YouTube Reaction Videos
“STUNG by a TARANTULA HAWK REACTION!!!” is the title of this one. Looks good.
YouTube has an answer to the burning desire from deep inside your id: to hear your favorite song or watch your favorite movie or viral gag again for the first time. YouTube usually does. This sort of thing is kind of the site’s specialty.
Enter the reaction video, a review-turned-improv skit, where citizens of the internet shout and stomp, squeal and gape, and jump around their living rooms in real time, responding to the latest Future album or Brockhampton release or "Game of Thrones" yelp-inducing back-stab. Like most things on YouTube, these videos were way better in 2009. In the Wild West of the oughties internet, you could find any weirdo with a webcam rambling about “American Idol” or NFL draft picks in that lawless monochrome search box and it was glorious. By contrast, many of 2019’s Reaction Professionals are, shall we say, ‘hamming it up.’ This fact, however, turns out to be totally irrelevant. They are still bafflingly addictive to watch, in part because you want to believe that these individuals really would cheer so loudly that there’s mic distortion even if the camera light wasn’t on, in part because it’s how everyone half-imagines their friends will react the next time they send over the perfect viral video anyway: on the floor, dying of laughter.
Dominating the YouTube reaction landscape is Fine Brothers Entertainment (FBE), who in 2016 hilariously attempted to trademark their “React” series before fan outrage pulled them back to Earth. FBE, along with peer competitors like Buzzfeed and Reaction Time, churn out corny, corporate ten minute clips—always dressed up with neon video thumbnails, often filmed in what look like empty dentist waiting rooms—at an alarming rate. They tend to have bizarre titles like “ELDERS REACT TO KORN (Metal Band)” and are clearly following in the clumsy footsteps of America’s Funniest Home Videos, reality TV, and those glitchy “Dermatologists HATE him” banner ads. They are the fast food chains of YouTube, but they also just aren’t very fun. Once you scroll past this stimuli-triggering clickbait (Viz. “Do PARENTS Know MEMES?” of the series entitled “Do They Know it?”), you’ll be greeted by countless mid-sized to unknown reactors that make up a vast and varied underbelly of wholesome, authentic content.
A wealth of talent and likeability can be found here, from the Indian cinema-focused reaction channel of Jaby Koay, to the entertainers and couple Dwayne N Jazz, to the Australia-hailing Asians Down Under, to skit-slinging and erudite group-reactors The Normies, to the freewheeling reactor-turned-rapper Tabby, among so many others. Reacting is necessarily a medium that overlaps with just about every other subculture on YouTube, but perhaps none more so than music reviewing. Though the ever-present Anthony Fantano perversely forwards past his facial expressions at 5x speed during track reviews, YouTubers like Shawn Cee merge reaction and review into one dynamic finished product that makes keeping them separate seem painfully old fashioned. And if all this is not too inside baseball for you already, the ultimate sub-sub-genre to look out for here is car reactions, also a world unto their own: grizzled car interiors, dashboard lights, and parking lots are reborn as sites of critical philosophy no less sophisticated than any within the School of Athens. With all of this in mind, one worries that the numeric success of reaction videos, view-wise, is symptomatic of a public that is increasingly lonely and wanting anything even remotely shaped like friendship, which reaction videos invariably provide.
In a video on Pusha T’s Daytona from reactors the Mallory Bros., the point is raised that, since Pusha’s songs are so lyrically dense, the pair hardly have a chance to react because they are too busy listening. This comes up a lot, and some reactors will even apologize for the lapse in attention (or lack thereof). But as a viewer, that moment of unalloyed response is ironically exactly what you’re after, when artifice is removed entirely, and you and the reactor are both busy listening for something that is, to at least one of you, brand new. After all, reactions, as the word suggests, are first and foremost alchemical.
So, for us, the addicted, the good news is that art is social, and some of this—instinctively nodding along to the beat when the people on your screen are, laughing when they laugh—is to be expected. The bad news is that, even if a comment box reads, ‘Join The Discussion!,’ you are not, and you never quite will be, in real conversation.
Barrett is a Government and Economics Senior.