By Sam Anderson | NYTimes | Read original
We begin with an archetypal American scene. A young boy and his sister are sitting on a living-room couch watching TV. All we can hear is dialogue: the iconic patter between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker at the end of their first lightsaber duel. Luke accuses Vader, with Skywalkerly naïveté, of killing his father. To which Vader responds with arguably the most powerful gotcha in the history of film: “I am your father.”
This is, for most of us, a deeply familiar moment: one that has been microstitched into our DNA right next to George Washington’s cherry tree and Fonzie’s “Heyyyy!” and the first 12 words of the Pledge of Allegiance. Today, Vader’s galaxy-shocking revelation is no longer revelatory; it comes muffled by 3,000 layers of pop-cultural gauze.
And yet the boy on the couch, in his innocence, is very much surprised. He makes a face like a threatened grizzly bear: mouth wide open, snout muscles flexed, teeth bared. He is frozen in a soundless scream, his mind blown by this inconceivable, unforeseeable twist at the climax of the world’s greatest space opera. In witnessing Luke Skywalker’s loss of innocence, the boy has lost his own innocence. We, the watchers of the watching, re-experience our own lost innocence through the boy. (As a commenter on the video put it: “Omg, I felt it again . . . for a fleeting moment, but I felt what I felt the first time. . . . ur emotions shook me!!”)
The video is called “Son’s reaction to ‘Empire Strikes Back’ reveal!!!!” It has more than three million views on YouTube.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching this kind of watching: a (relatively) new online genre called reaction videos — one of the more fascinating entries in America’s ongoing anthropology of itself. Reaction videos are exactly what they sound like: footage of people reacting to things. You can watch kids on Christmas morning screaming about gifts, crowds in sports bars flipping out over touchdowns, teenage superfans crying at long-awaited movie trailers. You can watch a formerly deaf baby, with his cochlear implants just turned on, smiling for the first time at the sound of his mother’s voice.
My favorite reaction videos — the subspecies that strikes me as the purest expression of the form — are the ones like that “Star Wars” clip: people reacting, in videos on screens, to other videos that they’re watching on screens. It seems, in its potentially infinite regression, to contain the fundamental experience of the Internet. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the person in the reaction video will be wearing glasses, and you can see a tiny ghost image of the video they’re watching floating in the lenses, and then it will occur to you that everything you’re watching, reflection and all, is now being reflected in the lenses of your own glasses, and the little medicine cup of your consciousness will tip over and pour its contents out into the great everlasting ocean of American Image, and you’ll feel that ego-dissolving bliss of merging with the ultimate source of everything.
Here’s another one.
A man, maybe 30, is sitting in a chair. He’s wearing jeans, a charcoal sweater and a black do-rag. His friends and family have crowded around to watch him watch a viral video called “Scarlet Takes a Tumble”: a classic of home-brewed slapstick in which, as far as I can tell, a young woman stands on a table, singing soulfully, until gravity takes its spectacular revenge. (I haven’t actually seen the original video; I prefer to watch reaction videos, whenever possible, on their own terms, without any reference to the thing being reacted to.)
For a minute or so, the video is uneventful: there are expectant half-smiles and awkward glances into the camera. A football game is just barely visible on a TV over the mantel; from the bottom of the mantel droops a paper sign that says, with glittery dollar-store sadness, “Happy Birthday.” The man in the charcoal sweater watches the laptop, waiting for something funny to happen, the glowing square of the screen (yes, there it is) reflected in his glasses.
Finally, evidently, Scarlet takes her tumble, because the man transforms: he bursts into a crazy open-mouth laugh — a laugh so hard that it forces him to slap himself in the belly and lurch up out of his chair across the room, so gaping that it makes him actually, visibly drool. This laughter eventually snowballs to such disturbing intensity that, at the end of the video, an adult outside the frame has to console a terrified child. The video is called “Funniest Reaction to ‘Scarlet Takes a Tumble’ Video.” It has been viewed more than two million times, and its more than 5,000 comments are a festival of acronyms (lolz, lmaooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo) and onomatopoeia (BWhahahaha, wuajajajajajajajajajajajajajajajajaja) that suggests great domino-waves of outrageous laughter spilling across the Internet.
Reaction videos, in their modern form, were born on YouTube in 2007 — the era of Lolcats and Rickrolling and “Chocolate Rain.” In the waning months of the year, something troubling bubbled up into the popular consciousness: a gross-out fetish porn clip called “2 Girls 1 Cup.” The video was so foul, so blatantly in violation of basic mammalian taboos, that it forced a kind of psychological schism. It was unwatchable, and yet it had to be watched. People solved this paradox by “watching” it: performing their spectation, via Web cam, as a public service.
The resulting videos were like a social periscope. They allowed people to watch this taboo thing by proxy, to experience its dangerous thrill without having to encounter it directly — like Perseus looking at Medusa in the reflection of his shield. Before long, “2 Girls 1 Cup” generated a whole menu of human response: you could watch a grandmother watching it or a room full of Marines or a group of nursing students or the porn star Ron Jeremy or the ultimate fighting champion Rampage Jackson or — on the show “Tosh.0” — an entire studio audience. Soon it matured into a full-blown Internet meme, which means you could also watch the reactions of Super Mario, Darth Vader, Kermit the Frog, Stewie from “Family Guy” and multiple cats. Today, a YouTube search for “2 Girls 1 Cup reaction video” produces more than 23,000 results. You could populate a decent-size city, in other words, with people who have publicly posted videos of themselves nearly throwing up at the sight of other people who are actually throwing up.
What, then, does this sweeping, room-by-room anthropology of the American continent reveal?
The most striking thing about reaction videos, if you watch a string of them, is their sameness. There are little stylistic differences — one guy will shriek and jump out of his chair; another will just sit there open-mouthed — but everyone basically has the same responses at the same moments. The great lesson of the genre is that we are physically different — our couches, beds, hairstyles — but spiritually uniform. A grandmother sitting in front of a ferret cage is the same as two college girls in a dorm room. This is part of the appeal of reaction videos: they allow us to experience, at a time of increasing cultural difference, the comforting universality of human nature. It’s no accident that all of this started on YouTube in 2007 — at a moment when, and in a place where, human experience was beginning very visibly to splinter. Watching thousands of people react identically to “2 Girls 1 Cup” (“Come on!” they invariably shout, and “Why!?”) feels like a comforting restoration of order and unity. Which means that the most disgusting and offensive video ever to go viral was ultimately, oddly, a force of togetherness.
Reaction videos are designed to capture, above all, surprise — that moment when the world breaks, when it violates or exceeds its basic duties and forces someone to undergo some kind of dramatic shift. This is another source of the genre’s appeal: in a culture defined by knowingness and ironic distance, genuine surprise is increasingly rare — a spiritual luxury that brings us close to something ancient. Watching a reaction video is a way of vicariously recapturing primary experience.
This is reflected in the genre’s cinematography: the radical vérité home-movie aesthetic. The videos’ landscapes are composed mainly of things that get excluded from official images of America, or at least stylized beyond recognition: extension cords, dimmer switches, ceiling fans, mantels, beige walls, appliances, bedspreads, table lamps, particle-board bookshelves, potted plants, old boxy TVs, a weasel peeking out of a wire cage. The lighting is bad; the camera is almost always unstable; humans are reduced to torsos and elbows and foreheads and bellies; everyone is covered in denim. All of which combines to create a feeling of perfect authenticity: that we are deep inside the engine room of 21st-century America. After watching many, many reaction videos, I started to think of them as the 17th- century Dutch paintings of millennial America: our modest interiors rendered with total realism, our quotidian density captured in full, pure shots of undiluted lifeworld. Vermeer’s “Milkmaid” has evolved into “Steelers Fan Cries During the Super Bowl.”
But authenticity is never simple. Doubts have been raised, for instance, about that little boy’s reaction to “Star Wars.” Skeptics point to certain nagging details: that the boy looksto the camera (held by his father) before committing fully to his reaction; that his sister, too, immediately opens her mouth with the same expression of paralyzed wonder — then loses it in favor of a smirk that she clearly tries (but fails) to suppress. What does that smirk mean? Is she laughing at her brother’s amazement? Is she self-conscious about being on camera? Or is it a complicit smile — evidence that the whole video has been staged? Are we watching innocence or experience, naïveté or cynicism? (Commenters have wondered, similarly, if anyone could possibly laugh as hard as the man at the birthday party laughs at “Scarlet Takes a Tumble.”)
This kind of self-consciousness could be the death knell for reaction videos, in the same way that the initial frisson of reality TV was killed, almost immediately, by contestants’ increasing familiarity with the conventions of reality TV.
Or it could be that authenticity is a more complex and interesting notion than we tend to acknowledge. Maybe its borders are wide enough to encompass artifice of every kind: self-consciousness, coercion, premeditation, deceit. (“Lying is a fine thing,” Dostoyevsky wrote, “because it leads to the truth.”) After all, at the end of any chain of reactions, the last one will always be authentic — even if it’s only authentic cynicism or skepticism or nonreaction. Every image of a human, ever, is of a human reacting to something.