React + Re-Consume | 2408

Reaction videos were (and still) are considered β€˜low effort’. At worst a parasitic grift. Leveraging the creative work of others for social clout

Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2024/05/11/2408-reaction-re-consumption/

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Reaction Videos and Re-Consumption

I’ve been thinking about reaction videos recently. What can they tell us about our media ecosystem and the platform economy?

About a decade ago I was back home visiting my parents, and Mum was watching TV. I sat with her and struggled to understand exactly what I was watching. I remember asking β€œSo this is a TV show about other people watching TV?”. It was baffling. Like something dredged from the depths of Neil Postman’s nightmare’s.

The show was Gogglebox. 

Its premise described by its production company as: β€œA camera records the laugh, cry and comments of the people sitting in front of a television set.” Or as I thought at the time, the plot of Beavis and Butt-Head.

We are currently at the end of the age of circulatory media. An era that K Allado-McDowell calls ‘Network Media’. One that emerged alongside the Internet. You can begin its story with Beavis and Butt-Head in ’93, and end it with the recent Kendrick / Drake beef. Lets call this logic creative re-consumption. 

The earliest YouTube reaction videos were the re-consumption of shock videos like 2 girls 1 cup. Consuming well known content on platform from the pre-platform era. Writing in the NYT in 2011, Sam Anderson called them ‘a social periscope’.

They allowed people to watch this taboo thing by proxy, to experience its dangerous thrill without having to encounter it directly β€” like Perseus looking at Medusa in the reflection of his shield.

In the early 2010’s The Fine Brothers developed the format we recognise today with the show ‘Kids React”. Unlike earlier videos, their videos included a Picture in Picture frame showing the video being watched. It also began YouTube’s self re-digestion. Not so much avoiding the gaze of the monster, but becoming one.

 The re-consumption of television began to emerge alongside the Kids react format. Footage of people watching the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones did big numbers. Which I assume, inspired Gogglebox.

Around this time, YouTube made several technical changes to the platform. Content ID – YouTube’s automated copyright enforcement system – updated to allow IP owners to automatically divert ad revenues on videos where their content was used rather than taking them down.

Creating incentives for IP owners to have as many versions of a song, tv show etc online as possible. Reaction makers were happy to oblige. YouTube also changed its algorithm. Dropping watch time as a metric of success in preference for ‘stickiness’. I.E the number of videos watched  in one session by a user from the same creator.

Reaction videos were (and still) are considered by many as β€˜low effort’. Charitably seen as people sitting and watching. At worst, as parasitic grift. Leveraging the creative work of others for social clout and followers. 

But it was exactly the low effort production that allowed makers to put out 5/6/7 videos a day. Automatic enforcement of IP claims combined with the new stickiness metrics allowed react channels to soon grow big audiences. Though not make much money.

Then, in 2015 the Fine Brothers attempted to trademark the word ‘React’. Which would have meant – if successful – that similarly named ‘React’ videos would be removed by YouTube’s automated copyright system. Not for copyright, but trademark infringement. As you can imagine this move received severe criticism. 

Undeterred, Fine Brothers launched a program in 2016 where creators could use their ‘React’ trademark for free. However, all ‘React’ content had to be monetised, meaning some of the videos revenue would be paid to the Fine Brothers alongside other IP claimants like TV or Music studios.

Pure Renterism. 

The backlash was intense and retribution swift. The Fine Brothers lost nearly 400,000 subscribers in a week. They cancelled the program and rescinded their copyright and trademarks applications soon after. Genre enclosure narrowly avoided, the genre continued to grow in popularity.  

Then the pandemic lockdowns happened and it exploded. After weeks of doom scrolling and running out of Internet. People began re-digesting old content. Watching others experience their favourite media for the first time brings some speck of online novelty. The breakout moment of 2020 came with Tim and Fred Williams’s reaction to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”

Given that it’s almost impossible to monetise reaction videos directly, many creators have moved from YouTube to the most low effort of production platforms. Streaming.

Which has allowed some creators to make a living from their parasocial subscribers. People who pay their favourite parasites to performatively re-consume media in real time. 

Which brings us to the present. In recent weeks the Drake, Kendrick beef has been an event tailor made, perhaps even timed, for real time reaction and re-consumption. 

Due to the songs content, both artists’ labels have dropped any copyright restrictions on the tracks. Which has resulted in reaction creators making direct monetisation money for the first time. Without it being syphoned away by IP owners. In fact professional over-reactor β€˜no life shaq’ reports that he’s made life changing amounts of money from Kendrick calling Drake a nonce.

But the jigg is up.

When the shackles of platform capitalism are removed we find loads of money. It’s copyright itself that is the biggest parasite.

As AI arrives and fills the Internet full of slop, we enter the age of ‘Neural Media’. Not re-consumed but hallucinated. 

Tensions between creative expression, intellectual property rights, and platform economics are collapsing. Machines watch us, watch media, made by machines, now more than ever we need to imagine new and innovative permissive IPs.

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