It’s not how viewers are used to seeing Ballinger. On YouTube, she’s more known as Miranda Sings, whose off-key singing and clueless dancing have earned her 7 million subscribers. In videos as herself, Ballinger appeared happily married to Joshua David Evans, another YouTuber; his most-watched work is various stages of their courtship. On both Ballinger’s and Evans’s channels, the relationship features prominently. Their proposal garnered 6 million views, and their idyllic cliff-side wedding, 13 million. There’s silly stuff, too, like one called “Worst Types of Kisses.”
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.”
For the YouTubers making these videos, baring their heart on camera appears to be cathartic. Ballinger says what she’d held back before: that there’d been tough times that she and Evans had chosen not to share, that she felt like she’d both disappointed viewers and herself. The tears and the sighs are real, and the emotions are raw.
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.