KnowYourMeme.com thinks the reaction video genre was born in 2006 with that video you've seen where a brother and sister lose their minds while unwrapping a Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning. I disagree. Reaction videos are an Internet interpretation of something that's been going on since 2000, when the BBC aired a series called I Love The '70s. Americans might know it better as I Love The 70s, because VH1 was stealing show ideas from England long before The Office made it cool.
The series was all about looking back in fond, mirthful remembrance of pop cultural touchstones from years past. Comedians and celebrities were placed between a green screen and a camera and asked to react to a thing. Nearly 16 years later, that format has become its own Internet video genre: reaction videos. The format has remained largely the same, but the purpose of the format has changed. It's not used for retro-commentary anymore. I can describe its current use only by quoting myself from a previous column: It's the "Kids Are Given A Thing From 10 Years Ago, And They Gawk At It Like It's A Fucking Alien Artifact" genre.
It's not just kids. It's old people reacting to Vine videos:
It's teens watching a movie from 1989 and reacting like it was made in 1889:
These videos irked me, and for a while I couldn't put my finger on why, exactly. Every time I came across one I felt ... creeped out? Dirty? That by simply looking at those corny promotional stills of elders/teens/kids with expressions best suited for watching a live beheading I was somehow contributing to ... something bad? I didn't know. It was nebulous negativity. So, rather than live in mystery, for a few days I saturated my brain with "[Age Group] Reacts To [Some Manner Of Thing]!" videos to finally pin down what that vague sense of hate was all about.
Most, if not all, of these videos are made by The Fine Brothers, a powerhouse YouTubing duo. I don't want to disparage them. While these videos seem to be their bread and butter, they produce a wide variety of content outside of reaction videos. They have a fun, well-written sitcom web series, and if you want to get caught up on an entire season of a TV show, they're more than happy to yell spoilers at you. The point is, they're not just doing this one bad thing.
"Elders React To Terrorist Videos!"
So I sat and I watched. It was painful, mostly because the videos just aren't very good and offer little in the way of genuine entertainment, but I watched anyway. I got to thinking about the brain-storming power lunches that spawned the episode ideas. Adults looking at the word "TEENS" on a whiteboard and shouting nouns at it. Then an intern armed with a company credit card fetches those nouns on eBay, and they film the comedic gold that unfolds when a teenager looks at it and is like, "Oh, yeah. That thing."
By the eighth or ninth video (and third stiff drink), the reason I didn't like these things crept up on me: The genre is fueled by a philosophy of meanness disguised as a fluffy, candy-coated time-waster.
The basic premise is, "Let's laugh at people who don't get it." The "it" changes every episode. It's 3D printers. It's encyclopedias. It's old types of pants. But "it" is more than a thing. "It" is an idea. "It" is knowledge about the world or, rather, a lack of knowledge. This is a genre that thrives on viewers who derive pleasure from watching other people say "I don't get it" at things they weren't necessarily meant to get.
"Kids React To Police Brutality Videos!"
I'll put it in real-life terms. Imagine you were talking to someone and they asked if you owned the latest Apple release, an iPhone with a shoehorn on it. In their little bubble of existence, an iPhone with a shoehorn on it is woven into the fabric of everyone's lives. Your knowledge of an iPhone with a shoehorn on it extends not much further than this conversation. Upon discovering that you aren't familiar with iPhones with shoehorns on them and the many wondrous advantages they provide, the person changes their tone. By not being intimately familiar with an iPhone with a shoehorn on it, you have become a fascination. You are, in a dull sense, a freak, and you are being made to feel as such as the person lobs questions at you, trying to understand how you've made it this far having not known the joys of an iPhone with a shoehorn on it.
When the premise of your video series is "this is not for you, so here, take it," you shouldn't be limited to handing people off-generational objects. Why not just film people in drive-thrus receiving the wrong order? Why not film your dad's reaction when he asks you to hand him a hammer and you hand him a bean bag chair instead? The next logical step is ripping people from those Amazonian tribes who have never made contact with the outside world and filming them reacting to memes. We'll all get a big laugh when they try to throw a spear at the screen in an attempt to free the little people trapped in the light box.
In a way, it's the opposite of BuzzFeed-style lists. Where a lot of lazy Internet content is just nostalgic callbacks that leave readers with a sense of recognition that simulates substance, reaction videos offer the opposite. It's anti-recognition. It's fan clubs gathering 'round to point and laugh at the majority who isn't in-the-know.
"Teens Soil Themselves At Mere Mention Of A Thing!"
With that revelation, I was satisfied. Now I could go back to living my life, continuing to not really care about these videos until one crops up on my RSS feed and just the sight of it makes me feel creeped out. Only now, I'll know why I feel that way.
But then I had another thought: Oh, no -- these videos get millions of views. People are actually watching this stuff. A lot of people. Who the hell are these people?
And so began my second quest.