTube. But is it right that we treat murder as 'lifestyle' fodder for influencer virality?

|
Nov 29 2018, 3:20pm

At first glance, Georgia Marie appears to be a fairly typical lifestyle vlogger. With over 88,000 subscribers, she sits somewhere in the crowded middleweight division of YouTubers, offering guides to the best lipstick remover, peeks into her Primark hauls and tutorials on how to sculpt the best Double Dutch Braids.

But it’s not product recommendations or beauty tips that account for her most watched videos. The 24-year-old Greater Londoner also runs a weekly series called Midweek Mystery, a UK focused ‘true crime’ deep dive, that has since fanned out to cover an international array of famous case studies. From the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, to the heinous crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, and the still unresolved Bible John killings in 1960s Glasgow, Georgia tackles them all, armed with intense research and the oddly familiar, girl-next-door manner of a seasoned online professional.

She’s not the only one. The last few years have witnessed a surge of crossover lifestyle vloggers looking to to piggyback onto the new found respectability and viral potential of true crime, forged in the last half-decade from the reflective glare of prestige American podcasts and Netflix originals, with Serial and Making A Murderer the two box office standouts. From Caitlin Rose, who runs Unsolved Sunday, to self-professed ‘Wiccan’ and nature paranormalist Harmony Nice, there’s no lack of full-time YouTubers willing to take a part-time plunge into some of the most distressing cases in recent history.

Though the potential rewards are clear, the ethics can be considerably more opaque. Several recent articles have spelled out the discomforting relationship between true crime fandom and its subject matter, while the morbidly surreal realm of straight-up crime YouTubers has also attracted forensic critical attention. The former raises questions of motive; do we engage with these real life horrors for titillation, or a sincere desire to explain evils that are so often inexplicable? The latter, questions of professional competence and dignity of treatment, for what are often the most profound traumas of the subjects and survivors lives.

Laura Richards is a psychologist and victim advocate, as well as founder of the Real Crime Profile podcast. According to her, our fascination with true crime stems from the everyday tendency towards the macabre. “You only need to think about people slowing down by a road traffic accident or collision, wanting to see what’s going on. Crime is the same,” she says.

“People want to understand what makes a murderer tick and many want to play ‘armchair detective’ and solve the mystery themselves. Although it tends to be a lot safer from the comfort of your lounge seat.”

“Murder is messy, bloody, devastating, and ugly in reality. Victim’s deserve to be honored in their death and not seen as entertainment value or something to be capitalized on” — Laura Richards, psychologist and founder of the Real Crime Profile podcast

When I speak with Georgia Marie, she recognizes how incongruous the idea of a lifestyle/true crime combination sounds. It’s unusual, she acknowledges, even if it’s far more common than when she started up, back in 2011. Even though the latter can account for more than ten times as many views as a product recommendation, she’s adamant that she’d never devote the whole channel to the more macabre side of her output, “even if people regularly request me to.”

Georgia refutes the cynical interpretation that it’s all about brand-building and nothing else. She tells me that her fascination with true crime dates back to a youth spent as a voracious reader. “By the age of 10 I’d already exhausted everything I could get my hands on, so my dad got me out some of his old murder mystery books [from his teenage years] and I think that’s where it really started. My nan was also really into serial killers, so I’d raid her bookshelves and read all of hers, too. It’s not something that’s ever scared me, but I’ve always had this intense fascination”.

It didn’t take long to realize true crime could be a means of growing her online audience, even if she says that it was just a nice bonus consequence. Certainly, it wasn’t something deemed appropriate, polite subject matter for her offline day-to-day. “I only started talking about true crime [on YouTube] because nobody in my real life was interested in hearing about it. I didn’t even know it was a whole genre of its own on there.” Soon, she noticed her subscribers begin to climb from a base of 10,000 lifestyle followers, after her first foray (The Mysterious Case Of Dan Cooper) proved an instant success. “Omg,” runs the top comment, “you have opened the gates to a whole new world of YouTube for me.”

But Georgia is keen to stress that it’s not about the numbers. It’s still a passion, she says, a creative outlet that has kept her going during the grayer moments of the last few years, even assuring me that she doesn’t care if “one or 100,000 people watch.” Though you wonder if the figures did drop off a cliff, just how long she’d keep putting in the punishing hours required to fulfill her self-imposed weekly deadline.

What does separate her from some of her lifestyle-cum-crime competitors is the depth of work that goes into the videos, something else she’s keen to highlight during our correspondence. “[They] can take me anywhere from a week to a month to prepare, I always want to make sure I can include as much accurate information as possible. If the case is more than a decade old, I’ll go through newspaper archives and read the books”.

It’s a dedication evident in the videos themselves. Undeniably hypnotic, they operate on the same level as any other well practiced YouTubers' output. A slow, almost relentless accumulation of detail, presented in measured, sympathetic tones. What Happened To Blair Adams is typical of the method. The sad, strange tale of a paranoid British Columbia native, found murdered many miles from home. It’s disconcerting just how easy a watch it is. Something unspeakable transmuted to a 20-minute, almost easy-listening video.

While the glossy world of prestige journalism at least offers certain theoretical guarantees, they aren’t always on offer in the unregulated influencer shadow world. Speculation and unnecessary detail abound, though Georgia again stresses how much care she takes. “I never forget I’m talking about a real person who might have been through some of the worst things you can possibly imagine, or the relatives who had to go through losing them. I’d never use them for clickbait, or want to sensationalize." You never know, she speculates, one stray detail could help police even solve the previously unsolved cases.

"Gore doesn’t bother me though. I’m very desensitized to it — I always said if I was smarter, I’d be either a surgeon or a pathologist” — Georgia Marie

It’s obvious that Georgia operates in good faith, even if it’s not something you can confidently claim for every YouTuber operating in the same sphere. Still, it’s hard to shake the vague sense of concern, not a personal criticism, but a comment on the vagaries of the medium itself. “In real life there isn’t the gloss, polish, and veneer we see on our screens," Laura explains. “Murder is messy, bloody, devastating, and ugly in reality. Victim’s deserve to be honored in their death and not seen as entertainment value or something to be capitalized on."

Does it take a toll, immersing yourself in people’s darkest stories, without even the benefit of meeting the subjects? It seems like an impersonal pursuit, far too easy to internalize unhealthily. Laura had also made the point that the long-term impacts and realities of crime are rarely depicted in crime shows, let alone solo vlogs, with “many underestimating the impact of vicarious trauma, that it can have serious and severe long-lasting impact on your psychological well-being.”

No, Georgia doesn’t get “bogged down, even though I see other true crime YouTubers who say they do. Of course it can be sad reading about these stories, the ones which bother me the most are the ones where people just go missing, disappear off the street and are never seen again," she says. "Gore doesn’t bother me though. I’m very desensitized to it — I always said if I was smarter, I’d be either a surgeon or a pathologist."

It’s hard to explain the current trend towards lifestyle/true crime crossovers without acknowledging a disconcerting fact; that what seems at surface level to be a wild mismatch, has a perfectly sound internal logic lurking under the surface. Both rely on the marketing of a product in a wildly oversaturated marketplace. The required skills are readily interchangeable: a ‘relatable’ manner, the ability to spin a compelling yarn and an on-the-nose sincerity. And, most importantly, the savviness to seize an opportunity. And while the traditional avenues of online lifestyle revenue begin to shift and change, crime remains conventionally big traffic business.

Mind you, it’s not the whole of Georgia’s life, even if it forms a substantial part of her online identity. There are other hobbies and passions, though they don’t translate to quite the same volume of engagement. Georgia says she’ll stop when she wants to, on her terms, not on the whims of an invisible audience of thousands. Though that might be easier said than done.

“[At the moment] it just so happens that more people are interested in watching true crime than a video where I talk about how cute my pony is for 15 minutes. There’s so much more to my personality than morbidity."

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Stories