"YouTube has a problem... the most recent one involves something that I absolutely hate, which is drama," Pewdiepie, YouTube's biggest star, said in a video on Saturday that is approaching three million views. "Drama is the hot new thing. Drama is what everyone is talking about."
In that video, Pewdiepie denounces "drama", and the way people obsess over the lives of internet celebrities who have become famous on social media platforms such as Vine or YouTube.
The very idea of a digital celebrity might sound silly. You might think, "Who are people like LeafyIsHere and Bashur, and why should I care?" Yes, many of the people who fall under this purview may lack the sort of recognisable household name that traditional entertainers like Drake and Rihanna have, but these digital stars have still accrued millions of devoted fans. In turn, an entire TMZ-like industry has sprung up from following the exploits of these new celebs. "There's even [YouTube] channels now focusing solely on YouTube drama," Pewdiepie said. "It's just growing, bigger and bigger."
There are a number of YouTube channels out there who cover this sort of gossip, but the most notorious channel of all is Drama Alert and its host, Keemstar. Pewdiepie doesn't call Keemstar out by name during his video, but anybody who talks about YouTube drama automatically associates it with Drama Alert. Pewdiepie trashed Keemstar on Twitter recently, so it's no stretch to see him as the type of YouTuber Pewdiepie is complaining about.
Drama Alert has 1.4 million followers on YouTube. On average, his videos get anywhere from 500k to well over a million views each. That makes Drama Alert one of the biggest voices on the internet right now, though his coverage and definition of news is controversial.
Let's look at some of the stuff Keemstar has covered in recent videos, just to give you a sense of what he's about. Recently, Keemstar published images that he claimed show a YouTuber doing gay porn (900k views). In another video, he covered a YouTuber posting a bikini selfie on Twitter (800k views). And in a different video, he talked about a random girl who claimed to screw dogs (2 million views). The veracity of salacious subjects like these can't always be verified, but if the internet is talking about it, Keemstar is probably going to cover it. Keemstar might have even started the conversation in the first place.
"Pewdiepie made a point that traditional media won't take YouTubers seriously because of drama and Drama Alert, which is probably the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Keemstar said in a video Tweet. "Because a show like mine, Drama Alert, validates that these people that I report on are celebrities, are famous."
Once the rumours are out in the wild, they become a topic of conversation for other YouTubers who cover recent events. This is where things become dicey, because it means that some people make money by covering the embarrassing, potentially untrue private details of other people, many of whom might not typically be considered public figures. And according to the biggest YouTubers around, this environment has given YouTube a very mercenary vibe of late: anybody could be sacrificed at the vlogging altar if it means raking in the views and cash. (Naturally, that's what people will say about tabloid media, too, but seeing this all happening on YouTube feels new.)
"YouTube is changing," another huge YouTuber, Markiplier, declared in a recent video. "When people are doing YouTube, they are after a few things. And you can't fault them for it, because of course people would want to do this for a living. But they're after influence, more viewers and money."
"I've seen this change in attitude," Markiplier said, lamenting the path he sees some video personalities taking of becoming gossip-mongers. "It's a change from seeing YouTube as a platform where anyone can do anything, and anyone can put up whatever they want whenever they want, to a system where you have to follow strict rules. You have to follow strict protocols. You have to criticise others. It's every man for himself, and no one can cooperate."
Pewdiepie agreed. "It's created this mob mentality where everyone is so on edge, and everyone is so ready to attack their next target of someone fucking up or doing something bad," he said in his YouTube drama video. "There seems to be more YouTubers getting involved, because they know talking about the topic is gonna get them more views and attention... you might think, so what? They're just giving people what they want. But really they're stepping over other people's lives for YouTube fame, and YouTube recognition.
"I've said this before, but YouTube is becoming this drama machine, where everyone is throwing in their two cents to get their twenty cents back."
The problem, as Pewdiepie illustrates in his video, isn't just that people want celebrity gossip. It's that people want the rumours so bad, they don't even care if they are true — so long as it's scandalous. Think about the tabloid magazines you might see at a checkout counter and the tall tales they weave about the secret lives of the biggest stars. The same thing is happening on YouTube, except it's not about Jennifer Aniston, it's about some dude who plays Mario Kart.
In his YouTube drama video, Pewdiepie actually highlights videos where he claims people have fabricated stories about him, in an attempt to highlight what makes a drama-hungry audience so dangerous.
"Everyone is so thirsty for drama, I am actually scared that people will take this stuff seriously," Pewdiepie said. "And if they are real videos, you'd WANT people to take them seriously."
There's another side to this. Drama Alert doesn't just wade in the mud when it publishes news. It is also willing to cover complicated stories of abuse that other major outlets would never touch, because they often involve very serious allegations that are tough to prove or crimes that nobody got convicted for. Months before a major outlet covered the scandal of Minecraft personalities accused of paedophilia, Drama Alert's Keemstar had already briefed his viewers on the allegations, and walked them through the digital evidence that spawned the controversy. Hell, Drama Alert became the top source for more traditional outlets that covered that debacle in the first place. (The biggest YouTuber accused of preying on underage fans has not been convicted or charged with any crimes, and he blames hackers for obtaining nude pictures of teen girls.)
When you consider how commonplace allegations of sexual assault have become for male YouTube stars, some might argue that channels like Drama Alert are doing the public a service. Nobody else is holding these celebrities accountable if they allegedly put kids or women in danger. YouTube is starting to be known for its "creep problem", and there's seemingly nothing to keep it in check. But without editorial oversight, drama channels are just as likely to swing and miss, too, and the resulting damage they can do with a false allegation is significant.
It's all created a lot of discussion on YouTube itself. In particular, some YouTubers have defended the practice of talking about gossip on YouTube.
"I can't speak for other YouTubers, but whenever I talk about current events, or YouTube drama, or things going on in gaming, I try to add something to the conversation that's personal to me and is about me," boogie2988 said. "For example, when I talked about Nicole Arbour... making fun of fat people, I also talked about the struggles that I deal with every day, and the way it's affected me, and the way those negative feedback loops can affect a person who is overweight. When I talk about abuse allegations like Matthew Santoro or Toby Turner, I talk about what it's like to be an abuse survivor and what's that has done to me on a personal level," Boogie said.
In short, Boogie argues that when he covers "drama", he is adding to the conversation constructively, often on a subject that everyone is already talking about anyway. More big picture, viewers come to personalities like Boogie for guidance on how to live life or think about things. As far as the viewer is concerned, their favourite YouTuber isn't causing more drama when they cover gossip. The YouTuber is just chatting, like any friend might do with another friend. The problem is that that YouTubers often have millions of "friends", which means that things can easily spin out of control.
"The other reason I make these videos is because sometimes this is really relevant to me, whether it's The Fine Brothers, or Nicole Arbour, or Matthew Santoro," Boogie said. "These are people I know. These are people I like. These are people I work with. This is my community. This is my home. I'm a vlogger. I'm a pundit, and you're damn right I have the right to talk about it. So I'm going to."
Boogie also takes umbrage with the idea that he covers drama for personal gain, though he does draw a line between what he does and more bloodthirsty drama channels. He acknowledges that sometimes drama channels can misrepresent things, or get things wrong, only to have their audiences gang up on people who don't deserve it.
Keemstar, the king of YouTube drama, has also thrown his hat into the ring with his own videos. In satirical video published yesterday, Keemstar makes fun of people who act as if Drama Alert is responsible for creating the YouTube messes that he covers.
"Before Drama Alert existed, there was absolutely no drama on this website," Keemstar joked. "No one ever fought, there was never any scandals, no one was raped, there wasn't paedophiles. There just simply was no drama until I created Drama Alert."
In a different video published on Sunday, Keemstar speaks more plainly about the drama channel controversy.
"I think Pewdiepie is fucking hypocritical," Keemstar exclaimed. This allegation is compounded by two things: Pewdiepie has taken shots at other YouTubers in videos before, and Pewdiepie's own drama video is monetised, too.
"As much as we like to pretend, for the most part, none of us are truly above this stuff," Boogie said in his own video response to Pewdiepie. "We all like gossip, we all like talking about other people, and it's really, really hard not to, because that's part of human nature."