If you were following the almost definitely not legally binding wedding of YouTubers Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau last July, it is likely that you weren’t doing so through the mainstream press. The nuptials — which seemed more about a shared love of money and attention than any actual romance — were tracked breathlessly on Instagram accounts like Here For The Tea and in YouTube videos with titles like “Jake & Tana Wedding SCAM!” or “My Jake and Tana Wedding Experience (FIST FIGHT).”
Paul and Mongeau got what they wanted out of their marriage: clout, relevance, and cash. But it also provided months of continuous updates from the network of influencer drama Instagram accounts and YouTube channels dedicated to the byzantine relationships between people who live their lives for content. Everybody won.
Call them gossip influencers: like celebrity journalists, but more fun, less burdened by reporting ethics, and busy chronicling people you’ve never heard of. They’re an industry that extends far beyond the boundaries of any single platform: Over the past five years, Instagram accounts, Snap channels, TikTok pages, and profitable media companies have been built around which YouTuber is dating which Twitch streamer, who’s breaking up with who, and who’s possibly getting cheated on. This economy is growing, even when the people they’re obsessing over are known only to a small segment of the general population.
In a world where there are far too many famous people for traditional tabloids to keep track of and where content creators regularly build rabid online fanbases, gossip influencers have turned into an often-lucrative industry. Accounts like TikTok Room, DramaAlert, and Comments By Celebs are partly journalistic endeavors and partly savvy brand building, and occupy a new media landscape where the line between reporting and influencing is barely there at all.
“If you look throughout history, everything that we learn about in history class is drama,” says Daniel Keem over a recent phone call. “We’re learning about wars, we’re learning about people fighting for civil rights. Somebody feels betrayed, someone feels backstabbed, someone gets dumped. It’s all really the same thing.”
For Keem, a.k.a. Keemstar, a.k.a. the infamous host of the 5.5 million-subscriber YouTube channel DramaAlert, antics like those of Jake Paul and Tana Mongeau pay his bills. Since 2012, Keem has tracked the interpersonal drama of popular streamers and vloggers and offered his own take on all of it.
Keem’s empire began when he was a professional gamer posting troll and prank content about Call of Duty and Halo. It was a small and tight-knit community then, and when key players bickered on Twitter, Keem would narrate alongside them — “shoutcasting,” as it’s known in esports — and eventually brought the schtick to YouTube.
It wasn’t until around 2015, as the Call of Duty community was dying off, that Keem pivoted to covering the vloggers and topics that were populating YouTube’s trending tab — PewDiePie, FaZe Clan, and the ongoing saga of GamerGate — with the bravado and brashness of a radio host. Vlogs about leaked nudes and high-profile hacks were both fair game for the irony-tinged and often controversial channel — Keem has been the subject of ire not only from viewers but the YouTubers he covers, but his attitude toward his reputation is flippant: “More promotion for me,” he laughs.
By then, digital gossip accounts were starting to become a bigger part of the tabloid landscape, most prominently in the form of Instagram account The Shade Room in 2014. From the beginning, The Shade Room regularly beat traditional magazines to breaking black celebrity news stories, and within four years, it would employ a team of seven and become the second-most popular publisher on Instagram, after Hong Kong-based meme channel 9GAG.
The ballooning economy of beauty YouTubers, too, began to have its own devoted drama pundits thanks to people like Sanders Kennedy, who’d post videos like “THE TRUTH ABOUT BEAUTY GURUS EXPOSED,” and “WHY I ‘HATE’ JEFFREE STAR.” Shane Dawson, now best known for his massively popular conspiracy theory videos, had pivoted from character sketches (some of which included him wearing blackface) to commentary about celebrity and influencer news.
Paying attention to the celebrities nobody else was is also how Famous Birthdays became one of the rare profitable media companies of the 2010s. In 2012, Evan Britton, its founder and CEO, set out to build a fast, mobile-first encyclopedia of celebrities, but within a year, noticed that people were using the page to find information on Vine stars — teenagers who weren’t famous enough for Wikipedia but popular on their own platform.
“We grew because social media created so many celebrities, and if somebody has 800,000 followers, that’s 100,000 people who are passionate about them,” Evan says. Famous Birthdays, which doesn’t do marketing or public relations, has received no outside funding, profits only from programmatic ads, and now employs 40 people from its office in Los Angeles.
Because creator profiles on Famous Birthdays are publicly ranked by search interest and engagement (15-year-old TikToker Charli D’Amelio has remained comfortably at No. 1 for weeks), staffers are able to easily confirm facts like dating rumors or endorsement deals with creators themselves. Visiting the Famous Birthdays office has become a rite of passage for Gen Z influencers: between five and eight of them stop by each day to shoot videos and pose in front of the branded wall.
D’Amelio is the undisputed queen of the kids who make up the social influencers du jour: TikTokers, who of course now have their very own gossip Instagram account. In 2015, two teenagers a half-country apart, Elasia and Nat, met each other under an Instagram post that directed them to “comment below and make friends!” Soon, they were running their own page about drama that was happening on Musical.ly, which would eventually become TikTok.
At nearly 300,000 followers, @TikTokRoom is now by far the biggest account devoted to TikTok drama, even as Elasia and Nat balance it with their full-time schoolwork. Elasia, a 19-year-old college student in New Jersey, and Nat, a 17-year-old high school senior in Texas, update their followers about a dozen times a day about who commented on whose video and what 15-year-old influencer and singer Danielle Cohn said on her Instagram Live feed. “I’m on it all the time,” Elasia says. “We never miss anything.”
That there is this kind of audience demand for an Instagram account devoted to what teenage TikTokers comment on each others’ posts won’t surprise anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of attention-paying.
As a recent New York Times headline put it, even “nobodies” have fans now. Writer Jamie Lauren Keiles explores the decades-old concept of parasocial relationships in a world where basically everyone has an online following. Relatively niche podcasts like Who? Weekly, in which hosts Bobby Finger and Lindsey Weber recount the week’s news in Z-list celebrities, have thriving communities of thousands of listeners who chat in Facebook groups and contribute on Patreon for access to VIP episodes. BuzzFeed News now has its own dedicated influencer drama newsletter, Please Like Me.
At the same time, another celebrity watchdog Instagram account was building its own dedicated TikTok space: Comments By Celebs, the page with nearly 1.5 million followers that posts whenever Gwyneth Paltrow comments on John Mayer’s selfie or Natalie Portman attempts a viral meme, launched @CommentsByTikTok in January. While the main CBC page is mainly devoted to A- and B-list celebrities’ Instagram commenting habits, it also has accounts that track the Bachelor universe, Bravolebrities, and professional athletes. TikTok was a natural next step.
“Once Charli and [fellow TikToker Chase Hudson] started officially dating, we looked at each other and were like, ‘If we’re going to be this obsessed, we at least need to turn it into a business,’” explains 25-year-old founder Emma Diamond.
Diamond and co-founder Julie Kramer, 24, say that posting about social influencers is entirely different than traditional celebrities. Even though there may be relatively fewer people paying attention to Charli and Chase versus, say, Kim Kardashian, the ones who do are really paying attention. “If you’re a really big fan of David Dobrik and the Vlog Squad and you don’t have any other friends [to talk about it with], it feels more special,” Kramer explains.
Today, Comments By Celebs is able to support a full-time staff of three through advertisements on the account and on its bi-weekly podcast. As a favorite among young Instagram users, they’re also flooded with summer intern requests (“It’s very flattering,” Emma says).
Not all gossip influencers run quite such lucrative business models — YouTube is littered with tea channels of varying success, devoted to influencer feuds like the James Charles and Tati Westbrook saga. TikTok Room has only partnered with a handful of small brands to monetize the account and doesn’t make nearly enough money for Elasia and Nat to live on; both have separate jobs. As its name would suggest, though, TikTok Room has ambitions to become the next Shade Room: Elasia and Nat are both interested in pursuing marketing post-college and say they want to build the account into something much bigger.
Just as newspapers and traditional media can have wildly different ethical standards — though anathema to respectable journalism, many tabloids continue to pay for stories — so too do gossip accounts. “We don’t post fake tea,” Elasia stresses, though she says they made mistakes in the early days of the Musical.ly page, and has deleted posts in the past. She says they blur out curse words, try to be as unbiased as possible, and never leak private messages or photos. While The Shade Room airs celebrity laundry both dirty and clean, Comments By Celebs, for instance, tends to avoid any negativity whatsoever. “Our whole goal is that we would never want the person in the picture to look at it and be like, ‘Wow, really sucks that they posted that,’” Emma explains.
YouTube channels are often far more vicious. As one anonymous beauty influencer told Cheryl Wischhover in a piece for Vox, “I feel like there are channels who do their job well and then there are other channels that stretch the truth and reach for drama just to post new content, which can lead to false news, rumors, and hurtful words against influencers. Some can even verge on bullying.”
Gossip accounts, most of which are run by people with no background in journalism, or in some cases no interest in it at all, are beholden to an ever-murky set of standards about what counts as fair game.
If an influencer hates what you post, but you know it’s true, do you delete it in the name of creating a positive community, or do you keep it up in the name of objective reporting? If you’re someone like Keemstar, who’s risen to the status of influencer himself, are people still supposed to take your opinion seriously? Ironically, the same debate is happening in journalism itself: When name-brand writers are known less for their work and mostly for their online presences, marketable personas can rise to the top, sometimes at the expense of quality or truthfulness.
Everyone in the business of news, then, whether it’s about politics or TikTok teens, is figuring out where they belong in a world where we are all, to some extent, influencers. In the early days of the celebrity gossip internet, bloggers like Perez Hilton would pride themselves in their refusal to bend to celebrities’ demands. Now that everyone is jockeying for clout on the same platforms, positivity, not snark, is what sells.
The tone and quality of gossip accounts may not seem to matter much for those uninterested in their subjects, but as the space grows — and as long as there continue to be more famous people than ever in history, it will — traditional media will have to learn from it. Conversely, gossip influencers may be the standard social news outlets of the future.
As Emma of Comments By Celeb says, “I don’t want people to see us as just an Instagram account. I want people to see us as a media company.”