Last month, two YouTube celebrities, Tana Mongeau and Jake Paul, got “married” in an extremely messy ceremony that literally ended in a fist-fight. Court documents confirming their betrothal have yet to surface—and they won’t, as Mongeau has recently made clear the pair didn’t get married “on paper.” But there are plenty of clues to suggest that #Jana isn’t the classic love story of this modern digital age, from the guest list, which was built around clout-worthy ‘net celebs (and one Oprah impersonator), to invitations, which dubbing the wedding a “cloutrimony.”
It’s a mystery that normal gossip tabloids are ill-prepared to follow: Considering the popularity of YouTube prank videos, especially those where influencers deceive their loyal audiences by planning fake trips, faking a relationship or faking wealth, faking a wedding is just part of the YouTuber strategy—the blurry line between fact and fiction is part of the draw. (In fact, the fake wedding has been done before.)
Despite the hordes following the #JANA fiasco, the mainstream gossip media is still lacking in regular influencer coverage—save for the JustJared.com’s regular perusal. (As one of the few sites that focuses on young celebrities, it’s therefore required to keep an ear to the ground when it comes to YouTube.) Tana and Jake, some of the most ubiquitous vlog stars on the platform, rarely make headlines. So to get their fill of controversies and conspiracies, fans turn to new breed of niche YouTube news channels, dedicated to chronicling the minute-by-minute scandals drummed up by the generation of YouTuber reality stars, documenting their antics in real time. They even have an appropriate name: drama channels.
Drama channels—also called gossip channels or tea channels—are no new phenomenon, but they’re growing in number and increasing in popularity. As YouTube’s audience grows more robust, there are economic reasons for this: as The Atlantic reported in May, “many tea accounts are monetized, and Social Blade, a social-analytics platform, estimates that Tea Spill alone is earning up to $65,000 a month.” At a time where kids legitimately want to grow up to be YouTubers, hosting a drama channel is a way to both earn a lush income and gain notoriety in a burgeoning community. The career progression from YouTube drama host to Jake Paul feels a lot more linear than, say, vlogger to filmmaker.
I regularly cover niche YouTube drama here at Jezebel; it is not hard to observe that celebrities of the future are vloggers. Such is the logic behind the gossip channel YouTuber: he or she is, foremost a fan, someone who watches a lot of YouTube and has a lot of opinions on the inner and outer workings of the platform. They have no expectation of access from the YouTubers they cover; they don’t follow the David Dobriks of the world around at LAX—these channels gain their content through constant, vigilant observation born, bred, and maintained exclusively online. If TMZ won’t let her in on the Vlog Squad’s potential tea, she’ll sit in her bedroom and spell it out for curious viewers.
Channels like Clevver News or AwesomenessTV will regularly tackle the latest scandal with the articulation and diction of someone who not only watches a lot of YouTube, but understands its slang. Yet the most trustworthy sources tell the news through opinion: The most dedicated drama channels, those that post regular updates, can become YouTube celebrities themselves.
The best known example of this phenomenon is Keemstar, real name Daniel Keem, a 37-year-old YouTuber who in 2014 created DramaAlert, a channel dedicated to self-sustaining scandals of online celebrities. (DramaAlert’s tagline: “Your #1 source for news on the social interactions in online entertainment!”) Like many YouTubers and, well, TMZ, Keem’s video titles use capitalization liberally, and promise juicy information; also like many YouTubers the titles often promise one thing and deliver another. Keem, of course, conveys the news in a characteristic shout. He sits in front of a mic set up and speaks directly into the camera with the intimacy of a friend or more realistically, a filmed podcast, while promising to reveal the truth about a given subject. In YouTube world, that’s easier said than done.
In his video on Tana Mongeau and Jake Paul’s wedding, for example, Keem begins by telling his listeners, “This is a fake marriage. This is a fake marriage for YouTube... it is not real. There’s not even a sliver of it that is real. It’s all fake,” without sharing evidence to prove his claim. He believes it to be fake because of his knowledge of YouTube, and expects his authority to be enough—dangerous confidence for a man once accused of harassing YouTubers.
He continues, “The fight was fake, too. Now I can’t prove that to you, but I do have sources that were at the wedding that told me that they were, literally, it was fake. They were saying that the people who were running it were, like, ‘Cue the fight. Cue the fight.’” The video has 1.5 million views.
Other drama channels, like Tea Spill and What’s the Tea?, roll out community gossip iMovie style: voiceover or text recaps unpack an individual controversy overlaid with meticulously acquired receipts (Snapchats, Instagram stories and comments, etc.) which are placed in chronological order, like a court-mandated roster of evidence, so that the viewer has all the details on a given interaction.
But on YouTube, where the posture of authenticity is more valuable than actual truth-telling, gossip channels are unregulated and run the risk of spreading misinformation. They’re a personal blog, not a fact-checked news story, a Shane Dawson conspiratorial “investigation” versus a ProPublica yarn. Because anyone can upload to YouTube and become a drama channel YouTuber, almost all of those personalities lack training in journalism. YouTuber Sanders Kennedy is an exception, having worked at the celeb gossip site DosLives.com, aka, traditional media. “A lot of people think that when I say the word ‘allegedly,’ I’m being over the top,” He told the Verge in 2017. “It’s like, ‘No, I have to say allegedly. It’s a rumor.’
Yet as these channels grow bigger they also grow more influential, steered by fans who are by definition quixotic and hyperbolic. As gossip channels continue to grow, their happenings, too set the reality of the news—splicing together details and opinions into a narrative that eventually becomes something amassing the truth. Eventually it will be hard to tell if such vloggers believe the rumors they’re spreading, or if they’re taking a page from the YouTubers playbook. After all, drama draws an audience more than boring ol’ honesty.