It’s all reality TV on the internet

As the divide between content creators and consumers flattens, we have started seeing “Drama” nearly everywhere we click.

It’s all reality TV on the internet

As the divide between content creators and consumers flattens, we have started seeing “Drama” nearly everywhere we click.

A paradox: YouTube “creators” are unbelievably popular, churning out millions of videos that comprise the majority (along with, as of the past eight or so months, TikToks) of Gen Z’s media diet. But, those same YouTube creators are actually boring as hell.

To clarify, I’m talking about the overwhelmingly popular category of vloggers who make “lifestyle” content; the term for videos featuring teens and early 20-somethings chilling in their parents’ suburban houses. The most successful ones — the Jake Pauls, the David Dobriks — achieve the dream of being teens and early 20-somethings chilling in group mansions in Los Angeles.

Decades before YouTube, the only way you could get a similarly high-volume dose of other people’s personal lives was through watching TV dramas — specifically soap operas, which offered salacious, interwoven plots delving into the intimate secrets of their characters on a daily basis. Then reality television came along. The initial appeal was the increased “realism” of the format — remember, the first reality TV hit was literally called The Real World — but in the long run, the insanely low cost of production has proven more important in establishing reality as the dominant non-sports broadcast genre.

(We’ll return to the non-sports caveat when we get to the dreaded “Gamers” below; just note that this, like everything in dominant culture, is unfortunately gendered).

The appeal of the “lifestyle” YouTuber is their “relatability” — they’re just like me, except richer and with more patience and skill at video editing. The fundamental tension, then, is that the reason we aren’t satisfied with ourselves and our friends is that people like us are boring. So the YouTube ecosystem has rapidly rediscovered the Olde Magick of Drama.

Legacy drama (Aristophenes, Shakespeare, The OC) operates by investing the audience in the dramatis personae through the dual crafts of acting and plotting. We’re fully aware of the fiction but still find resonance with the social dynamics foregrounded by the story and made emotionally real through the performances. Reality TV cuts corners with the acting and the plotting but makes it up on volume. The fundamental trick of the format is to create some artificial scarcity (one Bachelor on The Bachelor, one Survivor on Survivor, etc.) and artificial closeness by putting everyone in the same house, introduce drama fuel (i.e. booze and/or encouraging people to talk shit about each other), shoot hundreds of hours of footage, and then edit the 10 hours where people are screaming at each other into a narrative.

Economics and communication technology explain this difference better than any account of decayed taste — you best believe that The Bard would’ve died penniless if the Elizabethans could’ve watched Flavor of Love. Actors are specialists whose labor and name recognition often commands a premium; hypothetically, anyone can go on a reality show, and, when the reality show itself is the franchise, can be paid next to nothing. (Some of these contestants are legitimately doing this for “exposure,” as a stepping stone to something bigger. Although working for “exposure” is generally exploitative, it does produce some winners, especially in the fame economy. The rapper Riff Raff became Riff Raff thanks in part to a two-episode run on MTV’s From G’s to Gents.) The massive proliferation of cable channels also encouraged the same volume-driven economics that currently dominates Silicon Valley VC logic: 100 cheap failures can easily be written off if you land one Duck Dynasty, while a failed attempt at a big-budget Game of Thrones knockoff could put an entire network into the red.

The continued democratization of televisual technology has driven these latter trends to their logical conclusion: a million teens vlogging their feelings in their bedrooms is a very efficient technology for producing a handful of great vloggers.

People feel the desire to imitate media like the vlogs in today’s social YouTube as a way of performing a social rite. The French philosopher and social critic Rene Girard terms this “mimetic desire,” and theorizes its central role in the development of human society. Girard argues that this imitative, mimetic desire inevitably produces memetic violence — conflict that can only be resolved through scapegoating. By killing or ostracizing a losing member of a social conflict, they remove the necessity for conflict. Girard ties this to the development of religion, a necessary human technology for mythologizing the sacrificial scapegoat and enervating future mimetic conflict.

The internet complicates this dynamic, rerouting our tendency towards religious worship to fandom culture through the overwhelming power of scale. Slight advantages among internet personalities are amplified, again and again, until they’re elevated above the rest in a runaway feedback loop. In other words, there are some people we simply must stan. In the liminal period of the ’10s, vestigial celebrities and a small core of movie franchises are still stannable. But the younger generation is uninterested, preferring their homegrown heroes in the form of YouTube creators and other influencers. Although it’s difficult to be sure, there is a case to be made that more collective person-hours have been spent watching the face of Swedish YouTube star PewDiePie than the face of any other human who’s ever lived. And that’s bad.

These new creators’ videos are maximally “relatable,” since again, we’re talking about middle-to-upper class teens doing normal stuff while talking into a camera, but this presents a challenge: to keep viewers engaged requires the construction of narratives or at least of human interest. Our online heroes perform the ritual of Girard’s mimetic conflict in the form of “Drama.”

“Drama” is the lifeblood of influencer content. Although ostensibly disavowed by everyone, everyone, “drama” is in fact the thing that keeps them coming back. Consider YouTuber Keemstar, who runs a channel called DramaAlert solely to keep tabs on feuds within the creator community. “Drama” is when something that happens outside the fictional world portrayed on YouTube spills into that world — and it happens all the time.

Perhaps the purest example is L’affair James Charles, in which the popular makeup artist YouTuber was accused by another YouTuber of being disloyal. (There are more details but my god do I not care). The drama was apparently riveting, lasting days and leading their respective follower counts to vary wildly. The denouement was that Charles had “kept receipts” — he displayed some text messages that validated his side of the story and has since enjoyed continued success.

The shocking thing about drama constructed by YouTube personalities, from the perspective of people whose social development came before social media, is that their audiences seem to consider it “authentic.” They’re deeply aware of the mechanics of content production, but there are still some norms of “authenticity” that cannot be breached, primarily related to being “real” or “fake” in the context of group loyalty. Professional wrestling is a fantastic template for all of this intrigue, as it subverts the norms of meritocratic competition and instead foregrounds social drama like betrayal and redemption.

The logical conclusion of the democratization of content production is Drama devoid of any actual referent but still bound by the meta-rules of online discourse. Consider fanfic fandoms, groups who remix legacy media, using identifiable characters to spin their own (sometimes erotic) stories. This is a healthy outlet for some, and would seem unlikely to produce Drama. But Drama… finds a way.

The characters in this tweet illustrate what I mean. This is probably (?) a bit of tongue-in-cheek analysis, but it’s an exaggerated version of something immediately recognizable to a wide audience.

This debate illustrates the real-world boundaries that creators of all stripes intentionally flirt with transgressing, creating the participatory drama that their audiences adore. Spongebob is not real. But “shipping” him with Squidward or Patrick (if you are an old, “shipping” means interpreting a piece of media as implying that characters are romantic or sexual partners) introduces real-world rules to the absurdist cartoon world.

Social media has enabled legitimately important conversations about abuse and structural inequality, about racism and other forms of discrimination. But it also creates an attention economy, and creators have realized that Drama is good. Abuse should not be valorized, and age/maturity differences make relationships fraught. These are real issues, and transposing them onto the sexual politics of “SquidBob” enable people to tie these specific discussions into a larger world.

Relative to the self-seriousness of legacy fandoms like Sports, however, this Drama serves as a helpful corrective. Sports fans — and their internet progeny, Gamers — completely buy into the importance of the competition that they watch or participate in. The relative unimportance of SquidBob makes any potential social consequence worth discussing; the life-or-death significance of the Super Bowl renders these social consequences (like, say, the NFL’s problems with domestic violence and the cumulative effects of head trauma) unimportant, at least to their fandom.

Which brings us back to PewDiePie. The recent New York Times profile of the Swedish YouTuber (real name Felix Kjellberg) provides a lot of context for the controversies he has stirred up in the past couple of years, but it’s not really possible for anyone over like 25 (this includes me) to understand what he actually does. I can say, though, that he is fundamentally a children’s entertainer. His videos mainly take the form of him playing video games while cracking jokes, or “meme reviews,” where he displays funny, cringey, or wholesome images and offers an opinion about them. In other words, he does exactly what the stereotypical teenage boy likes to do with his buddies. Stricter parenting and social atomization caused by economic and technological changes means that time with these buddies is harder to come by. This is the niche that PewDiePie fills.

The self-contained drama of gaming and feeling of community from shared jokes has turned his fandom into a parasocial community. This shared identity (and the relative lack of race and gender diversity) has certainly created a space where people say racist things, in which people find PewDiePie’s stunt where he hired Indian men on Fiverr to hold up signs saying “Death to all Jews” to be an ~epic prank~ instead of cruel, childish and harmful.

To be clear, this is something that PewDiePie actually did, and after the Wall Street Journal reported on it, he lost a contract with Disney and claimed that the paper had taken the stunt “out of context.” His fans, at least, experienced this clash with the mainstream media as deliciously Dramatic, and while it caused him to lose corporate partnerships, his popularity has only increased. The fans saw the WSJ’s criticism as illegitimate, and were quick to accuse the paper of starting Drama with PewDiePie in order to get attention for themselves.

That last sentence sounds insane from the perspective of anyone over 25; we tend to think that the Wall Street Journal has considerably more clout than someone with the nickname “Pewds.” But from the perspective of many young people, they are comparable entities; that they could have Drama implies that they are on the same level.

As more elements of our social lives become fodder for media creation and/or discussion, our ability to evaluate the effects of our actions and the relative importance of the things we see on our screens becomes confused. It’s not that PewDiePie’s actions were taken out of context per se; there is basically no context in which a sign saying “Death to All Jews” would ever be okay. Instead, the issue at hand is that kids weaned on reality TV have internalized the logic of the influence economy. In their eyes, every action is motivated by the economics of attention and we’re all ultimately competing with each other for screen time, to the point where a stodgy newspaper owned by a decrepit Australian billionaire is seen as trying to start Drama with a YouTube guy for klout rather than reporting on a fucked-up thing he did because it’s their job. On the internet, there is only one context, and the fight over what that context actually stands for might be the most Dramatic conflict of them all.

Kevin Munger is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Data Analytics at Penn State University. Previously, he wrote for The Outline about cringe content