Last week, Caleb Logan Bratayley was a 13-year-old kid who was a little bit famous. Then he died. Now he’s really famous.
For the past several years, Caleb had appeared on his family’s moderately successful YouTube vlogging channel, Bratayley, on a daily basis. The channel was originally launched to make a Web star out of Caleb’s younger sister, but it later evolved into a whole family affair featuring the mundane daily activities of 7-year-old Hayley, 10-year-old Annie, 13-year-old Caleb, and their parents Katie and Billy. Bratayley is not the family’s real last name—it’s a portmanteau of brat and Hayley—but the otherwise anonymous vloggers soon adopted the moniker as their family stage name. On Thursday, Katie posted a photograph of Caleb to Instagram and wrote:
Caleb Logan Bratayley passed away of natural causes. This has come as a shock to all of us. Words cannot describe how much we will miss him. His incredibly funny, loving and wonderful spirit made us all fall in love with him as a YouTuber, friend, brother and son. We know you tune in to watch each day and eagerly anticipate new videos, but ask that you bear with us while we deal with this tragedy as a family.
In the days since, People magazine has published online stories about Caleb’s death, the Internet’s reaction to his death, Caleb’s parents’ subsequent announcement that he had died of an “undetected medical condition,” the family’s history of heart disease (as reported on Good Morning America), the family’s decision to live-stream Caleb’s memorial, and the memorial itself. How many stories did People run about Caleb before he died? Zero stories. Also reporting on Caleb’s death are the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and Gawker, which headlined its story: “Mega-Popular 13-Year-Old YouTube Star Mysteriously Dead.” The website Famous Birthdays, which keeps tabs on top Web video stars like Nash Grier as well as more traditional famous people like Jennifer Lawrence and Donald Trump, has reported a massive spike in Caleb’s “popularity” since his death.
It’s common for a celebrity’s star to rise to new heights after an untimely death (see: Monroe, Marilyn). But something else is happening here. Caleb was never really famous. 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 and sizable 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.) And when the Bratayleys aired even more information, telling Good Morning America about its family history with a heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the International Business Times reported on the disclosure in the most salacious way possible, calling the condition Caleb’s “Possible Autopsy Result.” The “possible autopsy result” of a child YouTube vlogger the publication had never deigned to cover before: That’s a headline.
Reporters are working very hard to make it seem like the circumstances of Caleb’s death are scandalous or that his parents have covered something up. In story after story, Caleb’s death is described as “mysterious.” A more accurate word would be private. There’s nothing mysterious or suspicious about a family that declines to air highly personal details of a child’s death.
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. That’s a lot, but it is far from everything. Many of the videos—“Eat It or Wear It Challenge,” “History in a Hot Tub”—were staged stunts, not intimate reveals. And the Bratayley family set explicit boundaries in broadcasting their personal lives. They never used their real last name publicly or revealed where they live, though Gawker and others have aired those details in the wake of Caleb’s death. If Caleb’s life belonged to the public, then so do all of our lives. Are we OK with that?