Affective investments, queer archives, and lesbian breakups on YouTube

Kira Deshler

University of Texas, Austin, Texas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—YouTube, as both a video-sharing platform and a social media platform, has become a dynamic space for the proliferation of queer female fandom, including lesbian YouTube couples, around which fans congregate. Two specific YouTube couples, Shannon and Cammie, and Kaelyn and Lucy, both broke up in summer 2016. Their breakups, and the subsequent breakup videos, were met with emotionally intense responses from their fans. To investigate how both fans and the couples themselves invest in these relationships, I conducted a discourse analysis of the language the YouTubers use to speak to their fans as well as the ways in which fans express their connection to these videos in the comments section. The distinct features of this fandom are the result of the affordances of YouTube as a platform, the intensity of queer fandom investments, and the particular liveliness of the fan object. Fan investment in these couples is connected to fans' own sense of (queer) futurity. At the same time, these videos now circulate as monuments of queer melancholia, viewed as they are through the lens of grief or nostalgia.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan studies; Lesbian fandom; Queer grief; Queer women; YouTube fandom

Deshler, Kira. 2020. "Affective Investments, Queer Archives, and Lesbian Breakups on YouTube." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 34.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In May 2016, while relaxing at my hotel in southern India, I had the following exchange with my friend Alissa on Facebook Messenger:

[1.2] Me: Did u hear about Shannon and Cammie…


Me: …they broke up. like a week ago

Alissa: OH MY GOD NOOO. There is no hope left in this world

[1.3] The conversation continued as Alissa expressed her disappointment about the breakup, later proclaiming, "I'm actually gonna cry." Shannon and Cammie were a real-life lesbian couple who became popular online after they began posting YouTube videos of themselves completing tag videos (note 1), answering fan questions, and detailing their life as a couple. They publicly announced their breakup in May 2016, and their breakup video was uploaded to YouTube on July 1 of the same year. As my conversation with Alissa illustrates, fans, particularly queer women fans like Alissa and me, were very upset by Shannon and Cammie's breakup, and we expressed our feelings in various forms online. The moment of their breakup was significant on its own, but then, two months later, another popular lesbian couple on YouTube announced their breakup as well. Kaelyn and Lucy, who had become popular as a long-distance couple who eventually moved in together, uploaded their breakup video on September 11, 2016. Both of these breakup videos elicited emotional and affective responses from fans, and, as I will illustrate, these responses traveled across videos and across the two YouTube channels.

[1.4] Though queer content of all kinds often evokes intense reactions from queer fans, queer content on YouTube often elicits even more personal investments from queer fans because this content is seen as closer to (if not synonymous with) reality. Thus, I argue, it is both the content and the form of these videos that produces such intense responses. To guide my research, I worked to answer three key questions. First, how do fans express their investment in these real-life lesbian YouTube couples? Second, what responses emerge when these relationships end and this affective investment is ruptured? And third, how do the couples themselves perform affective labor in order to live up to the fan investment in their relationship?

[1.5] To begin, it is important to understand both the history and the popularity these two couples achieved. Shannon and Cammie posted videos to the channel nowthisisliving, which was originally (and is once again) Shannon's personal channel. The channel had 674,000 subscribers, and 86 million channel views as of October 17, 2019. The first video Shannon and Cammie uploaded as a couple, called "Girlfriend Tag | LGBT," was posted on July 18, 2014. Their breakup video, which was uploaded almost two years later, was the channel's second most popular video, with 3 million views and 9,353 comments as of October 17, 2019. In total, 97 videos of them as a couple had been uploaded to the channel, amounting to hundreds of hours of footage.

[1.6] Kaelyn and Lucy's channel is called Kaelyn and Lucy, and their first video, entitled "July 2011," was uploaded on April 27, 2012. They uploaded 139 videos on the channel, many of which (like their first video) detailed their experiences reuniting after time apart, either in the United Kingdom or the United States. Their breakup video, uploaded more than four years after their first video, had amassed 1.2 million views and 4,375 comments as of October 17, 2019 (figure 1).

Screen capture of video in which two white women are seated on a blue sofa with a kitchen visible in the background. The woman on the left has long, styled blonde hair and blue eyes. She is wearing eyelash extensions, multiple earrings, and a white T-shirt with a low neckline; she is looking to the side of the screen. The woman on the right has straight light brown hair with blonde ends, and has brown eyes. She is wearing a long-sleeved, collared blue denim shirt, and is looking directly into the camera. The title of the video underneath reads: The End. The video has 1,252,269 views, 12K likes, and 1.5K dislikes.

Figure 1. Screenshot from Kaelyn and Lucy's breakup video, entitled "The End" (2016).

[1.7] The fandoms surrounding both these couples expanded outside of YouTube, as fans created Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube pages dedicated to them. The couples themselves were also active on these social media platforms. Although the expansiveness of these fandoms was significant, I will be focusing specifically on YouTube comments because the videos themselves are at the center of these fandoms and the responses to them are the most immediate. YouTube comments can be posted and read before, during, and after the viewing of the videos themselves, thus constituting an essential component of YouTube as a social and communicative platform.

[1.8] To investigate the questions I have highlighted, I have performed a discourse analysis of the comments section of these videos as well as a brief analysis of the language of the breakup videos themselves. Though my analysis is focused on the breakup videos, I have also looked at the comments sections of four other videos from these couples that were uploaded before the breakup in order to investigate fan investment in the couples both before and after the breakups occurred. I reviewed the first 100 comments on each of the six videos, focusing on the comments that represented common sentiments among viewers. I then divided the comments into five distinct categories, which I will describe in sections two and three.

[1.9] Although the first hundred comments that show up below a YouTube video may not be wholly representative of every comment posted, the comments that show up first are the ones with the most likes (votes of approval) or responses, which indicates that these comments may represent a popular opinion among viewers. The comments I have pulled out as examples in this article were chosen for their representation of a common sentiment within each category, their number of likes, their clarity, and/or their brevity or succinctness. These comments have been anonymized to protect the privacy of users who might not want their comments—many of which are of a personal nature—to be published with their names attached.

[1.10] Throughout my analysis, I looked for the ways in which commenters performed and/or transmitted an affective response to these videos, and how that affect traveled throughout the YouTube platform. By this I mean the ways in which affective responses to one video or one couple did not simply stay put among a single video or channel—rather, they would travel around/across various lesbian-centered content on YouTube.

[1.11] Much scholarly work has already been produced about the circulation of affect through online spaces. Jodi Dean's influential book Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive (2010) is particularly relevant to this study. As Dean wrote, "Blogs, social networks, Twitter, YouTube: they produce and circulate affect as a binding technique" (95). I argue that it is fans' affective investment in such couples that makes watching their videos pleasurable, and that this investment is also what causes such strong reactions to their breakups. Dean also noted that each blog post, video, or tweet "accrues a tiny affective nugget" (2010, 95). I will illustrate how the affect that is tied to these couples' videos changes once the breakups occur.

[1.12] In this vein, I also draw from Sara Ahmed, who proposes the concept of "happy objects": objects that become tied to the promise of happiness. Ahmed wrote, "If objects provide a means for making us happy, then in directing ourselves toward this or that object, we are aiming somewhere else: toward a happiness that is presumed to follow" (2010, 26). I contend that these couples' YouTube videos initially circulated as happy objects, but for long-time viewers this happiness became detached from the videos after the couples broke up.

[1.13] We might think of the relationship that fans have to these videos after the couples have broken up as being what Rebecca Williams terms "post-object fandom" (2015). These videos only circulate as happy objects for fans if they continue to provide "ontological security." Williams, citing Anthony Giddens (1992), has argued "that ontological security offers an 'emotional inoculation against existential anxieties—a protection against future threats and dangers which allows the individual to sustain hope and courage in the face of whatever debilitating circumstances she or he might later confront'" (40; Williams 2015, 24). Williams argued that when a television series ends, fans go through a period of mourning in which they must confront this rupture in their ontological security and reevaluate their relationship to the fan object in question. This is the period when post-object fandom begins.

[1.14] One of the main differences between the ending of a television show and the real-life breakups of these couples is that while a series may live on in the minds of fans or in extratextual creations like fanfiction, these women literally live on—just not in the way fans would like them to. Thus, while fans may continue to watch these videos and write fanfiction or create fan art if they choose, the reality of the breakups is unavoidable, particularly when one views the comments section. In section 3 I will illustrate how fan responses to these breakups represent a unique example of post-object fandom, as fans negotiate their relationship to their chosen fan object through various responses in the comments section.

[1.15] Similar insights about mourning have been drawn from celebrity studies. Donald Horton and R. Richard Whol's (1956) concept of parasocial relationships—one-sided relationships that one might have with a celebrity or fictional character, for example—is central to this object of study. Joshua Meyrowitz (1994) identified among fans what he called "parasocial breakups," which have been shown to cause parasocial grief and intense emotional reactions (Sanderson and Cheong 2010; Eyal and Cohen 2006; Cohen 2003, 2004). Jocelyn DeGroot and Alex Leith ([2015] 2018) illustrated that parasocial breakups can be applied to the deaths of fictional television characters as well. In the case of YouTube couples, this breakup has a double meaning: first the real-life breakup of the couple, and then the parasocial breakup of the couple and their fans. The supposed intimacy between YouTubers and their fans and this double breakup thus affects how fans grieve this particular loss.

[1.16] Because the texts these fans are engaging with are the lives of real people, it may be useful here to draw from real person fiction (RPF) studies. Judith Fathallah (2017) writes about RPF as engaging in "metalepsis," which she describes as "self-conscious movement between actual and possible worlds" (2). Bronwen Thomas (2014) and Kristina Busse (2006) both note that RPF writers create stories about celebrities that supposedly reflect their real lives and personalities rather than taking their public performances at face value. This process occurs even more frequently on YouTube, where fans believe they are getting unfettered access to YouTubers' lives and thus can make accurate judgments about what is really going on (note 2). Fans often believe this because the form these videos frequently take—vlogs, or sit-down confessional videos—signify to viewers that these YouTubers are sharing their personal lives with fans. The style, content, and frequency at which these videos are uploaded engender a sense of intimacy between creators and fans. Because of these factors, however, the fan/YouTuber relationship may complicate this concept of parasocial relationships, as there is often more communication between YouTubers and their fans than there might be between more mainstream celebrities and their fans. We might then think of fan/YouTuber relationships as semiparasocial because the ability of YouTubers to directly address fans and even meet them in person complicates descriptions of these relationships as purely one-sided.

[1.17] Rather than conceptualizing YouTuber/fan relationships in terms of RPF, we might instead think of them in terms of microcelebrity and digital intimacy. Tobias Raun (2018) has written about the ways in which transgender microcelebrities on YouTube have capitalized on the idea of intimacy to create interactive fan communities, which in turn reconfigures intimacy as a currency. Raun argues that "micro-celebrities must signal accessibility, availability, presence, and connectedness—and maybe most importantly authenticity—all of which presuppose and rely on some form of intimacy" (2018, 100). This reliance on intimacy complicates the notion of parasociality that is underscored in the study of RPF because both fans and creators conceptualize the fan/YouTuber relationship differently than a typical fan/celebrity relationship. Within the YouTube community, sharing personal information with fans is the backbone of the fan/YouTuber relationship whereas for mainstream celebrities this type of sharing, though appreciated by fans, is not expected in the same fashion. This distinction is why I define YouTube as a liminal space, with content on the platform often blurring the lines between reality and fiction, as well the social and the parasocial. The way YouTubers and fans understand their relationship to one another will become apparent as I analyze the ways fans express their commitment to the couples and how the YouTubers themselves express their commitment to fans.

[1.18] In Williams's conception of post-object fandom, televisual fan-objects become archived either through the purchasing of box sets or, more contemporarily, through Netflix or other streaming platforms. By contrast, YouTube serves as an immediate archive for videos, allowing users to save and rewatch content as they please. As Abigail De Kosnik has argued, "At present, each media commodity becomes, at the instant of its release, an archive to be plundered, an original to be memorized, copied, and manipulated—a starting point or springboard for receiver's creativity, rather than an end unto itself" (2016, 4). The archive of YouTube allows users to interact with videos on "fan time," which De Kosnik noted is "spent in repetition rather than in progression" (2016, 159). As Ann Cvetkovich (2003) illustrated, maintenance of an archive is particularly important for the queer community. Cvetkovich wrote about "the profoundly affective power of a useful archive, especially an archive of sexuality and gay and lesbian life, which must preserve and produce not just knowledge but feeling" (2003, 241, emphasis mine). I argue that it is the queer feelings depicted in these videos—namely, happiness and romantic love—that make them a powerful and affective archive for queer YouTube users in particular.

[1.19] These two lesbian couples do not exist on YouTube in a vacuum, of course, and there are many examples of queer feelings and queer love on the YouTube space more broadly. Namely, YouTube has become a productive space for the proliferation of videos depicting lesbian couples in television series from across the world. Individual users will create playlists or upload videos that include only the scenes relevant to the specific lesbian couple in question, often including English subtitles so that English-speaking viewers around the world can consume these lesbian storylines. As Stephanie M. Yeung argued, "YouTube, as de facto archive, has become a site for the preservation of and community building around global lesbian representations" (2014, 50).

[1.20] Thus, the videos of the two couples I am focusing on exist not only within the broader YouTube archive but also within an archive of global lesbian love. I call this archive the queer canon, and it is fans' knowledge of this canon that contributes to their reactions to each individual text. However, it is important to note that this queer canon is not in fact universal. This particular canon (note 3) of real-life YouTube couples is specifically a white queer canon—both the couples I am focusing on as well as the other lesbian couples mentioned in the comments are white and cisgender. Although there are queer women of color and queer trans women with significant presences on YouTube, the comments on these videos indicate that these women are often not considered within this canon. Perhaps they exist on the periphery of this canon or within alternative or subgeneric canons, but this particular question is beyond the scope of this article. Future research might investigate how other factors such as race, gender identity, and ability affect the formation of queer canons.

2. Before the breakup: Videos as happy objects

[2.1] To situate the breakup videos in the context within which they would have been received, I will begin by looking at comments that were posted on the pre-breakup videos while the couples were still together. During this period, the videos of the two couples were still being circulated as happy objects and were associated with queer love and happiness. I have separated the comments on these videos into two main categories: comments that focus on how cute the couples are, and comments that describe how inspirational the videos are. Table 1 illustrates comments in the first category.

Table 1. Examples of comments focusing on the cuteness of the couples.

VideoViewer Comment (Date)No. of Likes
Kaelyn and Lucy, "October 2012" (2012b)i started screaming from cuteness overload (2014)0
Kaelyn and Lucy, "The Girlfriend TAG!" (2012a)I'm watching your videos all over again because you're stinkin adorable!!!!!!!!!! (2014)7
nowthisisliving, "Our First Time" (2014b)Rewatching the same videos on this channel over and over because there hasn't been a new video in two weeks and I need my cute lesbian couple fix. :P (2014)2

[2.2] The cuteness type of comment often contains exclamation points, emojis, or text in all caps, indicating an overwhelming investment in the cuteness of these couples. For many viewers, this investment in cuteness is aspirational; whatever warm feelings these videos may produce in viewers may also be connected to a sense of longing for this queer cuteness in their own lives. As two of these comments suggest, fans would also rewatch these videos when they needed their cute lesbian couple fix.

[2.3] Although comments exclaiming about the cuteness of couples are common across the broader genre of YouTube couples, the aforementioned cute lesbian fix comment indicates that these affective responses are reactions to not only their status as couples in love but also as lesbian couples in love. The second category, which I will discuss next, also supports this conjecture that many fans are responding specifically to the images of lesbian love that these couples represent. Though I cannot decisively know the sexual identity of these commenters, the large number of comments that focus on these couples' lesbian identities indicates that many of the commenters identify as lesbian or bisexual themselves.

[2.4] Comments in the second category, which describe the ways in which the videos have inspired the commenters (Table 2), indicate the importance of identity in these videos more clearly. The main emphasis of these types of comments is either that the videos have inspired the commenters to come out or further accept their own sexuality, or that the videos gave the commenters hope that they will someday find the happiness that these couples have.

Table 2. Examples of viewer comments on Shannon and Cammie's YouTube video "Our First Time" (nowthisisliving 2014b).

Date Viewer Comment No. of Likes
2014 Love you guys so much! I also live in Texas but my town isn't as cool with out couples like Dallas and Austin. Y'all are a big inspiration! 1
2015 I adore you ladies! I hope I will find a wonderful girl someday and we will live our lives openly and proudly, and have even 1/4 of the happiness you two have together! 1
2016 you guys inspired me to come out to my parents in November:))) 5
2016 you guys are a big inspiration to me. I am discovering that I like girls and you both just give me the advice I need to just tell myself I'm not making a big mistake by thinking this way. thank you so much for sharing your videos with us! you guys truly are amazing!!! 2

[2.5] A sense of futurity is important to the circulation of these pre-breakup videos as happy objects. Here I turn to Julie Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim (2015), who used Ahmed's concept of happy objects to discuss the pinning practices of moms on Pinterest. They contended that "the practice of pinning happiness is posting and sharing content that points toward the possibility of happiness" (234). The videos of these lesbian couples may serve as such future-oriented happy objects for queer fans who may not see happy queer couples in their daily lives. Fans may orient themselves toward these objects as a form of identification, because identification itself often points toward the future. As Ahmed put it, "identification is the desire to take a place where one is not yet. As such, identification expands the space of the subject: it is a form of love that tells the subject what it could become in the intensity of its direction towards another (love as 'towardness')" (2004, 126). For lesbian and bisexual viewers, investment in these videos as happy objects may provide ontological security in a world saturated with precarity, particularly for LGBTQ people (Butler 2004). This precarity is underscored by the continued physical and/or emotional violence many LGBTQ people face, as well as the limited examples of queer happiness (romantic or otherwise) that are available to young queer people looking for models of queer stability. Taken together, the comments under these videos indicate the affective investment viewers have in these couples, and likely contributed to the intensity of reactions to the breakups that followed.

3. After the breakup: Loss of ontological security

[3.1] On May 11, 2016, Cammie Scott tweeted the following: "Shannon and I are no longer together. I love you guys endlessly but please understand we have to do what's best for ourselves right now [red heart emoji]." On July 1, 2016, the much-awaited breakup video, entitled "Why We Broke Up" (figure 2), was uploaded to the nowthisisliving channel. On September 11, 2016, after almost three months with no uploads, Kaelyn and Lucy uploaded their own breakup video, entitled "The End." Both of these videos, and the breakups of these two couples, elicited strong emotional responses from fans. For some fans, the close temporal proximity between these two breakups compounded the emotional devastation that they experienced. In addition, on May 18, 2016, it was officially confirmed (by Stevie on Twitter) that another popular lesbian YouTube couple, Ally Hills and Stevie Boebi, had broken up. They never made a breakup video, as they did not run a joint channel, so I will not be discussing their breakup in detail here. However, it is important to note that at least some queer women fans would have had knowledge of all three of these couples. I will now turn to the responses viewers had to these breakups.

Screen capture of video in which two white women are seated on a bed with a white comforter and unfinished wood-plank headboard. The woman on the left has light brown hair and brown eyes and is wearing a black T-shirt with the words LIL BEV in white letters on the front. The woman on the right has dark blonde hair and blue eyes and is wearing a black T-shirt; she is holding one hand to her mouth with a tissue and has a thin bracelet on her wrist. The title of the video underneath reads: why we broke up. The video has 2,925,831 views, 73K likes, and 1.7K dislikes.

Figure 2. Screenshot from Shannon and Cammie's breakup video, "Why We Broke Up" (nowthisisliving 2016).

[3.2] According to Rebecca Williams, "a fan pure relationship may only be sustained while it offers ontological security and a sense of trust in the other party" (2015, 26). She cited Giddens, who described a pure relationship as "a social relation [that] is entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another" (Giddens 1992, 58). Williams argued that when a fan's ontological security is ruptured through the loss of a fan object, the fan goes through a period of mourning. She described three possible responses a fan may exhibit in response to this loss: a reiteration discourse, a rejection discourse, or a renegotiation discourse. For my purposes, I will focus on the first two responses.

[3.3] The reiteration discourse involves a reiteration of the fans' self-reflexive and identify-affirming relationship to the text, whereas the rejection discourse occurs "when the ending of fan objects is perceived as violating the sense of ontological security that has previously been negotiated via fandom" (Williams 2015, 103). The renegotiation discourse—which is exemplified by fans who have a more moderate reaction to these endings and are able to move on—is not applicable in this case because fans who had this response were presumably less likely to comment on the videos. (I found very few comments that fit within this categorization.) Instead, I posit a fourth response viewers have had to these videos, which involves the viewers highlighting the intertextuality of their viewing practices on YouTube through an engagement with the white queer canon.

[3.4] First, Table 3 provides examples of fans who exemplify the reiteration discourse. In their comments, these fans highlighted how these videos have had a positive effect on their lives, and they thanked the couples for the services they have provided fans. Though comments like these were present on both the breakup videos, they were the least common type of response I found. Rather, comments representing the rejection discourse, as seen in Table 4, were far more common. These comments included some type of speculation about the breakup, often containing suggestions that one individual within the couple was primarily responsible for the breakup or judgments about how quickly one or both of the women have moved on.

Table 3. Viewer comments expressing gratitude posted on Cammie and Shannon (nowthisisliving) and Kaelyn and Lucy videos after the couples' breakups.

Video Viewer Comment (Date) No. of Likes
Kaelyn and Lucy, "The End" (2016) I feel so lucky to have been able to follow both of you through the last few years and you'll always be an inspiration to me. I wish you both happiness in the separate paths you might take. (2016) 1
Kaelyn and Lucy, "The End" (2016) You two were the reason I considered the fact that I wasn't straight. i came across multiple videos if yours a couple years ago and kind of clicked in my brain that I wasn't straight. thank you so much for everything you've done for me (2016) 21
nowthisisliving, "Girlfriend Tag | LGBT" (2014a) Although you guys are no longer together, these videos continue to inspire people all of the time. The reason my girlfriend and I started our channel was because we saw how much you helped and inspired so many gay people and we can only hope to do the same! You are both individually amazing and will always be :) (2016) 2

Table 4. Viewer comments expressing rejection posted on Cammie and Shannon (nowthisisliving) and Kaelyn and Lucy videos after the couples' breakups.

Video Viewer Comment (Date) No. of Likes
nowthisisliving, "Why We Broke Up" (2016) reasons like this are bs. cammie wanted to find herself, yet she got into a new relationship a few months later? pls. (2017) 288
nowthisisliving, "Why We Broke Up" (2016) So u guys broke up to work on personal growth individually…yet u guys r dating other people. Soooo, now I ask, what was missing in that relationship that now you've found in another person? (2017) 115
Kaelyn and Lucy, "The End" (2017) 3:07 is when you know that this decision was taken by Kaelyn and Kaelyn alone and for her happiness alone. 33
Kaelyn and Lucy, "The End" (2017) I've watched this over and over again and each time I cry and get more mad at Kaelyn, she seems so indifferent while Lucy seems broken hearted. Now I find out Kaelyn has already moved on with someone else I'm just…I'm cant. (2017) 46

[3.5] For many of these commenters, their response to the rupture in ontological security that these videos triggered was to lash out at the couples (or one individual within the couple) in order to rationalize this loss. The large number of these types of responses, as well as the high number of likes that many of these responses garnered, indicates that these sentiments were shared by many fans. These responses illustrate how the fans themselves had a personal and emotional stake in these relationships and felt they had knowledge of their inner workings.

[3.6] Responses such as these illustrate the ways in which YouTube acts as a liminal space that blurs the lines between fiction and reality. Although many commenters seem to view these videos as the unfiltered truth, most YouTube users are also aware of the editing process that these videos undergo. In addition, fan comments like these resist the categorization of these relationships as parasocial because many fans feel close to these YouTubers, and the YouTubers themselves often claim that they feel the same way.

[3.7] The last type of response that was prominent in the comments section were comments highlighting the context of these breakups as they relate other lesbian couples on YouTube. I call this the queer canon response, and I argue that this response arises among viewers who are familiar with the canon of white queer female YouTubers, and the canon of queer female media content more broadly. Knowledge of this canon gives each relationship more meaning because these in-the-know fans are aware of previous lesbian breakups, and the general precarity of queer female representations as evidenced by the Bury Your Gays trope. Though the Bury Your Gays trope normally applies to fiction (referring to the disproportionately large number of queer characters, and in particular queer women, who are killed on television and in films), this sense of precarity permeates the broader media landscape. Most of the comments that fell into this category appeared on Kaelyn and Lucy's video (Table 5) because their video was released after Shannon and Cammie's, but some viewers would make similar comments about Shannon and Cammie as it related to Stevie and Ally's breakup.

Table 5. Viewer comments referencing white queer female canon on Kaelyn and Lucy's break up video "The End" (2016).

Date Viewer Comment No. of Likes
2016 why is everyone breaking up? 215
2016 The apocalipse is ongoing, somebody better superglue Rose and Rosie together 1.6K
2016 rose, rosie, bria, and chrissy are all we have left 88
2016 ok 2016 haven't you done enough damage already, also plz don't touch rose and Rosie just leave peacefully 603

[3.8] As the comments referencing other couples suggest, the temporal proximity between these breakups created an anxiety within the broader lesbian YouTube fandom. Many commenters mentioned two other popular lesbian YouTube couples, Rose and Rosie and Bria and Chrissy, both of whom were married couples and had between 800,000 and 900,000 subscribers as of October 17, 2019. These lesbian YouTubers are thus part of the white queer canon on YouTube, related to one another by virtue of their sexual orientation and the subsequent queer or lesbian content they produce. These comments highlight the intertextual viewing practices of queer women who watch YouTube, illustrating what Susan Driver calls the "queer possibilities of cultural literacy" (2007, 13). These comments also demonstrate the ways in which queer fan viewing practices are always underscored with precarity, causing some fans to hold on to these happy objects even more forcefully.

4. The language of breaking up

[4.1] Although some of the viewer comments may seem like extreme responses to these breakups, the language that the YouTubers themselves use within their videos illustrates that these couples were fully aware of the intense fan investment in their relationships. To illustrate the two-sided nature of this investment—from both the fans and the couples themselves—I have analyzed the ways in which these couples described their breakups to their fans. In this section, I use José Esteban Muñoz's concept of an "ethics of the self," which he draws from the work of Michel Foucault. Muñoz describes this concept as "a working on the self for others" which is performed as an outward-facing care of the self (1999, 144). I argue that these couples' performance of emotional labor on behalf of their fans represents this ethics of the self. As these women note in their videos, the potential pleasure/despair of the fans is always at the forefront of their minds when producing videos.

[4.2] The core message of these two videos is an acknowledgment of fans' feelings about the breakup. The couples discuss the many messages and letters they have received over the years from fans, illustrating their knowledge about the impact their videos may have had on fans' lives. The couples reiterate how appreciative they are of how long fans have been with them on their respective journeys. Lucy's message to fans, which I will quote here at length, indicates the responsibility these couples felt to their fans and the difficulty of sharing this news with them with the knowledge that it may be devastating to many.

[4.3] We don't want you guys to [pause] stop believing in love because we didn't work out. I know over the years we've received literally thousands, hundreds of thousands, of messages from people saying that we're the reason they were able to come out to their parents or we're the reason that they're happy with themselves now or we're the reason that they believe in true love and that there is hope and um, there is hope, there's always hope. (Kaelyn and Lucy, "The End," 2017)

[4.4] Lucy's monologue illustrates that although there is a clear affective investment in these couples on the part of the fans, the couples themselves also had to perform significant emotional labor in order to uphold the idealized image that fans had of them. Clearly, these couples were aware that fans' ontological security was tied up in their relationships, and these videos were made with that fact in mind. Both videos end with what we might call a reiteration discourse, as discussed previously. Kaelyn ends the video by saying "we're still family," and Shannon and Cammie reassure their viewers that they still love each other. Both of these statements sound eerily similar to parents telling their kids they are getting a divorce, which one viewer explicitly notes in the comments of Shannon and Cammie's video. Significantly, all of Shannon and Cammie's videos are still available on Shannon's channel. On the other hand, Kaelyn and Lucy's videos, which were initially left up for several years after their breakup, are now set to private. It is to this topic—the videos as an archive—that I will now turn.

5. Videos as an archive of feelings

[5.1] As mentioned previously, the continued accessibility of these videos is a significant aspect of this post-object fandom. Shannon and Cammie's videos are still available, even though Shannon now makes solo videos on nowthisisliving and Cammie has started her own channel. Kaelyn and Lucy's continued to be available for at least three years after their breakup (they were still public in late 2019), though they have now been made private. Lucy comments on the decision to keep the videos online in the breakup video itself, noting that "the videos on this channel for now are gonna remain public because they touched so many people." I cannot speculate on why these videos were eventually made private (likely by Lucy herself, as she took the most active role in filming and editing the videos and still has a presence on YouTube), nor do I know the exact date when they were taken down (luckily, some time after I finished writing this article). However, the fact that these videos remained online for several years is significant, despite their later disappearance illustrating the inherent precariousness of an archive such as YouTube. Additionally, a number of fan-made compilations of Kaelyn and Lucy are available on YouTube, including a two-part reupload of their breakup video with Spanish subtitles (MAG Subtítulos 2016a, 2016b). For at least some time these videos remained as an archive for fans to revisit whenever they chose, or alternatively as content for new fans to discover (note 4).

[5.2] However, instead of continuing to circulate online as happy objects, for many fans these videos took on a different association after the breakups. Instead of being associated with happiness and queer futurity, these videos instead became objects of melancholia, as fans revisit old videos that have taken on new connotations. To illustrate this phenomenon, I have gone back to pre-breakup videos and looked at comments that were posted after the breakups were made public. The vast majority of these comments expressed some type of grief (Table 6). Some of the comments were posted shortly after the breakup videos were uploaded, and others were posted up to two years after the breakups.

Table 6. Viewer comments expressing grief on Shannon (nowthisisliving) and Cammie videos several years after their original posting.

Video Viewer Comment (Date) No. of Likes
"Our First Time" (2014b) hi i'm here to cry (2016) 1K
"Girlfriend Tag | LGBT" (2014a) WHY DID THIS POP UP IN MY NOTIFICATIONS I'M CRYING (2016) 23
"Our First Time" (2014b) I'm here in 2018. And I feel like crying because I want what they have. (2018) 2

[5.3] Although at the time of their upload date these were happy videos for most fans, for these commenters this happiness is now tinged with grief (Table 7). This rewatching, prompted either by the YouTube algorithm or fans' own desires to revisit these videos, indicates that the process of grieving for these relationships is not always linear, and it may come and go in waves depending on new feelings or new content that may arise after the fact. Similar comments appear on the breakup videos themselves, with viewers coming back to watch the videos months or years later, even though they know it's torture to do so.

Table 7. Rewatching viewer comments on the Shannon (nowthisisliving) and Cammie breakup video "Why We Broke Up" (2016) a year after its original posting.

Date Viewer Comment No. of Likes
2017 why am i doing this to myself 1.3K
2017 I watch this at least once a month to remind myself that love does not exist 19
2017 I love torturing myself 3

[5.4] These comments indicate that for some fans, there is an almost insurmountable urge to rewatch these videos, despite the fact that fans know it will hurt them to do so. This cycle is then cemented as a practice as viewers may scroll down and read about how other fans are engaging in the same rewatching. However, social media also may provide space for fans to express their grief over parasocial breakups in ways they might not feel comfortable doing elsewhere for fear of mockery. Didier Courbet and Marie-Pierre Fourquet-Courbet (2014) noted that social media offers fans the possibility of "self-managing their mourning" (284), allowing them to mourn at their own pace and in their own way. Continuing to interact with these videos may be one mechanism by which fans process these breakups.

[5.5] Their comments suggest that for some viewers rewatching these videos constitutes a cycle of melancholia, which as Freud suggested is a rejection of the proper form of mourning, which involves a gradual letting go of the lost object. Instead of accepting that these objects are lost, some fans continue to revisit the site of this loss. Some scholars, such as Muñoz (1999) and Ahmed (2004), have attempted to theorize melancholia in a new light. Ahmed described melancholia in this way: "Mourning enables gradual withdrawal from the object and hence denies the other through forgetting its trace. In contrast, melancholia is 'an enduring devotion on the part of the ego to the lost object' (Eng and Kazanjian 2003, 3)" (2004, 159).

[5.6] The viewing practices of these fans illustrate not only the devotion of queer fans to queer fan objects, but also the ways they engage with people and objects which may be difficult to understand for those outside these communities (note 5). These rewatching practices indicate a refusal to accept the loss of a fan object, and exemplify the process of keeping the object alive despite its unavoidable death. For most fans these videos are no longer happy objects, but the videos clearly still have use for fans as melancholic objects. The changing meaning of these videos indicates that archives are not fixed entities, but rather have meanings that change as the conditions surrounding them evolve. These online video archives are living, as their comments accumulate and their meaning transforms from context to context, and from person to person. Nonetheless, the instability of these archives (as indicated by the disappearance of Kaelyn and Lucy's original videos) complicates the understanding of sites like YouTube as an entirely stable archival space, leaving much archival work in the (very capable) hands of fans.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] YouTube, though it has existed for over ten years now, is still an often misunderstood platform. Both the content uploaded to the site and the fandoms constituted around this content are unique to the platform. I argue that YouTube acts as a liminal space, with videos often straddling the boundary between reality and fiction and complicating notions of the celebrity. We must then conceptualize YouTube fan/creator relationships within this framework, keeping in mind the affective investment and emotional labor inherent in these relationships, which exist somewhere on the spectrum between social and parasocial.

[6.2] For (queer) fans of these lesbian YouTube couples, affective investment in these relationships provided them with a type of ontological security. The reality of these couples made this investment feel personal for many fans and likely contributed to the intensity of the grief the fans experienced after the breakups occurred. Fan investments in YouTubers, and in YouTube couples in particular, are distinct from fan investments in celebrities and/or celebrity relationships or in traditional fictional media such as television and film. For queer fans, these investments are exceedingly personal because viewing these videos may provide an alternative and even utopian vision of a queer future, one that is associated with happiness instead of grief. When the couples' breakups were finally made public, this happiness turned into melancholia—though for some fans, a sense of gratitude toward the creators still remained.

[6.3] Thus, these couples' videos, some of which still exist as queer archives of feeling, now circulate as monuments of melancholia rather than the happy objects they once were. Nonetheless, the possibility for these videos to continue circulating as happy objects still remains, particularly for newer fans who did not experience the breakup in real time. In addition, as I alluded to previously, some fans still remember the videos fondly, despite the conclusion of the relationships. Thus, the feelings that stick to the videos are not fixed and are susceptible to change over time. The digital footprints these two relationships have left are still visible, despite the stories of these women's lives having progressed past them. (I should add here that all of the women are still active on social media, with three out of four of them still posting YouTube videos.) The comments sections on these old videos may now act as a space for the public performance of melancholia, or alternatively as a less emotionally charged space for reminiscing.

[6.4] Finally, these lesbian-centered affective fan/object relationships reveal the unique nature of queer viewership in online contexts. The pockets of affect that circulate through and across lesbian videos on multiple channels illustrate the intertextuality and communal nature of queer female viewing practices, complicating frameworks of what constitutes a fandom or a coherent fan object. This intertextuality is defined by the existence of what I call the white queer canon, which is composed of texts related to one another by virtue of their queer content. In the future, researchers might address the ways in which factors like race, gender expression, and ability affect the formation of this queer canon. (Indeed, many of the most popular queer female media texts are centered around whiteness and femininity.) Overall, queer women's fandoms on YouTube are a fruitful topic for further research, as these communities have formed their own unique viewing, reading, and re-viewing practices that intersect with and contest the majoritarian public sphere in unexpected ways. YouTube, as a liminal space that complicates notions of the real, is a fitting platform for the enactment of such practices.

7. Notes

1. Tag videos on YouTube involve creators completing various tags, which include challenges, games, and Q&As. A popular tag amongst couples is "The Girlfriend/Boyfriend Tag," where couples answer a predetermined list of questions about their relationship. Sometimes YouTubers tag other YouTubers in their video, and challenge them to also complete the tag.

2. I should note here that there is also RPF written about many lesbian YouTube couples, and many YouTubers themselves are aware of this fan fiction and even at times read it in videos. Though we may consider YouTubers celebrities, behavior like this differentiates them from other more mainstream celebrities.

3. Within the televisual queer canon there is slightly more diversity, as some popular couples—Kat and Adena from The Bold Type (Freeform, 2017–present) and Root and Shaw from Person of Interest (CBS, 2011–2016)—are composed of one or two women of color. However, even within television the most popular couples—Clarke and Lexa from The 100 (The CW, 2014–2020) and Kara and Lena from Supergirl (The CW, 2015–present)—are white.

4. Unfortunately, YouTube as an archive has other tenuous aspects: LGBT YouTubers continue to report that their videos are being demonetized or age-restricted by YouTube's algorithm (Farokhmanesh 2018; Romano 2019).

5. However, as I highlighted earlier, the couples themselves seemed to have an implicit understanding that fans might want to continue to engage with these videos despite their breakups.

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