A Never Ending Feud: How 'Canceling' Built YouTube

A Never Ending Feud: How 'Canceling' Built YouTube

The greatest tale of YouTube cancelation this year started with an Instagram Story. James Charles, one of the most familiar faces in the BeauTuber community, posted an #ad for Sugar Bear Hair vitamins while at Coachella. Innocuous enough except, of course, for the fact that the brand is a direct competitor to longtime friend Tati Westbrook’s beauty-supplement, Halo Beauty. Westbrook retaliated with her own Instagram Story, saying she felt “used” by a “good friend.” Her critique went beyond the promotion: Westbrook accused him of seducing young straight boys with his fame. Charles apologized, other YouTubers broke into the fold to express their opinions, align by side, and, of course, draw eyeballs to their own channels. Eventually both Charles and Westbrook posted ridiculously lengthy vlogs back and forth, detailing their long history of private betrayals.

After Westbrook’s 43-minute “Bye Sisters” video post, the first of their he-said she-said vlog series, James Charles was hit hard. At the height of the drama, he dropped from 16.5 million to 13.4 subscribers. (Charles now holds the record for most subscribers lost in 24 hours: just under two million.)

Within a week, however, his account had rebounded: Charles’s “cancelation” lasted all of seven days. Westbrook posted a follow-up video requesting her subscribers leave Charles alone; he uploaded his own response. But the mainstream media outlets that had posted regular updates on the supposed feud had already had an effect. Westbrook doubled her 5 million followers, and currently sits at a healthy 9.7 million. For both, the maxim “all press is good press” became a reality: the supposed bad behavior was actually a swift path to notoriety.

If one theme has defined YouTube in 2019, it is the fallacy of cancel culture. On YouTube, “canceling” varies wildly from its use elsewhere, where it is often weaponized by a man accused of abusing his power in an attempt to displace blame. In that space, it’s easy to see that canceling is a vague grasp at a defense: regardless of what criticism they may face, those guys always come back. Redemption is inevitable for powerful men.

But on YouTube, canceling is a well-worn tool. Entire networks of drama channels are built to sustain these often fabricated beefs, an obvious play to the numbers. The more infighting between famous vloggers, the more conversation surrounds them, the more views they rake in, the more money they make. As my colleague Megan Reynolds wrote earlier this year, Charles and Westbrook essentially expanded this reality TV trope—fighting for the sake of ratings-making drama—for YouTube.

There is, of course, a difference in expectation. Reality TV obsessives understand that the medium is highly stylized and any truths are stretched for dramatic effect. But YouTube is, by nature, dishonest. The platform is meant to be a democratizing force, helping creators build brands by being themselves. So fights between YouTubers register as more authentic than, say, whatever conflict drove the kids of The Hills mad.

On YouTube, such fights are portrayed as emotional disputes between long-lasting friends—though, think about it, intimate altercations usually happen behind closed doors, in person. The YouTube impulse is to put former friends on blast, to “cancel” one another while knowing well that an online audience has a short memory. Soon enough, some other social media disaster will occupy the attention of those invested in the inner-workings of web celebrity. In the meantime, there are followers to be gained.

And now, YouTubers have taken it to the next level by demanding the end of “cancel culture,” even as they continue to thrive off of it. In 2019, there were too many cancelations to count; most were resolved almost as quickly as they hit the trending page. Because of that, I thought it would be helpful to draft a highly abridged taxonomy of YouTube cancelations, 2019 edition.

The “Dug Up Racist and/or Variously Problematic Tweets/Videos/Snapchats” Cancelation

This is the most familiar from of cancelation. Someone said something unsavory and is forced to apologize for it, now that they’ve risen to a notable level of popularity. Bonus points if they post an apology video in which they never really say why they’re sorry, they just sort of sit there and cry for thirteen minutes.

2019 Example: While recording a podcast, Shane Dawson said that when he was 19, he humped his cat’s tummy until he reached climax and came over his pet. He’s said way worse in the past, but somehow, still, he is seen as a beloved character on the platform.

The “Shit-talkin’” Cancelation

In the event that YouTubers are in the midst of a fight over personal drama, they’ll take it to the vlog, where loyal followers can pick sides and let the “subscribe” and “unsubscribe” buttons do the talking.

2019 Example: Mukbang queen Trisha Paytas and 20-something YouTuber Gabbie Hanna started going at it in November 2019, when Paytas—who is infamous for calling out bullshit as she sees it—made a video about Hanna allegedly going behind her back and telling her ex-partner she has herpes. (Paytas claims to not really know Hanna well, and clocked the comment as harmful gossip.) Other YouTuber accounts have begun posting their own videos about Hanna’s alleged manipulative behavior. Neither party has been grossly effected in anyway. In fact, while at the height of this ongoing drama, Hanna dropped a new music video.

The “Peep Behind the Curtain” Cancellation

As mentioned early, YouTubers find fame through the promise of performative authenticity. When they’re bubbly and outgoing and lovely on camera, the expectation is that they’re bubbly and outgoing and lovely in person as well. That’s obviously not always the case.

2019 Example: When Brooke Houts accidentally uploaded an unedited vlog in which she is seen hitting and spitting on her doberman puppy, she was effectively “canceled.” That, as you probably guessed, meant that she posted less content for a few weeks while waiting for her charges of animal abuse to be dropped. She still uploads, and her videos get tens of thousands of views.


This requires no further explanation. When you live your life in front of a camera and on social media, and you’re sleeping around with other people who do the same, it’s likely going to get out.

2019 Example: A YouTube gamer named Jared “ProJared” Knabenbauer was accused of cheating on his wife, cosplayer Heidi O’Ferrall, with another YouTube gamer, Holly Conrad. Also, ProJared was accused of soliciting explicit images from underage fans. He has nearly 900,000 subscribers.

The “I Released a Garbage Product Onto the Market Place Because I Don’t Care Much About Quality Control but I Absolutely Will Make It Seem Like the Result of People Behind the Scenes” Cancelation

Beauty YouTube is ground zero for a lot of cancelations. One of the most common is the YouTuber who releases a shitty product onto the world (and if you’re a real conspiracy theorist, you believe the YouTuber knew it was going to be a shitty product, because they have to approve everything) and are later forced to apologize for it. It’s happened to Jeffree Star and he’s bounced back.

2019 Example: Jaclyn Hill’s debut lipstick line hit the market this year full of mold, black spots, and white hairs. Some fans thought it was expired. O.G. beauty influencer Marlena Stell posted an hour and a half long video explaining that she warned Hill not to work with the makeup lab she used, but Hill went forward with it anyway. She’s apologized, and didn’t really suffer from the supposed “cancellation.” Her videos still rank in millions of views. Four months later, and in November she announced the release of a new holiday-themed cosmetics collection.

What surprises will 2020 have in store? As a petty bitch, I can’t wait.

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