When Arend Lenderink started posting chatty videos of himself getting stoned, he was working at a coffee shop in New York. (A likable conversationalist who sometimes goes by Arend Richard, Lenderink also calls himself "The Gay Stoner.") A mother who frequented the coffee shop discovered his YouTube channel. She convinced dozens of other mothers and coffee shop patrons to sign a petition, urging the local police department to investigate Lenderink and his YouTube channel.
A sympathetic police officer tipped Lenderink off to the impending investigation, he says. (The cop happened to be a friend of his family.) The next day, the vlogger packed up his apartment – as much of it as he could fit in a U-Haul – and moved to Denver.
Increasingly, people are videotaping themselves getting stoned and sharing the experience with their followers online. Some, like Lenderink, share personal stories between tokes. Others provide educational content and smoking tips. Others simply consume massive amounts of cannabis, and film the results. There's usually some discussion of how many followers they have, or how they got so many followers, or how to get more.
WeedTube Was Born on YouTube
When weed consumers appeared on YouTube, they were christened “weedtubers.” Cannabis enthusiasts are fantastic at combining words to make new hybrid words: budtender, ganjapreneur. (In the early days of medical marijuana, edibles were almost called medibles.)
WeedTubers showcase their glass pieces, their primo buds, their dab rigs (with electric nails, of course), and their home decor, which frequently involves stickers. Some WeedTube stars began smoking on YouTube when they were in a new city, where they didn't have many friends to smoke with in person. On YouTube, they found a community.
Some cannabis content creators have amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Most of them are millennials, but one channel called "Mary Loves Glass" was created to show viewers that "cannabis users can be grandmas," according to the channel. In her videos, Mary smokes out of glass while an assortment of glass (all kinds of glass, including liquor bottles and vases) sits on the shelf behind her. She also takes advice from viewers, like how much water should be in her glass bong.
Another user, Silenced Hippie, is in her early twenties. With over 200,000 followers on Instagram, she is feeling less silenced now. "YOUTUBE DELETED ME AT 429K," reads her Insta profile. She consumes cannabis while taking walks and hanging out.
Over at "Strain Central," another YouTube channel, Josh smokes lots of pot out of lots of bongs.
WeedTubers Love Dabs
While bongs make frequent appearances on WeedTube, dab rigs are even more prominent. The most common type of WeedTube video is a millennial taking a massive dab, and coughing. These dabs involve large amounts of cannabis concentrate.
To stay relevant, video bloggers have to keep one-upping each other. Some gained thousands of followers by taking half-gram dabs. They'd consume an entire half-gram of wax or shatter, and exhale a cloud of smoke while having a coughing fit.
For a while, a half-gram dab was a great way for cannabis vloggers to gain new followers. Then other vloggers started taking full-gram dabs.
WeedTubers became so popular, they even appeared on the now-cancelled Netflix series "Disjointed," starring Kathy Bates. On the show, two characters – a couple of fictional vloggers named "Dank and Dabby" – become famous by taking dabs and bong hits on their online video channel. The characters earn money and free product through their content, but get into trouble when they film themselves smoking in a national forest.
For real cannabis content creators, the possibility of earning revenue through viral videos – and the buzzkill of federal marijuana laws getting in the way – are both very real.
Last March, YouTube began deleting popular cannabis users' channels. Some had amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, and were earning several thousands of dollars per month, according to some estimates.
Like many platforms, YouTube has started moderating its content more. In recent years, all social media companies have faced increased scrutiny. After Russians influenced our 2016 election, and Burmese groups used Facebook to incite violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, it became increasingly difficult for social media companies to remain neutral. Even Reddit was forced to begin moderating its content.
In 2017, YouTube faced a public relations crisis when child abuse videos and other violent content was found on the platform. In late 2017, one YouTube vlogger named Logan Paul uploaded a video where he showed a dead body, and laughed at the suicide victim. The backlash was swift.
As part of this "content crisis," YouTube expanded its staff of moderators to 10,000, by adding 2,000 human moderators in 2018. (They also continue to develop machine-learning algorithms to flag violent extremist content.) In August, YouTube deleted all videos associated with the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The company explained that his videos were promoting violence towards a group of people.
Meanwhile, YouTube was also deleting the channels of cannabis content creators, who weren't inciting anything, except maybe a trend towards bigger dabs. Confused cannabis vloggers appealed the decision. In response, YouTube sent them a generic list of "community guidelines." (YouTube declined to say which of its guidelines had been violated by cannabis content.)
YouTube Hurts Entrepreneurial Content Creators
For vloggers who had successfully "monetized" their content, this was especially painful.
Fortunately, some WeedTubers had built "lifeboats," including personal blogs, podcasts, and newsletter followings. For "The Stoner Mom," who had grown her YouTube audience to 42,000 subscribers over four years, having her YouTube channel terminated wasn't the end of her career.
"YouTube doesn't own the relationships I've built with my amazing sponsors and brand partners," she said. "And YouTube definitely does not own my relationship with my viewers, readers, and listeners.”
For cannabis producers and retailers, traditional advertising is frequently off-limits. So cannabis marketing strategies commonly involve social media influencers.
That's why "sponsored content" is a large part of a cannabis content creator's life, as Lenderink explains. He never successfully monetized his YouTube content through ad revenue, he says, but he has several sponsors.
So, Lenderink decided to create a separate video platform, exclusively for WeedTubers, to help them further monetize their content. He crowdfunded the project, TheWeedTube.com, and easily met his fundraising goal.
At first, he intended for his new site to work synergistically with YouTube creators. He was inspired by Patreon, a site where fans can directly support an artist's work. Still, even with WeedTube, cannabis content creators wouldn't exactly be making millions, he said.
"But we can make an honest living," he told fellow WeedTubers.
The Weedtuber Genre Isn’t Mainstream
"WeedTube is dead," said some prominent WeedTubers, who were talking about WeedTube as a genre of YouTube.
"WeedTube isn't dead," said Lenderink, in another video, referring the new WeedTube. "It's underground."
His new site wasn't exactly ready to launch. But he didn't have a choice, he says.
"When YouTube started terminating accounts, we knew we had to step in,” Lenderink told BuzzFeed News.
He rushed his launch date forward, and made a sudden announcement about WeedTube, on YouTube. (He was concerned YouTube was about to delete his channel.) WeedTubers immediately started joining the new WeedTube, he says.
Within one week of launching TheWeedTube.com, his new company was seeing ad revenue.
You won't be making money if you only have 10,000 followers, Lenderink warns.
"I didn't start making money until I had 20,000 subscribers," he tells his subscribers.
When YouTube deleted Lenderink's account, he had amassed nearly 200,000 subscribers.
The Cannabis Influencer Blues
This problem is familiar to cannabis influencers and businesses on Instagram and Facebook. Both major social media platforms frequently delete cannabis-related accounts.
It's a catch-22: an influencer, in order to influence, must become popular. But if they become too popular, the platform will delete their account. This is likely to remain a problem, as long as cannabis is still federally illegal.
This problem has inspired several entrepreneurs to create alternative social media platforms, geared exclusively to the cannabis community.
In 2013, entrepreneurs launched MassRoots, a social media platform like Facebook, but specifically for cannabis enthusiasts. It quickly raised money from investors, but it never became profitable. In 2016, it lost $18 million, according to the Marijuana Business Daily. In 2017 alone, it lost $44 million.
This has not deterred other entrepreneurs from creating other weed-specific platforms. In 2016, app-makers launched "TokeWith," for people who want to live stream themselves smoking pot.
It's unclear whether platforms designed exclusively for cannabis content can succeed.
But it's very clear that people enjoy watching other people smoke pot on the internet.
For now, you can still do that on YouTube. The company has only deleted the most popular cannabis YouTube channels, like Lenderink's "The Gay Stoner," plus "Strain Central," "The Silenced Hippie," and "The Stoner Mom," among others.
You can also watch people smoke pot on Linderink's WeedTube. But some users are struggling to use the site effectively, because the app version still hasn't launched.
Creating a Community
Despite Lenderink's charming persona as "The Gay Stoner," I didn't think anyone could top the fictional cannabis content creators, Dank and Dabby, from Netflix. As stoner archetypes, consuming heroic amounts of pot in their videos, Dank and Dabby did capture the vast majority of what's happening on WeedTube.
But not entirely. Because vloggers like Arend (and the grandmotherly Mary, and the legions of young women with heavy eye makeup and perfectly-shaped brows, who take massive dabs on camera) are also showing us that stoners don't all look the same. There are stoner moms. There are stoner grandmas, minority stoners, LGBTQ stoners.
"I think the cannabis industry is super homophobic," Linderink told OutFront Magazine. "The LGBTQ community is not catered to at all by the cannabis industry. They don't consider us part of the demographic, when in reality we are a huge part of the demographic."
Linderink's videos are helping to change that. On YouTube and WeedTube, cannabis vloggers are doing more than taking full-gram dabs and binge-eating edibles. (Although they are definitely doing those things too.) Cannabis content creators are creating more than just content. They're also creating community – one that's hopefully more welcoming and inclusive, for stoners of all stripes.