Depp v. Heard is the first celebrity trial of the streaming age, where content is king. Its livestreamed proceedings have become a rich text for creators and curators who have mined more than 100 hours of testimony for content for their own channels. TikTok is flush with trial supercuts, Twitter with frenzied hot takes, Twitch with streamers watching and memeing the trial live, and YouTube with all of the above. As a result, the trial has achieved a stunning digital ubiquity online, at once hard to look away from and impossible to escape, as compelling as it is intrusive.
The court case is the culmination of six years of litigious bitterness between actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, who were married in February 2015. In May 2016, Heard filed for divorce and for a temporary restraining order against Depp, who she alleges verbally and physically abused her. Depp is now suing Heard for $50 million, claiming a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which she calls herself “a public figure representing domestic abuse,” but does not name Depp directly, was defamatory and prompted Disney to remove him from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Depp’s claim implies that Heard’s account of abuse is fictitious. He has argued in court that, in fact, he was the victim of malicious physical and verbal attacks during their relationship.
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Opening the livestream every morning feels like gambling with your mental health.
Opening the livestream every morning feels like gambling with your mental health. Over the course of a single day, April 26, the public saw video of Depp’s small house on his private island estate, then heard from the manager of the property on topics including Depp and Heard’s wedding, physically intervening in a dispute between the couple, an island visit from Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly and their children, and how Depp may have sold his yacht to J.K. Rowling. Next, a forensic psychologist diagnosed Heard with Borderline Personality Disorder and Histrionic Personality Disorder as the live chat commented on the psychologist’s looks and nicknamed her “Dr. Mommy.” (A forensic psychologist later called by Heard’s team testified that she did not have Borderline Personality Disorder.) Then, after a 15-minute break, an LAPD officer testified to visiting Heard after an alleged domestic dispute and finding no evidence of violence.
It’s a lot to take in.
One of the most addictive elements of the trial is the endless parade of absurd characters who have been called to testify, dragged into the dark, intimate horrors of the alleged abuse by their proximity to Depp and Heard. These are the people you almost never see: the whirring cogs and level pullers behind the gleaming facade and the normies basking in the glowing concentric circles of the rich and famous. There’s the artist who paints naked caricatures of celebrities and has lived rent-free on Depp’s property for decades, the seething former assistant who has alleged that Heard adopted her experience with sexual assault as her own, and the posh house manager who found the severed piece of Depp’s finger in a crumpled paper towel. Of the dozens of witnesses called, the most memorable might be the front desk attendant who was deposed in his car, vaped as he answered questions and, in the last minutes of his testimony, began to drive. Heard’s lawyer Elaine Bredehoft called it “the most bizarre deposition.” The judge looked stunned, “I’ve just never seen that before,” she said, “I’ve seen a lot of things, but I’ve never seen that.”
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The whole trial, frankly, has been bizarre, because hearing the intricacies of a troubled relationship and alleged abuse read aloud in court for a global audience is bizarre. This feeling is especially overwhelming when the most scintillating personal details become mundane in the harsh glare of a courtroom’s fluorescent lighting. In one filmed deposition, Depp and Heard’s former manager and Lady Gaga’s former fiance, Christian Carino, slouched in boredom as he replied to questions about Heard’s break up with billionaire Elon Musk with mildly annoyed indifference. “You weren’t in love with him and you told me a thousand times you were just filling space,” he had texted Heard. This testimony was followed by a particularly tedious back-and-forth between Heard’s lawyer and Depp’s divorce lawyer, who was testifying to her work on the couple’s separation and has also mediated the divorces of clients like Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, and Kelis and Nas. At times during both of these sessions, live chat commenters on YouTube claimed to be bored.
The most savvy YouTube creators are curating these sessions for viewers, plucking out the very best bits and leaving the rest. To optimize clicks, they’ll comment on Carino’s texts and disregard the dry legalese of the divorce lawyer. And when they run out of compelling narratives, they fabricate them, turning the minutiae of Heard’s facial movements into commentary on her character.
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Small creators who have shifted their content from gaming, beauty, and other genres to the trial have seen their view counts balloon from hundreds to millions. This shift extends to YouTube’s expert reactions genre, as psychologists, body language experts, and others comment on the proceedings. In an incredible alignment of interests, a creator who is both a lawyer and a woodworker analyzed Heard’s claims that Depp chipped the wood of a platform bed while assaulting her.
Depp v. Heard has been an absolute boon, in particular, for a channel called The Law & Crime Network, which has been broadcasting court footage on YouTube alongside a live chat frothing with speculation and pro-Depp sentiment. It’s the most popular stream of the trial on YouTube, regularly drawing more than 300,000 concurrent viewers. According to the YouTube analytics site SocialBlade, The Law & Crime Network has gained more than 1 million subscribers since April 12. The channel has been posting since August 2015, yet 42 of its 50 most-watched videos are related to the trial.
Credit: The Law and Crime Network YouTube channel
The channel has achieved this growth by cleverly switching the settings of the live chat accompanying their stream so that viewers must subscribe to the channel to participate. During the court’s 15-minute and hour-long breaks, an on-camera host speaks with purported legal experts and encourages viewers to “pin a question” in the chat. That is deceptive language, as viewers can only “pin” a comment through a paid YouTube feature called Super Chat. The more the viewer pays, the longer their comment stays at the top of the chat feed.
And the viewers in that chat are highly engaged: An April 27 poll asking, “Did the LAPD officers drop the ball the night of May 21st 2016?” gained more than 600,000 votes in less than four hours. When court adjourned on May 5 for a week-long break, viewers commented, “See you guys the 16th. Love you chat” with heart emojis and “see ya team.” Some of the jokes popularized in the live chat can now be purchased as stickers on Facebook Marketplace.
Credit: Facebook Marketplace
After watching more than 80 hours of testimony, I’m bobbing about in an ocean of information about an intimate relationship between two people I’ve never met. I have read their texts, heard their fights, seen inside their homes, and learned about their traumatic childhoods. And yet, for all I now know about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, I will never truly know what they did for and to each other.
At the end of the day, as the trial transforms intimate partner violence into a spectator sport, we all lose.
It would seem that what most people want out of this trial is a winner and a loser, a victim and an abuser. The internet adores a binary, and so do the courts. But in Depp v. Heard, the verdict doesn’t matter much. At the end of the day, as the trial transforms intimate partner violence into a spectator sport, we all lose.