The James Charles vs Tati Westbrook feud proves it: YouTube influencers no longer hold all the power

Chris Stokel-Walker

It has been the most extraordinary deserting of a celebrity by their audience in history.

Over the course of a weekend, 19-year-old beauty vlogger James Charles – who managed to bring Birmingham to a standstill earlier this year because of his devoted fanbase – has seen his audience on YouTube disappear at an alarming rate.

Since he was exposed by fellow YouTuber Tati Westbrook on Friday for what Westbrook sees as shady business practices and allegations of impropriety with his fans, Charles has lost nearly three million of his 16.5 million subscribers.

Losing a fifth of your fans in a matter of days is catastrophic, but emblematic of the curious power dynamics at play on YouTube, the website that has upended the media in just 14 short years.

When YouTube was created in 2005, it set out to democratise the media. It promised a world where anyone could be creative, unshackled from the needs of cold, hard commerce and without the hierarchy of yes men that had harnessed innovation in television and Hollywood for years.

Fourteen years later, YouTube has reached its terrible teens – and completely transformed. The site is seen by nearly two billion people every month, a significant share of the internet-connected population (China has its own proprietary video sharing websites, and as such few people claim to use YouTube there).

Its stars have become celebrities in their own rights, commanding million-dollar salaries and inking global brand deals that make them unfathomably rich.

Such is the reach and power of YouTube that Hollywood celebrities have migrated to the site. Will Smith is a YouTuber now, and one of its most prominent faces.

Money isn’t the only trapping these new celebrities have: they have the same power others did too. And while the overwhelming majority use their sway over their audience for good, some have turned that power to more nefarious goals.

Austin Jones, an American YouTuber, was sentenced last week to 10 years in prison for soliciting indecent images of underage girls from his fanbase. Jones, a court found, coerced his followers into sending images to “prove” their devotion.

The reason Jones was able to manipulate his audience into sending him such images was due to the power dynamic at play between the creator and the viewer.

YouTube trades on what’s called parasocial relationships – where viewers and creators appear to be friends. Fostering an intimate connection can cause some YouTubers to be able to demand extreme things from their followers.

Until James Charles’s “cancellation” (as some have called it, citing the trend for “cancel culture” which sees audiences withdraw their support en masse from celebrities), it was thought that power dynamic was mostly one-way: the YouTube creator held all the cards.

But this weekend’s events show that the democratising of the media may have gone further than first thought. Just as hundreds of thousands of fans can help turn a nobody into a modern media celebrity, so can they help take away the trappings of fame.

A mass desertion of the type Charles has faced will hit his bottom line. While his view count (subscribers, which the media likes to look at as the worth of a person, are a relatively useless metric because people age out of watching people on YouTube but still count as a subscriber) has gone up as people watch his eight minute apology video for his transgressions, future videos may struggle to reach as broad an audience because his subscribers have fallen.

It makes him a less attractive commodity to advertisers looking to broker brand deals and endorsements. And it not only lowers his value financially: countless YouTubers have gone public in recent months about the way they conflate the number of people watching their videos, and the messages they receive online, with how they perceive their worth in the real world.

For a 19-year-old who has spent years being beloved, realising his audience aren’t quite as devoted as he thought may do more harm to Charles in the long run than abandonment by any number of advertisers.