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4liferz: Online Relationships & Our Parasocial Relationships With Them

Image Credit: Pexels

Everyone loves Love. 

While a greatly reductive and stereotyping statement, there is no doubt that this is the slogan that a great amount of media goes by. It explains the multi-million-dollar industry that is the dating-app and dating-website world, explains the strong appeal of romance books and films and the consistent presence of ‘love, love, love’ in music from The Beatles to Kanye West, and explains the reason many of us watch Love, Actually, every year at Christmas (myself included). Love sells, love is what so many of us want to hear about - and love is what we want to see online.

So, it isn’t exactly surprising that, when couples put their life online, we watch. Couples who operate YouTube and TikTok accounts together often come across a wealth of subscribers and media attention who love to see them love each other. Fan edits of ‘heart eyes’ and ‘cute moments’, update accounts for every little kiss, and even roleplay groups abound, in a cultural climate that’s become so intensely obsessed with the personal, a legacy of Big Brother. We, the viewers, become a devoted third to a relationship, like it’s our own personal show.

This is a phenomenon that is truly remarkable, and one that has come under more and more scrutiny as it’s grown. In her thesis, Marisol Botello (2021) identified four different categories of ‘marketing’ that couple channels use in their content to maximise engagement – video formulas, personal storytelling, visuals, and ‘acting couply’. These four all contribute towards creating a friendship-like relationship with the audience and create the false intimacy that seems to make these channels so successful.

‘Just like having a couple that you are friends with in real life, they are people who say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ to you; who tell you their personal stories with intimate details; who share not just stories, but photos and videos of their life; and who are comfortable acting couply around you.’ (Botello, 39)

We become voyeuristically interested in other people’s lives – and this isn’t just confined to couple channels. With the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, social media and reality show consumption rocketed up, with a lack of personal social life being replaced by consumable alternatives. The opportunity to learn about lives we’re curious about, that are different to ours – such as the ultra-rich (The Real Housewives) or celebrities (The Kardashians) - is something that seems to really drag us in, and something that keeps us coming back for more updates on baby names, petty arguments, and weddings consumed by the millions.

Image Credit: Hello! Magazine

But when does this become problematic?

While there has been increased attention on the nature of parasocial relationships with celebrities in recent years - particularly in response to the outpouring of support for Johnny Depp in his trial against Amber Heard, despite much evidence to the contrary of his claims (and strong evidence of him being violently abusive) - no one seems to have considered the problems that come when viewers find themselves attached to online couples, not just for the viewer, but for the couple themselves. When your relationship becomes your business by being someone else’s business, what happens to it? Can it continue to exist? Is it healthy? 

As I write this introduction, I don’t know. So, let’s go on a journey together - and why don’t we take one of these couples along with us for the ride? 

Rose Ellen Dix and Rosie Spaughton are a married couple who have been present as a couple on YouTube since January 2012, only a short while after they began dating, in a video called ‘CURRY FARTS AND MELODRAMA’. With over 247 million views and over 1 million subscribers, we can tell that their dynamic has gone miles in making them some of the most popular creators on the platform, and has earned them a number of high-profile sponsorships, a book deal, and an international tour. 

But it’s their relationship that is the hinge of their channel. So, let’s talk about them. 

Rose and Rosie first met in 2007 at a Halloween party organised by Rosie, when Rose was 19 (and dressed as a ghost), and Rosie was 17 (and dressed as the Queen of Hearts). Both had partners at the time, but Rose has admitted to having had a huge crush on Rosie, and, eventually, they went on their first date in October 2011. It wasn’t until July 2012 that they became official, and by then, their YouTube journey had already started.

Rose’s content on YouTube had mainly comprised of university assignments and one particularly popular KE$HA parody (no longer available on YouTube), but when Rosie came along, it turned into chattier content. Both girls would sit in Rosie’s flat and chat about whatever they felt like talking about, whether that was curry, stomach issues, or drunk karaoke. This led to their audience beginning to develop - and, as it got bigger, the relationship got more serious.

Eventually, the girls moved in together, along with a few friends as housemates, and, despite a few well-documented fallings-out (including a particularly nasty one about tweezers and eyebrows like Animal’s from The Muppets), things kept getting better. The set-up got slightly flashier, they began their Superkiss series, and were clearly very much in love. After a Valentine’s Day tribute from Rose to Rosie, a cancelled RosWegLyn meet-up with fellow lesbian YouTubers Megan and Whitney (now making waves in the campaign for equal IVF rights for lesbian couples) and Kaelyn and Lucy, and the emotional sharing of both Rose and Rosie’s coming out stories, it was time to take things further.

Rose proposed to Rosie on 30th May, 2014 - Rosie’s 24th birthday - revealing in the process that she’d been filming the whole build-up and plan without Rosie knowing. The proposal video is beautiful and heart-warming, deeply personal and hugely endearing - and that perhaps explains the 2.9 million views it has now. 

After much more of their typical content - including The States Game, smelling farts, video games, and a draw-my-relationship tag that told us even more about their love story - Rose and Rosie were married at Clearwell Castle on 20th March, 2015. Their wedding was the subject of a number of news articles, including one by The Huffington Post, and their wedding video has been viewed over 2.42 million times.

Image Credit: Pinterest

And then their content carried on. With a mix of vlogs and more ‘scripted’ content over the girls’ channels, previously named Rose Ellen Dix and Roxetera, their fame grew, and they posted content with celebrities like Chris Stark, Tituss Burgess, the Orange Is The New Black cast, and Antoine Fuqua. It wasn’t long until they wrote their book, Overshare, about their lives and experiences as LGBTQ+ women, and recorded a documentary of the same name, before travelling on tour to promote it.

Image Credit: Tubefilter

The videos continued, too. Thumbnails often featured them kissing, and anecdotes during videos would delve into their personal lives - such as an argument on a New Year’s Day about TopShop, or choosing a sperm donor.

Yes. Choosing a sperm donor. Rose and Rosie were ready to dive into their next adventure: parenthood. After tragically losing their first baby during the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the couple announced that Rosie was pregnant on 21st December 2020. Their journey to parenthood was documented from the beginning through their podcast, Rose and Rosie: Parental Guidance, and soon enough, they welcomed their baby boy, Ziggy Wilder, in July 2021. The birth was narrated in almost excruciating detail in a podcast special, where we were told, by a cringing Rose, that she saw her wife ‘break in half’. 

Ziggy turned one just last month, and in the year since his birth, Rose and Rosie have continued their content based around themselves and their family. From discussing Rosie’s struggle with postpartum anxiety and depression, to taste-testing baby-food and panic-buying ping-pong tables that’re too big for the house, they’ve certainly taken us - their ‘frogs’ - along for the ride, and all of his alongside a thriving gaming channel too (Let’s Play Games). 

Obviously, Rose and Rosie’s content comes from their relationship and their life together. An audience has been built off of their love for each other, and their own personal journeys through life together - and that has built their career. The girls have, as they’ve said themselves, a tendency to ‘overshare’ - hence the name of their book - but putting their relationship out for public consumption doesn’t seem to have affected it in any negative way, and they have integrated their fans into that family, maintaining a very down-to-earth and close approach with their audience. It works well, and it makes for a good watch - and they can never fail to put a smile on my face. 

Image Credit: Red

But we must ask one question, and that is - how? How is it that, when putting their lives online, and when monetising off of their relationship, have they managed to keep that relationship so loving? How has their relationship survived that stress?

Both Rose and Rosie have discussed the reasons why they share their lives online, and I think that’s what really does it for them. For them, it has always been about being a visible lesbian couple, being present online for those questioning to come across, being there. That’s what the podcast was about when they began trying to conceive, to show alternative ways of parenting and conceiving and what family looks like for all walks of life. They’re consistently authentic, they clearly love what they do (and each other), and they are entirely themselves. 

And it’s also important to them, too, to get something back from it. Not only do they get a fantastic community and connection with their fans, which they’ve spoken about online, but they equally get a channel of content dedicated to their own relationship. Rose spoke about this in a recent podcast episode in relation to their son, Ziggy, and the question of whether they would keep him online as he gets older: 

Rose: That’s just a positive bonus for me - to be a visible same-sex family with a baby - I think that’s great and I hope that does inspire people to have the confidence to start their own family - and of course this podcast is all about helping people find those resources to do it. But selfishly, I just like to have video documentation of [Ziggy] at every age, because I think, how lovely is it that, as a result of being an influencer, a YouTuber, by making content online, I have all of these amazing videos of him doing all this different stuff … that I can look back and reflect on and think ‘I’ll always have that’. And if I wasn’t doing the job that I was doing, I might not have got off my arse and edited a video every week or something with him in it. So, for me, selfishly, it’s for my own personal documenting [of] his life. 

Have Our Feelings Changed? (S4E15) from Rose and Rosie: Parental Guidance

Rose and Rosie keep it real. Yes, they share their relationship and family life online. Yes, we form attachments to them as a couple. Yes, our joy comes from seeing their love. But the couple seem to handle the parasocial attachments that viewers form to them pretty well, and, while they do ‘overshare’, they know what they need to keep back. They’ve navigated ten successful years together, and I’m sure that there’ll be many more happy ones to come.

But what happens when you can’t manage it? What happens when parasociabiliity has the capability to ruin your relationship, which you’ve set at its hands?

Image Credit: Spotify

This is something that’s been spoken about by a number of YouTube couples - some who have survived vlogging their relationships, like Rose and Rosie, and some who haven’t. Ben Hunte, Newsbeat journalist and documentary-maker on this very subject, and his ex-boyfriend Jack, broke up after financial pressures on their relationship sucked the fun out of their couples vlogging. After they announced their break-up, the fans were devastated - to the extent that they even received death threats if they didn’t rekindle their relationship. Other couples, like Lorenzo and Pedro, actually disappeared from YouTube rather than reveal that they’d broken up for fear of the fallout. The personal becomes public property, and that isn’t always easy, understandably leading to big problems that relationships can’t overcome.

Many YouTube couples who previously ‘made it’ have broken up, and many cited the pressures of having an online relationship as part of the reason. Jesse Wellens and Jennifer Smith, owners of the popular couples' channel, BFvsGF, stated that daily vlogging and the constant availability of their relationship on the internet led to its breakdown. These breakups were often seen as coming out of nowhere, too - since no one’s going to air their dirty laundry on the internet, and we can never really get the full picture. Couples like Mark E Miller and Ethan Heathcote, Liza Koshy and David Dobrik, and Jim Chapman and Tanya Burr, were never expected to break up. But they did. And it would be naive to suggest that the impact of internet scrutiny didn’t influence those break ups. 

Clearly, online relationships are difficult. It takes a very strong couple to survive the scrutiny, and Rose and Rosie are an example of that. 

Love is wonderful. Love online? A risky business. But when you have a love as strong as this little frog family have for each other? Anything is possible. 

Image Credit: @roseellendix (Instagram)

Anna Coopey
4th-year undergraduate student in Classics at The University of St Andrews in Scotland. Keen writer and researcher on a number of topics, varying from Modern Greek literature to revolutionary theory. 
Twitter: @anna_coopey 

Works Cited
Rose and Rosie (YouTube Channel) - https://www.youtube.com/c/RoseAndRosie
Rose and Rosie Vlogs (YouTube Channel) - https://www.youtube.com/c/RoseAndRosieVlogs
Kaelyn and Lucy (YouTube Channel) - https://www.youtube.com/c/kaelynandlucy/featured
A Woman Named Rose Married A Woman Named Rosie And Their Wedding Was Perfect (Huffington Post) - https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/03/25/rose-and-rosie-wedding-youtube_n_6938388.html
Rose and Rosie: Overshare (Amazon Prime) - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rose-Rosie-Overshare-Ellen-Dix/dp/B07VLJPCJW
Rose and Rosie: Parental Guidance (Spotify) - https://open.spotify.com/show/667zSZZjcHnm2cs5KWyyZ3
Let’s Play Games (YouTube Channel) - https://www.youtube.com/c/LetsPlayGamesWithoutSkills
Did Couple Vlogging On YouTube Ruin My Relationship? (BBC Newsbeat) - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-43034142 
How Couples YouTube Channels Forge ‘Friendships’ With Their Viewers: A Thematic Textual Analysis (California State University) - https://scholarworks.lib.csusb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2509&context=etd
Why Do People Enjoy Reality TV? (Everyday Psych) - https://everydaypsych.com/why-do-people-enjoy-reality-tv/
Why We Can’t Stop Peeking Into Other People’s Lives? (BBC) - https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20210302-why-we-cant-stop-peeking-into-other-peoples-lives
Why People Watch Reality TV (Ohio State University) - http://www.uky.edu/~dlowe2/documents/3.ReissandWiltz2004RealityTV.pdf
4liferz: Online Relationships & Our Parasocial Relationships With Them Reviewed by Anna Coopey on Monday, September 05, 2022 Rating: 5
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