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Dan and Phil: A Brief Retrospective

Today, I am here to welcome you to another oddly specific topic: nerdy YouTubers who shaped the coming-of-age eras of a bunch of closeted teens! To any given reader of this blog post, I suspect you will fall into one of three categories: someone who has no idea who Dan and Phil were nor who they are now; someone who loved them as a teen but lost interest somewhere along the way; or someone like me, who was obsessed with them then, still loves them now, and makes it their mission to bring up glabellas whenever possible. Nevertheless, I shall try to cover all bases, as I discuss their origins and how they have grown to be the people they are now.

The city is Manchester, the year is 2009 - two men have just met in person for the first time, and, unbeknownst to them, are about to accidentally raise an audience of queer teenagers. Shortly after their first meeting, YouTubers Phil Lester and Dan Howell filmed and released a collaborative ‘truth-or-dare’ Q&A-type video named ‘Phil is not on fire’, a name inspired by a combination of their online aliases: AmazingPhil and danisnotonfire. This video, later abbreviated by fans as PINOF, depicted the duo drawing cat whiskers on their faces with Sharpie, before then answering unusual questions left by commenters, including unhinged gems such as “would you eat ham every day for the rest of your life if you got paid a million pounds for every month you lived?” The two continued to make videos separately and together, developing their own style of content while often overlapping to collaborate on each other’s channels. They would eventually be seen almost as a yin-and-yang: Dan gravitated towards dark and sarcastic humour, cynically poking fun at the apparent meaninglessness of existence, while Phil maintained an energetic and naive persona, optimistically enjoying life.

After gaining popularity through hosting on BBC Radio 1, the pair then became included in the British vlogger boom of the early 2010s (alongside YouTubers like Zoella and Tyler Oakley). They started a joint gaming channel in 2014 named DanAndPhilGames, catering to the more nerdy sides of their audience and creating popular series’ such as their Undertale and Sims 4 Lets Plays. In 2015 they announced their book and stage show: The Amazing Book is Not on Fire, and The Amazing Tour is Not on Fire. It’s reasonable to say that at this point, they were in the height of their careers for the first time.

Their content shined a light onto the then-underrepresented corner of the Internet, one defined in geek culture and sarcastic-yet-unhinged humour, which appealed to a specific demographic - the oddballs and the outcasts. Many young teens, myself included, found comfort in these two weird British guys just being chaotic for the sake of it, and related to the pair’s introverted personalities. In hindsight, their audience definitely also sought reassurance in the fact that: even the nerdy, shy types were capable of having a meaningful and fulfilling connection with someone else without it requiring social camouflage (an all-too-real obstacle in the minds of many fourteen year-olds). Unfortunately, the idolisation of the pair’s genuine friendship had the side effect of some fans taking it too far: and thus, the shipping was born.

Shipping is a common behaviour in pop culture audiences where fans express their opinion that two characters ought to be together romantically. However, when the Phan ship set sail, fans had moved on from the need to matchmake fictional characters and thus demanded that these two real people should be and actually were in a romantic relationship. In a split second, to be a fan of Dan and Phil meant no longer retreating to a safe corner of jokes and nerdiness; it was now an “all-hands-on-deck” detective endeavour aiming to unmask the truth of their relationship as if we, their audience, was owed it. A single glance was suddenly dubbed “heart eyes Howell”, a phrase used to describe the way Dan allegedly lovingly stared at Phil. Every single movement was dissected, every single word was analysed. Phan just had to be real, and some people refused to rest until it had been proven.

I happened to “join” the fandom in 2016. By this point I had missed the moment that the shipping arguably hit its peak, but the insane behaviour of some audience members (nicknamed “demons” by everyone else) remained rife in the YouTube comments and Tumblr posts. Understandably, Dan and Phil hardly ever addressed the shipping (besides snarky references to certain fan-fictions), because naturally, any acknowledgement would further fuel the fire and instigate more harassment. The shipping did eventually start to die, slowly but surely, and the correlation between this decline and the maturing of Dan and Phil’s audience itself cannot be overlooked. By 2018, most of the original fans were in their late teens, and obviously old enough to not indulge in crazy shipping behaviour anymore.

Incidentally, the pair embarked on their second stage show in 2018, named Interactive Introverts. This tour would go on to mark the end of a very strange era, as they then announced that they would also be going on an indefinite hiatus from the gaming channel. Dan, by this point, had already basically vanished from his own YouTube channel. Phil continued to post, and the pair continued to live and navigate life together but it was seeming as though the online duo “Dan and Phil” was over.

That is, until June 2019, when Dan posted his profound video essay entitled ‘Basically I’m Gay’ where he discussed his childhood-born internalised homophobia, his experience with bullying and homophobic abuse, and then the trauma of becoming famous while closeted and subsequently being the target of widespread sexuality speculation. He also alluded to some sort of romantic involvement with Phil, semi-confirming Phan but with minimal elaboration. Luckily, by this point, their audience had proven to be mature enough, accepted this as a final “answer” to the Phan theories, and didn’t pry any further. Shortly after, Phil also officially came out on his channel. This then marked the beginning of a new era in the Dan and Phil timeline - namely, Dan’s transformation from a heavily guarded person into someone who was completely confident in his sexuality, his opinions and his place in the world. That said, his comedic pessimism never disappeared, much to the relief of certain fans who still delighted in the post-ironic contempt for everyday life.

During this era, he released a book on mental health called You Will Get Through This Night, then continued his “massive-video-essay-after-a-bunch-of-silence” pattern by uploading another piece on why he quit YouTube, expressing his distaste for the online algorithms and how it kills creativity and passion. After this, he began a new YouTube series inspired by this sardonic viewpoint of online content creation called Dystopia Daily, characterised by a format of taking the typical YouTube trends and spinning them on their heads in an effort to trivialise and make fun of them. Phil was featured on a couple (and vice versa on Phil’s channel, which had remained mostly unchanged during all of this). Dan then concluded this era with a new stage show (these guys love their shows) called We’re All Doomed, boldly stepping out of the shadow that the “Dan and Phil” era had cast on him.

Ironically, in October 2023, the joint gaming channel unexpectedly returned from hiatus, which led us into the current era: one dubbed by fans as the Golden Era of Dan and Phil. This era has been defined by the duo, now out of the closet, being visibly more comfortable to make jokes about being gay, to establish boundaries with their audience, and to be themselves in general. In the light of this frankly refreshing time, having come out the other side of an arguably problematic one, we can now look back at the younger years of Dan and Phil with a new perspective. To do this, we must be aware of another intriguing fact: the majority of Dan and Phil’s audience actually grew up to be queer themselves.

To perform a retrospective analysis of Dan and Phil’s careers with the current post-hiatus lens, it’s fairly obvious that as teenagers, their audience found a safe space with them, not only to express their more nerdy interests, but also to subconsciously express their sexualities vicariously through them. By projecting these crises onto public figures, we save ourselves the burden of exploring those complex feelings in the context of them being solely ours. This, in and of itself, shouldn’t be all too harmful, but the danger comes from the fact that loudly redirecting that burden means someone else must carry it: and we can see that the para-social connection many fans had with Dan and Phil impacted them awfully.

It seems as though, in this current era of Dan and Phil, the pair have been able to love their audience again and it is a widely-accepted fact that the “demon shippers” were truly just an extremely loud minority. Their fans, now in their early twenties, recognise the harm that Phan shipping inflicted and most “demon shippers” have also acknowledged their responsibility. Nowadays, to be a fan of Dan and Phil is once again a new safe space. Except this time, the “queerness” is very much an accepted fact rather than a speculated theory, a truth freely given by the only people to whom it matters: Dan and Phil themselves.

To do the story of Phan complete justice in a single blog post has proven difficult, so as a final closing thought, I’d highly recommend watching ‘Basically I’m Gay’. In my opinion (which is an objective fact), it is truly a masterpiece in storytelling and describing the harm that trying to out someone before they are ready can do. (Slight content warning, though, of course, for heavy themes of mental health and homophobia.)

And to the first category of readers (those who had no idea who Dan and Phil are): if, in reading this, I have caused you to stumble into the rabbit hole that is the Dan and Phil universe, I have one thing to say: you’re welcome.

Freya (she/they) <3



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