Hess’ main point is that this child was not actually famous before he died, but now media outlets are bizarrely treating him as if he had been. There’s plenty to unpack there, but she also points out some plain inaccuracies and hypocrisies, and singles out Sam Biddle’s coverage.
Caleb was never reallyfamous. After his death, media outlets haven’t just given him a popularity boost—they’re rewritten his life story to make it seem like he was always a bigger deal than he ever really was. Gawker’s Sam Biddle wrote that Caleb had amassed “millions of fans.” The Bratayley family YouTube channel has 1.7 million subscribers, but Caleb’s personal Minecraft-themed channel had just a fraction of that number—117,000. Biddle also called Caleb “the centerpiece” of the family channel and wrote that he “had been very clearly molded into an appealing, Harmless Cute Male Teen archetype, a valuable commodity in the post-Vine digital entertainment industry.” Also: “Disney’s Maker Studio, a YouTube distribution and production firm, boasted Caleb as part of their stable of viral stars.”
This isn’t exactly true. If any of the Bratayley kids can be considered a breakout star, it’s Caleb’s 10-year-old sister Annie, whose personal gymnastics channel, Acroanna, has 470,000 subscribers—four times the number Caleb’s channel has. (Even that figure isn’t particularly impressive: Given the low advertising rates on YouTube videos andsizable profit cuts taken by YouTube and Maker Studios, even the most popular YouTube stars struggle to make a profit.) It’s Annie who appears as the face of the Bratayley channel on Maker Studios’ official website, not Caleb’s. In Maker’s online store, which hawks vlogger-related apparel, the Caleb-themed T-shirts are listed last, after Annie’s and Hayley’s branded wares. Few recognized Caleb as a teen idol while he was alive. He literally had to die to get that kind of PR.
But now, Caleb’s death is receiving the kind of breathless coverage generally reserved for an A-list celebrity or a victim of a particularly gruesome murder. And in lieu of truly shocking details (or broad international recognition of who Caleb even is), news outlets are inventing plot points to pad out their coverage. Once it had spun the 13-year-old into a megastar, Gawker hammered Caleb’s parents for failing to release specifics about his death. His mother’s initial announcement, which attributed Caleb’s death to “natural causes,” was “vague, to say the least,” Biddle wrote. He slammed other outlets for their “credulity” in reporting the story, suggesting that the family’s statement couldn’t be trusted. Even after local cops announced that “nothing appeared to be criminal, nothing was suspicious and there was no foul play” in Caleb’s death, the theorizing persisted. When Caleb’s parents volunteered more information, People magazine spun that as another suspicious twist: “Caleb’s mother, Katie, originally said that her son died of natural causes, but on Monday, his parents revealed that he likely suffered from an undetected medical condition, though they did not elaborate on what that might be.” (An undetected medical condition is a natural cause.)
After more details failed to satisfy reporters, and as public interest in Caleb mounted, the Bratayley family announced that they had decided to livestream Caleb’s memorial service. Gawker knocked them for that, too. First the Bratayleys were suspiciously vague, but now they’re oversharing. Gross. “Please respect the fact that our son died,” Biddle wrote. “Also, check out his lifeless body being put into the Earth via Periscope.”
The emotional whiplash of this life lived (and monetized) online is legitimately disturbing: Watch Caleb’s video, buy his lunchbox, livestream his funeral. Gawker isn’t wrong to remind us of how utterly horrifying it can be to log on in 2015. But if our response is to pressure Caleb’s parents to gab publicly about the worst moment of their lives—then mock them for doing so—where does that leave the rest of us?People magazine called Caleb’s life “extraordinarily well-documented,” but Caleb’s level of online exposure is not particularly extraordinary: It is typical for 13-year-olds to track every mundane life development on social media, and it’s ordinary for parents to share daily updates about their kids on those networks, too. Gawker said that Caleb’s family provided fans with “every inch and hour of his life on demand,” but that’s a distortion of what the vloggers really showed the world. The Bratayleys posted a 20-minute video to YouTube just about every day; Caleb appeared in most of them for a few minutes.