How the Gossip Girls of YouTube Dominate Digital Discourse
In May, beauty YouTuber Tati Westbrook posted a 40-minute long video titled “Bye Sister.” The video — which called into question the integrity of famed beauty influencer James Charles — amassed tens of millions of views and triggered “Dramageddon 2019.” Evidently, a nuclear event in the beauty community happens annually.
This however, was bigger than 2018’s dramageddon. In a matter of days, James lost over three million subscribers, while Tati’s channel gained around the same amount. The feud spilled into mainstream media, and even outlets like CNN covered the spectacle. When James and Tati did issue statements to the media, however, they did not do so to The New York Times, Elle, Seventeen, Allure, Vox, or the numerous other well-known outlets that published pieces about the pair. They instead released their statements to YouTube commentary channels, like Here For The Tea.
Often referred to as drama channels, these YouTube channels boast hundreds of thousands or even millions of subscribers. Unlike vlogs like DramaAlert (which cover the entire diaspora of YouTubers), channels like Here For the Tea, Tea Spill, Shook, Tea By Ali, and BeauTea, specifically chronicle drama — or “tea” — within the beauty industry and community. These issues range from beef between influencers like Tati and James (or Jeffree Star and everyone) to brands being dishonest about their products to YouTubers failing to disclose their sponsorships.
Armed with SocialBlade and fair use disclaimers under the Copyright Act of 1976, the individuals behind drama channel create videos by piecing together snippets — or “receipts” — of YouTubers’ Snapchat/Instagram stories, social media comments, private DMs, and even liked comments and tweets. They interview sources and connect the dots with thoughtful commentary, almost always preceded with the word “allegedly” to cover their backs. Integrity varies from channel to channel, but many exemplify a relatively high level of investigative journalism.
The channel Spill is one example. Manned by a small team of journalists, illustrators, and video producers, the channel’s videos employ an animated host who sums up tea in an in-depth recap, while educating the audience on broader themes at play, like intellectual property, FDA regulation of cosmetics, copyright law, and online public shaming. Spill’s production is impeccable, going the extra mile by censoring potentially harmful words, featuring open captions, and even listing all of their citations in the videos’ description boxes.
The channel’s creators note that their preparation includes “going through Twitter and Reddit feeds, taking screenshots, organizing events onto a timeline, transcribing videos, finding relevant sources, verifying information, researching the big issue[s], and adding [their] final thoughts.” They also must “animate Spill, create illustrations, find stock images and videos that make concepts more understandable, do many voice recording takes, add captions, triple check that all of [their] sources and citations are accurate, exporting the video, and then dealing with YouTube after all of that.”
Spill’s thoroughness pays off. In less than a year, Spill has amassed nearly 1 million subscribers. The channel’s growth, quality, production, and seamlessness has prompted beliefs that perhaps Spill is in fact run by a corporation. Christie herself covered this in her Coinspiracy Series. Though the Spill team does admit that they are registered as a Canadian corporation, they maintain that they are a group of people who simply wanted to bring a deeper journalism approach to drama channels. Why would anyone construct these elaborate channels about YouTubers? Furthermore, why would people watch this content?
In May, James Charles attended the Met Gala. In July, a whopping 66,000 people paid anywhere from $50 to $70 to stream the (probably fake) marriage of YouTube vloggers Tana Mongeau and Jake Paul. Conventions and events that feature panels and meet-ups with YouTubers draw crowds of tens of thousands of screaming fans. YouTubers are living in million-dollar mansions among neighbors like Khloe Kardashian and Drake. For better or worse, influencers are a burgeoning part of culture. Just as celebrities and reality TV stars are covered by People, Us Magazine, TMZ, and Perez Hilton, influencers inspire their own type of coverage in drama channels.
Like celebrities, vloggers often claim to have disdain for the pervasive media coverage — yet its this very coverage that makes them even more popular. Cardi B frequently chastises The Shade Room for posting about her, but those very posts grew her social media presence and promoted her endeavors to their 16 million followers.
These channels do not just benefit the YouTubers they discuss, but also the content creators. For tea channel owner Dustin Dailey, “this is a full time job.” Drama channel creators receive sponsorships, make money off advertisements within their videos, and sell merchandise. Sometimes, they even receive free products for public review from brands.
If it sounds like those commenting on influencers are becoming influencers themselves, well… they are.. Paige Christie, of the popular channel Petty Paige, concurs: “Am I shoving a [Morphe] code down your throat to buy more crap? No, but I can make you think about your [favorite] influencer in a different way and question their motivations.” She continues, “I consider myself an influencer, as I can change perspectives and challenge conventions for a lot of people’s thought processes.”
“Tea channels are important to the YouTube ecosystem,” says Christie. “They help moderate the content creators who would literally take advantage of the loyalty of their fan base if there was [no one] calling them out. Tea channels help bring a sense of morality to the YouTube community.”
Drama channels also keep brands accountable. In May, Jaclyn Hill debuted a line of lipsticks from her new cosmetics brand. Within weeks, complaints mounted of alleged hairs, fibers, shards of hard plastic, moisture spots, and even mold on the lipsticks. These complaints could have largely went ignored, but drama channels caught wind. When drama videos emerged and escalated the scandal, Jaclyn Hill quickly put out a statement and promised to issue refunds to every single person who purchased a lipstick.
Smaller creators and YouTubers also benefit from the tea community, which calls out bigger influencers for “borrowing” content — makeup looks or video ideas — without giving credit. “We give a voice to people who may have been silenced or unnoticed with issues,” Dailey explains.
Some benefits are more simple, as Dailey points out: “So many people message me personally to say they look forward to my videos for a daily escape from their own issues, which is a great feeling and honestly blows my mind. Aside from all of that, we keep people in the know. I think by nature we are all drawn together by gossip or tea, people always want to know what other people are doing.”
TIME covers U.S. presidents, TMZ covers reality stars, drama channels cover YouTubers — but the sentiment is the same. People with power should be held accountable to their actions, and the general public should have access to information that may inform or influence their decisions. As Christie says, tea channels “make people think about what they buy and what YouTubers they choose to invest in.”