The hard part of being a follower
On Hank Green’s cancer diagnosis, and a different kind of parasocial relationship.
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, written by Kate Lindsay and edited by Nick Catucci.
Complexly, which owns the Vlogbrothers brand, is collecting well-wishes here. —Kate
I don’t know what a parasocial relationship with a newsletter would look like but let’s find out:
On Friday morning, longtime YouTuber and VidCon founder Hank Green announced that he has been diagnosed with cancer. It’s Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is one of the most treatable cancers, and he’s already completed his first round of chemotherapy. Still, when I saw the video title—“So, I’ve got cancer”—my breath caught in my chest like I had received a text from a friend sharing their diagnosis. I realized, as I teared up watching the video, that Hank Green is probably the first person I ever followed on the internet.
Hank is one half of the Vlogbrothers, a YouTube channel he’s shared with his brother, John Green, since 2007. I remember Googling the name when I was a teenager after seeing it mentioned on a Harry Potter forum, and falling headfirst not just into their channel, but the community of YouTubers they would often collaborate with. I don’t watch as religiously these days, but I still feel connected with them because of the time we spent together, like a friend you can go months without speaking to, and when you finally do, it’s like no time has passed.
“Non-Hodgkin’s here, 8 years remission,” a comment on the video reads. “First started watching your channel while getting chemo, and I couldn’t get out of bed without help, and didn’t have the energy to socialize. So I did a lot of YouTube binging and you and your brother’s channels kept me company. I just wanted to tell you that whatever happens, we love you, and you have made and continue to make a huge difference in many people’s lives.”
The relationship between a creator and their followers is a weird one. It’s parasocial, certainly, but not in the way people have used the term for more traditional celebrities like John Mulaney. Creators give so much more of themselves to us, and with digital tools like comment sections and DMs, it can feel like the relationship between us goes, in some respects, both ways. Which has left Vlogbrothers followers in an emotional and complicated spot.
“I've been watching since 2007, Brotherhood 2.0 days,” a Reddit user wrote in a thread about the news. “I understand the relationship is parasocial and he don't know me for nothin'. But that's a long time to be a fan of someone with such a deep community.”
“Right? This is so weird,” another replied. “My close friends... I'd be on a plane and baking cookies and lasagnas. How do I give support to someone who is so good and means so much to me/us/this community when they literally don't know I exist?”
While following someone for 15 years isn’t the same as knowing them, it is a kind of relationship, one that could very well be lifelong. One of the weirdest realizations I had after watching Hank’s video wasn’t that this was a crazy fluke I couldn’t believe was happening, but that, as both of us got older, of course something like this would one day happen.
The core creators I follow on YouTube are ones I’ve been with since I was 14. I’ve watched them graduate from school, get married, buy houses, and have children. There have been bumps in the road, like breakups and deaths in the family, and other creators, like Tess Christine, have certainly been hit with unexpected health issues that rocked their followers. But the practice of “following” someone simply hasn’t been around long enough for us to grapple with the unpleasant parts of life that are expected, like the realities of getting older (As Hank explains, he had a number of health factors that put him at risk for this cancer).
It’s weird to realize that I’ve invited more relationships into my life to worry about, to one day grieve, and it is frustrating that there’s no real model for how to do so. There’s a natural caretaker instinct that, as a follower, I have no outlet for. In his video, thankfully, Hank makes very clear what he wants from us: funny dumb movie recommendations and no unsolicited health advice. I’d recommend Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar.