For YouTube stars, though, the bar is different. If viewers know a YouTuber is in a relationship, the relationship—in all its #relationshipgoals glory—often becomes an integral part of the YouTuber’s video stream, from daily vlogs of the couple to video tags like the ever-popular “My Boyfriend Does My Makeup.” Video stars not only document the relationship, but also publicize and discuss when it’s over—making the breakup an oddly participatory event, emotionally hard-hitting for both YouTubers and their viewers.
Take the video “Life Update,” uploaded by the YouTube star Colleen Ballinger in September 2016. As of mid-March, the video had over 11 million views on Ballinger’s channel—though it has since been deleted and re-uploaded on other channels. “Joshua and I are getting a divorce,” she announces between sighs, sniffles, and tears. “Man, that sucks to say out loud.”
After the divorce, Ballinger’s and Evans’s separate, teary-eyed announcements feel like parents sitting their kids down to tell them they’re splitting up. That’s pretty much what it is, anyway—only in this case, the kids number in the millions. The fans respond through comments; on Evans’s video, one of the top comments—with 1,194 upvotes—reads, “They were brave for putting their love story on the internet, don’t be trolls.”
Ballinger and Evans aren’t alone in this spectacle of sympathy. There are plenty of YouTube couples: Others, who are still together, include the beauty star Zoella and her vlogger boyfriend Alfie, known as PointlessBlog, and the recently controversial PewDiePie and Marzia. It’s not all sad. Fans compile clips of their favorite couple, and make couple names like Joshleen, for Ballinger and Evans. But for every happy couple, there’s one that just didn’t work: “We’re Breaking Up,” “Why We Broke Up,” “We Broke Up,” “The End.”
What’s unsettling, of course, is that these videos are also click-driving content. YouTube creates a platform where stars can profit off their pain, and viewers watch their emotions as entertainment. YouTubers know that breakups boost view counts. Sometimes couples even post videos with titles implying breakups to grab eyeballs, though those often turn out to be pranks or just misleading. In haunting prescience, in 2013, Ballinger and Evans posted a video titled “We broke up,” though it was really just a relationship-focused Q&A.
This commodification of personal life is largely what sets YouTubers apart from Hollywood celebrities, according Crystal Abidin, an anthropologist at Curtin University in Perth who studies people who have become famous through social media. “Many of them do have other talents, but no matter how you look at it, the bulk of this industry, the influencer industry, is their personal lives,” she says.
Essentially, to gain viewership and retain a mass of followers, Abidin observes, YouTubers shooting for lasting fame have no choice but to make their lives hypervisible. When money is tied to clicks or sponsorship-backing, radio silence comes at a cost. A breakup announcement has a strategic benefit: It doesn’t only reel viewers into one video, but prompts them to follow a YouTuber’s journey after or to go back in time to see what happened before it.
Milestones like relationship announcements, engagements, or even breakups create markers that viewers remember, says Abidin. Moreover, they help “influencers” build their brand identity. Since the lifestyle vlogger Aspyn Ovard’s marriage in 2015—documented on YouTube, of course—she and her husband, Parker Ferris, have capitalized on their relationship through sponsored couples-cooking videos and branded trips to Bora Bora. When the beauty vlogger Fleur DeForce announced her engagement in 2012, she launched a spin-off channel called Bride DeForce for bridal content—with the new milestone came another market for viewership.
Still, the appearance of authenticity, whether real or not, genuinely emotionally engages viewers. Fans spend hours watching, and they take it personally when their favorite YouTube couples split up. For them, there’s clearly an emotional stake in the relationship. They leave sad comments about their own heartbreak, or even make their own videos discussing the breakup.
In one response, a YouTuber who goes by MeetingSkyler discusses a breakup between a couple known to fans as Shannon and Cammie. “I feel this emptiness inside my heart,” she says, but acknowledges that other longer-standing fans likely feel even more heartbroken.
In an email, she expanded on how the couple made her feel: “In every one of their videos, there are small gestures shared between them that convinced me the love is real. … When people get invested in [relationships], real life or not, sometimes it’s because we’re seeking for something we lack in our own lives. We see the love, the chemistry and it warms our heart, so when the source of the happiness is destroyed just like that, there is no doubt that people from the fandom may get very depressed.”