I recently came across–and was immediately drawn in by–a YouTube video that consisted of various people reacting in real time to the ending of the 1995 film, “The Usual Suspects.” It had been so long since I’d seen it, and it was so much fun seeing everyone react to it for the first time, watching their faces and listening to their exclamations and shouts as the final pieces of the film’s puzzle were suddenly made clear. I recalled my own reaction to the film nearly 30 years ago now and can still remember the goosebumps on my arms that rose when the identity of the film’s villain was finally revealed.
I absolutely loved the video–and I was also very surprised by my reaction. Watching people watch something else? It’s the height of absurdity. No thanks. Yet here I was.
And I wasn’t alone. Creators of these “reaction videos,” as they are more commonly known, have views that number into the millions and follower counts that aren’t far behind. Theories about why these are so popular range from the biological (“mirror neurons” in the human brain stimulate emotions based on what someone sees repeated in front of them; Palladino, 2006) to the socio-emotional (it’s easier to empathize with someone if you already know how they are going to feel; Palladino, 2006); but my own theory is that this is an example of what people have been engineered to do since time immemorial: finding and creating community in order to fill a vacuum.
The shared experience of watching television has changed immensely over the past four decades. In TV’s earlier years there were only a handful of channels a viewer could choose from; and even when they expanded out slightly into the 1980s and ‘90s, “Must-See TV” was more like “There’s-Not-Much-Else-To- Go-TV.” That all changed with the introduction of cable television, when the number of channels vaulted into the hundreds. Now it is changing once more with paid streaming services that provide more content than can reasonably be enjoyed on a small scale–not to mention the inclusion of the plethora of online content that are neither TV nor movies: podcasts, short YouTube and TikTok videos, Instagram Reels, and more.
What’s the result of that? I like to call it “Pop-Cultural Isolationationsim:” the natural loss of shared experiences of popular culture due to the sheer inability to consume–and respond to in community–all of this available content. And, silly as it may sound, it is a loss. What was once a shared experience and a genuine conversation starter (“Did you catch the game last night?”) now quickly becomes a conversation that ends with a shrug: “Oh, I don’t have Hulu” or “I don’t have TikTok” or “I don’t use Netflix.” And although it seems trite (surely people can express shared experiences with others that do not involve a TV or other Internet media, you may say), it has been the case for as long as media has been available that people have used it to drive conversation and grow in community, even if those relationships are solely based on so tedious a foundation. And because the Internet is increasingly the only place from which to obtain content (be in TV shows, streaming movies, and podcasts), and it is quickly becoming a major source of entertainment and culture in today’s society, those who do not choose to utilize it will certainly lose that community, which can lead to real emotional emptiness.
Enter the reaction video, which serves to fill that vacuum with a shared experience, even among people spread out throughout the world. Although it is not the same as an in-person, shared reaction to a TV show, a movie, or a twenty-second clip on TikTok, it does the job: you identify with the other viewers, you find meaning in it, you feel a camaraderie with them (“That’s what I thought too!”), your opinions about the piece you’re watching are validated, and you immediately feel less alone in the world. You are in a de facto community, even if no one else in your actual community knows you are there.
Is it perfection? Admittedly, there are arguments to make that say it is not–but in the seeming inevitability of how we continue to consume our popular culture, it may be one of the best ways to keep isolation at bay. It is ultimately hopeful; an example of how, even when people are consistently apart, they find ways to reconnect – as surprising as it may be.
Palladino, V. (2006, April 16). The science behind the insane popularity of “react” videos on YouTube. Ars Technica. https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2016/04/the-science-behind-the-insane-popularity-of-react-videos-on-youtube/