YouTube drama is a barbed thing. The first trap is taking it too seriously. The second is not taking it seriously enough.
Yesterday, YouTuber Calvin “LeafyIsHere” Vail posted a video attempting to eviscerate celebrity Twitch streamer Imane “Pokimane” Anys. A notorious YouTuber who falls under the “drama” category, Vail posts videos with titles like “The Saddest Girl on the Internet” or “The Onision Rant” that regularly receive more than a million of views. They have also featured Vail attacking children or marginalized people, which has led to criticisms over cyberbullying. After a years-long break—partially due to his complaints about YouTube’s ad revenue system—he returned earlier this year.
This time, he was after Anys. Charismatic and quick-witted, Anys is the sort of streamer whose existence answers the question "Why would anyone pay to watch another person play a videogame?" On her Twitch channel, followed by 5.3 million people, Anys streams first-person shooter Valorant, reacts to ridiculous YouTube videos, pets her cat, and mouths over the lyrics of pop songs.
Vail’s video, “Content Nuke: Pokimane,” begins with a montage of Anys before cutting to a clip of her reacting to another drama video. “I think the only way people like this stop is if people like me and my community give them feedback that this is not an OK thing to do,” Anys says. Then Vail cuts to another drama YouTuber’s tweet from earlier this week that simply reads “Pokimane 2/10,” and her fans’ huge backlash against the random insult. Finally, to hammer home the point that reacting is losing, Vail makes fun of Anys for making copyright claims—a move known as copyright striking—against YouTube videos including her content. “I don’t give a shit,” says Vail. “If you’re a big fan of her, please come at me.” He asked people to share the video with the hashtag #pokimaneboyfriend.
The argument underpinning Vail’s video—too boring to recommend—is that Anys isn’t funny, entertaining, or even hot. (An image of Anys sans makeup is included in the video.) He also alleges without apparent evidence that Anys, who keeps her private life very private, has a boyfriend. “Whatever the word is that makes her get cancelled, that’s the one I want to go with,” he says. At the end, he invites Anys, who reacts to videos on her stream, to engage in a discussion over whether she has a boyfriend. Vail’s video received 1 million views within a day.
A few hours after the video went up yesterday, it was still laced with a total of seven ads. Today it had none and was preceded by an age restriction. “We have strict policies that prohibit ads from showing on content that is demeaning or insulting, and YouTube does not profit off this content,” a YouTube spokesperson says in a comment. “The video from LeafyIsHere was blocked from showing ads shortly after being uploaded.” (Later, after LeafyIsHere complained about the age restriction, YouTube’s official Twitter account asked that they “share next steps over DM” with a prayer hands emoji. The age restriction was removed.)
Demeaning, insulting, or just plain milquetoast, within hours of Vail’s video hitting YouTube, #pokimaneboyfriend started trending on Twitter. Two hours after it was posted, 2,500 tweets included the hashtag; five hours after, 9,600. Many tweets memed on the situation at large, some pronouncing anyone emotionally invested in a Twitch streamer’s romantic life a clown or a simp (which is 2020 for delusionally lovestruck buffoon). Before long, particularly after Anys jumped into the fray with her own jokes about the drama, #pokimaneboyfriend became more of a meme-driven takedown of itself than a harassment campaign.
From a certain perspective, that’s the end. The pro-Poki counter-trolling was more fun than the original trolling and algorithmically snubbed it out. Trouble is, drama is an ouroboros. The fact that #pokimane trended at all made the Anys-Vail dustup news, ripe for reactions.
On social media, and especially in today’s attention economy, reacting is big business. As #pokimaneboyfriend spread, dozens of videos cropped up on YouTube, many of them monetized, glomming onto the manufactured drama—which, if you’ve already forgotten, was an unprovoked video attempting to take down a successful Twitch streamer. Big-name drama commentators, like Daniel Keem, alias Keemstar, who had initially tweeted that Anys was a “2/10,” started positioning themselves to get in on the action. Had Anys not handled the situation the way she did, it likely could’ve spiraled even more.
Nothing about #pokimaneboyfriend is unique—everything from its choice of targets to its banal sexism is Extremely Old—but that’s kind of the point. The brand circus industrial complex that has sprung up around the volatile world of internet celebrity relies on predictable responses to formulaic content. It doesn’t matter whether she has a boyfriend, or whether or not her Twitch stream is actually funny; the content isn’t the content. The reaction is the content. Once the complex senses scandal, it starts publicizing the drama, reacting to it, reacting to reactions to it, reacting to celebrity responses to reactions to it, across every social media platform, all the time, until the next scandal happens. The result is often millions of YouTube views, and an awful lot of corresponding advertising revenue. It may not be good for high-minded public discourse, but it is good for a lot of people’s wallets, from the drama channels’ to YouTube’s.
Like a lot of sticky social situations, the internet didn’t invent drama profiteering. According to Sharon Marcus, a cultural historian of celebrity at Columbia University, Anys is a kind of a modern version of the ingenues of yesteryear, many of whom had to contend with fans’ fantasies about their romantic availability. In 1882, French actress Sarah Bernhardt tried so hard to keep her marriage a secret from the gossip press that she held the ceremony in a different country. She still ended up foiled by the Twitter of her day: the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, which brought the news to the States, filling newspapers. From tabloids to celebrity magazines to gossip sites, the drama industry’s basic interests and business model haven’t changed much since.
Gradually, though, the drama chroniclers became marketable personalities in their own right, like controversial blogger Perez Hilton, who is a kind of spiritual forefather of (and would-be participant in) the YouTube drama channel ecosystem.
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Yet categorizing the YouTube drama business as simply a facet of the “attention economy” seriously underestimates it. Like a parasite, the ecosystem has evolved to adapt to changes in its social media environment and keep itself alive off its many host bodies. Vail’s video isn’t just clicky. It came with its own viral hashtag suggestion in the description. Its legitimacy is constantly reinforced by other YouTubers seeking to earn their own clicks and potential revenue from the evolving “drama.” It looks to govern Anys’ (and her millions of followers’) reactions by placing boundary lines on either side of the conversation—take it too earnestly and you’re a snowflake; take it too lightly and you’re letting some YouTuber “cancel” or harass your fave. It immediately challenges Anys not to copyright strike it. (If she does, she proves him right.) It paints her criticism of similar YouTube videos as ineffective. All the while, the reaction grows bigger.
Drama YouTube’s thickest skin might be the resistance it's developed to being taken seriously. Adults approaching YouTube drama with a furrowed brow and concern for anyone’s well-being appear embarrassingly out-of-touch to many of the platform’s young, very online consumers. It’s just a meme. It’s just entertainment. Then, those adults become the content, as we saw in 2017 with PewDiePie’s constant testing of the limits of “LOL JK” after accusations of anti-Semitism. Get offline if you can’t take a joke.
It’s impossible not to take it seriously, though. The facts point to seriousness. After a very public online struggle with mental health, YouTuber and Twitch streamer Desmond “Etika” Amofah took his own life. In a video published by YouTube channel H3H3productions, YouTuber Ethan Klein attributes some of Amofah’s struggles to the climate of toxicity around YouTube drama channels, which reaped views off his public outbursts. Keemstar and his sponsor, G Fuel, parted ways. (Sponsors dropped H3H3productions, too.)
Platforms are beginning to take the drama business seriously, too, or are at least making a show of trying to do so. In December 2019, YouTube updated its harassment policy to more aggressively address videos containing insults based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. Other YouTube videos referring to the drama are demonetized, too. The subreddit Livestream Fail, which has traditionally exacerbated Twitch drama—especially when it involves women—apparently moderated several posts referring to Vail’s video. According to a moderator, the subreddit adjusted its moderation policies to reduce pile-ons in the wake of Twitch streamer Byron “Reckful” Bernstein’s recent suicide. Necessary though these changes are, they’re unlikely to undo a culture around celebrity drama that’s been centuries in the making.
Months ago, after Vail returned to YouTube to publish a widely viewed “roast” video, H3H3productions’ Ethan Klein cast doubt on his ability to succeed on YouTube after the platforms’ changes to its algorithms and philosophy toward content. “I would love to see Leafy come back and try to exist in the landscape today. The content he was making would never fly on YouTube today,” Klein said in a video at the time. YouTube has proven that’s not exactly the case. Vail’s channel description on YouTube reads, with obvious irony, “just trying to survive in the current landscape.”
So celebrities have found their own ways to hack the YouTube drama business model. Some of Anys’ most entertaining content has been her easy clap-backs against trolls and haters. For her part, Anys takes the joke and often proves she’s funnier than her haters. “It’s time to come clean #pokimaneboyfriend,” she tweeted above a picture of herself holding hands with a cardboard cutout of President Obama. As more and more people came out jokingly as her boyfriend, she lobbed the tennis ball right across the court with small gags and light-hearted encouragement. She hasn’t fallen into the reaction trap.
Just minutes after she went live on Twitch today, 16,000 viewers were sitting in Anys’ stream, waiting to see what would happen, what she would say. She wore a blue floral dress and explained that she was going to make a pizza. Pop music played, and she sang along. As she ate spoonfuls of tomato sauce, commenting on how delicious it was, her chat reacted wildly. “Pokimane Eats Jar of Tomato Sauce,” she laughs. She took a bite out of her slice of pineapple pizza and said, “I’ll give it a 2 out of 10.”