Which did you enjoy more: watching the Lionesses win the Euros, or watching the crowds watching the Lionesses win? It’s an odd question, but “reaction videos” – watching people experience emotions as they watch other people doing things – have become a respectable genre of entertainment. It becomes a bit dizzying when you think about it: will we soon have reaction videos of people watching reaction videos? That nesting of images within themselves is called “mise en abyme” in French: placing in the abyss, which provokes a suitably existential shiver.
That is not to say I don’t enjoy the simple pleasure of watching kids discover and appreciate old white man music, Italian chefs condemn Jamie Oliver’s crimes against carbonara, or Malaysian comedians objecting violently to the BBC’s fried rice. I also appreciate the sterling work of Tegareacts, a TikTok sensation. (Can you say TikTok without “sensation”? It has become like “flaunting” and “curves”, I think.) Tega sublimates the most banal videos of cleaning hacks, recipes and the kind of obscure household products you get on shopping channels with pithy commentary. She approves them with her catchphrase “continue”, or occasionally condemns with a firm “discontinue this activity”. My favourite is some lethal-looking mountain biking, of which she, delightfully, says, “the mass is not mass-ing, the gravity is not gravity-ing”, neatly summarising my objections to extreme sport.
Watching watchers started on Japanese television in the 1970s, and the New York Times dates the contemporary version to 2007; the time a decent proportion of us began using social media to look to people other than those around us to reflect our thoughts and feelings. Gogglebox took “watching people watching people on TV” mainstream in 2013, introducing a demographic who might never look at YouTube or TikTok to the concept.
Now it feels as if we are going deeper. Why? I’m inclined to blame Covid, which confined much of our emotional life – new babies, birthdays, funerals, even deathbed goodbyes – to a screen, and deprived us of the simple joy of people-watching. Covid sport – and particularly the closed-doors Tokyo Olympics – allowed us to enjoy the wholesome sight of families wildly celebrating the success of faraway athletes: use the volume button wisely if you watch the video of the Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui’s family watching him win gold.
I’m never inclined to worry about what the internet has done to our brains, probably because mine has already been destroyed by angry seagull videos, Twitter fights and my usual 45 open browser windows. But online reaction is becoming a codified and formulaic genre, so much so that one set of reaction-content creators even tried to trademark the concept. Emotions are exaggerated, nuance is blunted, and expressions and gestures can be reduced to a Thomas the Tank Engine taxonomy: happy, sad, angry, thigh-slap with hilarity, tear your headphones off and walk away in astonishment. The feeling that we are performing, rather than feeling, emotion is a recognisable but deeply uncomfortable one: the abyss is calling.
I think there are gentler ways to explain our desire to watch other people feel stuff. One is that we are all tentative, insecure creatures; now more than ever, after nearly three years in which other people have felt distant and been consistently presented as not just strange, but risky. We don’t understand others, but we do look to them for the reassurance that we are the same in some essential way. How they feel about pineapple on pizza, Bohemian Rhapsody or Simone Biles nailing a gravity-defying bit of acrobatics gives us comfort and confirms our own responses are normal.
Another theory is that watching reactions is a seeking-out of connection. There is some evidence that the mirror neurons in our brains, which activate when we do something and also when we see someone else do the same thing, may operate in the same way with emotions: when we see someone experience pain or disgust or joy, we “feel” it, sort of. That would make watching people react an exercise in empathy.
Whatever the mechanism, it shows that we care what others feel. I’m reminded that when my grandparents first got a TV in the 1960s, my grandfather angled his chair away from the screen, so he could watch my grandmother watching it. He would rather, he said, watch her than anything else. The verdict, on balance? “Continue this activity.”