James Charles had transgressed. According to Tati Westbrook, another top vlogger from YouTube’s beauty and makeup community, he had shilled a rival vitamin brand and otherwise behaved badly.
As the pair released duelling videos with their sides of the story, news websites breathlessly detailed how Charles had at one point “lost more than 3 million subscribers; Westbrook gained more than 4 million”.
Fans made memes about how unsubscribing from Charles was the only righteous choice, and took screenshots of his declining follower count.
Celebrity feuds are standard fare, but rarely are they accompanied by such clear metrics.
The data points popularised by platforms like YouTube — subscriber counts, number of video views, likes and dislikes — have made contempt quantifiable.
Nowhere is this trend of punishing by statistics clearer than on YouTube channels solely dedicated to watching celebrity subscriber counts rise and fall in real time.
Usually accompanied by a chat room, these videos make a sport of online feuding — at once a joke and a way to demonstrate the consumer’s moral judgment.
Popularity has always had a figure attached. Did 10 more classmates turn up to Stella’s birthday party than yours? Are you in the first-grade soccer team, or the eighth?
Yet it is brutally out in the open now. “It’s an intense public display,” suggested Sam Kelly, director at marketing firm Hello Social.
And this has made websites like Social Blade, which aggregate this information, the online referees and official validators of online popularity.
The business of online popularity
Founded in 2008, Social Blade first tracked statistics about the news aggregator Digg, a precursor of Reddit.
These days it provides lists of the most subscribed or followed profiles on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.
Most importantly, it hosts a live follower count for YouTube profiles, updated second by second, that has become a key source for fans when YouTube stars like Charles and Westbrook face off.
Despite his proximity to online drama, Social Blade’s founder Jason Urgo is matter of fact.
He runs the site with a small but global team from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, and says he’s ultimately just a numbers guy.
“We probably noticed a couple of years ago that just live streams in general, the real time counts, were turning into a thing,” Mr Urgo said.
“The live stream really took the numbers that were on the site and turned it into a social setting. It is sort of like a sporting event where people are just cheering for their favourite.”
In his view, the online obsession with statistics is a continuation of old ways to gauge influence or popularity.
Like television ratings, subscriber numbers suggest what’s in fashion and what to watch.
Some YouTube personalities have made a spectacle of it. Felix Kjellberg, known online as PewDiePie, was once the most-subscribed account on the platform despite past accusations he shared anti-Semitic imagery.
As he began to be overtaken by Bollywood music video channel T-Series, Kjellberg rallied his fans to fight back and the phrase “subscribe to PewDiePie” became a global meme.
Kjellberg asked viewers to stop using the line after the terrorist who broadcast his attack on a Christchurch mosque that left 51 people dead urged those watching to “subscribe to PewDiePie”.
Fans take over
On YouTube, overt declarations about unsubscribing from someone’s channel and making a game of a star’s falling follower count have become a way for fans to wield control.
The statement of unsubscribing showed how fans understand the logic of platforms like YouTube, where metrics rule, said Emily van der Nagel, social media lecturer at Monash University.
“When we grasp the attention economy, we know that if paying somebody attention is helping them, it’s directing a flow of advertising and a flow of money,” Dr van der Nagel said.
Unlike rating traditional film or television, individuals in their bedrooms rather than companies may be at the centre of online content, Mr Urgo suggested.
“If you’re the producer of a TV show that gets cancelled, OK, you might be upset your show got cancelled, but you collect your thoughts, come up with another idea, pitch it and you might have another show,” he said.
“When it’s someone’s personal life, their own personal brand that gets cancelled … then people sometimes have a hard time separating that.”
Crystal Abidin, an internet studies researcher at Curtin University, said subscriber counts can also be part of a game of loyalty.
“If your count is rising, it means people are jumping in your camp, or willing to support you, register their interest,” Dr Abidin said. “Akin to signing a petition, for instance, adding to the numbers.”
In the reverse, removing one’s subscription is also a show of removal of support or a withdrawal of endorsement.
For Dr Abidin, this turns the genre into a live sport of sorts. It’s a “specific, time-urgent investment”, she said.
“Subscriber wars are the closest possible that you can simulate to sports events.”
Fighting against the numbers
YouTube announced this week that it would be altering how subscriber counts are publicly displayed. Instead of showing 133,360, for example, the site would round down and show only a blunt 133K.
This change seems likely to affect Social Blade. If it only gets abbreviated numbers, for example, it would kill off any service providing a live counter that records the most minute change
Google, YouTube’s parent company, declined to say whether it made this decision in response to the growing obsession with subscriber numbers, but there is debate over whether such a change would make a difference.
Hello Social’s Mr Kelly said the “social currency” of metrics such as number of subscribers or even likes or comments would be hard to eliminate.
“[YouTube is] obviously looking to prioritise friends, family and content over this kind of ‘like-chasing’ behaviour,” Mr Kelly said.
But the YouTube community has long been trained to look for popularity in numbers.
“You’re also trying to propose a simple fix to audience metric, which has been used as long as mass media has been produced,” suggested Dr van der Nagel.
“I feel like, all of a sudden, jumping in and saying we can disrupt the idea that more attention equals more profit, simply by not revealing the granular numbers, is a farce.”
Mr Urgo, for his part, is going to take it up with YouTube.
Yet, for a man immersed in the business of quantifiable popularity, he is adamant ratings don’t rule his own life.
“If I’m out and about, [I don’t] only go to a store if it has a certain number of followers or anything like that,” he said.