Emotional reactors and watchers create new video genre on YouTube

Online viewers watching other online viewers watching sometimes funny, sometimes disgusting, almost always enthralling videos has become a curious Web trend.
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010

In the first five seconds, he looks perplexed, like a man who is trying to figure out whether the milk has gone bad. This expression is quickly replaced with dry-heaving nausea; then at the 30-second mark, he crosses his eyes and gently sways in place, as if this will make everything disappear. The falsetto screams of abject horror begin after a minute, as he hurdles over a friend sitting nearby to get away from whatever is on the computer screen in front of him.

What is on the screen in front of him?

Something repulsive, one assumes, something involving body parts or body fluids, or human bodies doing things you really wish they wouldn't. But the content of the video that the guy -- a 20-something in a knit cap -- is watching isn't the point. The point is that you are watching him as he watches it, and that nearly 700,000 other people on YouTube also have tuned in to watch him watch whatever he is watching.

It's one of thousands of "reaction videos," found in all the crannies of YouTube, representing pathos and kabuki, emotion without context. They've been around for a while, but are growing in scope and prevalence, into their own genre.

Are we so lonely that we turn to strangers making faces on a computer screen to fill some deep need for authenticity and connection?

Or are we just colossal idiots?

First, there was 2 Girls 1 Cup.

Widely circulated in late 2007, it looked like an amateur porn short until it turned scatological and those two girls started to put things in that one cup that should never, ever be put in a beverage container. It scarred eyeballs. Making it to the end of the video without vomiting became a rite of Internet passage, as did showing it to friends. After a while, someone realized that people's cartoonish responses to the video -- how quickly the human face can go from lust to revulsion! -- were more pleasurable than the utterly unpleasurable video and began to film themselves or others watching it.

Reactions to 2 Girls 1 Cup are widely considered to be the first mass contribution to the genre; now, finding a link to the original is nearly impossible, but a YouTube search for "2 Girls 1 Cup reaction" yields 10,200 results, including one of a spectacled grandma that has more than 5 million views.

Gross-out videos may have launched the reaction genre, but the scope has only broadened. People react to television episodes, movie trailers, viral videos -- and not just on YouTube. After a catchy NuvaRing advertisement premiered on television last year (pretty ladies in yellow bathing suits), the birth-control maker followed up with a new version. This one, broadcast on TV but available online, featured an ethnically balanced group of women clustered around a television. "Ooh, I love this commercial!" one exclaimed as familiar music filled the air.

Then we watched them watch.

ChatRoulette, a site on which users are randomly matched with strangers via webcam, became a blank canvas for artistic expression after its founding last November: There are pianists improvising songs about their chat partners, bands bleating their hearts out. On one day last week, according to the viral video tracker on UnrulyMedia.com, three of the top 20 videos were ChatRoulette sessions between performer and "audience member," posted by the performers to showcase their talents.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company