“I knew if we made a video talking about our break up,” Ben Hunte says, “that it would get more views. It’s obvious.”
Ben met his former partner, Jack, on a dating app in 2014. The pair began posting videos to their YouTube channel, Our Swirl Life, in 2016, after building a following on Instagram. They were friends with other YouTubers who encouraged the move and Ben had long been interested in presenting on camera.
Over the next two years, the couple gained 47,000 subscribers for their funny and candid videos. Ben and Jack plumbed their personal lives for ‘content’, discussing how they met and making videos about race, relationships, and coming out. They shared their opinions on whether you should have sex on the first date and vlogged their holidays abroad. In the videos Ben was always more talkative than Jack – he has a dark, spiky sense of humour.
Then came an unexpected and seven month long hiatus.
“We didn’t really need to make the video”
When the videos returned the couple had split. They made a half-hearted attempt to continue the channel as friends, rebranding as ‘Jack and Ben 2.0’, but in the end the videos petered off along with the relationship. Separately they each tell me that the toll of making YouTube videos reduced the relationship to a business, with every spare moment devoted to filming, editing and promoting their content.
“Ben and I don’t really speak much anymore,” Jack tells me. “But it’s fine. We’ve both got our own projects now. He’s working at the BBC and I’ve got my own website. It’s fine.”
“We didn’t really need to make it but you just know you’ll reach more people that way,” Ben admits of the couple’s break up video, which was viewed nearly 50,000 times. It is now the last video posted on the Our Swirl Life channel, simply titled ‘Why We Had to End’. The pair had decided to film it partly as a way to promote a BBC documentary made by Ben, discussing influencer couples. Sharing the details of their break up was an effective way to reach as many people as possible.
The ‘YouTube break up video’ has become a genre unto itself. A quick search on the site brings up hundreds of clips with variations of the title ‘We broke up’. Click on one or two and the website’s algorithm kicks in, so that your recommended videos end up featuring the full spectrum of human heartbreak.
Jack and Ben’s offering is a relatively friendly chat filmed months after their separation. Other videos are rawer, featuring sobbing creators talking about their personal lives to millions of people. The go-to move of a divorcing Hollywood couple, that of a 500 word press statement, seems clinical in comparison.
Social media fame is more intimate in nature than traditional celebrity, despite the fact that its subjects often live incredibly ordinary lives in the grand scheme of things. Jack and Ben, like many influencers, have day jobs and relatively ordinary lives in London. Yet when they were dating they would be stopped on their commutes and in pubs by people who watched them weekly. Subscribers were often surprised that the two weren’t joined at the hip in real life. In their videos, after all, they are always side-by-side. When they broke up, the questions intensified.
“It’s not that there’s an obligation to film that video,” Jack says “but you do want to explain what’s going on. Especially when you have a community that’s supported you. For us, the gay community was invested and… just so supportive of us. So we wanted to let everyone know what was going on.”
After the announcement, strangers poured into their social media inboxes and Twitter feeds, offering thoughts on the relationship and the break up. “Guys, take time out to heal. You don’t have to stay friends,” advised one commenter. “This just felt so awkward,” said another.
For full-time YouTube couples - where vlogging is quite literally a day job - the reaction to a break up can be even more intense. In June 2018 the YouTube comic Liza Koshy and vlogger David Dobrik posted a video to David’s channel announcing their separation. Their personal brands, key to a YouTuber’s success, were entwined, and their jokey banter on social media was frequently held up by fans as the epitome true love.
“It’s total morbid fascination”
At the time of writing, Lisa and David’s six-minute break up video has been viewed over 37 million times. It has spawned a multitude of reaction videos, where fans and fellow creators record themselves gasping in shock at the announcement. Subscribers took to Twitter to declare that love was dead and also to offer their support. In the original clip Liza is emotional and has clearly been crying off camera.
“It’s total morbid fascination, that’s why people love them, these really raw, introspective videos,” says Lucy Moon, a British YouTuber. “You’re basically watching reality TV.” Moon, who is 23, has been filming YouTube videos since she was 14. She says that YouTubers face pressure to share more of their lives in order to gain a bigger following.
“I definitely felt that pressure when I was younger,” she says. In the past, Lucy has filmed candid videos about her problematic relationship with alcohol, her sister’s ADHD, and a guide to losing your virginity.
“That’s kind of how I built my channel, I’ve done the personal stuff,” Lucy says. “At the time I wanted to: the audience is always curious about your life. But on reflection you don’t realise how mentally and emotionally draining it is. And on the other side, I see [YouTubers] now consciously filming these break up videos because they know people will watch them.”
Lucy decided not to film a break up video when asked to at the end of a previous relationship.
“It just wasn’t appropriate, we’d never been public as a couple online, we hadn’t branded ourselves together” she says. Today she discusses all sorts of topics on her channel, including relationships, but rarely ventures beyond generalities. “I think of myself as quite closed… I rarely talk about myself in detail but I draw a lot on past experience.”
“It adds too much pressure, this outside pressure to a relationship”
YouTube’s biggest stars have millions of subscribers and lead enviable lives, pursued by brands keen to capitalise on their likeability. But the site is now saturated with content. Vloggers need to maintain their relatability and authenticity to stand out.
“Commodification of personal lives is now the basic premise for building a public persona among commercial YouTubers,” Dr Crystal Abidin, an anthropologist at Curtin University in Western Australia, says. “Breakup videos are popular… sometimes for reasons of emotional investment… but other times as plain schadenfreude.”
Abidin, who studies the nature of online fame, sees a change in the influencer industry. As it becomes more difficult to stand out she says the “cultivated, pristine” appeal of social stars is giving way to “attention-grabbing, disruptive” practices. But for the YouTubers I spoke to, the longer they spend on the platform the less likely they became to fully and openly share their personal lives.
“No. no. Absolutely no,” Jack says, smiling a little as he cuts me off. I am midway through my question: asking whether he would return to couple vlogging with a future partner. But he doesn’t regret the work he put into Our Swirl Life.
“It was great and I think it was important for young gay guys to see us,” he says. “When I was younger I didn’t have that. It would have been great to see a gay couple, living in London, travelling, having good lives. But no. It adds too much outside pressure to a relationship.”
For his part, Ben sees break up videos as a healthy way to create online empathy but also admits he’s also unlikely to return to couple vlogging with his new partner.
“People have been through break ups. They watch those videos, sure, partly because they’re drawn to the negativity. But they’ve been through it. They relate.”
In the midst of a flurry of fan videos reacting to Liza and David’s break up, I found one by a young man called Enos Lewis, who seemed genuinely sad about the split.
“Not really,” he said, when I called him and asked if this was the case. “I did it for the views. Sorry!
“That makes me sound… oh I’m a horrible person.” Lewis was a fan of the couple but wasn’t as shaken as some other fans by the announcement.
“I thought they dealt with it maturely. Like, 70 per cent of the content I watch is on YouTube so I guess I’m desensitised,” he says. “But you are basically…watching these two strangers go through emotional trauma? You’re watching them be so open. It must look crazy from the outside.”
Mimi Smith, a YouTube fan who was startled by Liza and David’s breakup, says the couple “seemed almost perfect together”. She is unsure about why exactly she’s drawn to vlogger couples. “I guess it’s the whole idea that you’re seeing another side to the people you look up to…you can love a singer but you don’t know much about them,” she says. “But for YouTubers, they show you around their daily life and it’s just nice to see that.”
It’s clear, however, that you don’t see everything. “[Influencer couples] don’t show you the downsides to their relationships online, so it becomes a shock to fans who only see the happy moments,” Mimi says of YouTube break ups.
There’s no foreseeable end to the demand for viral break up vlogs. The videos filled with the wrecked, tearful confessions of influencers become addictive once you watch enough of them. The knowledge that these are real people, struggling with the most universal of problems, should make the act of watching feel distasteful. But instead it adds a frisson of excitement to proceedings.
Though the vlogs will keep coming, there’s no longer a guarantee of authenticity attached. The videos are guaranteed to draw views and so the number of orchestrated break ups will only increase from here on out. But some YouTubers including Ben, Jack, and Lucy now guard their personal lives with increased vigilance.
But with all YouTuber’s driven by a desire for views and subscribers, it remains to be seen whether most will be able to reconcile online fame with a sliver of privacy. To the fans, this hardly matters. Copies of couple vlogs, the reactions, the gifs and the reams of fanfiction will always be found online, with or without permission. For social celebrities, there’s no such thing as a clean break.