A Battle for the Soul of BreadTube Is Currently Taking Place

Even BreadTube can’t make up its mind on what exactly “BreadTube” is.

Over the last few days, another round of the all-too-infamous “Discourse” took place on Twitter, this time decrying a fandom-centric reading of the BreadTube label, as left obtusely vague by its very first instant of popular use. For the uninitiated, BreadTube — often used interchangeably with LeftTube — is basically a loose collective of online creators — primarily operating on YouTube — whose political rhetoric aligns with left-wing ideals. It always lingered as a useful framing device when listing out individual creators was otherwise too tedious, but when New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose used it in his blockbuster story “Making of a YouTube Radical”, it was becoming evident that the term’s affect was starting to slowly escape the influence of the very people it made reference to. Whatever definition BreadTube had, it was not the same one it took on after the publication of that piece.

The issue of contention sprawled the entire spectrum of systemic injustices within the media environment–some of it had to do with the way YouTube was built, other facets of it were intrinsically linked to white-favoritism on mainstream media, and a great deal with it had to do with the way media seemed to assign LeftTube a face based on what it wanted to say, versus what the collective of LeftTube actually intends itself to communicate.

It should come as no surprise then that as far as sloppy nomenclatures go, BreadTube (or alternatively, LeftTube) ranks among the most arbitrarily-bizarre. There’s no other section of YouTube that uses a similar naming scheme–otherwise, we’d have ended up with GameTube, CookTube, FashionTube, and so on being as of predominant use as “LeftTube”. Even its right-wing counterpart curtails the reductionist label and just settles on being referred to as one wing of many aiding the current of online radicalization without much of a label to speak of. Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder for instance, are dubbed as being part of the “right-wing on YouTube”, and there’s no fancy way to slot them under a quasi-memetic qualifier like their progressive counterparts.

To demystify why “BreadTube” came to be, etymology is a necessary consideration. The story there is quite boring and pretty straight-forward–“Bread” references a famous anarchist work by Pyotr Kropotkin dubbed “The Conquest of Bread”. The term was thus born to fulfill a need, and that need was to gather a community — firstly-founded on Reddit — of then-errant leftists to minutely discuss left-wing ideas in the context of what BreadTube makes.

What sets BreadTube apart from any other space on YouTube, is that the bulk of its members call either implicitly, or very explicitly for radical socioeconomic reform–that inevitably means upending the very system YouTube operates within. So the discussions aren’t as opposed to every other part of YouTube, just limited to individual affect and consequence–they rather aim to alter the social fabric in which their communities live. The stakes are much higher than “which beauty product should I buy” , “should I go see this movie” or “oh wow, that was funny”–it is often one of “how can I reclaim my rights as I watch them being taken away from me”. BreadTube inherently deals with a current version of society that they deem inept, and that colors the way their ideas are perceived by commoners and the powerful alike. The threads on Reddit are filled to the brim with complex economic theory and an appeal to the fringe of ideas–being an anarchist, or a communist (or both) is not entirely uncommon, and it creates a perfect breeding ground for rhetoric to develop as it influences BreadTube’s own idea of itself and what it aims to achieve in the political space.

Why the term has been so frequently misused lately relates to a troubling trend in media coverage where a term popularized in a context bearing all but specificity. This is what happened to “BreadTube” after Kevin Roose’s big expose went up for the New York Times–at first there was near-unanimous appreciation for the new-found attention that media has given the story of a marginalized YouTube community. But after the dust settled, the blessing started to look more like a curse, and to much of many’s disapproval, “BreadTube” no longer became its creators’ produce–it was now an easily-exploitable media framing device that some who hadn’t even taken part of the BreadTube parade had appropriated, while creators who were part of the movement even before the term was coined were left out.

Kat Blaque was the first to poke a hole in the term’s accepted meaning. Mainly, she had an issue with how LeftTube — a community where its privileged and dominant should place the concerns of the underprivileged and marginalized above their own — came to be so white. Kat makes a sound point in denoting that she’d been at the YouTube game since its very infancy, so it was understandably hard for her to see creators on the melanin-deficient side gain more traction than her in a fraction of the time it took her to cultivate an audience. This is a sound criticism to make as YouTube has proven consistently that it floats to the top of its recommendations very consistently individual creators of the straight white male variety–chief among them is PewDiePie. But to add even more salt to the wound, the audience whom Kat was supposed to cater to, had assigned her the racist stereotype of an “angry black woman”, completely forgoing the very high quality scripted content she produced on a regular basis. That innate bias was further confirmed when her channel noticed a dip in subscriptions as she sought to highlight the experiences of marginalized people through her own series “JSYK”, as the theoretical vying for more marginalized perspectives proved to be practically non-existent. Kat’s criticism of the space — and subsequently the term — put into focus a stark dissonance between the aspirational idea of what BreadTube and its audiences are, versus what they actually are in reality.

Another major strand of criticism came in the form of a twenty-minute video by T1J, focusing on the sectarian aspect of BreadTube, and its propensity to exclude creators from the label in a largely deliberate fashion. Even when creators don the typical profile of a “BreadTuber”, it is within the close realm of possibility for them to be excluded from the label, thus robbing them the opportunity to capitalize on its rising popularity. T1J’s main issue was that the term was very loosely-defined, and it sometimes included by virtue of mere scarcity, creators whose titular activity was informed by leftist ideals through happenstance. When talking about de-radicalization it doesn’t seem so obvious to bring up Lindsay Ellis and Dan Olson as part of the discussion since they mostly live on the periphery of political rhetoric — their social media presence notwithstanding — so why is it that they’re included, but Angie Speaks and Marina Watanabe for instance are not? This has every bit to do with how BreadTube evolved from being a denominative qualifier, to now becoming a full-fledged cultural construct whose reigns of control aren’t any single entity’s own.

Once “BreadTube” broke out the limited confines of niche internet culture and became a more widely-traded currency, it became clear that if its figureheads were going to use this newly-birthed cultural phenomena in any effectual manner, they have to take command of the narrative and not let media outlets foot a delayed bill for misrepresentation. This issue could easily be solved if media ordained duties of writing about BreadTube onto people who actually watch it, but in the absence of that informed frame-of-reference, internet culture critiques will continue to roughly define the term such as it suits their own needs, without digging at the core of what it truly represents–a uniting rallying cry for broad social change, not just the collection of political theory nerds it’s often portrayed as.

Even more volatile, was a much-dreaded discussion around group identity–an “us” versus “them” scenario basically at play. “ BreadTube” started now to take on a more identitarian tone, prompting a large-scale debate on the soul of the movement, and whether being included as a part of it was becoming more important than performing its function. As these words are being penned, discussions are ongoing on what is “BreadTube”, who should be a part of it, and who should — if need be — be excluded from it.

The incentive to being included as a part of LeftTube is fairly obvious. There’s an obvious financial upside, as well as an added bonus of extra media exposure that could potentially open up the door to more eyeballs being set on your content. The problem becomes, when possibly-lucrative exposure is treated as a finite resource, leftist sensibilities immediately kick in trying to artificially assign more of it to some, and less of it to others. Since YouTube is very much indifferent to these considerations, the community is left to conjure up some sort of workable solution to settle them, but what keeps throwing a wrench in these plans’ success, is the very nature by which the left communicates rhetoric on the internet. Marxist doctrine dictates that a great portion of — in this case — social capital should go to the most worse-off, inadvertently creating its own sophisticated form of class-struggle as the rift between BreadTube’s most-famous and least-known starts to dramatically widen over time. And so as inequality started being perceived, Marxist theory swept in to attempt to right the course.

But as much as it’s more obvious in the case of wealth inequality, a miscalculation committed all-too-often is asserting with definite certainty that BreadTubers are the sole arbiters of their own fame. That if — for example — ContraPoints willed it, she could’ve redistributed some of that fame to the lesser-known if she just made a concerted effort to do so; but with the way YouTube has historically worked, the audience’s aspirational idea of promoting less-fortunate creators is just that–an aspiration. Just like when Kat Blaque brought in guests to talk about niche issues for her JSYK series, she discovered the hard way that her audience were there to tune in for Kat Blaque — not some random Joe off-the-street who a small few on social media may have chomped at the bits to see.

As much as YouTube tries to center the conversation of its improvement on providing better grounds for community, the platform has always been personality-driven. Audiences tune in for the authorship of their favorite creators in a way that makes them feel parasocially included. If the BreadTube audience were as uniform as media made it out to be, it would’ve tuned in to every single piece of content by BreadTube creators regardless of who it was made by, no matter the end. But because that audience doesn’t seem to veer too far from the norm — that is, participation is primarily creator-driven— some videos go to accrue millions of views, while some linger in the few thousands. Social media may make it seem like there’s a major overlap, but in reality, there’s not much else beyond some very superficial crossover-appeal.

The right-wing on YouTube has a clear advantage here–they’re much more effective at networking, collaboration, and their audiences are arguably the most reliably-engaged on the whole platform. They view their dedication to right-wing ideals as a political project, rather than an afternoon spent nomming on a snack while the graciousness of bi-lighting braces their screen. That assiduous dedication to seeing their mission through ensures that the pool of viewership stays dispersed — but focused — and isn’t concentrated in one single unmalleable cluster. The obvious downside however, is right-wing YouTubers have very much lost any claim to any distinctive personal aesthetics–see one video by any one of them, and you’ve seen them all.

BreadTube’s great sense of personality is a detriment to its own existence because of the way the algorithm has been constructed. As it was built to only acknowledge very simple patterns of user engagement, figuring out the nuances of each piece of content and making an educated guess on what a typical BreadTube viewer would realistically want to see became second priority. So when progressive YouTubers’ efforts should’ve been focused on controlling the narrative — i.e. taking it upon themselves to define what BreadTube is before media did it for them — they got distracted by a recurring pattern of in-fighting and general division on what the term means, fueled by a foundational misunderstanding of what makes the term “BreadTube” appealing in the first place. “BreadTube” is very quickly starting to forge a new meaning, and it’s one that BreadTubers will have to either embrace and wield to their own advantage, or let malicious actors redefine and turn against them. The only urgent question at this point, is when will the biggest piece of conservative criticism use the word “BreadTube” to designate a target on progressive YouTubers’ backs–it’s not whether any few individuals are overly represented by what has ultimately become a measure of convenience, rather than that of accuracy.

BreadTube’s chief concern should be about empowering right-wing radicals to break free from the vicious cycle of fear-based reactionary politics. Many have found respite in what creators like ContraPoints did. They allowed them to see the world in a much less politically-polarized way, and it gave birth to a new generation of class-conscious activists who, while they may not be following the words of the great philosopher Karl Marx verbatim, have made themselves a useful asset to the conquest of political change in the United States, and around the world. And that, entails much more meaning than the Conquest of Bread-inspired name on all counts.