The Online World of Shipping, and How Gay Teens Are Curating Their Own Media

There are communities on Twitter for almost any interest or hobby, and ‘Stan Twitter’ is a part of the site’s foundation. For every person tweeting pictures of their cat, there’s another logging on and stepping into a timeline where they comfortably scream into the virtual void about niches. This is nothing new for the internet, but for many young people, it has a huge effect on how they consume and talk about media. And for members of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s the perfect place to seek out recommendations for TV shows and movies that reflect their lives.

Circulation of a new ‘ship’ often starts with just a few mentions, low hums that eventually gain traction and spark whole new sub-communities. This kind of fandom knows no boundaries in terms of sexuality but is particularly lively among non-straight women and girls. In speaking to people that join in on the fun, it’s clear that there’s a whole virtual world for it. Laura, a 16-year-old from Spain, mostly uses Twitter to find videos of the fictional couples she’s interested in. It goes as follows: a small number of users start talking about a new couple of characters, maybe a gif is shared, and soon hordes of representation-starved people are asking the “what show is this?” question. It’s a predictable cycle on Gay Twitter that takes form in unexpected and meaningful ways.

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When a particular character pairing really takes off, it’s like watching a focus group excite over a new product on the market. There’s a fair share of hesitance: was this written by someone who actually cares, is the relationship authentic, is it queerbaiting? But there’s fanatical excitement too. People stay up late for promotional clips from next weeks’ episodes in hope that they might feature something of interest, screencaps make the rounds faster than a speeding bullet, and interviews with cast members are combed through for relevant hints of what’s to come in the narrative.  As a result, many shows and stars have gained popularity within the community quickly, which often leads to support that outlasts what they’re starring in – there’s a sense of trust. Gay characters can be an asset for TV shows and the like, but people can often see through bad intentions, or get so attached to characters that when a death occurs they’re not pleased – and they won’t hold back on expressing it.

Rachel Chandler, a 24-year-old from England, notes that she didn’t even watch The 100, a dystopian show that had one of the most loved relationships between two women on TV, but she remembers the backlash the show received after killing its lesbian character none the less. Rachel points out that a lesbian character being killed off wasn’t surprising, but that the media coverage and stir this one caused were overwhelming. News outlets, not just LGBTQ+ ones, were starting to take notice of the disproportionate killing-off of lesbian characters. Anyone on Stan Twitter at that time knew of this story, and to say The 100’s LGBTQ+ viewership dropped off after that point would be an understatement. If anything, it solidified the fact people were now expecting more from their on-screen representation, and that they had means of expressing it.

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With tired tropes more bothersome than ever, personal recommendations from like-minded friends became a great way to sort through the potentials and figure out what was worth investing time and emotion into. After all, there’s nothing wrong with caring about a character, especially when it’s because you relate to them intensely. These recommendations – often in the form of Twitter threads or Tumblr posts – lead to demand, and the lesser-known content isn’t always easy to find or jump straight into. Sometimes the sought-after characters are introduced half-way through a long-running soap, sometimes the show is only available in a certain country, sometimes it’s not available with subtitles in your language. So, in walk the gay YouTube gods – when your favourite lesbian character gets done dirty and you no longer want to lend yourself to the show’s ratings, these editors have got your back.

Hundreds of YouTube accounts are dedicated to uploading edited portions of TV episodes, meaning interested people can jump directly to what they came for, without the annoyance of sitting through what doesn’t interest them. The issues with (semi-illegally) only watching partial clips of a TV show are obvious, but in some cases, it works remarkably well. British soap Coronation Street earned its stripes with millions of views on You-Tube channels that carefully uploaded the scenes of two female characters who fell in love, Spanish drama Amar a Muerte gained popularity almost overnight because of a sweet relationship in it, and pretty much any show with a female couple receives weekly uploads of relevant material. The people doing the work and editing are usually young members of the community themselves, who put serious time and effort into providing for those who have no other means of watching. This has created a whole new wave of young and talented editors who carefully construct story arcs around what is necessary for added context and what is not. Anyone can hop on the site and design their consumption based on what makes them feel good and seen. This is a service they provide for free, and often at the personal cost of time.

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These storylines which are made available online lead to people seeking out media they probably never would have watched otherwise. It’s well understood that the number of people who have watched a show purely because they heard two women get together on it is countless, which speaks volumes as a lot of the shows are lacking in quality. A lot of the ones picked out from the crop are also not native to the people watching them, which means lots of young viewers are taking in other cultures, making small steps in learning other languages and developing an understanding of the different nuances locations bring to the lives of LGBTQ+ characters.

It’s not just young people who get involved with the latest buzz around lesbian and bisexual characters, although many first started participating in the online buzz at a young age, it’s not something they walk away from completely. Ell from Austria, now 23, recalls staying up late at night searching for links to The L Word when she was 12. After so many years of hidden gems and many disappointments, she’s still incredibly vocal about the representation we have, and how often it can go wrong. For many, watching a budding romance between two female characters was a big part in helping them come to terms with themselves – seeing your particular notion of love is valuable.

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Fiction for many is an escape, but the pain of mishandled sexuality can be very real. In many ways, the constant coming and going of new on-screen couples have informed us of how the industry can look to manipulate, but the communal thirsting has also opened doors of friendship, belonging, and safe places. Gay and bisexual women just want to feel seen, and for it to feel authentic. These online groups and virtual gatherings are full of intelligent people, who know that writers don’t always get it right, but they often allow themselves to enjoy the characters regardless. The obsessive nature of shipping could easily be perceived as negative, is it possible to be too invested, too distracted from real life? Maybe, but that’s far too one-dimensional to account for all the positive that comes out of it. Fans share Spotify playlists inspired by whatever angsty will-they-won’t-they they’re watching, write long fan-fiction and spend time reflecting on and loving what they’ve seen with those in similar positions to them. It isn’t dumb fanfare, strange, or any other dismissive description. It’s a complex and always-growing community, not limited to any location, religion, or age.