Looking at YouTube: KIDS REACT and Procrastitainment

Looking at YouTube: KIDS REACT and Procrastitainment

On a laptop screen, a small rectangle surrounded by a jumble
of text, ads and windows sends light into the retina of an isolated viewer, who
sees the image of a chalkboard. Two tiny speakers emit the brittle, violently
cheery sound of a chorus of children chanting “Kids React to…technology! This episode…old computers!

What started as magnetic ones and zeros residing on a hard
drive on the server floor of a Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, ends
up here at the portals of individual eyes and ears thousands of miles away, or perhaps
just down the street. The viewers are a twelve-year-old girl in her parent’s
living room, or a twenty-three year old woman distracting herself from a
particularly dreary workday, or a forty-seven year old father of two who
clicked a link in his Facebook feed. All of them sought the same thing: five
minutes of diversion. At one time or another, twelve million other people who sought
the same thing watched this video.

The seven-minute show is an episode in a popular YouTube series
called Kids React, in which children ranging from ages five to thirteen respond
to viral videos, technology, video games, music videos and technology. The show
debuted in 2010; within a year, it had racked up so many views that its channel
became one of the original one hundred channels to receive funding from Google.
The producers of the show, two brothers from Brooklyn who call themselves the
Fine Brothers, have essentially arranged for children to be simultaneously the
subject of and the reviewers of viral entertainment. The brothers make viral
videos about viral videos.

New approaches often develop when bars to entry are lowered
by new technology, and different types of people make it through who might
otherwise never have found a foothold. The brothers, Benny and Rafi, grew up in
an orthodox Jewish household in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Their father is a rabbi. Only
Rafi received a film degree, at Hunter, the city university of New York. Their
background, temperament and interests were not exactly an ideal match for
schmoozing their way into the traditional film and TV industries and producing
material that would be unveiled in the festival circuits. Lena Dunham, by
comparison, was born into a household that provided her with access to elite
credentials and networks of connected people. She was raised by a painter
father and a photographer mother and attended Saint Ann’s, a prestigious private
school in New York, and Oberlin College. She was born to be successful in
traditional media. The Fine Brothers were not. YouTube has become one way for
young filmmakers to bypass the traditional means of access to inner circles of
industry and find another way in.

The structure of Kids
is strictly formulaic. Each episode is shot from a single static
camera position in a small, low-budget set, sparsely decorated with public
education-ish accouterments like apples, pencils, a G-clef. In each episode, a series
of cute children are seated at a desk looking at a video monitor, are shown a viral
video or piece of technology of some kind, respond to it and are then asked
questions about it. This format pays off in two ways: by eliciting a nostalgia
reaction from the older viewers who are old enough to have experienced the outmoded
technologies or clips of older shows and web videos the first time around, and
by showcasing the cuteness of the children’s first, innocent reaction.

Like Tosh.O, Ridiculousness, and World’s Dumbest, Kids React is a mostly a web clip show in
the business of aggregating and recycling viral material from YouTube and then
adding another layer: a kind of virtual social presence sharing the digital footage
with the viewer. The formula works more or less the same way that Beavis and Butthead did, if Beavis and Butthead were reimagined as smart,
polite children. The novel element and source of all the heavy lifting with Kids React is the children’s affect. The
show is powered by a kind of affective child labor.

The idea of capitalizing on the commercial potential of the
affective labor of children is not a new one. The first show that featured
child responses was a segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things” on Art
Linkletter’s radio show House Party, beginning
in the 1940s. Kids’ responses were then used on Linkletter’s TV show through
the 50s and 60s. Alan Funt borrowed the format on Candid Camera during the 1960s, and it was used once again by Bill
Cosby in the late 1990s. Kids React
recycles the idea yet again, this time adding a greater level of dialogue
between the children and the producers. The Fine Brothers themselves never
appear on camera. Like documentary filmmakers, they are only heard with off-screen
prompts and questions, but they are very much characters on the show. One can
feel them behind the scene, straining to draw out particular responses from the
children, and they are the children’s audience during the filming.

American audiences prefer their reality shows to be as
artificial as possible. There is a soothing effect created by dramas like Pawn Stars or Duck Dynasty that present themselves as ostensibly “real” and therefore
somewhat unpredictable, but are actually highly scripted and controlled. This
pattern is central to the reality show genre. After all, much of what we think
of as an unpredictable “reality” in our own lives is actually the result of more
or less pre-established scripts like genetics and the social roles we are born
into. The fact that audiences and producers prefer realities that are the
result of casting calls mirrors this situation. Kids React is no exception to this pattern. The Fine Brothers found
all the children in Kids React from
notices the brothers placed on LACasting.com. The show would be more accurately
titled Child Actors React. The children
are the subjects of the show, but they are also actors playing video bloggers, cast
in that role by an agency. There is a viral element at work here, but the
viruses have been manufactured in a laboratory.

Many viral videos are actually designed, produced and
promoted by professionals. Successful viral videos share certain
characteristics: they tend to be concise, and they feature humor, cuteness,
children, or injury. They trigger emotion, have a clear story, encourage
positive emotional resonance, and easily lend themselves to sharing. Kids React recycles viral videos that
already have these characteristics and replicates many of these same qualities with
the children’s responses. It is a doubling of the viral formula designed for maximum
propagation. Like viruses in nature, YouTube viral videos have information and
structure, but lack the machinery needed for replication. The cost of Web
series must be kept low because there is only a small amount of ad revenue
available through YouTube. There usually isn’t enough money at stake for video
creators to pay for advertising to propagate their shows the way network
television producers do. Viruses need to enter the infected organism’s own cells
and get the host’s body to do the work of propagation for them. This is what is
happening when viewers share videos on social media.


YouTube provides the distribution system for what content
producers create, and it also takes the lion’s share of the profits from the ad
revenue. The average per-click profit for a YouTube partner is low, something
like seven cents, and most YouTube partners earn something like a few hundred
dollars a year. Discounting the setup expense of a cell phone or a data plan
and/or a computer and a monthly broadband service that has already been paid,
the viewers see what appears to be free content with ads. The content creators
get much less money per view than in traditional television, but they also
don’t have to convince developers and producers to invest large sums of money in
them. They also don’t have spend years grinding their way up through a tightly
controlled system of social and professional networks that determine who gets
access to the best resources and opportunities. All they need is a camera, subscribers
and views.

The production challenges a YouTube channel creator faces, in
creating a few minutes of acceptable low-resolution images to stream across a small
rectangle on a computer or iPhone screen are not particularly daunting. Kids
looks relatively professional for a web series, but that still puts it only
a few notches above Zachary Galafianakis’s willfully shoddy Funny or Die series Between Two Ferns. Producing something expensively polished would be
pointless, considering the limited parameters of the screens involved, and
would go against both the aesthetic and the business model of internet
television. Many of the viewers of this type of show are younger people whose
parents have paid for the installation cost of mobile devices, computer and
cable internet service. They are part of the MP3 generation; they have never
had an expectation of technical quality in their free entertainment. They traded
this for the expectation of access; and as a value, access has replaced
fidelity. The economy of advertising revenue on YouTube is also the inverse of
high quality cable shows, which use high production values and are centered around
generating scarcity of access, which in turn maintains profit margins. With
YouTube channels, it’s the opposite. They use low production values and
generate abundance of access. 

The current limits inherent in the delivery mechanism of YouTube
are similar to the limits faced in earliest days of motion pictures. As film, Kids React is structurally similar to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope
reels, a technology dating from the 1890s. Both utilize a one-camera static
shot, done on a small inexpensive set, depicting a single subject for a short
amount of time for a single individual. The default screen window in a YouTube Web
page is roughly the same size as the Kinetoscope’s peephole viewer window at
the top of the device. Unlike film, with many people looking a screen at the
same time, and unlike TV, with a small group viewing together, Kinetoscopes involved
a single person peering into a single machine. This is how YouTube is currently
formatted; the difference is that it distributes the isolated individuals looking
into machines across distance with network computing. This new form of television
created by YouTube has brought with it a reversion to a 19th-century
style of filmmaking and viewing.

Viewers of web TV utilize a much different economy of time
than network and cable television. Web series are generally viewed during brief
moments between doing other things during the day, often at work or while
commuting. Five-minute chunks of wasted time can easily be rationalized, and
may prove refreshing. These shows serve the function of helping to facilitate
procrastination in an entertaining way: procrastitainment. To accommodate this,
the videos must be brief, usually three to seven minutes, and can’t require any
investment from the viewer. Each one has to be self-contained and self-explanatory.
This tends to result in formulaic material that presses buttons effectively.

Kids React is
entertaining when a single episode is watched, by itself, but the formula becomes
stale on repeated views. Binge watching reveals the show’s inherent weaknesses:
a rigid adherence to formula, lack of original ideas and pandering to the
broadest possible viewership. The banality of its unremitting wholesomeness quickly
grows exhausting. The Fine Brothers have created several equally successful spin-off
series based on the formula of the show, including the stultifying Teens React, which features things like teenagers
with bored expressions watching a video from the 1990s internet, and the torpid
Elders React, which manages to make
the spectacle of elderly people dancing to Skrillex seem unremarkable. Originality
tends to be avoided in both the most inexpensive web series like Kids React and the most lavishly over-financed
Hollywood blockbusters, due to the need to maximize viewership in as broad a
manner as possible. Ironically, the problem is brought on both by too much financial
investment and by too little. Any idea that is not pre-screened for popularity starts
to seem too risky. One of the more interesting aspects of Kids React is the occasional inclusion of serious topics on a show
that doesn’t seem to call for them. They’ve had the children react to topics
such as Bin Laden’s death, gay marriage, and bullying. These episodes broaden
the series and reveal that the Fine Brothers have a genuine curiosity about
others that is part of their creative philosophy.

Over the course of the series, the children appear bright and
cute, and they produce answers that are eminently acceptable, even laudable to
an adult audience. Anyone who has spent any time with children in the wild can
attest to the weirdly unpredictable, surreal, and sometimes surprisingly
unacceptable things they might regularly say. Little of that appears in Kids React. The children are cast, prepared,
and framed to produce sunny responses that make viewers, especially children and
parent viewers, feel good about themselves. This is part of the viral formula. This
pattern says less about kids’ personalities than it does about the worldview of
the filmmakers. The show also tends to reflect middle class identity back to
its viewers. One episode involves the kids’ appalled and offended reactions to
an outmoded Nintendo Game Boy from the 1980s, and it becomes clear that most of
these children own their own iPads and would certainly prefer to use them for
their gaming. You can be sure there will be no spinoff episodes entitled Working Class African American children
respond to . . . yoga for dogs.

The set of emotions an adult has, seeing the shot of a child
utterly baffled by a rotary phone, goes beyond amusement. This kid is unable to
understand an object the viewer probably used all through his or her own
childhood. There is a bit of poetry hidden inside the cliché of consumer technology
progress on display here. The slow, normally invisible cycle of generational
forgetfulness spanning the years becomes palpable in a single moment.

The simplicity of the show creates limitations, but it is
also one of its biggest assets. Watching a child completely dumfounded when
asked to turn on an Apple IIe computer from the early 1980s has a slapstick
element that is inherently entertaining. Some of the charm the show creates comes
from the fact that the degree to which adults are fundamentally different from children
is not always clear. When we laugh at kids who are not about to allow a total
lack of knowledge or experience stop them from theorizing and having a strong
opinion about something, we are laughing at ourselves.

The Fine Brothers YouTube franchise has led them into work
in traditional TV. They started out making unremarkable amateur action figure
satires of Lost and G.I. Joe. Late in 2014, they will have their own show on Nickelodeon,
another variation on Kids React
called React to That. They have found
their way in. As web series like theirs jump to TV, TV may increasingly pursue
strategies that seek to monetize Pavlovian behaviors in an imitation of the
internet economy. It’s unclear how well the expansion from five minutes of
distraction to a half-hour of entertainment will pan out. The technology that
creates these changes will also change, and eventually television and the web could
merge. The result is likely to be that television producers will push out web
series pioneers. The Fine Brothers have made sure this is not going to happen
to them.

Drew Gardner’s books include Chomp Away (Combo, 2010), and Petroleum
Hat (Roof Books, 2005). He tweets at @chompaway and lives in New York

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