Some of YouTube’s biggest stars have gone on to become household names. In the age of new media wherein indie content creators are given the chance to compete head on against the big guys, YouTube’s creator community has continually impressed and challenged traditional Hollywood notions of entertainment and have, in the process, transformed the nature of entertainment itself.
Among YouTube’s best and most cutting-edge creators are h3h3 Productions (https://www.youtube.com/user/h3h3Productions/videos), the husband and wife team behind tons of classic reaction videos and internet commentaries that have garnered 4.39 million subscribers on the YouTube platform alone and a total view count of approximately 702 million. Ethan and Hila Klein are the dynamic duo behind the channel and two others, Ethan & Hila and H3 podcast in addition to their main channel h3h3 Productions, and the Israeli-American couple has carved a sizable niche out of the YouTube ecosystem by satirizing popular internet culture in comedy sketches and very intricate and well-planned reaction videos. In 2016 the channel was voted YouTube channel of the year. Ethan Edward Klein grew up in Venture, California and met his future wife, Hila Hacmon, while on his birthright trip to Jerusalem in Israel. Ethan attended the University of California, Santa Cruz, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Creative Writing, and was born into an Ashkenazi Jewish family. His wife Hila attended the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design and was born into a Sephardic Jewish family.
The pair’s first videos were primarily projects for Hila’s university studies and were made in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv in Israel. The couple lived back and forth between New York City and Los Angeles beginning in April of 2015 and currently make their home in Los Angeles. Beginning with their reaction video to “Girls Who Can Read” in 2013, Hila and Ethan have regularly produced channels for their h3h3 Productions’ YouTube channel. The main content found on the channel is favorably compared with Tim & Eric and Mystery Science Theater 3000 according to Michigan Daily’s Jacob Rich (https://www.michigandaily.com/section/arts/b-side-why-world-needs-h3h3productions) who describes h3h3 Productions’ videos as “…blur[ring] the lines between satire and skit, comedy and tragedy. The second their catchy ’80s-tinged intro song ends, you know you’re in for genius improvisation and weird, uncomfortable video editing. It’s avant-garde digital comedy at its most bizarre.” Not only is the channel known for its comedic content, but also for interjecting itself into larger internet controversies.
H3h3 regularly features YouTubers they think are bad representatives for the community and do not hesitate to offer their opinions on why. H3h3 Productions is even known to challenge YouTube’s policies itself and offer commentary on such – a bold move when so much of their revenue is derived from Google’s ubiquitous video platform. Michigan Daily recounts how h3h3 Productions “…has applied their unique formula to dozens of cringe-worthy, obnoxious and toxic targets on YouTube. They were among the first to point out the bizarre, embarrassing eccentricities of recording artist DJ Khaled, the exploitative immorality of YouTube’s ‘urban pranksters’ and the uncomfortable sexual overtones of the oh-so-fake ‘kissing prank.’”
One particularly memorable case is when H3h3 Productions exposed the YouTubers behind such gambling sites as CS:GO Lotto. H3h3 not only found out about the ownership structures behind an online gambling company, but traced them back to prominent YouTubers who also promoted said company in their videos. Not only were these actions ethically questionable but also potentially troubling from a legal standpoint. Counter Strike: Global Offensive is multiplayer first-person shooter from Valve that utilizes an engine similar to the classic video game Half Life 2. Players create an avatar, form teams, and engage in all manner of crazy in virtual arenas. Avatar and weapon customization feature heavily in the game of Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and players pride themselves on their ability to distinguish themselves from other players with unique skins. The game allows players to trade skins for some of which can be quite rare.
H3h3 Productions showed how YouTubers Trevor Martin, known as Tmartn, and Tom Cassel, known as Syndicate, were the principal owners of a website called CS:GO Lotto which dealt in the trade of said skins using a roulette gambling system wherein players traded real money for the chance at winning virtual goods, in this case the Counter Strike: Global Offensive unique weapon skins. H3h3 Productions showed how Syndicate and Tmartn never indicated they were the owners of CS:GO Lotto when featuring the gambling site in their YouTube videos which was a possible violation of a host of laws from the United States Federal Trade Commission regarding disclosure in Internet advertising according to Polygon (https://www.polygon.com/2016/7/4/12093546/csgo-lotto-tmartn-syndicate-youtube-disclosure). Martin and Cassel asserted their actions were legal and above board but the controversy has not abated and a lawsuit is still pending according to PC Games SN (https://www.pcgamesn.com/counter-strike-global-offensive/csgo-tmartn-csgolotto-lawsuit-2017).
The controversy was a huge event in the YouTube community and put h3h3 Productions on the map in the mainstream press as a force not to be ignored. H3h3 Productions were involved in their own legal battles as well, getting sued by fellow YouTuber Matthew Hosseinzadeh (known as MattHossZone on YouTube) when he contended that a reaction video by h3h3 Productions used most of his original work and contributed little if anything in the way of commentary according to Hosseinzadeh’s attorney. It is claimed that MattHossZone requested that h3h3 Productions remove the offending video but h3h3 declined to do so and thus legal action was the only logical result.
The lawsuit caused an uproar in the YouTube community, prompting many prominent community members such as PewDiePie and Philip DeFranco contribute large sums of money to a GoFundMe account started to defray the legal expenses the Kleins would face in the ensuing legal battle with Hosseinzadeh as Todd Spangler recounts in Variety: “Since the lawsuit came to light, users have ponied up more than $145,000 to help the Kleins battle the lawsuit, illustrating how passionate YouTube creators are when it comes to protecting the right to fair use online.” (http://variety.com/2016/digital/news/h3h3-ethan-hila-matthoss-lawsuit-1201784349/) Even Minecraft creator and Mojang founder Markus “Notch” Persson donated to the Klein’s GoFundMe, the proceeds of which were placed in an escrow account managed by the law firm representing them and to be used to fund their court battle.
H3h3 returned PewDiePie’s support when the biggest YouTube star ever was accused of harboring Nazi sympathies when a series of videos featuring PewDiePie’s trademark edgy humor sent shockwaves through the YouTube advertising community which demanded that YouTube start a more stringent program of policing the content upon which it displays paid advertisements. Not only did PewDiePie lose some of his deals, but also had many of his videos de-monetized in the process, highlighting the ongoing battle between YouTube’s ad censors and its large community of creators, many of who feel that such actions are censorship on the part of Google in contradiction to the open spirit that birthed the video sharing behemoth.
Many in the public thought it was understandable that Coca Cola or General Motors would not want to be featured before or during an overtly racist video or something else, but that was not the case for the vast majority of YouTube videos on the platform according to h3h3 Productions’ Ethan and Hila Klein. In a video posted to their YouTube channel that they have now removed, h3h3 Productions alleged that The Wall Street Journal was using deceptive journalistic practices to further the idea that YouTube’s advertising algorithm regularly displayed name brands over top of questionable content. Garrett Sloane, writing for AdAge, states the problem most succinctly: “YouTube has more than 3 million channels, so cleaning up all of them would seem to be an impossible task. Agencies and brands, however, are working to understand the supply better and to direct money only to the ones that provide a modicum of safety for their media.” (http://adage.com/article/digital/youtube-feels-ad-squeeze-creators/308489/).
TubeFilter reports that h3h3 Productions is actually beginning the process of transitioning away from its home platform YouTube because of the loss of ad revenue, looking into brighter futures on Amazon’s Twitch platform or even in more bold, adventurous real-world formats. Geoff Weiss quotes Hila Klein, who describes the couple’s frustration with the mysterious de-monetization of some of their YouTube videos by Google’s arcane AdSense policies: “The problem is that you get no info [from YouTube]…There’s no report like, ‘This video that you made got demonetized because you did this, this, or this’.” The couple is also branching out of the Internet space with talks of a stand-up comedy and live tours. (http://www.tubefilter.com/2017/04/25/h3h3productions-shift-from-flagship-channel-ad-boycott/) In many ways, h3h3’s announcement mirrors that of Felix Kjellberg, or PewDiePie, who has branched out into other streaming platforms such as Twitch in the wake of YouTube’s strident implementation of a new advertising policy. Whatever the platform, h3h3 Productions has shown a tendency to conquer and proliferate, and it would seem that YouTube’s loss is the greater Internet’s gain.