The Pantomime Theater of Reaction Videos
Fine Bros reaction to losing their chance at greatness

After that whole issue with FineBros, reaction videos are once again under a spotlight. After looking at comments detailing just how stupid they’re supposed to be, I decided to dig deeper into them. Despite that whole brouhaha about greed and the banality of FineBros’ content, reaction videos are everywhere on the Internet. While I most likely won’t have one on here (at least not with me watching something and contorting my face while making noises), I’d like to talk about them and why they’re oddly compelling.

As of this writing, Fine Bros. Entertainment just suffered through massive public backlash amid their React World trademark claim and subsequent pullback and apology after hemorrhaging 250,000+ subscribers on their main channel. It was just a little piece of their nearly 14 million subs, but it’s still enough to sting since most YouTube channels (including mine) dream of having 250k subs.

NOTE: This post doesn’t actively get into Fine Bros in particular (and just how bad they actually are and how their C&D’s are like heat-seeking missiles); this is about reaction videos in general. If you want to learn more about the whole Fine Bros thing, read this article on Vox.

The following is just an attempt at looking deeper into what makes reaction videos tick, but there’s no guarantee that I’ve gotten to the real crux of it. But then again, exploring the idea is the gist of this in the first place.

The Age of Minimal Effort Production

This is pretty much an adherence to Pareto Principle, boiling it down to the 20% of effort (the content itself) yielding 80% of the results. You get most of the time-consuming stuff like post-production—as well as the red tape—out of the way with minimal editing. You can churn out a video within a few hours, upload it, share it on social media, and go nuts with it. This is true with stuff like let’s plays, unboxings, vlogs, reaction videos, and so on. That’s the point of YouTube in the first place.

It’s not really a bad thing since that’s natural in the age when the masses have gained the power to create their own content easily through greater accessibility to technology. Plenty of people like to put it up to lack of talent and effort, but it’s further from the truth. When most people try to come up with a let’s play or a reaction video, they find out that playing it up and trying to be entertaining is mentally draining and harder than it sounds; only a handful of people have natural talent for it.

So you have reaction videos now, from seniors reacting to new shit (which Fine Bros actually axed with lawyers) to just about everyone reacting to movie and game trailers, and even ordinary folk just reacting to shit that happens around them. They’re pretty much flooding YouTube with them, similar to let’s play videos of horror video games with facecams and tons of screaming. You can’t really blame people for riding the wave of something popular.

But the deplorable thing about content like this is how you have to play it up by either exaggerating your reactions and coming totally outside yourself, which may come off as disingenuous and inauthentic. Try typing “reaction videos” on Google right now, and the first thing you see in the autocomplete is “reaction videos are stupid.” There seems to be a visceral reaction (no pun intended) towards this kind of popular content, but that’s also true for anything that becomes popular in any media.

Comparing “Old” and “New” Media

Let me attempt explaining the difference between old and new media, although I’m not sure if this angle is actually convincing (I may have cherry-picked my examples here). Please bear with me.

With 20th century television, we were conditioned to care mostly about the event, with people playing their roles within it and the focus mostly on the happening. From the hosts who guide you through proceedings to contestants vying for a prize, it’s never just about people being people, but them being put in certain situations. These shows can work with just about anyone in it; they’re all about the spectacle.

The central theme in new media is its focus on human beings. It’s the “you” in YouTube; the people in the videos and how they react to whatever they’re doing in them. Podcasts are people having conversations about certain topics. Let’s play videos are people having fun while playing video games. Unboxings are people opening the packaging of consumer products as if it’s opening gifts in Christmas morning. Vlogs are people just talking and doing things as naturally as they can in front of a camera.

Okay, my comparison there isn’t entirely solid; it’s rather flimsy, actually. But the difference I’m trying to emphasize here is that while traditional television is mostly about what’s going on, new media is about who is doing what. But it’s not just about people being people, but doing it as close to their genuine personalities as possible.

There’s no replacing the human element in them, especially since most of those videos don’t have professional actors or big celebrities in them; they’re usually ordinary people with a camera, an Internet connection, and the moxie to actually post videos of themselves doing stuff and momentarily be put under a microscope.

Reaction Videos as Modern Pantomime Theater

For those who don’t know what pantomime is, it’s a musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment in England. I personally don’t really know much about them other than “pantomime” being an adjective often used to describe something that’s positively outrageous in terms of aesthetics and theme. (I heard it being used by Richard Hammond in Top Gear to describe the Pagani Zonda, and it stuck in my head.)

“Panto” is also used to describe really hammy and overexaggerated acting. Perhaps that’s the best word for describing reaction videos and let’s plays of scary games (and maybe some unboxings and game reviews). Reaction videos can be either pleasant surprise and excitement or revulsion over having conventions challenged by something rarely encountered or just something that’s disgusting.

What doesn’t work in most cases is cold placidity (when it’s not for comedic effect). Most people are “boring” in that they wouldn’t be entertaining to watch unless there’s something else that makes it more like deadpan comedy. Not everyone can do the latter as it takes a special kind of person to make that work, so most people go the other route and play up their reactions to things.

They scream, move around, contort their faces, and make wild gesticulations to accentuate whatever emotions they’re supposed to feel. Whether they’re genuine or just played up, it depends on the person doing it. But it’s this thin line between believable and off-putting is what makes a lot of today’s online video trends attract all the cynicism. It’s the same with scary let’s plays and a lot of other stuff involving popular YouTubers doing things on camera.

But I wish to see it as modern panto, wherein the theater of seeing someone’s reactions makes the audience have their own reactions. Human emotions are stirred by human emotions, and it’s the well that’s being tapped in the current age of online entertainment. To just put it down as “stupid” and “banal” is merely to avoid understanding why everyone else finds it entertaining, and then you might even find it entertaining yourself in the future.

Conclusion

It’s easy to say that reaction videos and other trendy formats are dumb, but that’s like saying you’re superior for drinking RC Cola instead of Coca Cola because anything mainstream is stupid. Your mother may like soap operas and you may not, so she must be stupid for liking what you don’t find a slight bit entertaining?

What makes a relatively new thing popular is something that fascinating to reverse engineer, and perhaps I still don’t get it even after detailing my thoughts on it here. Maybe doing it yourself is what lets you understand it more. In that case, I may not understand it at all since I don’t wish to put up such content on this website (at least for now).

Besides—bringing it back to television—don’t a lot of people watch Gordon Ramsay? Doesn’t he exaggerate his anger too in his more recent American-oriented shows? You like being an idiot sandwich, don’t you?

Gordon Ramsay idiot sandwich bit


Meanwhile, we can imagine that after that passive-aggressive “apology” video, the Fine brothers had to drink their rage and misery away after realizing that they could’ve gotten away with that trademark and become billionaires if they hadn’t made an announcement video about it. It’s kind of scary how people as Hollywood as this (contrary to their claims of being otherwise) like this can get so close to fucking it up for everyone else for their own gain.

Now go make a reaction video on that.

Got Feedback?

Do you think I’m stupid for even remotely suggesting that reaction videos are alright as they are? Do you think that YouTube now shit and the old days were better (even though that’s not really true)? Do you lurk the Internet even though you think everything in it is stupid? Do you like hurting yourself and look stupid by being edgy as fuck?

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