The first time I experienced heartbreak, I was 13 years old. But let me be clear — it wasn’t because my crush overlooked the rumor I started about us on our middle school’s Instagram confession page. It was different.
In December 2016, Trisha Paytas went nuclear: She posted a video titled “sean van der wilt is gay,” where she haphazardly confirmed the end of her on-again, off-again relationship with her choreographer-turned-boyfriend. If you’ve ever seen screenshots of Paytas crying on her kitchen floor, there’s approximately a 99% chance that 1) they originated from this now-deleted video and 2) they have materialized into an 83-product Redbubble collection. Yes, that includes a shower curtain and a matching bath mat.
I watched the video, and my heart shattered into a million pieces — if that wasn’t love, I asked myself, what is?
Paytas met van der Wilt at a time in her career when she was vlogging almost every day; her consumption of Capital Grille lobster mac and cheese was at an all-time high and she was investing everything but natural talent into her dream of becoming a pop princess. There’s a lot you can say about this relationship. For one, its ending was as problematic as Paytas’s tumultuous past. Van der Wilt went out to a gay club for his manager’s birthday, and a fan posted a Snapchat of him dancing with his friends and co-workers. After seeing the Snapchat, Paytas took to YouTube to post a video that publicly outed him to her massive following, falsely accusing him of “holding a guy’s hand and kissing him.” Paytas went on to post seven more videos about van der Wilt, putting him and their relationship on blast.
At 13 years old, it was difficult to see Paytas’s crocodile tears for what they really were: the symptom of toxic manipulation and a raging victim complex. Even so, I wanted to believe Paytas’s heartbreak was real because, if it was, it represented concrete evidence that her relationship was as real in person as it was on camera.
In their final vlog as a couple, Paytas and van der Wilt canoodle in a Red Lobster while affirming their love for one another non-stop, all in the span of three minutes. They start with a toast: Even though Paytas says, “Everyone’s going to be like, ‘Oh no, Sean’s back,’ ” she confirms that, “we’re still going strong like this vodka.”
“Do you see how tired I am?” van der Wilt interjects as their arms are still intertwined. “I look like dog shit.” Paytas points the camera back at her face and says, “He told me he likes my hoop earrings because they make me look like a slut.” The video cuts to van der Wilt sitting on the other side of the booth. From behind the camera, Paytas says, “Hey, profess your love to me.” He hesitates. “Give me your hand,” she says, “Go, tell me.” Van der Wilt responds with “We have a long road ahead of us, so we gotta stay strong,” while letting go of their over-the-table handhold. He proceeds to flex for the camera, but not without looking at himself in the viewfinder and adding, “I’m kinda skinny as fuck right now.” The video concludes when Paytas asks van der Wilt to “tell them how much we love each other,” to which van der Wilt responds, “more than grilled loves cheese.” Van der Wilt then comments on his appearance for the third time, saying “Look at this shit. Do you see how tired I am right now?” The video abruptly cuts off when, without hesitation, Paytas whispers into his ear: “We’re gonna fuck our Red Lobster waitress tonight.”
Returning to this video seven years later, I’m embarrassed to admit this is what I thought love really looked like. With a bit of retrospective clarity, it’s obvious what this was: two people who didn’t say “I love you” without pressing the record button first. It’s a performance. And as such, most, if not all, of their interactions adhere to the same script. Paytas makes a bid for van der Wilt’s attention; van der Wilt gives in with either a verbal or physical confirmation of his affection; and finally, he diverts the conversation away from love by making a degrading comment about his appearance.
If there’s anything I learned from watching Paytas, van der Wilt or any other YouTube couple from the years 2012-2017, it’s this: The vlog is the death of internet romance because if you put anyone in front of a camera, they’re going to perform. Your significant other is no exception. It’s almost impossible to think of more than five couples from this era that survived vlogging their relationships. Some notable casualties include: Colleen Ballinger and Joshua Evans, Liza Koshy and David Dobrik, Marcus Butler and Niomi Smart, Lauren Riihimaki and Alex Wassabi and Anthony Padilla and Kalel Cullen.
In writing this article, I watched more breakup videos than I can count on two hands. I reached the conclusion that all breakup videos are pretty much the same. A Reddit user created a starter pack for YouTuber breakups that sums up my two-hour viewing experience in just a few sentences: The title is almost always “we broke up” in lower-case letters, featuring two people in the thumbnail sitting side-by-side as one looks at the camera and the other looks away. The broken-up couples rely on generalized language, including “it was mutual,” “we broke up so we can grow stronger individually,” “we still love each other,” “he/she is the coolest guy/girl I have ever met” and “don’t send him/her mean tweets.”
In adopting a dialect of scripted, superficial niceness, the prototypical breakup video chafes against a promise vloggers make to their viewers. Low production, minimal editing and unglamorous day-to-day content are enough to suggest that vloggers seek to deliver transparency to their audience. When a breakup video refuses to fulfill that promise, it’s jarring. At one moment, these vloggers feel like your parents, and at the next, they leave you in the dark like the child of a joint-custody divorce.
This lack of post-breakup transparency stems from an unwillingness on the part of creators to implicate their viewers in the demise of their relationship. While vlogging obscures the demarcation between love and performance, the viewers raise the stakes of the relationship to an unbearable threshold. In 2016, Jesse Wellens and Jeana Smith of PrankvsPrank posted one of the most honest breakup videos I’ve ever seen on the internet. In lieu of polite generalizations, the couple directly attributes their split to the burden of daily vlogging. “In the beginning, it’s really fun,” Wellens says, “but when it gets to a point where it starts to feel like a job … it puts a huge burden on your relationship. (You start asking yourself) am I doing this because I love her, or am I doing this for the video? That’s toxic for any relationship.” Smith chimes in, complicating the notion of performance as it’s exacerbated by the public eye: “Everyone judges us and our relationship. When you keep reading something (online), it can kinda form your thoughts and (force you to) make decisions based on how to make you guys happy. We wanted to keep you guys happy.”
In a video posted three months ago, Wellens and Smith made their first online appearance together since their breakup. The comments alone are enough to demonstrate the extent to which fans emotionally invested themselves in this relationship. Some commenters ascribe Wellens and Smith to parental roles. “Mom and dad made a video together,” one commenter said. “It feels like my divorced parents got back together watching this,” another added. “You both raised a generation of people,” a third affirmed. “You were part of our daily lives and (created) a safe space for us when we were in high school.”
Apart from likening them to their parents, a vast majority of commenters still express their desire to see the couple get back together six years later. These types of comments range from: “You are meant to be in each other’s lives. I will always hold onto hope,” to “She still loves him. Live for today you two. You are not promised tomorrow” and “Who else came back here for YEEEEEEAAAARS to see if they’re back together yet???? They are the perfect soulmates, I hope they will put their past mistakes, regrets n pain behind them and get back together soon. They obviously LOVE each other STILLLLL.”
An audience is equally integral to a performance as the actors are. In staking their happiness in the lives of YouTube couples, the viewers unconsciously place demands on these relationships to conform to an impossible standard of perfect, unperturbed comfort. When YouTube couples inevitably fall short of this expectation, they’re left with no other option but to perform for their audience.
On TikTok, I’ve seen several iterations of the following take: “If your man never posts you, he’s hiding you so other girls think he’s single.” After reviewing breakup videos, I don’t think I can disagree with a statement more. There are way too many couples on the internet who have demonstrated the extent to which performance destroys relationships. The PDA you broadcast online isn’t much different from the PDA you see in the lines of amusement parks. Get a room. To post on social media is to prioritize the appearance of your relationship over its substance. Saying “I love you” in front of hundreds of people isn’t any more significant than saying it in front of one. If you really love your partner more than grilled loves cheese, my advice to those sharing their relationship online is this: stay cautious.
Daily Arts Contributor Bela Kellogg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.