Understanding the Internet-Born Power Dynamic of Colleen Ballinger

A personal perspective on the YouTube star's controversial behaviors with fans, and the dynamic rooted in stan culture.

Comedy Features Colleen Ballinger
Understanding the Internet-Born Power Dynamic of Colleen Ballinger

The first statement that I heard surrounding Colleen Ballinger’s predatory behavior was from a friend who I wouldn’t have expected to toss around her name, or care about her goings-on, immediately signaling that this must be bad. I thought that Ballinger had outgrown her period of relevancy on the Internet, and the teenaged target audience who once adored her. My friend had gotten the detailed run-down of the accusations of grooming and pedophilia adjacent to Ballinger, while simultaneously being introduced to a pocket of the Internet called Stan Twitter in the same sitting, from the H3 Podcast titled “Colleen Ballinger Powerpoint.” 

Ballinger has been building a career off the foundation of a committed adolescent following on YouTube since 2008, labeling herself as “PG-13” comedy and claiming that she lets parents decide whether or not their kids should be allowed to watch her provocative videos that read as family-friendly up until first click. Her content is uninhibited, and inventive for her era, painting red lipstick across her face and utilizing the word “porn” to describe anything she deems as inappropriate, which is most things. She often jokes about sexual situations involving her uncle, hinting towards incestuous implications, and other mature topics through her childish persona she has described as a character based on “people who are idiots.” 

To an outsider, this kind of punchline might sound more adjacent to a edgier brand of satire/irony similar to crude YouTube comedians like Idubbbz, PewDiePie, Sam Hyde—but in the Miranda Sings world, this is all very normal, and hardly grazing a level of offensiveness near to those previously mentioned. Ballinger somehow makes jokes about incest without crossing a line into an extreme—though in reflection, these jokes don’t sit as well as they might’ve 10 years ago, and are growing closer and closer to that line, especially knowing that they land directly into a young, unknowing audience.

Miranda Sings is a satirical character portrayed by Colleen Ballinger, and an entire universe to a lot of people my age who are now entering their early- to mid-twenties. Since the beginning of her career, she has amassed over 10 million followers on the Miranda Sings’ YouTube channel and 9 million on Colleen Ballinger, eventually starring and producing her own comedy show on Netflix called Haters Back Off! Touring around the country and selling out live shows, Ballinger has reveled in success and internet fame up until the recent accusations.

Like most popular YouTubers, she has a large, devoted following on social media sites, including Twitter. In YouTube’s Golden Age and slow downhill spiral to follow, many creators garnered cult followings on Twitter. Not only were creators well-known, maintaining tight-knit online communities, but certain online accounts within their fandom, called stans, could be deemed “famous” too, just for being noticed by their idol. Often, these accounts would bond and create group chats where they could speak privately with each other, and their idols. 

As someone who has been on Twitter since age 12, I’ve grown up believing that the close dynamic between the big accounts and creators is nothing out of the ordinary. I never second guessed a direct message from someone who I looked up to, or the balance of power of group chats I participated in. When I went online, my only worry was in making sure that a grown man wasn’t posing behind any of the accounts who I befriended. The thought of creators themselves being harmful felt outlandish, but it’s now happened multiple times, and it’s important to acknowledge that they’re just people too. 

I always held an immense respect for the creators who took the time to go online and give back to the people who supported them, and essentially put a roof over their heads. It forces me to wonder: are they all in the wrong for connecting with us in this way?


Talking via Twitter to someone with millions of followers almost convinces you that they aren’t actually real, just their gleaming online persona floating in a dark abyss. I experienced this first hand with Ariana Grande, Tana Mongeau, and various other Twitter worlds adjacent to the group of young people who followed Colleen Ballinger. I remember when Grande had invited a group of famous stans to dinner, Taylor Swift would pick stan accounts out of a crowd to meet her at her shows, James Charles would meet up with his most famous stan from New York whenever he was in the city, or Mongeau would bring my friends and I backstage at her shows because she got to know us personally through our fan accounts. All of these behaviors made us feel special, and I don’t believe that they are all inherently bad. It has to be done right, and idols must work hard to enforce certain boundaries to allow these unusual relationships to keep from becoming manipulative or abusive. 

Celebrities who would return the love and support they received from their followers gained more immense support than they started out with. They were connecting with people who loved them and strengthening their fandom, and it might’ve just been for their own benefit, but it was still making people happy. Teenagers at the time would spend hours on Twitter, sharing content and jokes that might’ve been beyond their age, aiming to get even just a like on their tweet from their favorite person. A lot of young people came online as an escape from the world in front of them. My youth was spent devoting myself to getting noticed during tweet sprees, live streams, and group chat conversations. With a lack of in-person friendships, I spent hours on Skype with Internet friends where we’d spend hours waiting up for song or video releases, live-tweeting the whole thing, and hoping to gain traction on the posts. It felt almost like the main timeline of my life for a long time, while the physical world around me was only background noise in a reality where kids could befriend anyone in the world, even Ariana Grande. However, knowing the experience first-hand, sometimes it only raised my dopamine, left me glowing for about five minutes until being let back down lower than before and in need of more. It didn’t always lead to good decisions. 

Colleen Ballinger

When I heard about the accusations towards Ballinger, I was conflicted. A lot of the people around me were finding issues in the relationship dynamic that Ballinger held with fans, labeling her behavior creepy for simply being in contact with them. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard multiple friends express that they don’t think anybody should be able to talk to their fans so closely, it’s completely weird and otherworldly, creating an odd power dynamic between the people involved. As a result, I’ve been led to question my own sense of reality surrounding online relationships and those born from stan culture with a potential for abuse. I can’t imagine how damaging and/or conflicting it must have been for the kids involved in the “Colleeny’s Weenies” group chat who have come out with stories of their own.

Screenshots have recently surfaced of Ballinger’s questionable exchanges with her group chat of well-known fan accounts, consisting largely of 13- to 17-year-old minors. She asked fan Adam McIntyre to send photos of his ass when he jokingly told the chat that it looked great, she gossiped about people in her fandom, shared information about her divorce, trauma-dumped about her life, and asked the young fans if they were virgins and what their favorite sex positions are. It was a clear overstepping of boundaries, and ignorant behavior from a 30-year-old woman. Partly a result of the climate of the time, and partly sheer ignorance of the boundaries necessary when communicating with minors. 

To call Colleen Ballinger’s behavior “pedophilic” feels wrong, when she was only doing something that many thought was perfectly normal at the time. She may have never intended to be creepy, or even lacked an awareness about the age gap and power dynamic in which she was indulging. Clearly she had been feeding her own narcissism by communicating with these fans who would stand behind her unconditionally and made horrible mistakes within the bounds of the group chat. However, it is hard to argue in support of Ballinger’s intention, when she couldn’t even provide people with a genuine apology

Even if Ballinger meant no harm by her actions, it doesn’t really matter. She put people who looked up to her in an uncomfortable position and hurt them within this dynamic. 

There are a lot of inherent problems that arise when looking at the ability to interact with one’s idol directly, and it’s a special circumstance, unique from any generation preceding our present time. For the kids involved, it provides a sense of hope and community. I found it very important to find safety here—but even without there being active abuse stemming from the person in power, I find things popping up for me that originate from these intimate stan-idol relationships. Everyone who I meet is placed on a pedestal in my mind and it’s likely because I’m so used to doing it. Social media today facilitates and exacerbates this, as it only emphasizes a divide in humanity even more, allowing us to view each other like walking photographs, idealized and untouchable. 

When talking with friends about how to tackle these issues, we often find ourselves discussing larger Gen-Z specific problems. Something we always return to after a lot of tracing back to the cause is Dunbar’s Number. It is a theory proposed by Robin Dunbar that suggests that there is a healthy cap on how many people we should know as individuals. While this is not a direct cause of Ballinger’s behavior, or the culture behind Stan Twitter, it’s an interesting theory to consider when dissecting our interpersonal relationships that have become much easier to obtain due to the rise of social media. It causes me to question if I was ever really meant to talk to any of my idols online, if it might’ve ruined the way we interact with one another, or if everything can be completely normal in moderation.

This is an unprecedented social dilemma that our generation carries close to their chest, with a close relationship to one’s idol being more accessible than ever. It makes it hard to remember that it’s a real person you’re speaking to, and not just a dopamine rush. Ballinger’s mistakes with her fans have represented a prime example of this specific abuse of power and can be something to learn from.

Soon after grappling with this issue, I found out that Ballinger’s actions went far beyond messages that she sent in the group chat. She has been reported as bullying various fans, or putting them into uncomfortable situations in real life. She made comments about a fan’s weight during a meet and greet on tour. During one of her live shows, she selected a fan named Becky out of a crowd for a section of the show called “the yoga challenge” and spread Becky’s legs open onstage in order to reach a punchline that she had farted while in that position. In only a skirt, Becky was extremely exposed onstage and revealed to the internet that she was extremely uncomfortable with what happened. As she left the venue when the show came to a close, older men were staring her down like they hadn’t been before Ballinger had put her on display for the crowd. 

The most recently surfaced allegation floating around the internet is that Colleen Ballinger would fat shame Youtuber Trisha Paytas, mocking her OnlyFans sex work in messages between her and friends. Proof of such texts exist on Twitter, uploaded by an ex-employee of Ballinger. Trisha responded with a video, discussing how Ballinger’s behavior is harmful and demeaning towards sex workers as a whole.

It doesn’t end with Ballinger, as her best friend Kory had sent porn to the young followers in a group chat of minors called Kory’s Klit. In 2018, her brother Trent Ballinger sent the most disturbing messages of them all to a minor in the group chat, going as far to try to exchange phone numbers with the under-aged fan named Oliver (they/he), who was age 13 at the time, and whom Trent asked for a video of him “giving someone a hug,” and often commented on photos that they would post of themselves. 

I reached out to Oliver*, who is now 18, and chatted with them about their story and further reflection on Ballinger’s recent cancellation. After being a part of the Colleen fandom for multiple years, the teen thought that Trent was initially safe to communicate with since he was associated with the Ballinger family. Oliver tells me about the overall climate of the time, and how everyone wanted to be noticed by the Ballingers: “I often found myself excusing behavior of his in my head that would otherwise be alarming because he was Colleen’s brother, and I idolized Colleen at the time.”

Not too long into messaging with Trent, Oliver noticed things that were off. Early into their conversation, the grown Ballinger brother asked Oliver not to share their messages with anyone, admitting that he was told that he shouldn’t be talking to minors. The fan believes that Colleen Ballinger knew about his inappropriate behavior: “She cared more about how it would make her look if it came out than the fact that he was actually doing it.” Trent’s interactions with fans have not been acknowledged publicly by anyone in the Ballinger family, despite letting him attend some home-town shows where he met young fans.

In addition to Ballinger ignoring the messages that have been blowing up all over social media, she failed to even apologize for any of her behavior or ignorance surrounding the situation in her response video. Opening with an avoidant stare fixed on a point outside of focus, Ballinger grabs a ukulele and pauses to let us adjust to the scene of her gray couch and solitary living room setup. She then fixes her gaze into the camera’s lens, strums a chord on her ukulele, and starts to sing about cancel culture. She declares Twitter a “toxic gossip train chugging down the tracks of misinformation,” painting the allegations against her as “rumors” that are somehow stifling her apology before it has even been uploaded. She sings that “there were times in the DMs when I would overshare details of my life, which was really weird of me / I haven’t done that in years, you see, because I changed my behavior and took accountability / But that’s not very interesting, is it?” The video trivializes evidence posted by followers who have been manipulated, hurt, and groomed by the Ballinger family. Not once does she allow the words “I’m sorry” to leave her mouth.

There is speculation by fans on Twitter and discussion on the H3 Podcast that the Ballinger family is likely aware of the grooming by her brother Trent, and it is the reason Colleen left him out of her videos for a long time and only posted a Q&A with him after an influx of comments from fans asking about him. Through this video, Trent Ballinger had been given a platform to then message and befriend the accounts online who supported the comedy star. 

“There need to be boundaries upheld between creators and their fans,” Oliver tells me. “It may vary from person to person, but there definitely should always be healthy boundaries. I do think this whole situation is an important story to tell, because it can warn other people about the dangers of these power dynamics.”

*Oliver’s surname is not included in this article for privacy reasons. 

Brittany Deitch is an intern at Paste.

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