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.
Cruising through the comment sections of these videos was the fastest way to get in touch with the core audience without having to individually hunt them down like animals. The general feeling was that this was the only place fans of these videos will probably ever be seen talking about these videos. I might as well have been asking fans if they're enjoying a concert while they're thrashing in the mosh pit. I was in the shit, man. Neck-deep in it.
The primary audience can be split into three groups, with some overlap between them.
Let's meet them:
The comments come from people of all races, religions, and countries, yet the commenters share one mystical bond: They're all 12. Or around there. I know they're tweens because they never stop telling random people their age.
They're tweens, and they don't give A FUCK that their parents have instituted a cap on Internet time to reduce the risk of the kid discovering web cams at the same time they're discovering masturbation. Come hell or high water, they're gonna type some shit on the Internet. That digital thumbs-up that briefly simulates the thrill of actually being liked is all that's holding back the potentially ruinous truth: They're a disaster and don't yet know what to do about it.
On every single video there are dozens of comments from people suggesting X age group should react to X anime series. They can't believe no one wants to watch people watch a cartoon.
But actually name a specific show? Don't need to go that far. Some just want people to watch any ol' anime.
An A.I. made of blender parts and a second-generation iPod could have written that comment.
The Incredibly Dull
These come in a couple of forms:
A) The people who mention they're as young/old as the people in the videos and they're very embarrassed by the reactions of fellow members of their age range. They're the Martin Luther Kings of 13-year-olds who don't want to be associated with slightly less-aware 13-year-olds.
Their comments get washed away in a tsunami of no one giving a shit.
B) People who suggest episode topics so boring that I wonder what kinds of lives these people have had that this garbage idea is worthy of 30 exclamation points.
Centralia, Pennsylvania, is a former coal-mining town. In 1962 a fire was sparked in one of its mines. The flames spread beneath the town's streets, beneath its homes and local businesses. That fire is still burning to this day. It was a town of 1,000 people. Only eight remained as of 2013. Who the fuck would want to watch a teenager's reaction to that?
It pains me to admit, but I could find no evidence of their core audience, the one at the center of the Venn diagram, the fabled Incredibly Dull Tween Anime Fan. There are plenty that somewhat fit that description, but it's incredibly difficult to find someone who perfectly embodies every quality and puts them all on display in a single comment. They are, perhaps, too rare a creature. But I've found a fan even rarer than that. I have found the core demo's nightmarish, aging opposite -- the Weirdly Fascinating Elder Anime Fan:
All told, I couldn't nail down the fanbase to one type of person, probably because it's not made up of one type of person. Reaction videos are loved by everyone you don't know. They're loved by the weird little cousin you haven't seen in a decade and the neighbor you've never talked to for no particular reason. Some guy who works in the same office building as you loves them, but you'll never hang out with him, or even know his name. There are millions and millions of people who love this cynical shit, but they might as well be ghosts. So, really, I think I've found the real answer to my original question: Nickelback plays one sold-out show after another, and they still sell records, but you'll be damned if you ever find someone who admits to being a fan. Reaction videos are the Nickelback of Internet videos.
It makes so much sense now.
Reaction videos might suck, but that doesn't mean there's not comedy to be had on YouTube. Check out 10 Brilliant Comedy Moments Hidden On YouTube and 10 Pieces Of True Comedy Genius Hidden On YouTube. Auuuhh the wontons!
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