The Paradox of Performing Exhaustion: Emotional Labour in YouTube Burn-Out Vlogs
Haley Hnatuk, Muhlenberg College
This article examines the patterned performance of self in YouTube “burn-out” videos, where prominent vloggers announce a temporary break from the platform. A close textual and formal analysis of four representative videos shows that creators follow, with remarkable fidelity, the "burn-out" script as originally elaborated in the 1970s in connection to the helping professions. The videos exemplify the tensions that underlie the burn-out phenomenon itself, such as self-presentation, emotional labour, and the calculated deployment of authenticity. In this performative dimension, the worn-out vlogger recounts their burn-out narrative in a mix of formal and narrative tropes. By tracing YouTuber’s use of 1970s “burn-out” language, this study shows how creators’ rebellion against the platform’s demand for emotional labour are themselves products of such labour. The result, I conclude, is a calibrated enactment of performance fatigue itself.
In the autumn of 2019, the Dolan Twins, a famous YouTube vlogging duo, posted a one hour and six-minute-long interview-style video titled “It’s Time To Move On...,” in which they eschew the conventions of the jump-cut version of themselves displayed in their earlier “burn-out” video.1 Throughout the vlog, they articulate the challenges they have overcome, both publicly and privately, from the exhaustion of maintaining a branded presentation of self — “this isn’t really who I am,” “I’ve grown so much from who I am acting like” (17:42) — to their fears surrounding stopping regular videos too soon — “we are 19 … is it too early to stop?” (14:08) — to the mental trauma of working through the death of their father — “[we were] people who [were not] really happy, who had to fake happiness” (40:16). Finally, the twins announced that they were taking a step back from YouTube for a second time citing burn-out (see Figure 1).
As a wider phenomenon, awareness of YouTuber burn-out spread like wildfire a year prior, as one vlogger after another announced their intent to “take breaks” from creating content. The Dolan Twins’ fans, at any rate, did not seem surprised by the brothers’ burn-out announcement. As one commenter on their “It’s Time To Move On...” video put it, “2019 is the year that shows the side effect[s] of [what] being a youtuber/social-media famous is really about.” Comments like these speak to a hyper-awareness of what was, by 2018, a full-blown trend on the platform: major creators recounting their emotional exhaustion and, in many cases, announcing a break.
Mainstream media’s reaction to the Dolan Twins’ latest confessional added a layer of complexity to the video’s reception, with outlets from Cosmopolitan — “The Dolan Twins Tearfully Reveal They’re Stepping Back from YouTube” — to Buzzfeed — “The Dolan Twins Announced They’re No Longer Uploading Weekly YouTube Videos” — displaying their consciousness of the burn-out trend.2 Philip DeFranco, a YouTube news vlogger, expressed the widespread nature of creator burn-out in a 2018 video “YouTube Burnout Goes Mainstream...,” in which he claimed that behind the many YouTubers publicly addressing burn-out were countless others, also overextended but staying silent.3
This paper explores the phenomenon of YouTube burn-out videos as representations of labour exhaustion through the very medium that is its apparent source. The analysis shows that creator burn-out videos are delivered through a patterned and paradoxical performance of self, which is the idea that humans tailor the way we act around others in order to be perceived in an ideal way. The videos are remarkably faithful to the burn-out concept, as originally elaborated in the 1970s in connection to the helping professions.4 This ranges from people working as physicians and psychiatrists to people working as teachers and day-care staff. That decades-old burn-out discourse, I argue, has provided creators with a resonant script for their filmic accounts. Moreover, these videos exemplify some of the tensions that underlie the burn-out phenomenon itself, such as self-presentation, emotional labour, and the calculated deployment of authenticity. In this performative dimension, the worn-out vlogger recounts their burn-out narrative in a patterned mix of formal and narrative tropes that signal their need for a break from the platform. The result is a calibrated enactment of performance fatigue itself.
This study draws out these devices in a close analysis of four burn-out videos that appeared on YouTube from July 2017 to May 2018, created by the Dolan Twins, Elle Mills, Joe Weller, and Rubén Doblas Gundersen. I identify five devices that recur in each video: (1) the alternation of direct-address and archival footage; (2) a break in expressive coherence; (3) emotion-cued jump-cutting; and (4) abrupt pivot to self-promotion. Together, these devices help signal creators’ burn-out in ways their audience can easily digest. These formal choices mix, in turn, with substantive themes expressed in language inherited from early theorists of the burn-out phenomenon: (1) creative exhaustion and complacency; (2) not living up to original expectations of success; (3) work affecting physical and mental health; and (4) a desire for a non-mediated experience.5 These themes echo the clinicians who first described burn-out in the 1970s and the many popular treatments to follow.
By tracing the YouTuber uptake of 1970s burn-out language, this study shows how creators’ protests of the platform’s demand for emotional labour are themselves products of such labour. There is, in other words, a paradox in these performances of exhaustion. The study concludes by considering social media’s expressive demands on popular creators and casual users alike.
The vlog style of documenting life predates the conception of YouTube by several decades. The form was pioneered by Nelson Sullivan, a filmmaker, who turned a VHS camera around on himself to showcase the vibrancy of life in New York City in the 1980s.6 The word ‘vlog,’ a portmanteau of video and blog, also precedes the platform’s creation. Luuk Bouwman, a digital artist from the Netherlands, created a video blog about his post-college graduation travels on Tropisms.org, which was referred to as a vlog in articles dating back to 2004.7 The vlog style is entwined with the history of YouTube. The first video uploaded to the platform on April 23rd, 2005, by Jawed Karim, the co-founder of YouTube, was a vlog titled “Me at the zoo” (see Figure 2).
Vlogs seem intimate. They give YouTubers the ability to “interact directly with their viewers.”8 The vlog’s direct address style makes it appear as though the person on camera is confiding in their viewers as singular people and not talking to millions of unfamiliar faces. On a platform as multifaceted and ever-changing as YouTube, this apparent intimacy is crucial because it gives content creators the ability to strategically tell their life stories in a way that will increase their popularity and audience. The advent of the vlog has led to a “new wave of what we understand as celebrity,” with fans flocking across the country to see their favourite creators at conferences like Playlist Live and Vidcon.9 The vlog genre’s innate versatility has led people from various YouTube communities, such as beauty gurus, DIYers, and gamers, along with self-defined, full-time vloggers, to utilise its form.
Arguably, the most noteworthy aspect of the vlog is the affordance it gives its creators to tailor their presentations of self. Most YouTubers’ self-presentation occurs on what Erving Goffman referred to as the “front stage,” where the self manifests as a performance tailored for others’ consumption.10 Self-presentation on YouTube has evolved alongside the rise of other social media platforms, which have carried with them a host of heightened, social media-specific pressures and tensions, such as airbrushed perfectionism and comparison-based peer competition. Performing an idealised version of self helps YouTubers optimise the amount of time that their audience spends watching their content.
A YouTubers’ presentation of self is ultimately an amplification of what many social media users go through daily. Eventually — and this is especially true for YouTubers — an influencer’s front-stage self is carefully curated into their brand, defined by Alice Marwick as a “set of practices and a mindset, [or] way of thinking about the self as a salable commodity.”11 Maintaining a branded presentation of self grants influencers the freedom to habitually jump-cut around the stressful or unglamorous parts of their lives, while interacting with their audience under the guise of intimacy. YouTubers’ branded performance of being “somebody” requires, as several scholars have noted, near-constant “emotional labour,” or the notion that the pleasant façade that people in the service industry construct while doing their job is achieved at a significant personal cost.12 Much of a YouTuber’s emotional labour is exerted in the spirit of what Goffman called “calculated unintentionality,” the effort to appear effortless so their audience perceives them as being authentic.13
Many YouTubers’ brands, in just this manner, are built around carefully filtering their off-stage selves. Maintaining a friendly, relatable disposition helps a creator appeal to a larger pool of viewers and survive on YouTube, where the dynamics of, and pressures around, visibility are exacerbated by algorithmic sorting, which, among other things, privileges content with high levels of engagement. Consequently, YouTube has become a hotbed for authenticity claims and counterclaims from an attentive audience aware of the performative control given to creators by the limitless time and ability to edit videos afforded by the platform. The professional version of everyday life broadcasted by popular creators has, as a result, fostered a divergence between being yourself and being your brand, or an inauthentic persona, online. While viewers demand intimate disclosure, what they receive is a calculated, performed naturalness spawned from a creator’s emotional labour, which produces an always cheerful emotional expression that claims to be “authentic.”
YouTube creators who have not honed the art of walking a tightrope between the performance of self and their private emotions may be more susceptible to burn-out. They have yet to master the “separation between display and feeling” in which seeming to love the job becomes part of the job, which Hochschild has termed “emotive dissonance.”14 People who self-consciously present a false self for public consumption become stressed and their emotions bleed into their work, which is likely to catalyse burn-out — the ultimately unresolvable consequence of the emotional labour and performed-to-audience authenticity that being a YouTuber demands. Ironically, the emotional labour that led the creator to burn-out is the same emotional labour present in the creators’ performance of self in their burn-out videos.
The vlog style, which is discernible by its blending of the branded self with an informal “authentic” style, has contributed to the manifestation of what YouTube and many major media outlets not so affectionately refer to as “burn-out.” The term emerged in 1972, as slang for a drug user; however, in 1974, “in the counter-cultural human service institutions of the San Francisco Bay Area,” psychologist Herbert Freudenberger repurposed the word for his field.15 In his seminal essay “Staff Burn-Out,” Freudenberger refers to the dictionary definition of burn-out to guide his description of the phenomenon, saying burn-out occurs when a person “wear[s] out, or become[s] exhausted by making excessive demands on energy strength and recourse,” and in doing so loses their ability to perform adequately at their job. It is a process, he wrote, marked by physical symptoms, such as exhaustion and frequent headaches, and behavioural signs, such as frustration and “quickness to anger.”16 Christina Maslach, a social psychologist, helped popularise the term outside the psychoanalytic community by writing articles in the late 1970s and early 1980s in popular outlets such as The Washington Post. In her nuanced reading of burn-out among workers in the human services industry, Maslach argued that burn-out is exacerbated by the often “significant discrepancy, between the staff member’s expectations and reality.”17
While Freudenberger and Maslach agreed about many facets of the burn-out phenomenon, they both arguably neglected the burdens of economic forces faced by workers in favour of foregrounding the power of individual-level solutions. Maslach, for instance, claimed that burn-out could be remedied by “focus[ing] on changing the individual” by “reduc[ing] their own expectations of their clients and the institution.”18 Likewise, Freudenberg asserted that burn-out could be stalled by cutting back on hours worked, “taking some time off,” and “physically exercising.”19
Many self-proclaimed YouTube burn-outs have employed Freudenberger’s strategy. For instance, the Dolan Twins posted a video titled “We Locked Our Phones Away for A Week” that was filmed for the five subsequent days after filming their “It’s Time To Move On…” video, in which they went “off the grid” to Hawaii.20 Throughout the course of the video, they spent time surfing, jet skiing, and hiking in an attempt to enjoy the natural beauty of the world through their “eyeballs” and not through their phone screens, even though their activity was, ironically, filmed for their subscribers’ viewing pleasure (05:48).
Cries of burn-out have been running rampant on the platform. So much so that YouTube, a company famously oblivious to trends among its creators, recognised the phenomena in a short series of videos on their official YouTube Creators Channel — formerly known as the Creator Academy.21 In this miniseries, licensed therapist Kati Morton discussed the four pillars of burn-out that, she said, manifest within creators: “tiredness”; “frustration with audience”; “feeling like what you are doing isn’t worth the effort”; and feeling “unsuccessful.”22 Due to the influx of YouTubers who feel pressure to create regardless of their feelings, Morton added that the constantly evolving workspace and the constant criticism from the ever-awake internet have only exacerbated the spread of burn-out. Morton’s video-cum-therapy-session advised creators to maintain “boundaries between personal life and work” as a coping mechanism for burn-out, even though the foundation of their job is built off dissolving the boundary between their life and work.23
Noticing a trend among high-profile YouTubers announcing time outs from the platform in early 2017, I began to collect such videos. Based on an exploratory review, I developed a shortlist of keywords that, in spot testing, worked to surface additional examples through December 2018. The initial collection and subsequent search yielded 71 videos made by 63 different content creators.
My sampling strategy began with this pool of videos made by YouTubers who had announced a “break,” ranging from Olympic diver Steele Johnson, who left YouTube to focus on his diving career, to Marzia Kjellberg (née Bisognin), who stopped vlogging altogether to focus on other entrepreneurial ventures. Due to the wide range of reasons that creators were leaving the platform, I decided to narrow the scope to just those creators who specifically cited burn-out.
The four videos selected for close analysis were chosen on the basis of three criteria: (1) timing: each fell within the span of the first, media-anointed wave of burn-out videos, from July 2017 to May 2018; (2) followers: each YouTuber was well-known on the platform and had a large following of 1.5 million subscribers or more; and (3) time out: each YouTuber announced a break, and then returned to the platform at a later date, which harkens back to the “time out” therapeutic recommendation of the early burn-out literature.
Guided by these criteria, four videos were selected for analysis: high-profile announcements from the Dolan Twins (Ethan and Grayson Dolan), ElleOfTheMills (Elle Mills), Joe Weller, and elrubiusOMG (Rubén Doblas Gundersen). The videos range from two minutes and thirty-nine seconds to seven minutes and twenty-nine seconds in length and have recorded views ranging from 2,100,000 to 13,000,000.24 The four videos showcase a spectrum of ages, genders, and ethnicities. The videos’ creators live in cities spanning the United States, Spain, England, and Canada. Four of the five creators are male, and the subjects were all between 19 and 29 years old at the time of recording.
Creators’ usernames were included in my analysis because their videos are freely available on YouTube, and they are widely known across the platform. Ultimately, they are public figures, who use their real names in a massive-audience format, and who therefore have no expectation of anonymity.
The study employs a textual analysis of the videos, with an emphasis on formal elements, dialogue, and the expressive dimension that hovers between the video’s editing and text. YouTube’s transcript function was used to procure transcripts of each video. Particular attention was paid to mise-en-scène and editing, in interaction with the creators’ speech. Additionally, I highlighted sections of the dialogue that stood out to me as revealing within burn-out’s larger social context. Ultimately, I observed and recorded patterns of content, formal features, and performance that link all four videos, which constitute a distinctive first wave of burn-out.
Many popular YouTubers are the products of modest upbringings. Ethan and Grayson Dolan, better known as the Dolan Twins, are not exceptions to this rule. At a young age, they developed their own “television series” that their sister would record on a flipcam and play for their parents. Through their first YouTube channel, unimoo39, they tried to showcase their creativity on the platform, but it failed to gain recognition and was swiftly deleted.25 This failure led to a three-year creative dry spell that persisted until they started a Vine account in middle school that gained millions of followers.26 Vine’s decline prompted their move back to YouTube a few years later. The Dolan Twins’ newfound success on YouTube inspired their subsequent relocation to California at the age of 16 to increase their videos’ production quality and make collaborating with other creators easier.
Elle Mills, also known by her screen name ElleOfTheMills, is the same age as the Dolan Twins. Mills is a Filipino-Canadian who grew up making home videos.27 She started her channel in 2012 by posting a video of her and her friends lip-synching to the song “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. As she honed her editing skills, she moved away from lip-syncing videos towards more rom-com-style short-story vlogs. In 2018, Mills exploded into the public eye after getting named “Breakout YouTuber” at the 2018 Shorty Awards, an award ceremony honoring the best social media content creators.28
Brighton native Joe Weller also started creating content at a young age. He posted his first YouTube video, “The Jacket,” when he was just fourteen years old. A few years later, in 2013, he began to grow in popularity after posting the semi-viral video “How to be like KSI.”29 This video sparked a rivalry between Weller and KSI, a British YouTuber with 20.9 million subscribers on his personal YouTube channel and 6.78 million subscribers on his entertainment collective, the Sidemen. This rivalry culminated in a boxing showdown in February 2018 that garnered “roughly 23 million views,” preceding KSI’s highly publicised fight with Logan Paul in 2018.30
Preferring to fight within the world of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Rubén Doblas Gundersen, better known as elrubius and elrubiusOMG, spent most of his childhood yo-yoing between schools in Norway and Spain, after the divorce of his Norwegian mother and Spanish father. While living in Norway, elrubiusOMG would stay in touch with his Spanish friends by gaming.31 He started posting Let’s Play videos on YouTube in 2006. Let’s Play videos are a subgenre of gaming videos where a YouTuber provides their audience with commentary as they play through a video game. As his channel began to gain subscribers, he started creating vlogs, short funny sketches, and challenge videos. For his work on the platform, he received the “YouTuber of the Year” award at the 2016 Play Awards. At the time of his burn-out video, elrubiusOMG was the most subscribed to YouTube channel in Spain with 32 million subscribers.
The burn-out videos examined here reveal a gap between the performance of burn-out and its unmediated experience. These creators highlight the absurdity of their performance through the patterned usage of four different formal elements: (1) positioning moments of direct address in contrast with the inclusion of other clips; (2) breaking the expressive coherence of physical performance; (3) employing jump-cutting strategically; and (4) ending their narratives with diatribes of self-promotion. These formal elements allow creators to display a representation of burn-out molded to resemble a grittier version of self, while still conforming to the vlogging genre that caused their burn-out in the first place.
A notable aspect of the vlog genre utilised in burn-out videos is the inclusion of direct address. Joe Weller, the Dolan Twins, elrubiusOMG, and Elle Mills all deliver portions of their burn-out narratives with their eyes firmly locked on the camera. However, only elrubiusOMG and Elle Mills point out the authenticity flaws present due to the performative control this style of address encourages. During elrubiusOMG’s narrative of his burn-out, he expresses that he feels nervous creating content because it makes him feel like he is “trying to be ... the best version of himself.”32 This nuanced confession foregrounds the dangers of the active premediated self-presentation, which is taken a step further later in the video when he points out emphatically that “each time is harder to get in front of a camera and to put on the Rubius mask” (4:25). This sentiment is echoed in the lives of service workers who are forced to employ emotional labour to mask their internal “troubles … with a smile” while working.33 Hochschild reiterates this sentiment when she stresses that emotional labourers’ sometimes necessary “use [of] their faces as a mask against the world” as a defense mechanism, while also noting the danger of employing this strategy due to the “estrangement” it fosters between a person’s “true self” and “outer acting.”34 By including this admission about his crumbling mask, elrubiusOMG highlights the vlog format as something that pushes creators to present an unauthentic, branded version of themselves on the YouTube stage.
Similarly, Elle Mills opens her burn-out narrative with a direct address, which serves as a nuanced way of exhibiting the growing fissure between her creative persona and her “backstage,” offline activity.35 In the opening image of Mills’ video, she sits directly in front of the camera wearing a Red Bruno shirt, her hair down, and a smile plastered on her face. Her enthusiastic demeanor stands in stark contrast to the mild disarray of the lived-in room behind her (see Figure 3).
However, as the take wears on, she begins to get noticeably frustrated with her inability to film a perfect introduction. As she parrots the words “Hi, I’m Elle Mills” three times, her performance goes off the rails, appearing to give her viewers a glimpse into what usually occurs “out of range of the microphones.”36 This moment seems at the onset to be a “definitional disruption”—an embarrassing falling out of character—but is brought to the frontstage by Mills’ choice to include it in the final cut of her YouTube videos.37 A moment later, as quickly as it appeared in our frame of vision, her cheery façade crumbles (see Figure 4).
For a fleeting instant, as one of the lights of her “set” falls down, Mills’ “backstage” is revealed and her viewers are quite literally privileged with a peek into what goes on behind the scenes. Additionally, the emotions that her branded performance-of-self suppresses run across her face, which calls out the manufactured performance of her typical vlogs, but also echoes that her burn-out video is still a performance. She then proceeds to put her head in her hands before turning off the camera. This action transports her viewers to a white screen, where the text “burnt out at 19” gives context to her calculated disruption of her normal branded self-presentation. Her rupture in performance is further illustrated by her Ferris Bueller-like delivery of the statement: “unfortunately, reality isn’t an Elle Mills video” later in the video (6:01). The phrasing of this statement illuminates how her videos alter and enhance reality, which hints that even though burn-out videos resemble a more authentic portrayal of self, they are still beholden to the paradox of tailoring a performance of authenticity for an imagined audience. Ultimately, for YouTubers, authenticity, as defined by Lionel Trilling, is an impossibility.38 Creators are constantly forced to “conceal” unsavoury parts of themselves, to avoid controversy, to stand out by fitting in, and garnering high engagement levels on the videos.39 All of this remains true for burn-out video creators, like Mills, who are forced to tailor their performances to conform to their audience’s expectations of what an “Elle Mills burn-out video” should look like.
Nevertheless, Weller, Mills, and elrubiusOMG all avoid exclusively addressing their viewers directly by also including stitched-together tapestries of clips from outside media sources in conjunction with their burn-out narratives. Weller, for example, includes a clip from his appearance on the True Geordie podcast in his burn-out video’s opening sequence.40 This podcast clip provides context for the rest of the video by establishing that he has fallen out of “love” with making videos (0:16). The clip also allows him to illuminate the dichotomy between his inauthentic, branded self in the podcast room — perfect skin, styled hair, and crisp white shirt topped off with a fake smile — and the organic, “unfiltered” version of self he is performing in his burn-out video: red-faced with a rumpled shirt accompanied by a downtrodden expression.
Elle Mills’ video, meanwhile, includes a medley of extraneous clips that look back at past events: excerpts of failed vlog content, home video footage from her childhood, screenshots of her videos, clips of news anchors and popular YouTubers discussing her achievements, text messages between her and her friends, and clips of a less inhibited version of herself lip-synching to Maren Morris and Zed’s “In the Middle.” The stitching together of these images shot across formats and mediums give the video a collage-like feeling, one that supplements Mills’ burn-out performance by exposing her other performances’ phoniness. Additionally, Mills’ crosscutting between direct address and other media sources makes her vlog seem grand and placeless, which is heightened by the fact that “savvy voyeurs” of her content are aware that the clips included in the video span four countries.41 Other creator’s cross typical boundaries with their burn-out content. In elrubiusOMG’s burn-out video, he cuts to a picture of Britney Spears after she had a public breakdown and shaved her head, which not only showcases how being a celebrated artist in the spotlight can negatively affect people, but also seems to be a way for him add some levity to his video through the comparison.
The physical performances depicted in all four videos suggest a break each creator’s branded selves’ expressive coherence, signaling that they are acting out their “true” emotions and unmasked selves.42 The dramatic shift, for example, of Joe Weller’s physical performance after the two-minute mark of his video gives off an authentic, “backstage” self, predicated on exposing the inauthenticity and emotional labour of getting trapped in the hamster wheel of a creativity-draining vlogging regimen. His movements begin to get joltier, as, outwardly, his frustration and aggression towards his situations begin to play across his face until he breaks down — unable, ostensibly, to stop the tears from flowing down his face (see Figure 5).
Ultimately, he jump-cuts away from the emotional display to a slightly more composed shot with fresh tear tracks marring his face. However, as he continues to relay the narrative of his burn-out, his anger continues to escalate until he bangs his hand on his desk in “calculatedly authentic” frustration.43 While all of Weller’s actions suggest a genuine breakdown, some commenters still called into question how “true” his breakdown was, and other comments, like those by “MOAZ,” mocked his breakdown altogether (see Figure 6).
Commenters’ reactions to each creator’s burn-out are significant to note because, in many ways, comments function as a paratext accompanying a vlog. Commenters like MOAZ serve to call out the lack of sincerity read by some of Weller’s viewers regarding his presentation of burn-out. The statement “ARE YOU GOING TO CRY AGAIN” goadingly insinuates that Weller’s tears are nothing but crocodile tears. Then, the follow-up of “WHEN KSI DROPS YOU” situates the comment in the broader discourse of the YouTube community by displaying knowledge of Weller’s upcoming fight, as well as the commenters doubt that he will come out victorious.
There are no tears in the Dolan Twins’ heavily edited video. One of the few breaks in the twins’ otherwise somber demeanor occurs within the first minute, after Ethan says they are caught in a “sticky situation” (0:25). At that moment, their somber expressions crack and their mouths reform into grins. The twins laugh for a second before their smiling faces disappear on the other side of a jump-cut (0:35) which foregrounds the video’s performative nature by uncovering its jovial underbelly.
By contrast, Elle Mills creatively showcases the depth of the growing fissure between her “self” and her “brand.” In her video, she positions a clip of her putting on her mic with an emotionless expression on her face directly before a montage of moments in her career highlights, which is accompanied by a voice-over that reveals the pressure of her job. This editing choice leads the audience to infer that the performances of self preceding her burn-out video are, just that, performances. In these clips, Mills is the embodiment of her branded self, the authenticity of which has deteriorated under the weight of her physical performances’ contradictions. This deliberate editing decision highlights the tension between Mills’ past-performed self and her expression of “authentic” burn-out emotions. Even the latter, of course, is still a pre-recorded and edited performance.
elrubiusOMG’s break in branded performance begins with a self-reflexive montage of clips of popular YouTubers — Anthony Padilla, Ingrid Neilson, Joey Graceffa, and Bobby Burns — sighing at the beginning of serious videos (see Figure 7). After this montage, elrubiusOMG sighs deeply, as if to physically lift the weight off his shoulders, and then laughs at himself (0:09-0:15). This juxtaposition shows that, while his performance is not in line with his standard self-portrayal, it is consistent with the version of self that YouTubers perform in “serious” videos.
elrubiusOMG’s other, evidently less conscious break in expressive coherence is his sporadic leg shaking and chair movement. These natural movements live in the realm of Goffman’s “given off,” the apparently unintentional, as they intermittently jostle the camera and disrupt the viewing experience.44 The jarring character of these motions arguably enhances his performance of anxiety and serves as evidence to his audience that his anxiety is affecting his ability to create videos. With that being said, elrubiusOMG still ends the video by blowing his signature kiss into the end screen, displaying an attempt to hold onto the cornerstones of his branded performance.
Almost every popular vlogger uses jump-cuts to maintain what Hochschild refers to as an “outgoing middle-class sociability,” or adopting a friendly persona to better appeal to clientele.45 In the case of YouTube, Hochschild’s idea points to fostering a positive, monetisable channel. Even though burn-out videos display a fissure in a YouTuber’s branded performance, two of the videos use jump-cuts to manage the degree of emotion displayed on screen. Joe Weller’s jump-cuts mitigate his videos’ break in expressive coherence. When his performance of frustration/anger/sadness/anguish/embarrassment overflows in the form of a fist hitting the table, tears, or increasing facial redness, he jump-cuts away from this emotional spectacle. Weller’s jump-cuts also limit the amount of information he discloses to his audience. When he begins to ramble, he cuts the less-than-ideal words out of his performance of self (1:11). The Dolan Twins, similarly, use jump-cuts, but their excessive jump-cutting makes their video feel more scripted than Weller’s. The twins seem to use jump-cuts to keep their video brief and concise, and to limit the amount of personal information that their viewers are permitted to see.
Unlike the others, elrubiusOMG’s limited use of jump-cuts gives his admissions a rawer quality. Specifically, he does not filter out filler words like “eeehhh,” which makes it seem more like he is telling a story to a trusted friend, whom he can be “real” with, instead of his audience of millions of loyal subscribers. However, the sincerity fostered by elrubiusOMG’s lack of jump-cuts is disrupted because he ends his video with an act of self-promotion.
elrubiusOMG ends his burn-out video by plugging his upcoming anime “Virtual Hero.” He implores his viewers to look out for and purchase this forthcoming product, which could dampen his audience’s empathy (5:39). Joe Weller takes a similar approach to elrubiusOMG, using the ending of his video to promote two projects: his new “haunted abandoned [book] series” and his “upcoming fight” with popular YouTuber KSI (4:17- 4:27). Some fans in the comments seem to push back against these promotions by claiming that his performance is only for monetary gain. Other comments suggest a savvier fan reading, along the lines that Randall Rose and Stacy Wood describe as an “interactive process” of “viewer deconstruction” to “process the video within [the] post-modern milieu” that exists on YouTube.46 “ylwoCi,” for example, articulated a belief that fame had changed Weller — by comparing his recent performances against his past, less inhibited presentations of self (see Figure 8).
The Dolan Twins’ and Elle Mills’ videos, in contrast, end without self-promotion. Incidentally, they both omit a title side, which deviates from their usual ending format. Their lack of self-promotion suggests their devotion to dedicating their newly acquired free time to bettering themselves, instead of working on outside creative projects before returning to the platform.
In addition to these patterns of formal expression, the analysis found a remarkable fidelity to the original burn-out formulation from the 1970s and 1980s. I focus on four dimensions, as described in Herbert Freudenberger’s and Christina Maslach’s early accounts: (1) getting stuck in ruts of boredom due to “the routinization of the job” you are performing; (2) undergoing a “clash of goals and expectations”; (3) encountering the pitfalls of the “dedicated and committed”; and (4) attempting to heal through the ritualization of a “decompression routine.”47 The Dolan Twins’, Elle Mills’, Joe Weller’s, and elrubiusOMG’s burn-out videos are all underscored by the decades-old language of burn-out discourse that precedes them. The semi-scripted nature of the presentation of self in burn-out videos is expressed, in part, through the striking repetition of historical burn-out discourse in these videos.
One of the earliest-manifesting symptoms of burn-out, according to Freudenberger, is an intense feeling of boredom that develops within the worker as the job they are performing becomes a routine.48 Elle Mills and elrubiusOMG allude to their exhaustion with the routinisation of their craft in their respective videos. Mills’ raw thoughts are relayed to the audience in the form of the audio of a late-night, seemingly unfiltered rant to her friend, Dodie (4:41).49 The audio echoes through the empty hotel room as it plays in a video editing software on the glowing rectangle of Mills’ laptop, sitting on the white, rumpled, unmade sheets of her bed (see Figure 9).
In this intense confession, Mills’ textured, inebriated voice exasperatedly pronounces that she is caught in “a cycle, and it won’t end, and there’s no point” before the light turns off in the room. For a few seconds, the only light is the one emanating from her omnipresent computer before the video cuts to black. Mills’ admission parallels a few of the declarations in elrubiusOMG’s burn-out video. About midway through his vlog, he tells the audiences that he has been creating YouTube content for “seven years without stopping” and it is like he is trapped on a treadmill where he has to “have in mind what is going to be next, the next trips, the next projects,” in fear that if he takes a break his subscribers will lose interest (3:42-3:58). Both creators’ statements express how the constant, cyclical, “excessive demands on [the] energy, strength and resources” of YouTubers manufactures an exhaustingly toxic state of mind.50
Joe Weller and the Dolan Twins both implicate their apparent boredom as the impetus behind the downswing of their subscriber’s positive reception of their videos. The Dolan Twins bluntly state that “YouTube is kind of becoming a job and losing its spark for us; creating videos and everything, it just doesn’t have its magic like it used to” (1:00). Their statement is embedded with a heavy sense of sadness for the passion that they say they have lost for creating YouTube videos. The Dolan Twins also recognise that the viewers seem “less into our videos nowadays,” showcasing their awareness that their boredom, which is attributed to their job’s cyclical nature, is seeping into their content, losing them views (1:52). Joe Weller imbues a similar consciousness by including a clip from the True Geordie podcast at the beginning of his video, in which host Brian Davis points out that Joe is not “in love with this” the way he once was (0:16). Joe’s inclusion of this clip illustrates how creative boredom effects YouTubers’ branded self-presentation enough that their viewers can tell when their content is devoid of the heart that it once had.
Another major contributing factor to burn-out is what Maslach calls a “clash of goals and expectations,” which happens when a worker’s idealised result of their work seems to be unreachable.51 The tension of not living up to an unrealistic past goal is evoked in each of these videos due to their use of nostalgic language. By reflexively looking back at a “simpler time,” when they made vlogs for fun, each YouTubers’ language showcases a schism between the past and their current projected experience. Joe Weller’s blunt statement that he has “fallen out of love with making YouTube videos” insinuates that, while he used to enjoy creating content on YouTube, that is no longer his reality (0:55). Along the same vein, Grayson Dolan expresses his nostalgia for a time of pre-monetised, aspirational labour, in which he made content for “fun” that he “proud of” (2:06).52 Grayson’s presentation of these statements leads the viewer to believe that his joy around the act of creating videos has faded with time.
elrubiusOMG relays a similar notion to his viewers by articulating that “creating videos is what [he] like[s] the most.” He quickly follows this with statements that showcase the anxiety that he says has been plaguing him, and describes how it has affected his ability to get in front of the camera and pretend to be the “El Rubius” the internet sees him as (4:19). elrubiusOMG implies that, as his “denial of [his] personal problems” associated with creating videos deepened, he unintentionally made it harder for himself to “get in front of the camera” and perform his romanticised version of self (0:58).53
Elle Mills’ expressions of nostalgia are scattered throughout the opening half of her burn-out video. She begins to hint at her nostalgia in the video’s opening sequence, where her off-screen voice implores six children to answer the question, “What is your dream job?” (0:31). Their earnest responses range from “veterinarian” to “model,” opening the door for Mills to tell her audience that her childhood dream job was to be a YouTuber. This statement is illustrated through the subsequent inclusion of home video footage of a young, unburdened Elle Mills commandeering her family camera and talking to an imagined audience (0:43). Her childhood passion for creating videos evolved into her career as a full-time YouTuber because of her unrelenting pursuit of that goal, which is hammered home by the fact that she was voted “‘most likely to be a YouTuber’ in high school” (0:50). However, ten seconds later, her mediation on her evolution takes on a dissatisfied, nostalgic hue, when present day, downtrodden Mills is seen sitting alone on a park bench in her iconic Coca-Cola hoodie as a young boy rushes by on a scooter. While the boy’s movement serves as a transition into a new scene in her story, its situation within Mills’ carefully edited burn-out narrative conveys the ephemeral nature of childhood and her lack of ability to live up to the idealised version of a YouTuber she yearned to be as a child.
Classical burn-out literature imparts the sense that burn-out is an affliction that mainly affects the “dedicated and committed,” or people so devoted to their jobs that they struggle to develop a healthy work/life balance.54 Each of these burn-out videos illustrate this counterintuitive tendency to escalating degrees of severity. On the tamer end, the Dolan Twins articulate that they “definitely need a mental health break” because their dedication to making “videos every single week” has gotten them stuck in a rut where they can no longer articulate what they are passionate about (2:17; 1:36). Their performance leads the viewer to believe that by not giving themselves the space to evolve between uploads and maintaining a strict posting schedule, the Dolan Twins smothered the flame of their creativity. Joe Weller takes this theme to the next level by acting like his commitment to content creation is driving him “crazy” (3:35). He painstakingly articulates that he feels like his “own mind is [his] worst enemy” and that, right now, he is “putting all this pressure on [himself] to be something [he is] not, like, while [his] head’s not even right” (1:00; 4:33). These statements combine to paint the picture that content creation is overburdening Weller and causing him distress.
The title sequence in Elle Mills’ video takes this a step further by including a disclaimer with white text over a black screen saying “The following video includes depictions of mental illness” (0:10). The inclusion not only functions as a trigger warning for viewers, but also assigns a label to what she went through and provides context to the events depicted in the video. After this message, Mills begins to lay the groundwork for the escalation of content creation’s effect on her wellbeing. She progresses from being “one driven son-of-a-bitch” and pushing herself to make post after post to being “constantly alone” and feeling “overwhelming pressure” to “getting panic attacks” that are “starting to scare [her]” (1:00-1:49). This intensification culminates in a low-quality photo booth video where she explodes, showing her confusion about why she feels this way, saying, “this is literally my fucking dream, and I’m ... fucking so unfucking happy! It doesn’t make any fucking sense” (2:20). Mills’ incremental disclosures point to the paradox of performing the exhaustion of performing to her audience. Her deliberate decisions about what to put in and what to leave out of her burn-out narrative reveal that, regardless of how authentic her performance may seem to the viewer, that is all it will ever be, a performance.
elrubiusOMG begins his confession in a way that mirrors Mills’ video, with a disclaimer. However, in his case, it comes, in typical vlog fashion, in the form of a direct address: “I am going to tell you some problems that I have been having lately, mentally specifically” (0:21). He accentuates the statement by touching his temples with his pointer fingers (see Figure 10).
elrubiusOMG then discusses the physically debilitating effects of his anxiety that have become unavoidable – “I feel more and more pressure … and I find it difficult to breathe” (1:13) – and goes on to say that most recently, his head went “BOOM,” suggesting an end to his capacity to internalise his negative feelings (3:18). This breaking point is reaffirmed when he confesses that his declining physical and mental health has worsened substantially, and he decided to seek professional help (1:33). elrubiusOMG’s performance of his burn-out narrative serves as an explanation of how “his wall has been hit” and why he cannot continue to churn out videos with a smiling face anymore (2:49). They suggest to his viewers that his symptoms have begun to affect him so strongly that he does not have the strength to continue to act like he is thriving on YouTube.
The final hallmark of burn-out literature that is expressed in this pool of YouTuber burn-out videos is what Maslach refers to as a “decompression routine,” or an “activity” that allows a worker to “unwind from the tension of [their] job.”55 Due to the ever-present and demanding nature of YouTubers’ jobs, they are confronted with “presence bleed,” where their personal life and free time are commodified.56 In many cases, this leads YouTubers to search for decompression routines outside of social media, in which they can momentarily exist in non-mediated bliss. elrubiusOMG verbalises his desire to embrace the theoretical calm that exists outside of the internet by saying that he wants “to be relaxed this summer” and focus on his “mental health” (6:47-6:51). This illustrates his struggle to practice self-care while working as a YouTuber and showcases the perceived benefits that unplugging to relax has on mental stability. Ethan Dolan similarly expresses the need to step away from YouTube because he “lost what [he is] passionate about and [he] need[s] to figure it out” (1:36). With this statement, Ethan conveys the idea that he will rediscover his lost passion by stepping outside of the medium of content creation. Joe Weller’s parallel thought process is articulated when he notes that people have advised him to destress by “traveling” to become “inspired by the world” (3:48). This find-yourself-through-travel logic is a widely held belief referred to as a “vacation fantasy,” or the idea that tourists travel to new countries to find themselves and unearth their greater purpose rather than to experience a new culture or place.57
On the other hand, Elle Mills’ video questions the benefit of traveling to “cure” burn-out. After receiving a spontaneous text from her friend dodie, reading “you need to come to London ASAP,” she traveled from Ottawa to London trying to stymie her burn-out (3:03). However, going off the social media grid and removing herself from Canada did not stop her burn-out. As the video progresses, the viewers begin to sense that the people she is interacting with in London have helped her move, momentarily, to a lighter headspace. Mills supplies her audience with a montage of clips where she is seen laughing and making fun of herself with Sammy Paul, flossing with Hazel Hayes, and cooking with Daniel J. Layton.58 In these moments, she foregrounds the power of human connection as a part of the healing process. Mills ends this sequence by showing her love and appreciation for dodie, but also noting that “she dragged [Mills] to [her] first therapy session,” recalling again the origins of the burn-out ideal in psychology, which has quickly rooted itself in popular psychology (4:32). Mills’ admission foregrounds the importance of seeking outside professional help to aid the burn-out healing process by situating therapy as a part of her decompression routine.
In this study, I suggest that, while the explanations of burn-out in the elrubiusOMG (“I’m going to give myself some time”), Elle Mills (“Burnt Out at 19”), the Dolan Twins (“Bye for Now”), and Joe Weller (“I'm taking a break from YouTube”) videos are all situated within the parameters of traditional burn-out discourse, they also provide a nuanced lens through which to examine the paradox of performing exhaustion to a large audience online. Ironically, burn-out videos arguably require more emotional labour than a YouTuber’s regularly scheduled content. They effectively create a window through which to view the YouTuber’s back catalogue of content, which they expose as inauthentic. The creators are, in other words, doubling down on the very condition that they blame for their burn-out: being forced into the emotional labor of performing authenticity.
The performative nature of being a YouTuber is both inescapable and, ironically, in tension with the platform’s demands for genuine, unrehearsed expression. As an asynchronous platform for edited video, YouTube shifts the burden of calibrated impression-management onto its creators. This implies that YouTubers’ recorded testaments of their burn-out experiences and the emotional toll of performance are staged with the same dynamic of presumed calculation. While to some less-savvy viewers, these burn-out performances register as believable, many other audience members see them for what they are: meticulously stage-managed performances hinged on the creation of a “self that is simultaneously authentic and carefully edited” — a self crafted with the aim to retain viewers throughout an indeterminately long break.59 There is, I conclude, a self-defeating futility to YouTubers’ efforts to express burn-out under the conditions of the platform from which it stems from.
It should be acknowledged that this conclusion is speculative, rooted as it is in an analysis of the videos themselves. A study of comments could explore how, and whether, the tensions described here are expressed by YouTube’s more engaged viewers. Additionally, in the future, more in-depth study should be done on various YouTube subgenres and emerging media platforms (like Tiktok) in order to dive deeper into how the creators’ level of emotional labour fluctuates based on the kind of videos they make and the platform they are on.
Creator burn-out, as recent news coverage demonstrates, is not a YouTube-specific phenomenon. Writing for the New York Times in June 2021, Taylor Lorenz described how burn-out has “affected generations of social media creators,” noting that TikTok stars like Charli D’Amelio and Jack Innanen have both battled burn-out in recent months.60 Charli’s burn-out narrative is performed in episode seven, “Nothing Is As It Seems Online,” of her reality tv show, The D’Amelio Show. In this episode, we see Charli, weighed down by advertising deliverables, reenact a similar performance to those of our four YouTube subjects. This chapter of the show culminates in a white screen saying, “After a week off filming, Charli allowed the cameras to return,” which showcases the camera’s inability to authentically film creator burn-out. Once a camera is involved, everything it captures becomes a performance for the video’s future audience.
Burn-out is an ongoing phenomenon on TikTok and YouTube, and stars aren’t the only people grappling with burn-out on these platforms. In December 2020, droves of TikTok users posted videos accompanied by the audio “I can’t talk right now, I’m doing sad gifted kid burn-out sh!t.”61 In these videos, everyday people demonstrate their burn-out remedies, ranging from using baking as a coping mechanism for stress to binge watching comfort tv shows and movies. In a January 2021 article for Bustle, counselor Lawrence Lovell describes this burn-out as being brought on by “an obligation to perform at a particular level at all times.”62 However, like the influencer burn-out videos before them, these videos face the same bind of forcing their proclaimed sufferers to perform the very same heightened version of self that induced their burn-out in the first place.
The ongoing tensions between performance and authenticity, as the private and public spheres of life continue to gradually collapse, have become inescapable as people have pivoted to spending increasing amounts of their time online. Many young people have grown up surrounded by the unsustainable pressure of always having an audience, and now find themselves seeking refuge from the demands of performance-denying performance. The desire to be free of these tensions has led to the rise of apps like BeReal, which uses the bi-directional capture feature to showcase “who your friends really are in their daily life.”63 However, this platform, like all others, is not without faults. As R. E. Hawley writes for The New Yorker, in trying to position itself against the airbrushed reality of Instagram, it fosters “a far more annoying and even insidious aspect of social media than encountering phony representations of others’ lives” by using gamification to incentivise people to always be ready to post.64 In doing so, BeReal creates an artifice of reality. While the posts there are filter free, they still present a staged and carefully framed version of real life.
In their burn-out videos, elrubiusOMG, Elle Mills, the Dolan Twins, and Joe Weller all navigate the shared paradox of trying to perform authentic expression online. Ultimately, while this study focuses solely on YouTube vloggers’ performance of burn-out, the paradox of performing emotions that this paper elaborates is an amped-up version of what everyday users go through in the mediated, always-on world of social media.
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Haley Hnatuk is a 2020 Muhlenberg College Media & Communications and Film Studies graduate and a 2020 Skidmore Documentary Storytellers’ Institute Fellow. Hnatuk is committed to using digital technology as a tool to help tell stories and connect communities. She currently works as a Senior Podcast Producer & Marketing Specialist at Fastmail, a privacy-first email service based in Melbourne and Philadelphia.