The Art of Reaction Videos

How YouTubers are tapping into a need for authentic content.

When Donald Glover released his mercurial music video “This Is America” earlier this year, I had the luck of catching its upload in the first few minutes.

Like millions after me, I danced along with Donald for the first thirty seconds, then dropped my jaw in astonishment when he stretched behind his back, pulled out a gun, and shot the man sitting in front of him in cold blood. Once the beat dropped and the background dissolved into chaos, it was clear the video was destined to be an instant internet phenomenon - and, sure enough, the next few hours and days brought an incessant influx of hot takes, memes, and think-pieces across Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Some offered insight; others missed the mark. Few, however, were able to truly verbalize that initial moment of shock and suspense shared by first-time viewers whose serene expectations were shattered by a gunshot.

Once SZA showed up in slides I knew I’d have to run the video back a few times.

Part of this disconnect came from the inherent issues of expressing emotions through text. Sometimes words like ‘unpredictable’ and ‘jolting’ are incapable of communicating the intensity of a particular experience. The other challenge came from timing. Glover’s audience went into the video with certain expectations which gradually evolved during his initial dance before being completely subverted by the, um, murder. Then, as the song progressed and they began to contextualize the visuals they had already seen with the lyrics and images that came after, they began to form an opinion of the work in its overall capacity. They subconsciously filled in the mental gaps created by this sudden shift in tone — and, in doing so, made it harder to fully express and assess those gaps when voicing their opinions later.

In some ways, the chatter around “This Is America” mirrored the current cultural conversation around one of the main issues touched on in the video: gun violence. (Glover also delves into a litany of topics related to race that have been covered extensively elsewhere.) This same sort of foundering of communication is an all-too-familiar sight after mass shootings. Words don’t do justice to the horror and grief felt when we hear of such acts, and the opinions we share are unable to account for the deeper, visceral reactions that surface in the moment before we adapt and return to reality. In Glover’s case, of course, the stakes are nowhere near as dire; but the disconnect is still there, as it is with almost all of the shared experiences, good, bad, and plain strange, that we partake in as part of our daily information and content consumption.

In the midst of the din around Donald’s release, however, one platform helped recapture the front-to-back initial viewing experience perfectly: YouTube.

I did a Google Image search for ‘YouTube’ and somehow found this picture ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Over the past few years, YouTube has grown a rich community of largely autonomous content creators who release a steady stream of videos reacting in real-time to popular music, trends, and other viral topics of discussion. (Reactions differ from reviews, which are uploaded after a longer period of reflection and rumination.) Unsurprisingly, “This Is America” led to thousands of such videos. A YouTube search yields a bottomless stream of results that could have you hearing ‘we just want to party…’ for hours on end. And many of the results are engrossing. Take, for instance, this first-listen reaction by user Melvin Taylor II.

Melvin begins by extolling Glover/Gambino as an artistic idol, mentions briefly that he can’t speak loudly as others are asleep, and then incites the audience to share in his anticipation: “Y’all just gotta roll with me on this, and just feel the same I’m emotion that I’m feeling right now, ladies and gentlemen, ’cause y’all gonna have so much fun with this! As I will.” The first few moments only heighten his exuberance. He notes blithely that the song “sounds like some Lion King ish” and proudly points out that the shirtless artist is wearing a double chain like he is, before launching into a buoyant shoulder lean that mirrors Glover’s own dance. And then — bang!

Beat drop and body drop. Melvin freezes, his mouth agape. He stares at the screen, mesmerized by the change in ambiance and aesthetic. As he takes in the visuals, they reflect back in his glasses. You can see his eyes flicker in consternation behind the glare. Gambino finishes his verses, and Melvin leans in closer, resting his shocked face against his hand.When the second chorus arrives and the rapper ups the ante by viciously gunning down a choir, Melvin falls back in the chair. “What the f…!” he yells, then covers his mouth in complete disbelief. Later, he looks into the camera and asks his viewers: “What am I watching, guys?”

Seeing Melvin react to the experience of “This Is America” is an experience in and of itself. You can observe the gears in his mind working, even if you can’t quite discern everything he is thinking. It conjures thoughts and questions about your own reaction, about Glover’s intentions with the visuals, and about how others might perceive what they view. It also makes you laugh. The top comment to Melvin’s video, which has 1.5K likes, remarks: “Your reaction was priceless LMAO 😂💀”. Another user jokes, “Legit thought your camera froze for about 30 seconds.”

Screenshot or GIF?

Both the content and popularity of Melvin’s reaction to “This Is America” — his upload has nearly 450K views to date — are evidence of the cultural impact of YouTube reaction videos. The users who share such content are varied in background and exposure. The most popular reaction to Childish’s visual, for instance, is by a black father and son who go by BucketHeadNation; their video has almost 7.5 million views. Then, on the other hand, you have white teenagers and durag-adorned young women who have yet to crack 500. And this same breadth and variety of sharers and watchers can also be found in the topics they explore, which stretch across all genres and mediums. Couldn’t care less about Troy from Community’s new song? No problem. There are similar videos for any topic you’d expect people to want to discuss, and plenty you probably wouldn’t. (Fair warning: my specific examples in this piece are all hip-hop-related… you know my steez!) Simply put, many people want to film themselves reacting, and many more people want to watch them.

But why do people like reaction videos so much, and more importantly why should you? I’ve already alluded to some of the particularly enticing characteristics of such content, but let’s circle back to a higher level look at what makes reaction videos unique in the current digital landscape.

In the past I’ve discussed how one of the most common goals for brands and marketers is to cultivate authentic connections with their audience; and, on the flip side, how people are drawn to content that strikes them as human. The same is true for how we interact with the opinions and emotions of others. The internet, regardless of which platform you most use, is filled with performative ploys and attempts at attention. Many people like to discuss things online, and a good chunk of them are either trolling, trend-hopping, trying to gain exposure, or mean well but have trouble communicating their thoughts with clarity and context. Those with bigger digital platforms, like celebrities and talking heads, often come across as disconnected from our everyday experiences, and even commentary from our most celebrated public figures sometimes feels like it deserves an asterisk; Desus and Mero are two of the most beloved and outspoken voices in media, yet have still admitted the need to self-censor as their audience and contractual obligations have grown. Plus, across all online spaces there is still a gross under-representation of women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community.

All of this puts those of us who want to engage with a range of genuine reactions to and perspectives on cultural content in a tough position. When we extend beyond our personal networks, we must wade through a cesspool of voices on platforms like Twitter and Reddit to find opinions that seem authentic without being hasty or half-baked. We often have to guess at tone, consider potential context, or attempt to fully understand someone’s thoughts just 280-characters at a time. We’re sure to see plenty of hilarious jokes and images during our search, but it’ll be difficult to actually find cohesive, nuanced views and coherent emotional responses.

Reaction videos succeed by accounting for, and often creatively leveraging, all of these gaps in communication to establish a stronger sense of authenticity. Wanna break it down in sections? Let’s break it down in sections.

This one came up when I searched ‘sections.’ Good job Google, I dig it.

Establishing Context

One of the most direct aspects that make these YouTube reaction videos stand out as a potential source of cultural commentary is their format and setting.

The first part of this is obvious: videos are often more revelatory than text, especially when it comes to initial thoughts, in-the-moment interpretations, and emotional responses. (Text is often better for more in-depth analysis, hence why you’re reading this on Medium instead of half-listening as I ramble on Periscope.) Videos are simply often better at capturing the full scope of raw reactions than writing. Recordings heighten context, broaden observational scope, and help us not only engage with people’s unfiltered views and feelings, but also witness how they develop on a moment-to-moment basis.

The context established within the videos themselves, though, is what really makes things click. Many of them have a do-it-yourself aesthetic and feel. Reactors primarily record in spaces that are personal and easily accessible - their bedrooms, their kitchens, their cars - or position themselves against black backdrops. This approach, though probably birthed primarily from logistical issues, leaves the viewer feeling like we’re dropping in on the creators’ everyday lives for a few moments, or are meeting them in a vacuum where nothing else matters but the content being consumed. Moreover, users often upload as pairs or trios with their friends and family members, letting affection and camaraderie serve as a backdrop to their content. Their intimacy is infectious, and this congenial tone is usually reinforced by enthusiastic introductions and salutations at the start of each video. Even any awkwardness, which is bound to surface when someone is sitting in a room speaking into a camera, ends up coming across as charming and relatable.

Reactor Jayde Juelz casually absorbing the new Drake album in her car.

Within the framework of our search for authentic opinions and emotions, all of these characteristics go a long way. Reaction videos succeed more than most other mediums in placing us in a room or empty space with other people and establishing the vibe within that room as one of hospitality and leisure. The very relationship between creator and viewer - or, more generally, between speaker and listener - is thus separated from most possible points of disconnect. The seesaw reaches a balance; we can ‘meet’ them as fellow humans instead of trolls, strangers, or internet sensations, thus allowing us to better take in their ideas without prejudice, preconceptions, or perplexity.

And reactors certainly have a lot to say. Why else would they upload videos?

Offering Verbal Insights

Let’s be clear: the internet is dark and full of terrible takes. No platform or format is free from a steady stream of opinions that simply aren’t worth interacting with. That said, YouTube reactors’ commentary tends to be quite perceptive — sometimes without them even realizing it.

Reaction videos always center around one of two things: either the creator already has some familiarity with (or is in the intended audience for) the piece of content they are responding to, as with Melvin and “This Is America,” or they are engaging with it from more of an outside perspective. Watching videos of the former feels like a familiar interaction, as if one is hearing a friend share their thoughts on a new movie or album. Users may reinforce or challenge your own opinions by making different connections, offering new and interpretations, and voicing ardent assessments of quality. One channel that executes this approach flawlessly is Lost In Vegas; take, for instance, their recent response to rapper Meek Mill’s potent new single “Stay Woke.”

The reactors, a duo of self-defined ‘free thinkers’ named Ryan and George, make it clear immediately that they are already familiar with Meek’s background and prior work. (If you aren’t, head here for a helpful recap.) George summarizes: “Interested in hearing what Meek has to say…he’s been through a lot, right? So, let’s get into it.” They then take in the track, ad-libbing mmm-s and aaa-s of support at certain bars and pausing to parse through the lyrics line-by-line. They contextualize the song’s content, offering explanations of how the rapper touches on current social conditions facing young black Americans. At one point George reflects, “I just love the accountability that Meek is displaying.” Elsewhere, Ryan singles out a specific couplet - “Judge said, ‘I’ll give you a chance, just don’t embarrass me’ / Motivating these little n — as is like a charity” - to address the challenge and importance of setting a positive example for younger generations as one grows older. They both agree, at the end, that “Stay Woke” is excellent.

Ryan and George’s evaluations are always insightful, even when they disagree about the meaning or quality of a particular work. (George, for example, seems to enjoy Kid Cudi more than his screen-mate.) They react in the same way you or I would respond to a piece of content we’re interested in, thoughtfully considering all of its various components and ultimately deciding how much we like it. Sometimes, their response is to be expected; most hip-hop fans would likely say that “Stay Woke” is a sublime song. This itself can be validating, offering proof that one’s taste and critical thinking are in alignment with others. In other cases, they may illustrate how a work fails to connect, even if you yourself liked it. And, of course, there’s the obvious benefits of hearing people attempt to fill in blanks and elaborate on meaning. Many lines stuck out to me from Meek’s track, but I hadn’t honed in on the one about the judge until Ryan mentioned it.

Whether in agreement or opposition to us or each other, the Lost In Vegas duo’s voices are welcome ones, as are the voices of their many peers on YouTube who dissect and discuss the various creators and pieces of content that they are naturally drawn to. Regardless of what genre or type of art-form you want to find feedback on, reaction videos can be a gateway to a profusion of perspectives that are actually worth considering.

Bursting The Bubble

Commentary by reactors who are unfamiliar with the content they are responding to can often be similarly elucidating, albeit for different reasons. Take, for instance, the channel RealDeadOne, a pair of long-haired Canadian metal-heads who, inspired by Lost In Vegas’ own foray into the world of metal, decided to delve into hip-hop for the first time. Here’s their very first video, responding to The Notorious B.I.G.’s classic single “Juicy.”

The duo, who go by Grimby and RDO, make their nescience known at once. They mention having only heard of the artist in passing, question the pronunciation of his name, and confess that they “have no idea” what they’re about to hear. “We’ll just give it a shot,” says RDO languidly. Then, they listen.

As a viewer, it’s clear before pressing play that the two’s response will come from a place of bewilderment instead of comprehension. And yet, Grimby and RDO’s attempted examination is revealing. Because they’re so far removed from the original context of the song, their initial interpretations draw solely from their background knowledge and the actual components of the track. RDO notes that the instrumental gives him a “family vibe” and compares the rapper’s first verse, in which he lists various hip-hop pioneers, to metal artists singing about the heyday of their own genre. Grimby endearingly realizes halfway through that The Notorious B.I.G. and Biggie Smalls are the same. They wonder about the meanings of particular words and phrases - “what does he mean ‘keep me pissy?’” - and celebrate the mention of Sega Genesis. It’s clear they’re stumbling through it all, a mishmash of guesswork and attempts at understanding; sometimes they’re right and often they’re wrong. But all of it helps one understand, or at least explore, “Juicy” at a deeper level by illustrating how the song can be interpreted within a brand new context.

Videos like RDO’s first reaction succeed by coming as close as possible to separating a creator from his or her work and, simultaneously, showing how it is impossible to do so. On one hand, one is able to see how a piece of art or media is gauged by an audience who knows little about whoever made it, and thus is engaging with it as more of a standalone item. You can gain insight into how particular aspects resonate despite potential barriers of entry, or observe how things end up getting lost in translation. You might hear unexpected comparisons to other genres or mediums, or witness someone completely dismissing something you consider genius (or the opposite). Maybe you’ll have front row seats to the birth of a future fanatic. In any case, you’ll have a firsthand look at how content takes on a meaning of its own apart from its creator’s original intentions and audience. I highly doubt Biggie expected his appreciation of champagne to be dissected two decades later by a pair of hard rock lovers with the hair of Goldilocks.

Despite all this re-contextualization, though, these types of reactions also help reveal the very limitations that come when trying to engage with something out of one’s comfort zone. Sometimes you can see subtle cultural biases come into play, as reactors draw impulsive conclusions or fall prey to stereotypes. Sometimes you get a crash course in the importance of first impressions, as certain sonic or visual aspects of an artist or work lead to misunderstandings and dismissals. Sometimes even complementary commentary comes across as backhanded: “wow, this is actually pretty good for a rap song.” All of these responses can be revelatory in their own right, and the wide diversity of YouTube users makes them easily accessible. Generational, racial, regional — the world’s cross-cultural fault lines may be dauntingly deep, but their crevices are only one click away. In some cases, you can even watch the debates play out in real-time among the users themselves; some of the most popular channels are parent-child pairs squabbling about what they like.

Case in point: the father-son combo P F / Dad Reacts.

Ultimately, reaction videos by individuals who aren’t part of an intended audience stand out as one of the best ways to access opinions from outside of one’s own network. In the midst of our social shambles, bursting your own bubble can at times feel like a necessary evil… or an unnecessary extra effort. The very premise of these uploads, though, negates some of the negative stigma that usually comes with cross-cultural interactions online. Someone else is making the step to fully engage with something out of their own area of familiarity, which in turn makes it easier for us to take in their commentary with less skepticism and defensiveness. We respect them for trying, and hope they enjoy their experience. Even when they don’t like or ‘get’ what we do, it becomes easier to empathize with their confusion and contextualize their lack of interest or understanding. And even if they’re completely ignorant, we still may learn a thing or two about the original work by accident.

For those of us inclined to indulge in outside perspectives, including ones we may not agree with, YouTube has been a buffet of barrier-breaking biscuits.

Offering Nonverbal Insights

I already considered this particular characteristic up top, and this piece is getting to be as long as a typical reaction video, so I’ll keep this section brief. Plus, you know where this is going. ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words…’

From quizzical eye raises to quick smiles of approval, a person’s nonverbal response to something — their countenance and composure — is often luminous in a ways that their actual statements may fail to be. Earlier this summer, one of my favorite newer reaction channels, the rapidly growing VibeVilla, reacted to Pusha T’s ornate album Daytona. I’d already heard the project a few times before I watched the pair’s reaction, and had pinpointed “Come Back Baby” as an early contender for my favorite track. One line in the song particularly stood out to me for some reason: “We buy big boats, b — h I’m Sinbad.” I don’t know, man. Something about the in-the-cusp flow, Pusha’s cocky-but-cool cadence, and the casual segue from cocaine references to childhood callbacks just soothed my hip-hop-loving heart. It’s the perfect line to me, even if I still can’t really explain how or why I love it so much.

Darae and Prince, the two members of VibeVilla, are always extremely expressive in both their commentary and nonverbal responses. Their Daytona response was no exception. At the Sinbad line (4:53 in the video), Prince smirks and gives a nod of what seems to be either recognition or approval. Darae scrunches his face up and falls back slightly into his seat. The pair never speak aloud about the bar, but you can literally see the impact it has on them. My suspicions were confirmed and my tastes somewhat validated. Something about that line does strike a nerve, or at least did for them and I, even if all of us are still unable to quite put it into words.

These sorts of nonverbal reactions can be luminous. It’s the difference between hearing someone say ‘I felt that’ and, well, actually seeing someone feel something. At best, their responses let us register what specific components of a work resonate or fall flat with an audience; and at the least, you have some sort of a reference point for emotional responses that can’t be adequately voiced. In the case of VibeVilla, for instance, I can safely say that Pusha’s Sinbad reference hit me in the same way as Darae. Seat-sinking status. And even inaction can be illuminating — RealDeadOne solicited shock from viewers who couldn’t comprehend that the metal fans didn’t nod their heads when listening to hip-hop. The absence of something seemingly inherent to rap, an unspoken but integral piece, became evident without an utterance. Words speak volumes, but sometimes you can understand more in the silence.

Embracing Levity

Here’s an even quicker section. What is there to say, really, except that people’s reactions to content, verbal and nonverbal, can be hilarious to watch? And that channels with multiple people have the added benefit of showing loose interactions and affectionate banter among a group of friends or family? Not much else. So, I’ll just point you in the direction of one of the funnier channels I’ve come across, the Mallory Bros. Quick-witted, bickering twins who love rap? Sign me up. Here’s them celebrating the new Future album while occasionally sidetracking to roast each other. No breakdown needed; just press play and laugh along.

Speaking With Purpose

There’s one more aspect of reaction videos that deserves to be celebrated, and it’s worthy of its own final section.

When we talk about building authentic connections and discuss the benefits of searching for the perspectives of others, we mustn’t overlook the larger reason for such behavior: establishing a better society and community. To this end, reaction videos are an exciting glimpse into how the ways in which we engage with others are currently evolving. I’ve spoken already about how reactors establish a more balanced relationship with their audience, and how they demonstrate a willingness to engage with ideas and people from outside one’s comfort zone. The unifying thread of these attributes is their positive intentions. These creators share content with a purpose: to celebrate and dissect things they enjoy, to explore and learn about new things, to encourage their audiences to think freely, and to spread love within the online world. Their goals are genuinely centered around growth and togetherness, and their attempts to build connections while being themselves are almost always pure.

Sounds like I’m projecting? Just look at how reactors greet their audiences. Lost In Vegas start their videos by guaranteeing ‘unbiased, real reactions’ and shouting out ‘all [their] free thinkers.’ RealDeadOne - who, again, were directly drawn to the reaction space out of appreciation for the Vegas duo - always begin by admitting that metal-heads are known for elitism and cynicism, vowing that they will ‘turn that part of [themselves] off.’ VibeVilla invite viewers in with a casual ‘what’s up people?’ then immediately jump into exclamations and giggles. And then there’s the channel that in some ways most inspired me to write this piece, a trio named Complex Ambition who, in addition to being a nonstop source of adrenaline and exuberance, frequently speak directly about the importance of community and compassion. They kick off each of their videos with a biblical passages and inspirational quotes.

These varied approaches all reflect how the internet can, in fact, be used to cultivate genuine, thoughtful conversations that bridge barriers and help us learn from each other without being too serious, cynical, or skeptical. Reaction videos are an exhibition of earnestness. If art is meant to be discussed, what better way to start the conversation? If we aim to quell ignorance, acrimony, and bigotry from the internet, and the world — aren’t these YouTube users helping us pave the way to a possible brighter future?

The Medium Fairy tells me my time has run dry, so I’ll leave you with one final reaction video which left a profound impression on me. When controversial artist XXXTENTACION was killed last month, I, like many, had mixed feelings. I had generally avoided his music when he was alive, but also felt uneasy seeing people celebrate his murder. When I saw the aforementioned Complex Ambition, comprised primarily of three millennials who go by SOUND, Marloon, and Y.I., had created a reaction video in his tribute, I was intrigued. I’d heard a lot about X’s impact, positive and negative, and was curious how a group of young adults who I knew celebrated love and understanding would respond to his death. The upload came with a straightforward description: “hate will never win.”

I won’t dive into the specifics of and possible points of contention in the grief that the trio and their friend Edwin felt over losing one of their favorite artists. You couldn’t pay me to talk about that topic. (Wait, actually you can, and you should… aazimj@gmail.com, hmu.) Instead, I’ll leave you with a particular thought Y.I. shares near the end of the video, at around the 39:30 mark:

You never know the impact that your art, or whatever you do, has on another person until you release it. You know what I’m saying? And even until then, you have to continue doing what you love because maybe even after you die it’s gonna be accepted and appreciated, maybe not even when you’re alive, like Van Gogh… Just do what you love, put it into the world, and whatever happens happens. You live with peace of mind, knowing that you’re doing what God intended you to do. And if you don’t believe in God, just believe in something higher. We’ve got to believe in something higher, man. You know? Because this world is very dark and moments like this is when we have to, you know, spark a light and remind ourselves of our purpose and our worth… Let’s continue to gather together, let’s continue to say we love one another.

Then he tells his friends he loves them.

— Aazim

i have an idea