“Every couple has a breaking point,” the trailer for Make Up or Break Up states, as fact. “Thankfully, all of Facebook is here to help.”
One of Facebook’s first forays into commissioned original content for its new Watch tab, the show is live and controlled by hashtags. In each episode, which runs around 20 minutes, a couple with a serious relationship problem lays it all out for a live studio audience and thousands of remote commenters, and asks, “Should we make up or break up?” Viewers vote in the comments — #makeup or #breakup — and the couple is supposed to take the final tally of these votes as an unshakeable verdict.
The show’s host, popular sex and relationship advice YouTuber Shan Boodram, calls this the “wisdom of the crowd,” and believes that it’s better than any one person’s thoughts or feelings, or even the pooled opinions of friends and family. It’s as close as you can get to an objective decision, she argues.
In the first episode of Make Up or Break Up, recent high school graduates Haley and Robby are torn about whether they should try to make their relationship work long-distance while they’re in college. Haley wants to stick with it and pivot to an open relationship, where she can be free to hook up with people at school and Robby can do what we wants, too — as long as he fills her in, and as long as he doesn’t kiss exes. Robby isn’t sure he likes the idea at all, though he concedes later in the episode that he has already made out with one of his female friends. After 15 minutes of exposition and a few tearful revelations, the votes are in: 86 percent of the live Facebook audience says to break up.
“Relationship advice from your closest billion friends.”
Boodram turns to the couple, who have just declared that they still love each other, and says, not unkindly, “It doesn’t mean you’ll never see each other again. Please promise to keep in touch.” Then we’re out.
In the history of bizarre concepts for reality dating shows, Make Up or Break Up would barely be a blip. We’ve seen VH1 ask people to get naked before they get in a “Where’d you go to school?” conversation, and we’ve seen MTV run young people over increasingly absurd hurdles over 25 years of market-tested voyeurism — from the caustic Tinder precursor Next to the devastatingly funny and stupid Date My Mom. But each episode of Make Up or Break Up feels ruthless in a way a pre-taped narrative doesn’t.
Among the promises in the show’s trailer: “Relationship advice from your closest billion friends.” I don’t think this is meant to be chilling, and I guess it’s not. More than unnerved, it made me feel impossibly, instantly sad. We’re barely qualified to give romantic advice to the people we care about. What qualifies anyone to give romantic advice to a person they have no stake in at all?
But the second episode has a happy (-ish) ending. A couple, which a majority of the audience agrees should “make up,” are heartened and relieved by Boodram’s explanation of the vote. She agrees with the crowd’s decision based on three simple truths: “The passion is there. You have great sex. You look amazing together.”
In addition to her YouTube channel, which boasts kissing tutorials, sex how-tos and 285,000 subscribers, Boodram has a well-reviewed book, a Fullscreen web series, and 138,000 Instagram followers. She’s a self-dubbed sexologist, with an impressive resume by influencer standards and a degree from a dubious, unaccredited institute of human sexuality. It’s easy to see why she was hired to host this show. She has an insistent confidence in the process and a buoyant style of talking that makes the whole affair seem urgent — as urgent as life and death — but fun at the same time. You want to be her friend, and you know she’d be the friend who listens patiently to even the most winding tale of taxing romantic experience. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that the bulk of Make Up or Break Up’s comment feed is variations on a theme: “How come they can't decide for themselves...”
I spoke to Boodram recently about the reaction to the show’s first two episodes, how she thinks it will evolve, and why she trusts the wisdom of the crowd.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Most of your work is YouTube romance and sex advice. How did you end up working on this show for Facebook?
From a young age I’ve always been very fascinated by physical touch and intimacy and love and Disney and sexuality, so when I went to school for journalism. They say “write what you know.” I knew that would be the topic that I really wanted to dedicate myself to. So, I’ve been talking about love and relationships for the last 12 years, and as soon as I graduated I wrote Laid: Young People's Experiences with Sex in an Easy-Access Culture, and that really catapulted me, back in 2009, to be the face of millennial sex education. For the better part of the last 10 years, I’ve really been focusing on how young people connect. How is it different now than it was 20 years ago? How has intimacy changed?
The Facebook show is really just a logical extension of me exploring what it is to love and be loved.
What was so appealing to you about this show specifically, this concept?
I think it’s extremely fascinating. I think we live in this very bizarre world when it comes to intimacy where we only see two sides of it. We see people who are madly in love and we see their “relationship goals” photos and all the cute vacations they go on, and then we see the subtweets and all the negative things. We hear like, “I’m so glad to be out of that. I’m finally free.” We don’t really see what happens in between.
“We really do go to our digital communities to help us with so many decisions.”
I think this show really does fill the gap. It shows you a couple who is “relationship goals” and looks amazing together and is in love and has this great fairytale love story, and on the flip side they go through real people problems. Instead of jumping to “time to throw the relationship away,” let’s try to really understand it, see where things went wrong, hear both sides of the perspective. [W]e do so much online. We ask, “Should we buy this dress or that dress?” and “Which school should I go to?” We really do go to our digital communities to help us with so many decisions. It’s just logical that our relationships would play out there as well.
I watched the first two episodes and noticed that a lot of the comments said things like, “If you need an internet show to tell you what to do in your relationship, then you should just break up.” I’m sure you knew that some people would find this concept very dystopian. How do you rebut that?
I think people have the same perspective on therapy lots of times. Even couples therapy, people say, “If you have to go to couples therapy you should just break up.”
It’s a unique perspective. I do agree that it may not work for everybody. Although, statistically, when a group of people objectively weigh in on something they’re usually right. Friends and family are able to predict the success of a relationship much more accurately than those who are actually in it, because we can see exactly what it is from above and we’re not tainted by love and emotions and we’re not swept up in the feeling. We’re really looking at it objectively. So I actually stand by the concept. I think it would work for most people. The resistance to it really just speaks to the fact that we’re so quick to say, “If it’s not perfect, just throw it away.” I think that definitely has to change.
Do you think there’s such a thing as being objective about relationships? Anyone’s idea of what’s right or wrong in love is shaped by their own experiences.
The goal would be the objectivity of the crowd. If you went to anyone individually, they’re gonna judge it based on their own experiences, maybe based on their own past failures or past successes with the issue being dealt with. But if you do that with enough people, you’re likely to get a fair, final assessment. If you’re going for an objective opinion, you do have to sample a larger source. If you’re in a relationship that’s ailing and you’re going to your one best friend, that might not be the person to judge it off of, because they have a very biased perspective. But if you ask 10 people, and all 10 people or 80 percent of people say, “This is your problem. This is what I think you should do,” that’s the final result you should go with.
I think, again, it speaks to the strength of the show. You need a large group of people, not just two or three, if you really want an accurate reading.
Your friends and family are people who know you and care about you and have seen a lot of your relationship. These people who are voting, watching the show, don’t know anything at all except what’s being presented in about 20 minutes.
The more you know about someone, the more accurately you can assess not whether a relationship is good but whether it’s good for them or not. We don’t have a lot of time to do that on this show. There’s obviously disadvantages to not really getting to know people, but we’re dwelling on one issue per episode. We’re not diving into the full gamut of “We fight. I make more money. On top of that, the place that we’re living is his parents.’” We’re just looking at, “Hey, we’re living with his parents, this is the struggle right now.”
“20 minutes is enough to hear both sides of the story.”
We look at what the major hurdle of the relationship is and try to dive into that as much as possible. I think when people are writing in most of the time, it’s less about the people in general and their needs in terms of love and more about a singular issue that we can see is tearing this relationship apart. I do think that 20 minutes is enough to hear both sides of the story and get a general idea of how both individuals are interacting with that one major problem.
Now that you’ve done two episodes, what’s your impression of how people are engaging with the show so far? Has anything surprised you?
Yeah. I think I’ve been surprised at how focused people have been on the actual goal of the show. I come from YouTube. It’s just as likely for [commenters] to spend the entire video talking about your nails or your makeup or why the left side of your face is in shadow as it is for them to talk about what you’re talking about. But I read the comments of this show and was like, “Wow, people are really focused on responding to the question of ‘make up or break up.’” That’s really incredible and unexpected in a positive way.
You’ve done other relationship advice shows. How is it different doing it live with a live comment section and a studio audience?
I think the benefit of the comment section is that there are a lot of questions that come in that I wouldn’t outright ask somebody. I would try to get to it with more sensitivity. It’s great that you have the Facebook comments come in that are like, “Straight up, if you guys are fighting this much, it’s time to call it quits.” It allows me to go places that I probably wouldn’t go with somebody in the first 20 minutes of getting to know their relationship and really dive deeper than I would normally feel comfortable. It’s been interesting from that standpoint to really skip past some stuff and get to the heart of the issue.
Absolutely it’s different live. People tear up. One of the shows that we had done when we were just testing it out, the guy got really angry during it, he was like, “This show is so much different than I thought it would be, and you guys are trying to attack me.” We have to really make sure we’re allowing someone to express themselves, but also be mindful that this is live. There’s gonna be challenges that come with it, and I’m excited to see where this goes because it genuinely is a live show and [the couple has] never seen the taped passages before. Watching people’s live reactions, watching people as their emotions unfold... I anticipate it might get a little heated.
At the end of the first episode, the couple seems very surprised that the majority voted for them to break up. It’s kind of framed as “Well, that’s the decision! They have to break up.” Do they really just take that vote and go with it?
The goal of the show is that they’re saying, “We’ve come to the point in our relationship where we’ve asked our friends and family, we’ve been arguing constantly about this, and we haven’t been able to decide objectively if there’s something that works for both of our goals for intimacy.” I would hope that the couples who are cast didn’t just have this argument yesterday and now are going to get an outside opinion. These are people who have been dealing with this issue. The first couple, for example, the girl’s already in school. This has been three months of them assessing whether or not they could do the open relationship.
The couple that we’re doing for example, coming up, it’s been a six-month issue. One partner moved to LA, having nothing, and the other partner has this really awesome social life and is not including their partner. I don’t think it’s a fresh wound. [There is] one thing we really made a big mistake on in episode 1: there is a psychologist who’s a skilled relationship expert and has done counseling for the better part of the last 30 years who’s there and speaks to the couple immediately after. They get an introductory counseling session where they can unpack their emotions and understand the advice from the crowd. We can’t control people, there’s not a moving team that separates them and changes their status on site. It’s up to them, but I think ultimately they’ve come to the show because they’ve done everything else before that.
So if clarity is what’s in it for these couples, what’s in it for the viewers? Why do they want to worry about someone else’s relationship?
I hope that they ask the question of “what works for me?” We don’t get encouraged to ask that a lot. We spend 18 years in school figuring out who we are professionally and what does or doesn’t work for us, but I feel intimacy-wise, we rarely ask ourselves well, “What am I willing to or not willing to put up with?” That’s what the real question of Make Up or Break Up is.
I want viewers to watch that and think, “Hmm, how would I feel in an open relationship?” or “Hmm, how would I respond to a partner who made me their entire world on a whim?” or “How would I respond if I was bickering non-stop about what I ate with my partner?” I hope people put themselves in their shoes and have a better vision for what their intimate life would be like. I hope, also compassion. Oftentimes, when we talk online we don’t see someone’s actual reaction. Things having the live component, where you ask the question and you genuinely see how that affects someone, maybe that will help us in terms of how we talk about something so personal with each other when we don’t have a live camera in front of us.
I just hope people think about relationships more. That goal in itself is really, really major.