Q&A

LiveLeak cofounder on why the notorious video site shut down

RIP LiveLeak, the go-to destination for clips too graphic for YouTube. Hayden Hewitt reflects on 15 years of shock and awe.

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Over the course of nearly 15 years, the video-hosting site LiveLeak — which abruptly shut down two weeks ago — became known for a lot of things, none of them seemly.

The site first rose to infamy in 2007, when it ran leaked footage of the execution of Iraqi former President Saddam Hussein. The next year, the site caused an international uproar with its decision to host the anti-Quran film Fitna, made by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders. By 2014, LiveLeak was under fire again for refusing to take down a video of the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by ISIS. (The site later reversed course to a degree, banning any future ISIS beheading videos.)

Throughout the years, there were plenty of relatively quotidian — yet still horrifying — clips of car crashes and industrial accidents. On the internet, the appearance of LiveLeak’s red and white logo in the upper corner of a video came to signify that some seriously bad shit was about to go down.

“The fact that it became some kind of meme, that tickles me so much,” LiveLeak cofounder Hayden Hewitt, the public face of what was an otherwise anonymously run enterprise, tells Input. “It amuses me to no end, and I love to see it.”

Hewitt is 48 and lives with his family in the suburbs of Manchester, U.K. (LiveLeak has often been described as U.K.-based, but its servers were located in the U.S.) He was the one to break the news of LiveLeak’s demise via a blog post, saying it “felt LiveLeak had achieved all that it could and it was time for us to try something new and exciting.” That something is a new video-sharing and remixing site called ItemFix that bans “excessive violence or gory content.”

Later, on his YouTube channel Trigger Warning, Hewitt said his team “just didn’t have it in us to carry on fighting,” but didn’t get into specifics. Naturally, we wanted to know more, so Input called up Hewitt to discuss the decision to shutter LiveLeak — and what he’s learned about the dark side of humanity over the past decade and a half. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You announced earlier this month that LiveLeak was ending after nearly 15 years. It all happened very suddenly, and you were pretty vague about the reasons, so I’m just going to cut right to the chase and ask —

I thought we were pretty straightforward in the statement; everything was actually in there. I know it’s far more exciting to think we were closed down or paid off or whatever else. The latest one is the belief that we were paid off by the Israelis to close before this current situation.

Who thinks that?

I get all sorts of things thrown at me online. I take it as a compliment that people cared, that people found value in the site. It’s the internet — you're going to get the strange ones as well. That’s how it works. We just thought we’d done what we could. And you know, with a site like LiveLeak, it’s not just a business decision. It’s a complete way of life. And it takes a lot out of you. And after 15 years, we kind of decided there wasn’t much left in the well.

A few of us did the same thing back in the day with Ogrish [the shock site that preceded LiveLeak]. And now we pretty much reached the same decision. I mean, 15 years. Internet years are like dog years. I think we’ve done quite well. It was just time.

Was there any one thing that made you say, “LiveLeak has run its course”?

No, it was an accumulation of things. There’s no singular thing I could point to going, “Oh no, we just don't want to deal with that.” There was nothing like that. Everything has a lifespan. But back in 2006, if you’d have told me I’d still be doing it in 15 years, I’d have thought you were insane. Because I didn’t think that was sustainable.

Several times during the YouTube video in which you talked about the shutdown, you described operating Liveleak as “brutal.” What what was so brutal about it?

You’ve got a constant battle of content versus revenue. You’ve got a constant battle with the changing weather online. Then you’ve got a battle with people who just outright hate you and decide that you are actually on the opposite side of wherever they are because you won’t defend their position. It’s just a constant barrage of trying to make it achieve what you want to achieve, despite all the outward pressures, including those from people that really dig the site. It was never-ending: It was like 15 years of solid noise. I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything though.

Why close it so suddenly? Why not say, “We're going to shut down in a month or two” just to give people time to process?

There are various reasons I’m not going to go into. Above all, it was just like, This is it — this is the time.

You’re the public face of LiveLeak. In the end, how many people other people were running it?

At the risk of disappointing you wildly, I’m not at liberty to say. It’s a mixture of contractual [obligation] and respect as to how we’ve operated over the years, and that’s not going to change. We’ve been so closed-door on how we do it, how we organize. It’s a million miles away from any kind of normal company you could imagine. It’s been the most bizarre, wonderful thing I’ve ever been involved in.

What have been the reactions from the LiveLeak community since the initial shock of the shutdown wore off?

Sadness more than anything else. A lot of people got a lot of different things from LiveLeak — for some it might have been the communities, for some it might have been the media. I know the online meme is that in every LiveLeak video somebody died. But that’s actually ridiculously far from the truth. When people tell me it was just a gore site — it really wasn’t. We were part of Ogrish. I know the difference between a gore site and what we were doing.

“Often I get accused of showing things that we never showed at all.”

How would you define LiveLeak then?

LiveLeak was very hard to pin down on any one thing. The thing people accuse us of the most were very rare on the site, which is of course the beheading things. I’ve noticed there’s an entire meme culture around LiveLeak, which is cool. People who have obviously never spent much time there still use it as a meme, which is tremendous. And often I get accused of showing things that we never showed at all. Never showed. The recent Vice article claimed that the big problem for us was the Christchurch shooting video and our refusal to take it down. We never hosted that video. Never hosted it. We just took it straight off. But stories have their own legs.

Over the years, the LiveLeak team has made a number of decisions on what you would show and not show. You hosted the video of the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley by ISIS, and then you decided against running future ISIS beheading videos.

Not that it lessens the horror of the event at all, but [the Foley video] was not a graphic, graphic video. We just decided we wouldn’t show the glossy ISIS videos — they’re promo videos. There was still lots of battlefield videos, where terrible things still did and do happen. But we decided that we weren’t going to be their promotional arm.

And, as you just mentioned, you didn’t host the Christchurch shooting videos.

We’ve always had to think about active cases. There was one of that chap — I can't remember his name now — in Canada. He ran a site and showed that cannibalistic killer.

The killer was Luka Magnotta, and the video was on BestGore.

Yeah, there we go. And I believe they got shut down. You know, an active investigation is not something you want to get involved in. And I don’t buy the story “We're trying to help get him caught.” Maybe that was true. But if it’s something that’s active, and ongoing, you have to — everything's a balancing act. We haven't always got it right. We make our choices based on our feelings, and then we deal with the people screaming about censorship and stuff like that.

What’s your biggest regret of something you ran where you thought later, We shouldn’t have run this?

Oh gosh, I don’t really have any. I mean, the one that caused the most trouble was probably Fitna. Even then, I don’t tend to dwell on stuff like that. You make your choices at any given time. And if you fucked up, you hopefully learn from it. Or you do it again. Same as with everything else in life. But even then, it was within our rules. And although I can’t think of any single issue I really agree with Geert Wilders on, everyone else was turning it down before they even saw it. And what it eventually turned out to be was just another poorly edited YouTube-style video.

“When you when you try very hard to walk the middle line, you make far more enemies than you would if you chose one side or another.”

You faced death threats over that decision. How serious did it get?

Oh yeah, I got lots. I moved my wife out of our home, had to put a load of things in place in case anything happened. Then when we took it down for 48 hours, the threats came from more rightwing people. Everywhere I go, I make friends! That’s the problem: When you when you try very hard to walk the middle line, you make far more enemies than you would if you chose one side or another.

You hardly strike me as a centrist.

I’m tremendously liberal. I believe in freedom of speech. I’m not anti-immigration. I believe in social policies in our country. So I’m not sure. I think people’s perceptions might not always match the reality based on how they perceive the LiveLeak audience.

In the past, you’ve admitted that a lot of the LiveLeak users were racist or rightwing.

It’s the same anywhere. If you go on Twitter now, you will find evidence of things we wouldn't have allowed on LiveLeak in a million years. In a million years. A lot of people on LiveLeak were definitely conservatives. Were some of them racist? I’m sure they were. But we definitely didn’t corner the market on ignorance.

So I wanted I want to read a tweet that someone posted after LiveLeak went down: “If a Chinese steel worker gets mangled in a piece of machinery, and no one’s around to upload it to LiveLeak, did it really even happen?”

There is a thing about the LiveLeak appearing over people’s right shoulders. Because anytime you saw that, regardless what happened in the video, you feared the worst. And a lot of the industrial accident videos did seem to come from China.

I bring this up because there’s one academic who was writing about Best Gore, which I guess you’d have considered your competitor.

No, they weren’t our competitor. I’ve been very free in my opinion on Best Gore. It was a rabidly anti-Semitic gore site. I’ve never called for it to be shut down because it's none of my business. But no, they weren’t a competitor. We just did our own thing with video-hosting.

Well, the point was that this academic was talking about the commenters on Best Gore and how they “betray a view of humanity in which the life of the ‘other’ is deemed less valuable, if not valueless.” I’m wondering what you make of that insight, since LiveLeak did carry a lot of these videos of people in foreign countries getting hurt or killed.

I’d think any academic worth their salt would know a little more about whistling past the cemetery. And whether the perception of how they see the victims in these videos matches how the commenters actually are in real life, versus how they are posturing on the internet, as part of their social group… Like, someone shared a video with me where someone had been killed in a road accident, and the person filming it was shouting “WorldStar!” It didn't mean he was a terrible human being, although I’ve always had my doubts about people filming instead of offering comfort.

“When people would say, ‘Everyone that watches that is some kind of psycho,’ I’d say, ‘You’re talking about your next-door neighbor.’”

I don’t give a shit. I don’t give a shit about anything. I’m tough as nails. It’s all good. It’s all fun. And in many ways, that’s a natural coping mechanism. I haven’t found, in my 15 years of meeting people in the meatspace as well as online, a greater amount of psychopaths or lunatics. You just find people. It was a site that got 20 to 30 million views a month, so when people would say, “Everyone that watches that is some kind of psycho,” I’d say, “You’re talking about your next-door neighbor.” They’re just people, and how people act out online isn’t always how they are, or even wish to be, in real life.

You've undoubtedly seen some really fucked-up shit in your time. Are there any videos that haunt you?

Many of them. I found as I get older, I’m far more sensitive to things than when I was younger, and it was all work and we were powering through it. You get a distance. I do a lot of film work. It’s like being a cameraman. You’ve got a distance. It’s not an experience; it’s something you view. I’m not going to reel them off, but there are many I wish I had never seen. But you can't un-see things. And as an adult, I made that decision. But I can honestly say I’ve never viewed it as anything less than human beings in a terrible time.

You have a school-aged son. What does he make of LiveLeak?

He’s not old enough to understand any of that. When he’s a grown-assed adult, we can have a chat about it. But he’s got no business knowing anything about LiveLeak at his age. That’s not his world. He knows I work on, or worked on, something called LiveLeak, and it was a video site. I just said it wasn’t for him. He’s still busy with YouTube.

I don’t even let him go on TikTok. I think TikTok is one of the most damaging websites in existence, but I’m old. I think it’s further encouraging this mad rush for empty fame and popularity. We’ve missed out what horrors to society have been caused by algorithms on social media.

Now you’ve replaced LiveLeak with ItemFix, which bars “excessive violence or gory content.”

Yeah, it’s not so much a replacement. It’s a new thing that we’re doing. We just want to do something that’s, you know, fun. Something where you can mashup videos to post wherever you like. And it doesn’t carry any of the baggage.

What are you going to miss most about LiveLeak?

Not having that monolith in my in my life, I guess. And the people. Even the ones that didn't agree with us, I used to love reading them.

What will the site’s legacy be?

Whatever people like. I’m not bothered how people perceive it. I know what it was. I know what we achieved. I know what everyone went through to make it happen. And beyond that is out of my control. The legacy is up to other people. Maybe for some people it will be a gore site. For some people, it will be a site full of racists.

Then again, people are shitting the bed on Twitter over so many things these days I can’t keep up anyway. So I don’t worry too much about that either. I am enjoying immensely the fact that it became some kind of meme. Although when I see young people using it, I do wonder where their parents are. I really do.

LiveLeak was something that was a massive part of my life. I enjoyed it greatly. In the end, I got the mug and the T-shirt. So I’ve come out a winner.