It Takes Two: The Big Business Of Twinning On YouTube
YouTube’s top twins are finding ways to build brands around a personal experience that already fascinates much of the public.
At VidCon, the annual conference that celebrates all things Internet #content, it isn’t uncommon to see screaming middle school-aged girls flocking towards their favorite creator with the same fervor as a Black Friday shopper sprinting towards Best Buy’s TV section. If the latter is a crowd comprised of sleep-deprived deal hunters with a death-grip on their coffee thermoses, the former is an overwhelming wave of glitter-covered braids, sling backpacks, and t-shirts bearing slogans such as “Don’t Vlog Me Right Now” and “Clickbait.”
But this year, the concrete pathways that connected the buildings of the Anaheim Convention Center where VidCon is held were not just full of standalone creators holding meet and greets with their young fans. The June event appeared to be the site of a twin (and, sometimes, triplet) creator takeover: Lines of squealing viewers queued up for hugs and photos with their favorite YouTuber doubles.
Twins are a subject of collective fascination that spans decades, genres, and mediums, and was destined to hit the creator space. After all, the interest has been prevalent in pop culture for decades. The Parent Trap — both the 1961 original and 1998 Lindsay Lohan reboot — romanticized the twin experience, leading millions of young girls to imagine maybe they too had a lookalike somewhere who could finish their sentences and, even better, swap closets. If The Parent Trap turned twinning into a fantasy, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen turned it into a business, first as trend-setting child stars in the late '90s (with their own branded toothpaste, furniture, cosmetics, and line of Walmart kids clothes), and then as successful authors and high-end designers.
But on YouTube, twin creators offer something the Olsens did not: A chance to understand what living life as a pair is actually like IRL, rather than through fictitious narratives. The increasing number of twins who are successful there fully embrace their twin status, revealing what it’s like to be a double in the same raw way that other creators get real about break-ups, fights, and everyday insecurities. In doing so, they are finding ways to build brands around a personal experience that much of the public already treats as a spectacle.
With subscriber counts growing by hundreds of thousands each month and views in the millions, YouTube’s top twins show no sign of slowing down. They’re parlaying their success online into an offline presence, and not just at events like VidCon. Many of the most popular pairs, from the Dolans to the Dobres, are expanding their reach — and increasing their net worths, already estimated in the millions — by going on tour and selling merch. Twinning, in the most literal sense of the word, has never been more visible, but it’s a brand identity that comes with its own unique set of challenges.
From a purely logistical standpoint, there are benefits to running a channel with someone else. “There’s a lot of work that goes into [creating videos], so it’s nice to split that up and go fifty-fifty,” Bailey McKnight, one half of the twin duo Brooklyn and Bailey, says. Together, the 18-year-old sisters boast over 5.3 million YouTube subscribers. They also have their own eponymous mascara and velvet-scrunchie lines.
Grayson and Ethan Dolan, 18, (i.e. the Dolan twins), who have over 6 million subscribers to their YouTube channel, jokingly break it down more bluntly:
“Grayson doesn’t really know how to work cameras,” Ethan says.
“I do the technical part of editing that Ethan never learned,” Grayson counters.
Having an extra set of hands and an additional skill set are not the only upsides to being a package deal on YouTube. If they were, you might only see one twin onscreen while the other remains unseen in a directing or producing capacity. Beyond the filming basics, twinning provides an endless source of fresh, creative content.
One of the first videos posted by Vanessa and Veronica Merrell (i.e. the Merrell twins), in 2011 addressed “What It’s Like To Be A Twin.” (The 21-year-old duo has 3.5 million followers, their own fashion line with cheekily named products like ‘That’s A Cool Jacket’ Jacket and "Got Me Hooked" Top, and branded merch that includes their double M logo and a tie-dye shirt with the slogan “Twinners Are Winners”.) The comments on that first video range from the wishful (“It would be so cool to have a twin”) to the relatable (“I am a twin and I know exactly how it feels like”). Many YouTube twins have their own variation of this video, answering common questions and dispelling myths about issues such as twin telepathy, but it has also been spun out into more nuanced twin challenges and pranks.
The Dobre twins, Lucas and Marcus, 19, who have over 10.7 million subscribers to their channel, are masters of these kinds of videos. From “My Girlfriend Kissed My Twin Brother” to the more questionable “I Cheated On My Girlfriend Prank,” which involved putting Marcus Dobre in a blond wig to “trick” Lucas’s girlfriend into believing what the video’s title implied, the twins aren’t afraid to use their lookalike appearances to their advantage when creating content.
“Twins are twins. We know that if one of us was to change our appearance drastically and the other didn’t, it would actually mess with our brand.”
Vanessa Merrell, YouTube Creator
But being a twin and treating that joint identity as a brand also comes with an inevitable downside: For starters, fans can develop rigid expectations about how they want to see their favorite pairs dress and appear in videos.
“Twins are twins,” Vanessa Merrell says. “We know that if one of us was to change our appearance drastically and the other didn’t, it would actually mess with our brand.”
This means that if one twin wants to change their look, the other needs to do the same. Or, the one making the change needs to find a workaround. (If this makes you think of the ear piercing scene in The Parent Trap, you’re not alone.) When Vanessa Merrell decided she wanted to get bangs, for example, she chose a specific style that was easy to hide during filming. While the Merrells say they don’t always plan on looking the same (“In the future, I want to cut my hair short,” Vanessa says), they will as long as they’re making YouTube content.
Lucas and Marcus Dobre also make sure to dress the same on camera, even if they’re not always matching in real life. Doing so pleases two audiences: “Fans love when we dress the same,” Lucas says. “So does our mom. They just think it’s cute, I guess.”
This thinking carries over to their Instagram accounts. The twins’ joint account is full of photos of them in identical tracksuits (paired with Dobre-branded slides, part of a larger merch selection), camo tank tops, and white cotton robes. On their individual Instagram accounts, meanwhile, they have a chance to show more of their own personality, and wear clothes that reflect their individual style. But the twins say they would never bring the same approach to YouTube and start their own channels there. “We’ll always work together,” Marcus says. “We even turn things down if a company wants only me.”
This is a matter of personal preference. There is not any extra monetary value specifically attributed to being a pair: Rates are based on audience size and viewership, not the number of creators producing the content.
This emphasis on playing up the identical part of being an identical twin doesn’t hold true for all pairs. Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight, for example, are more open to showing differences in their appearance: Bailey’s hair is dyed hot pink, while Brooklyn’s is not. “As an identical twin you kind of have to formulate your own identity,” Brooklyn says.
Fans’ unrealistic expectations don’t stop at looks, however. They often prefer to see their favorite twins together at all times, even if that means taking matters into their own hands. When Lucas Dobre started putting his girlfriend, Ivanita, in videos, the brothers were curious to see what the reaction would be like from their audience. Instead of complaining about her presence or saying she disrupted the pair’s normal dynamic, fans took a different route: They wanted to find Marcus a girlfriend, too.
At the same time, many YouTube twins are well accustomed to fans picking a favorite between the two. They admit this comes with the territory.
“There are a lot of people who are in my lane or Ethan’s lane,” Grayson Dolan says. “Sometimes they will swerve lanes and be in one lane or the other, but there are some people who are strictly in one lane and who really only like Ethan.”
He learned about these allegiances when the twins decided to swap lives for a day (as part of a video, of course), switching Instagram accounts and phones in the process. “I posted a photo of myself on [Ethan’s] account and everyone was like, ‘Ethan, get this ugly ass off your account,’” Grayson says. “I know they were joking.”
While the Merrell twins admit the choosing sides element of online life can be challenging — it’s hard enough to deal with favoritism in the halls of high school, let alone comment sections — they have learned to ignore the haters.
“We make every single YouTube video together,” Vanessa Merrell says. “So they’re still going to be watching me, even if they like Veronica more. So, yeah, it stinks sometimes. But they’re still watching our videos and supporting us, so we love it.”
Although the twins creating content on YouTube are treated as unique phenomena in their own right, the fascination with twinning that they face — including standard questions about everything from who was born first? to can you feel each other’s pain? (answer: no, they cannot) — are simply exaggerations of an experience many non-famous twins and their families deal with on a daily basis. The difference is, YouTube’s pairs are building massive fan bases that rival those of the platform’s most subscribed-to creators. In January 2017, the Dobre twins had just 8.6 million views monthly. By January of this year, that number multiplied to 135 million and it now stands at an impressive 250 million.
Rosanna Guadagno, Ph.D, a social psychology researcher in Stanford’s Peace Innovation Lab and herself the mother of twin girls, believes that twins, both off and especially online, will continue to drive public interest, but that the intrigue may lessen in future generations. Today, twins still make up a relatively small number of annual births: Of the over 3.9 million people born in 2016, only 131,723 were twins. But as more women choose to have children later in life, they are opting for in-vitro fertilization, which increases the chances of having twins and multiples. The more common twinning becomes, the less unique it will seem. Nevertheless, Guadagno says, this shift is likely many years away from happening. In other words, it’s still prime time to be a twin on YouTube.
All of the pairs of twins spoken to for this piece plan on continuing to work together as they grow older, though some are more open to individual opportunities than the inseparable Dobre twins.
“If an opportunity comes up for either one of us that’s a great one, we’re not going to hold each other back,” Ethan Dolan says. However, he makes sure to add that the pair would only consider splitting up for a separate project and has no plans to do so on YouTube.
After all, for twinning to be successful as a business and brand, it takes two.