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In the mid-to-late 2010s, a new class of creators started cropping up on YouTube. There was already a range of video entertainers on the platform: pranksters scaring strangers, vloggers editing their lives, and beauty gurus showcasing smokey eyes. These online creators had amassed large followings, garnering acute attention and cultural cache that earned them the moniker “influencers.” With relevance came critique, including chatter about creator controversies. Much of this gossip took place on dedicated discussion forums or within a creator’s comments: conversations under videos, input under Instagram photos, or blurbs beneath blog posts. Drama channels—a genre of creators covering creators—emerged and proliferated on YouTube, meeting the demand for commentary on a growing cohort of internet stars.
Mainstream coverage of celebrities—musicians, movie stars, and athletes—is an entire ecosystem that includes paparazzi, PR, and publications like People. While this ecosystem has a strong internet presence, it largely ignored the budding class of internet celebrities. Drama channels rose to fill the void of coverage and commentary, often critical, about the internet influencers garnering millions of eyeballs across YouTube, and later, Twitch, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok—from make-up aficionados like Jaclyn Hill to online personalities like Jenna Marbles. As online creators captured our collective attention, a parallel gossip industrial complex formed around them.
The genre is broad with distinction between “drama channels” from creators like Def Noodle—standard length videos covering a range of online influencers—“tea channels” from creators like Spill Sesh—pseudonymous voice-only video discussions of creators—and “commentary channels” from creators like dangelowallace—long form researched videos, often placing influencer coverage in the context of broader internet trends and themes.
Drama channels ironically have the same incentives as regular creators, using similar growth tactics (often, the ones they criticize) to generate views—clickbait titles and thumbnails, dramatization, and a bend towards covering what’s trending. In turn, drama channel creators can become influencers themselves, garnering a rabid following by building an online personality, collecting both fans and haters, and earning money through online AdSense and brand deals from risk-agnostic sponsors.
By talking about influencers, and in many cases inserting the content of the subjects they cover within their own, drama channels have developed dedicated audiences and carved out their own space in the creator ecosystem. Drama channels are an interesting corner of the internet that reveal our resignation to digital social surveillance, the way “accountability culture” rubs up against entertainment, and how platform algorithms shape content.
Drama channels and digital social surveillance
Drama channels are an example of receipt culture, collecting and broadcasting online proof to make a point. In discussing an online misstep from an influencer, drama channels creators frequently add these “receipts” to their videos: screen recordings of a deleted TikTok or a screenshot of a tweet that’s been taken down. A drama channel might re-upload an expired Instagram story or replay a Snapchat story dating back years, serving receipts to an audience they intend to inform and entertain.
Ali, the creator behind the YouTube drama channel Truth Sleuth, covers controversy within the YouTube community. While their videos fit many of the descriptors of a “tea channel,” they describe their content as commentary.
“Tea channels focus more on petty drama, like subtweets, shade throwing, breakups, unfollows, and likes, whereas commentary doesn't usually focus on petty stuff like that unless it ties into a greater situation,” she says, distinguishing her own content within the drama channel landscape. “Plus tea focuses more on beauty guru and TikTok drama…I've done tea content before and it just wasn't for me. Petty gossip is fun to watch from the sidelines, I just don't like reporting on it.”
Drama channels reinforce (and enforce) the permanency of the internet and remind us that no parts of the online world, or the social platforms we inhabit, are truly ephemeral. Platforms have leaned into the idea of impermanent content, seeking to take pressure out of creating by making content fleeting. But simple technologies—screenshots, downloads, and other mechanisms of content capture—undo this. “Whether or not we’re ready to admit it, screenshots have become the chaos agents of the internet,” writes Kaitlyn Tiffany in The Atlantic. These “save for later” methods make the seemingly impermanent (and unimportant) live on indefinitely, haunting us with their potential significance.
The average person is monitored online, and platforms have all made us subject to a form of digital social surveillance. But this is especially the case for online content creators, whose movements across the web—tweets, photos, videos—are dissected hundreds of different ways by virtue of being a person of internet interest.
“I see a topic that interests me, so I look into it at surface level and see if I'm still interested. If I am, I'll do some research and look for corresponding receipts,” says Ali describing her process for creating videos. “I make sure I am correct with my reporting and do all I can to remain fair.”
Drama channels, some uploading videos nearly daily, benefit from a continuous content flywheel. As creators run on their own content treadmill—hourly stories, daily photos, weekly videos—drama channels serve as both digital paparazzi and media outlets, capturing and then broadcasting a steady stream of content to feed their own channels.
By using digital tracking as the basis of their videos, drama channels can make it harder for influencers to exist online. The barrage of criticism creators receive, often generated or amplified by drama channels, can contribute to creator burnout. On The D'Amelio Show, a Hulu series following the lives of TikTok stars and sisters Charlie and Dixie D’Amelio, it’s evident how constant monitoring of their online activity—clothing choices, relationship updates, dance moves—have been challenging to grapple with. “Millions of people watching your every move? That’s constant terror,” says Charlie in a trailer for the show.
Drama channels, and often the anti-fans who watch their content, contribute to an online culture where creator content is not just casually consumed—instead it’s investigated, with a keen eye waiting for creators to “mess up,” in turn generating more content and commentary. The proliferation of drama channels suggests our collective ease with making social media surveillance for consumption not only permissible but profitable.
Accountability culture or entertainment?
Much of the digital surveillance and receipt culture surrounding creators is claimed to be in service of “accountability.” Beyond providing mere entertainment and commentary, drama channels often argue that they keep creators in check. In some cases, they serve as “watchdogs” and bring concerning creator content and behavior to light.
In the earlier days of YouTube, creators were primarily seen as curators and tastemakers—beauty gurus shared the best make-up products and the latest brand releases. It was drama channels covering the beauty community—like TeaSpill, a drama channel with 1.7M followers—that revealed the truth about the influencer economy: creators were paid for recommendations through affiliate links, endorsements could be bought by beauty brands, and everyone’s favorite beauty gurus were shilling products they didn’t even use.
At a time when corporate money was just finding its way onto YouTube, there was little knowledge about the mechanics of making money as an online creator. Drama channels were a force for creating transparency around how creators monetize their audience, before FTC guidelines about advertising and product placement were actually enforced for the online age.
Today, drama channels have only expanded their mandate on keeping online creators in check. But often, they inelegantly thread the line between accountability and entertainment. Scandals are often arbitrary, and there are thousands of drama channels creating content that builds to a crescendo of criticism that crashes down on creators. Many drama channels simply feed the toxicity of the creator ecosystem, describing themselves as “investigators” but failing to operate with journalistic integrity and under the guideline of doing no harm. Critical commentary from drama channels can make it challenging to exist as a creator online—these channels excavate creator content from past and present to generate content, often inflaming innocuous content under the guise of accountability.
The toxicity that drama channels unleash into the creator ecosystem is complicated by the fact that it’s not rare for these online sleuths to bring legitimately harmful behavior to light. Online influencers are no longer fringe creators with niche audiences, they are major personalities with millions of followers, collectively driving billions of views and dollars. Their influence comes with power that can be wielded irresponsibly. Often drama channels bring legitimate issues to the surface, leading to mainstream coverage of issues in the creator world.
James Charles has been the subject of drama channel discourse for alleged inappropriate contact with underage fans. Drama channels were also at the forefront of coverage when allegations of grooming were leveled at Onision, a YouTuber with over 2M subscribers. Coverage and analysis of the family channel genre of YouTube channels has sparked conversations surrounding child exploitation and inclusion of minors in videos for adult audiences.
“In this community, whether you're tea or commentary and regardless of how you present your content, there will always be people there to call you a bully. Some are bullies, but most are not,” says Ali. “It's crazy to me that constructive and valid criticism is often synonymous with bullying, and this really waters down actual bullying.”
Despite this, many creators are finding ways to fight back against drama channels. Some have tried to see the creator ecosystem, which includes both influencers and drama channels, as a symbiotic relationship. Drama channels have been accused of accepting payment from influencers in exchange for positive coverage or allowing relationships with creators to shape their coverage.
“I won't name names but I've been approached by influencers, big and small. I've made the mistake of falling for it in my earlier days, but now if an influencer reaches out, I keep it cordial and friendly and remember that they aren't in my DMs to be my friend,” says Ali. “I think it's okay to correspond with the influencers you cover. You just have to draw the line and it's up to you to maintain that distinction, otherwise you lose your credibility and get accused of being on that influencer's payroll.”
Other influencers take a more antagonistic approach to their negative coverage on drama channels. On YouTube, where U.S. copyright and fair use laws are upheld, drama channel creators can use influencer content for their own videos, if it falls under the umbrella of “commentary, criticism, research, teaching or news reporting.” Creators who take issue with how their content is used, and how their actions are interpreted, have little recourse for stopping the dissemination and analysis of their content through YouTube drama channels. But that doesn’t stop them from trying.
In some instances, videos can haphazardly be taken down if content is reported. “I do my best to make sure it falls under fair use to a T. If it's a long clip I'm doing content on, I'll often break it up and insert my commentary if necessary. And if I play the clip all the way through without commenting, I make sure the majority of the video is not that clip,” says Ali. “But still there are people out there who will strike anyway, and it always causes problems.”
There are of course no laws against context collapse and using content to shape a more compelling and interesting narrative. However, creators do have some legal recourse: drama channels are subject to libel and slander laws. In 2022, Cardi B successfully sued for false statements made by YouTube vlogger Latasha Kebe, and was awarded a judgment of $4M. This case sets forward an example of the limits of creator commentary on YouTube and the consequences for drama channels who go too far.
How algorithms drive drama channel content
YouTube has built and evolved an algorithm that prioritizes the most click-bait worthy videos, in turn shaping the videos developed for the platform. We see these incentives play out within influencer content—thumbnails with surprising imagery stand out and shocking titles surface to the top. Interestingly, drama channels—which often criticize these tactics—use the same ones to boost their own videos, expand their followings, and grow their platform.
Drama channels filter creator happenings around the web through the lens of what is most click-worthy and appealing to an audience. It’s common to see drama highlight or exaggerate wrongdoing, while omitting nuanced and neutral sentiments. A sea of drama channel thumbnails reveals a corner of the internet where outrage looms large.
Drama channels shape their content to appeal to viewers who find their videos through search or spot it in the feed. Thumbnails are often bright, edited with eye-catching text, and featuring the face or likeness of the creator covered in the content. Mimicking the style of the creators they cover, drama channels heavily employ the art of clickbait, often asking an outlandish question or making a dramatic statement in their titles.
Before burnout became a wider conversation in the world of YouTube, it wasn’t uncommon for creators to upload daily. This frequent publishing cadence was awarded by YouTube’s algorithm that helped many creators grow to millions of followers. In his book Youtubers: How Youtube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars,Chris Stokel-Walker describes this as the “YouTuber’s dilemma,” sharing the quandary of a young creator: “the algorithm wanted her to post regularly, and she wanted to be authentic, but making and posting videos so regularly was draining and she felt she was giving up too much of her self.” Many drama channels maintain a daily publishing schedule or post multiple times a week, but have the advantage of talking about the lives of others instead of their own. They’re able to keep up with the content treadmill, covering every creator misstep.
While some drama channels have a “beat” like reporters, covering the same set of influencers, the most successful channels cover a broad swath of creators, shifting their coverage based on what is popular. Algorithms don’t exist in isolation and audiences drive the views and clicks that have made drama channels so popular. Whereas creators have to find and grow an audience, drama channels can start with a built-in audience; their critical commentary is often consumed by members of anti-fandoms who dislike a particular creator and want to see more “evidence” about the problematic nature of a creator.
In 2019, drama broke out in the YouTube community surrounding Tati Westbrook and James Charles, former friends and fellow beauty YouTubers. Drama channels—existing and new— emerged to cover the controversy, garnering engagement and more subscribers. “Successful tea channels can amass tens of thousands of followers overnight,” reported Taylor Lorenz in a piece on tea accounts fueling influencer feuds.
Unlike long-form commentary channels whose creators spend weeks or months crafting their videos, it’s common for drama channels to expand one online controversy into content for multiple off-the-cuff videos. Often, the urge to ride the algorithm and put out content quickly comes with problems: getting things wrong. After the dust of an online scrimmage is settled, drama channels can have a catalog of content that features information that has been debunked and claims that have been falsified. But drama channel creators can still keep up and monetize videos that contain misinformation, moving onto the next controversy with little apology or acknowledgement when they’re called out.
“I do think it's comical how there are content creators hell-bent on holding everyone accountable,” says Ali. “But the second they mess up and people demand accountability, they're utilizing the same tactics they call out influencers for.”
In the same way that we reckon today with the tabloid treatment of celebrities, we may find ourselves reflecting on the narratives advanced by drama channels and how they drove internet culture. We’ll glimpse into the past and see how internet stalking became mainstream, the perverse incentives of accountability culture, and how algorithms drove conversation. We may feel sympathy for the critique of young creators, grappling with fame whose public mistakes were met with disproportionate ire. Alternatively, we might look back and wince at what we permitted, and in some cases, celebrated. Regardless, drama channels are meticulously cataloging the age of the influencer through videos that will provide historical insights into this current internet moment.
This piece was edited by Rachel Jepsen.
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