“I was more aware of the photographer than of competing”: this is how adolescent athletes are used on YouTube

A YouTube video from a channel supposedly from the US shows the peer Clara Fernández (Barcelona, ​​2003) at the Vallehermoso stadium in Madrid in 2020. It lasts one minute: Fernández picks up the pole, prepares and jumps, nothing more. The stadium announcer is heard saying in Spanish that she is the champion of Spain indoor sub18. Despite its apparent insignificance, 15 million people have seen it, a figure only within the reach of youtubers select. The overwhelming majority of the audience in this case was focused more on the athlete’s body than on her technique, judging by the more than 11,000 comments. “It was during the quarantine, suddenly, it got out of hand, I couldn’t control it, I felt so helpless,” Fernández tells this newspaper by phone. “When I was going to compete I was more aware of the photographers around me than of competing.”

Fernández’s father, Jaume, remembers how bad it was in 2020. “It was a very delicate moment with a huge increase in followers, videos made of her with ugly comments. It didn’t hit rock bottom, but it hurt, ”he adds, and explains that he needed the help of a psychologist to manage it.

The example of Clara Fernández is remarkable for the incredible number of views of her videos, but it is not an isolated case on YouTube. The platform is full of videos of female athletes of all ages with millions of views. The recommendation algorithm detects the interest in these videos and promotes them both to repeat users and to others who have never been interested.

Deep down and in all its rawness, it is viral content. On the page there are many videos of light and suggestive eroticism, but in the case of athletes the difference is that obviously this effect is involuntary, unwanted and with many cases involving minors. The solution is not simple because they are normal videos, whose only sexual connotation is in the eyes of the viewer. But thanks to this ambiguity, dozens of anonymous channels and the platform itself earn money with voyeuristic practices, in one more example of the complexity of the internet.

The first video of Fernández that went viral was published by Esbufecs, a channel of a club in Mollerussa (Lleida) in February 2020. Today it has four million visits. It is from a competition in Sabadell (Barcelona) where Fernández comes out with other competitors. The thumbnail that YouTube shows before watching the video is of the peer from the front, with a colleague from behind. Esbufecs has 129,000 followers and has posted more than 4,000 videos. Most have hundreds of views. Fernández’s video is the most watched along with another sub18 women’s race. After those two, the most successful successive videos are of girls on the beach or in the pool. They are all Esbufecs runners, and therefore recorded with permission, several with more than a million views. “In the end, I recorded all the activities we do,” explains Manel Porté, owner of the channel, by phone to EL PAÍS. “We would go to Port Aventura and make a video. First it was that, then it gets animated and I have everything there ”, he adds. In addition to recording them inside the stadium, he also recorded them in a swimsuit outside and with a GoPro camera underwater.

Porté created playlists for each of the girls, which she withdrew after the call from EL PAÍS. Why are women’s sports videos more successful? “Because 95% of those who watch videos are men,” Porté initially responded. But why, within female videos, are some more successful than others? “You never know which one is going to work on YouTube,” answers Porté. But is it known that the videos of girls or girls are clearly the ones that work the most? This newspaper insisted. The phone line went silent, with no answer.

Playlists of the YouTube channel Esbufecs, now deleted.

Porté’s YouTube channel is monetized: he earns money thanks to the ads that accompany his videos. “I’m pulling between this and helping my brother in his bakery,” he clarifies. The channel itself warns of your income and allows you to subscribe for 2.99 euros per month: “We love athletics and we help everyone to do it. We pay all the expenses and activities of the small group of students thanks to this channel ”, he says. THE COUNTRY has consulted youtubers approximately how much is entered for a video with a million views: and although it depends on the type of video, channel, time, country and other variables, a reasonable figure in 2020 was around 500 dollars (433 euros).

After EL PAÍS consulted YouTube for these practices, the platform asked for examples of videos to assess them. Among others, this newspaper sent those of Esbufecs. “Those videos do not violate our norms (nor that of minors nor that of sexual content) ”, Was his entire reply. In any case, this newspaper does not link to these channels so as not to promote their dissemination.

How it goes viral

Fernández’s concern began with a video from another channel called Core Tops, which has now disappeared. Clara Fernández’s clip was one more in a recording called 9 funny moments that happened in sports. The thumbnail was the same as in the original Esbufecs video. “My behavior was limited to looking for the miniatures that generate the greatest number of visits possible”, explains to this newspaper in successive audio messages Core, the youtuber Asturian who created that channel. Fernández wrote to him and asked him to at least pixelate his face, which Core did.

Core had YouTube experience and knew for a fact what his audience wanted. “That’s why he put me back and a half, that if he was a pedophile, that he encouraged the harassment of minors, barbarities,” he remembers now. His channel received complaints and that fact could be the beginning of the end of his success. The channel’s profits depended on visits and Core was gambling his income. “The blame is on YouTube. You as a content creator have to look for what the audience likes. It is more than evident. At that time the only solution that had to be recommended being a channel with voice in off it was to draw attention to the thumbnail and the title, nothing more was needed. What you said inside didn’t matter. We as youtubers we adapt to it ”, he explains.

This is an obvious example of perverse incentives aligned with innocent victims. “The YouTube algorithm is a reflection of society, teaching what gets us hooked on the screen,” says Romuald Fons, founder of BigSeo Agency and an expert in positioning on Google and YouTube. ”It detects our patterns when a video catches us and associates that attraction with the content. What it does is give what it consumes to a depraved society, “he says.

“We are the men of culture”

The thousands of comments on these videos, when open, make this trend clear. Many of them include the expression “men of culture.” “The algorithm of the men of culture strikes again”, says for example one. The term, turned into a meme, comes from anime [dibujos animados japoneses]. On YouTube, this is how the fans of these videos of girls, most of the times athletes, call themselves that the platform’s algorithm recommends or often puts on the personalized cover of its users. The expression “men of culture” in plural and with this meaning is in the Urban Dictionary since June 2021.

The “men of culture” celebrate being reunited in the comments every time the algorithm shows them new sports videos. “Greetings to all my colleagues Men of Culture!”, Says one. “Flawless algorithm. Nobody looked for this but we all clicked, ”says another. “YouTube has to know about my passion for the female pole,” says another. “Wife: enter the room. Me: I’m looking at pole vaulting, honey. ” In Fernández’s video, with 15 million views, it includes 11,485 comments, many ironic about these “men of culture.”

Of course the age of the athletes is not a problem. A comment below a junior championship reads ironically: “All in the comments: aah men of culture. Me realizing that it is a junior championship: ‘ladies and gentlemen, we caught you’ ”. Others respond: “Over 16, or maybe 15, that’s fine” or “who cares, they look like older women.”

The police know that these types of videos are also a target for suspected pedophiles: “Any photo or video from a social network that can sexually arouse a person can end up on the hard drive [de un criminal detenido]. When we find child sexual material we do not find only that, but also other things. Sometimes sexuality is much more subtle, like a girl on a beach. How many have we not arrested who are taking photos everywhere, ”police sources explain.

This newspaper has found other examples in Spain of videos that have ended up in the network of these “men of culture”. Rafa Ramírez, sports director of the Leganés Volleyball Club, has already gone to the police twice because images of matches that a parent recorded ended up on pornographic channels. “A friend from Alicante told me and I went to file a complaint with the police, although they told me that legally I had no route,” he explains by phone.

Confinement and access limitations to the enclosures have multiplied these types of videos: “The experience was bad, discouraging. There is little to do. With the pandemic there was a very high demand because people could not enter the stadiums ”, explains Ramírez.

The automatic thumbnails chosen by YouTube on this channel with videos of lower categories of volleyball show how the algorithm understands the interest of the audience.
The automatic thumbnails chosen by YouTube on this channel with videos of lower categories of volleyball show how the algorithm understands the interest of the audience.

The ease with which these types of images are found is due in part to the lack of interest of the institutions to monitor the piracy of their images or the naivety of users who try to help the dissemination of a club or a sport. The images in Fernández’s video are from streaming official of the Spanish Athletics Federation, whose logo is seen in the video. The owner of Esbufecs has the permission of the Catalan Athletics Federation to record the competitions. As if that were not enough, from the stands it can also be done. “For a person to go to a sports competition and record a girl and a close-up of her ass and then post it on his channel, it is uncontrollable,” says Alberto Ruiz, press officer of the Catalan Athletics Federation. Ruiz is also coincidentally the trainer of the pertiguista and reported her case to YouTube, without success: “Of course it affects the performance of the girls. There are people who some things affect them and others who do not. Clara was very bad at first ”.

In a channel with hundreds of videos of a volleyball club in La Unión (Murcia), 90% of the views are concentrated in two dozen of them, corresponding to the lower female categories. One alone has more than seven million. Its creator, Juanjo Carrillo, assures EL PAÍS that everything is done by YouTube. “I don’t complicate my life. YouTube will say what it wants, but everything benefits them. In this case, the thumbnails that the platform automatically chooses are an example of what the algorithm understands that humans like. “With regard to the miniature, they put it on automatic, and I still haven’t been able to figure out how to do it,” he explains.

If you have more information on this subject, you can write to jordipc@elpais.es.

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“I was more aware of the photographer than of competing”: this is how adolescent athletes are used on YouTube