- Commentary has existed on YouTube almost as long as the platform has been around.
- Tea, commentary, and drama channels help shape the narrative about the internet’s superstars.
- But as the designated critics of the platform’s biggest stars, commentary YouTubers have a special set of worries and considerations.
A famous friendship fell apart in May 2019, sending shockwaves through the YouTube community and leading to the biggest drop in subscriber count in influencer history. Beauty YouTuber James Charles lost 1 million followers in 24 hours and 3 million in total after his fellow beauty guru mentor Tati Westbrook accused him of inappropriate behavior and being a bad friend, among other things.
That feud occurred in what Taylor Lorenz described in The Atlantic as “an ecosystem of drama” made up of “tea” and commentary YouTube channels, which were already becoming a staple of YouTube culture. These channels post videos breaking down influencer news, talking about creators, their alliances and enemies, and controversies.
They are integral to shaping the narrative about the internet’s superstars. Some of the biggest influencers are powerful celebrities now, many of whom have successful businesses. Without anyone critically discussing them, that power would be totally unbridled, according to journalist Kelsey Weekman, who covers internet culture for In The Know. Commentary channels can “hold influencers accountable,” she said.
The architects of this scene, who used to be perceived as untrustworthy gossip-spreaders, have become respected creators on the platform. But new challenges these channels are facing make it hard for them to do their jobs of informing viewers of the news they rely on.
With hundreds of thousands of followers themselves, they also have a lot of power, which can lead to its own pitfalls: some creators have been accused of bullying and found themselves in legal trouble.
Several commentary and drama YouTubers spoke to Insider about how the community has grown and evolved on YouTube.
Commentary has existed on YouTube since its very early days
In the early days of YouTube, between 2006 and 2015, an anonymous figure in a crude dog mask with a distorted voice posted his musings about fellow creators on a channel called YT Watchdog, where he had 23,000 subscribers. While the rest of YouTube was intent on collaborating with each other and building up fanbases, YT Watchdog called them out for their behavior, in a way that could be considered an early iteration of a commentary channel.
There weren’t so many dramas and controversies on YouTube back then, so much of YT Watchdog’s coverage was very niche. In a 2009 video that has 75,000 views, YT Watchdog mocked YouTuber Shane Dawson for using a secondary YouTube account to try to inflate views on a video he appeared in.
YT Watchdog hasn’t posted for 6 years, but the community he helped build lives on.
Various types of channels now make up this genre, including so-called commentary channels, tea channels, and drama channels. Many tea channels are anonymous, focusing on the screenshots and evidence — or “receipts” — they gather from social media and place into straightforward videos that give viewers a timeline of events.
Drama and commentary channels tend to have a central character, whose opinions and personality are the allure. They act as YouTube’s anchors, each having a different reason their audience tunes in.
Humans have always been interested in gossiping about celebrities
According to Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies social media culture, humans have always been interested in gossip. Commentary, tea, and drama YouTube is just the latest iteration of it.
“This tea community is all about the production of drama and that’s certainly not new,” she told Insider. Traditional tabloids and noughties bloggers like Perez Hilton remain successful, mostly because as a society, we love peeking into the private lives of people we see as untouchable. With YouTubers, there’s even more of “an investment in their personalities,” Duffy said, because of the parasocial bond many fans have with them.
This can also mean some of the most vehement hatred is often directed towards them. “We feel like we know these people, and so we want to see their flaws,” she said.
In recent years, drama around major influencer has heated up
Several tea channels, such as Here For The Tea and Tea By Ali (now Truth Sleuth) popped up or grew considerably in the summer of 2018 after a friendship war known as “Dramageddon,” where a rift split a group of five major beauty YouTubers. Every step of the alliances made and broken were documented by channels who saved every screenshot and repurposed them into neat timelines.
A year later, Westbrook and Charles satiated the audience’s desire for another feud. Along with that came more channels that are now staples in the community, such as TeaSpill. Now, there are hundreds of channels with names referring to “spilling tea” on YouTube, each with its own eccentricities, catchphrases, and fanbases.
The severity in Westbrook’s claims foreshadowed commentary as a genre moving away from the trivial tittle-tattle it was originally known for.
Severity has overtaken pettiness on commentary YouTube, which can be taxing for the people involved
Reporting the drama isn’t as fun as it once was, according to several YouTubers who spoke to Insider. The news used to be lighthearted and focus on petty drama like bad makeup launches and friendship breakups.
Now, Charles has been accused of sexting underage boys. Other popular influencers such as David Dobrik and Shane Dawson have had their past content dredged up and widely criticized — Dawson for racism and sexual jokes about children and animals, and Dobrik for filming a skit during which a woman later said she had been raped by his friend.
Dustin Dailey, a drama YouTuber who has been making videos for about five years, told Insider it can be scary because he faces backlash from aggressively loyal fanbases. He said if he criticizes a big creator, “people say nasty, horrible things about me for months.”
Rey Rahimi runs the channel Hot Tea, where she has 176,000 subscribers and condenses lengthier videos from some of YouTube’s biggest and controversial figures into short summaries. She told Insider viewers have increasingly intense demands, expecting creators to be as unbiased, objective, and thorough as reporters despite rarely being trained in journalism.
“There’s a duty to hold these ethical standards or just standards in general,” Rahimi said. “But at the end of the day, with the resources that we’re given, it’s tough to reach that.”
There is an ongoing content dilemma for many creators
Commentary channels took a hit when there was a flurry of advertiser withdrawals on YouTube in 2017 known as “The Adpocalypse,” with adverts only being placed on content that was deemed “family-friendly” by the platform, excluding anything that included adult content such as inappropriate language, violence, harmful or dangerous acts, or references to drugs.
Rahimi said there’s now a “constant dilemma” of whether to cover stories that involve more serious topics such as sexual assault, eating disorders, or abuse, because they often get demonetized. In order to ensure that they get paid, channels mute words like “sex,” “abuse,” and “drugs” to avoid demonetization. But this can make the video difficult for the audience to understand, leading to frustration among creators.
“Why should we censor ourselves and only talk about happy things and block everything that’s going on in the world around us?” Rahimi said.
Copyright is another concern. Many commentary channels will use clips of the content they’re referencing. This isn’t necessarily a copyright violation as long as the videos fall under the “fair use” clause, which allows creators to republish other people’s content without permission or payment as long as it is being used for criticism, news reporting, teaching, or research.
However, the copyright owner can “copyright strike” a video regardless, and after three strikes channels can be terminated. To avoid this, creators may take down videos subject to strikes to keep their channels alive. The subjects of commentary videos, who are typically big influencers, can use this system to hit back at smaller tea and commentary YouTubers. Some believe using copyright strikes to take down videos is a practice that amounts to a form of censorship by YouTube’s most powerful influencers.
Some drama channels face valid criticism and legal action
Recently, drama and commentary channels have faced legal action.
In October 2020, Tati Westbrook filed a lawsuit against a creator named Katie Joy, who runs the channel Without A Crystal Ball, arguing that her coverage of Westbrook was defamatory.
Legal commentary YouTuber, and former district attorney Emily D. Baker, told Insider suing for defamation can be difficult because malicious intent has to be proven. Still, Westbrook’s lawsuit was a wake-up call for many drama and commentary channels.
More stringent rules have also been placed on YouTubers since the adpocalypse, particularly regarding harassment policies.
One former YouTuber Calvin Lee Vail, better known as LeafyIsHere, was permanently banned from the platform in August 2020 for repeatedly violating YouTube’s harassment policies — including mocking fellow creators’ appearances and name-calling.
Commentary channels have also been accused of harassment by their videos’ subjects when they focus many of them on a single person, such as Angelika Oles’ coverage of controversial creator Gabbie Hanna.
They are also increasingly called out for behavior and language that some viewers see as insensitive or “problematic.” Paige Christie, who started reporting on drama on her channel Petty Paige in 2017, said drama channels are particularly at risk because they have been turned into a kind of “moral compass” of YouTube that they didn’t really sign up for.
“We’re holding people to certain standards that are sometimes impossible for us to uphold ourselves,” she said.
Still, drama and commentary channels remain hugely popular on YouTube, with new ones popping up every day and more drama emerging as newer influencers enter the space. They will likely be considered indispensable for some time, as long as they are forgiven for mistakes they make along the way.
“I think drama will always be popular because people love to monitor other people’s business,” Dailey said. “We didn’t go to school for this. We’re just loudmouths with cameras and opinions.”