The world of YouTube drama comes with a built-in scorecard. When famous creators fight, the winners and losers are dictated by the rise and fall of subscriber counts. SocialBlade, a third-party analytics site for YouTube, has become the New York Times election needle of YouTube drama, providing minute-by-minute updates on who’s up and who’s down.
Last week, Beauty YouTube watched as the subscriber count for James Charles, a 19-year-old influencer who was the first male spokesmodel for CoverGirl, plunged. Tati Westbrook, 37, another beauty YouTuber who used to be Charles’s friend and mentor, had posted a video accusing Charles of betraying their friendship by advertising for a competitor to her skin-care vitamin company. She also had accused him of using his fame to “manipulate someone’s sexuality” — specifically, a straight man. (Charles identifies as gay.)
The outcome was clear. Charles lost nearly 3 million subscribers. Westbrook’s count, which was at about 5 million before the fight, nearly doubled.
And then their fortunes reversed.
Charles, who had previously apologized to Westbrook, released a video in which he presented evidence that appeared to contradict Westbrook’s accusations. He produced messages indicating that he had tried to reconcile with Westbrook after advertising for her competitor. He also shared messages that appear to show mutual consent between him and a man whom Westbrook had accused him of pressuring sexually.
It was an effective counterattack. Charles gained back at least 1 million subscribers, while Westbrook lost a few hundred thousand.
YouTubers like Charles and Westbrook don’t rise to fame in isolation. They develop as celebrities in real time, in front of a growing audience that expects to get to know their personal lives as they watch their makeup tips. Beauty YouTube in particular is as much about makeup reviews as it is about the relationships between its most famous creators. And when famous friends become enemies, a content bonanza follows. As much as the friendships behind the drama might be real, destroying people’s reputations also gets views.
Several months ago, beauty YouTuber Laura Lee lost hundreds of thousands of subscribers and multiple sponsors following the resurfacing of a bunch of racist tweets from her past. The reasons those tweets went viral when they did had to do with drama. Lee’s former friends entered a reputation death match, pitting their fans against one another to make the best case that their new enemies did not deserve power. In the end, some YouTubers emerged triumphant, having apologized in the right way, saying the right things. Others, like Lee, never recovered the subscribers lost in the battle.
But online social combat is exhausting, even for those who win. As the feud between Westbrook and Charles died down, Jeffree Star, another famous Beauty YouTuber who had tweeted that Charles was a “danger to society” and a “predator" last week, released a video on Sunday announcing that he was done with drama now, forever. (Charles and Westbrook also have said they are tired of the drama and would like to move on.)
But the decision to put down this particular feud isn’t entirely theirs to make. Drama between YouTube creators has spawned a whole economy of “tea" channels (slang for gossip, basically), which build audiences by breaking down, hyping up, and digging into every grain of YouTube drama, and even encouraging potentially beefing creators to go harder at each other.
Keemstar, a popular YouTuber who runs Drama Alert, presents himself as a combination of TMZ and Judge Judy. Over the past week, he’s published videos called “James Charles Losing Subs EXPLAINED! #DramaAlert Tati Westbrook UNLEASHED! James Charles Apology!“, James Charles CANCELED on HOLD!,” “James Charles - RESPONDS!” and “James Charles is NOT GUILTY!” Each of those videos has more than 2 million views.
Tea channels are not just passive observers, as Taylor Lorenz pointed out last week in the Atlantic. YouTube influencers talk to the tea channels in an attempt to spur, quell or shape drama. And the tea channels sometimes play a role in how drama unfolds. Westbrook reportedly decided to go public with her criticisms of Charles after she found out that Charles already had talked about her to two tea channels that she also was talking to about him.
No sooner had those two influencers promised to stop feeding the tea machine, another drama began to percolate elsewhere. Jake Paul, a perennially controversial YouTuber who has mastered the art of living virally, released a video accusing another YouTuber, Cody Ko, of being a “bully.”
Jake Paul has 18 million subscribers. Ko has 2.5 million.
If YouTube were a newspaper, Ko would roughly correlate to the role of a culture critic. He has criticized Paul for writing an entire rap song about how awful teachers are. (In his live touring show, last summer, Paul simulated pushing a teacher down a flight of stairs.) “His audience is like 13-year-olds, who are like, ‘I don’t need school, I want to be a YouTuber,’ " Ko says in one video.
In his video on how Ko is a bully, Paul calls him a “wannabe comedian,” mocks the fact that he used to work as a software engineer and promises to screw Ko’s "life up,” using an expletive.
“I want to, like, put a voice up against it,” Paul says, speaking of negativity among YouTubers. The 17-minute video appeared to backfire. Jake Paul was trending Sunday night on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. Viewers mocked his attempt to tag Ko as a bully.
Still, it was drama, and that meant there was money to be made. In two days, Paul’s video is approaching 2 million views. He stands to profit off the people hate-watching his video and its eight advertising breaks.