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Reaction Videos: Parasites, Geniuses, or Something in Between?

Reaction videos became surprisingly popular and sometimes outperform the original content. Are reactions ethical or even legal? And what does its popularity mean for the future of content creation?

Photo by Videodeck .co / Unsplash

Reaction videos became surprisingly popular and sometimes outperform the original content. But are they actually adding anything of value or are they just a way of piggybacking off original creators? Are reactions ethical or even legal? And what does its popularity mean for the future of content creation?

In reaction videos, creators film themselves as they watch or listen to popular content, capturing their raw responses. This simple concept has exploded in popularity on platforms like YouTube and TikTok.

YouTubers and channels like  PewDiePie, Lost in Vegas, AngryJoeShow, Doctor Mike, and others have tons of subscribers who eagerly turn in to watch their reaction-themed videos. On TikTok, short reaction clips spread like wildfire, racking up views and likes.

But why are people so drawn to watching others react? According to clinical psychologist Andrea Weinstein, it’s all about human empathy: "React videos provide a two-fold experience: we feel satisfied because we know the emotions being conveyed in the video, and we bond with the reactor because we can share their emotions.”  

In the same conversation, USC neuroscientist Lisa Aziz-Zadeh takes it a step further, suggesting that mirror neurons could be the reason we feel that connection. When we watch someone else react, our brains respond as if we're experiencing those emotions ourselves.

But it's not just about the feels. Sometimes reaction videos can offer new perspectives on familiar content, provide information and insights, and help viewers decide whether to watch the original content. They feel authentic and relatable, like having a conversation with a friend.

For creators, reaction videos are a goldmine. Michael Sartain, host of The Michael Sartain Podcast explains it like this: "Reacting to something that already went viral has the opportunity to go more viral, hence why people are doing more reaction videos. You get a free boost by reacting to something that was already super popular."

Sartain compares reaction videos to "watercooler talk." They allow people to be part of a shared experience, sparking conversations and connections. When asked if it's worth it for creators, his answer is a resounding yes. "Yes, it's really just free money. If you do it right, you get a ton of engagement. It's something that requires so little effort to do, so why not go for it? Reacting to viral videos is probably the best way to go about it."

Ethical dilemmas in the world of reaction videos

While some see reaction videos as harmless fun (or even as helpful information), others argue that they're nothing more than digital parasites, leeching off the hard work of original creators.

The question of copyright infringement often comes up in this debate. So far, there’s no definitive answer; it is a legal grey area.

Reaction creators will defend their work under the Fair Use Doctrine, which protects uses for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research. But original content creators argue that reaction videos often feature entire videos and can detract from original viewership.

The case of GradeAUnderA filing a copyright claim against Tyrone Magnus for using his entire video in a reaction is a prime example of this conflict. On the other hand, cases like Matt Hoss vs. H3H3 successfully defend fair use in court, so it shows that the line between infringement and fair use is not always clear.

More recently, in 2023, Bilibili was ordered to compensate Youku 350,000 yuan for copyright infringement related to reaction videos. The court ruled that the reaction videos on Bilibili did not constitute fair use and violated Youku's rights.

Golnoush Goharzad, an attorney and founder of Goharzad Law, weighs in on the issue: "I don't see any ethical issue with it. With respect to the copyright issues, yes there can be copyright issues but the holder of the copyright would have to show that the fair use doctrine does not apply. There are several factors that go into fair use but much of it is centered on whether the use was a commentary, parody, educational, or news, and also the impact of the reaction video to the value of the original video."

Copyright holders have taken different approaches to addressing the reaction video phenomenon. Some ignore them, seeing them as free promotion. Others actively pursue takedowns. But overall, the outlook seems mostly negative. Otherwise, how can you explain the backlash for the Fine Brothers' attempt to trademark the word "react?"

Some argue that reactionaries are nothing more than parasites in the content creation ecosystem. They profit off others' work without adding significant value, they say. This sentiment is echoed by many hardworking creators who pour their hearts and soul into original content.

Tom Jauncey, Head Nerd at Nautilus Marketing, acknowledges the concerns of content creators: "Well, a few hardworking content creators, who work on creating concept videos find reaction videos extremely unfair. As they consider these videos as low-effort content, that mainly profits off others' work. Additionally, in the context of legality, such content may or may not fall under "fair use"- according to which limited use of copyrighted material is allowed. So, it is critical to learn about the copyright rules, before crafting or posting any such reaction video," he adds.

"Social media algorithm usually favors watchable content, that helps them reach a wider audience- and reaction videos are one of them. Because of the high engagement rates, these videos can be monetized through ads and sponsorships. However, you have to be aware of the copyright rules and format, as the copyright holder may report the video because of which it can be blocked or demonetized. To find better monetization opportunities, choose to create long-form videos over shorter ones," he advises.

Interestingly, platforms like Twitch and YouTube aren't as legally exposed when it comes to reaction videos. They can sit back and let the streamer catch a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) strike. This means that the responsibility and risk primarily fall on the individual content creators rather than the platforms hosting their content. Therefore the platforms have a pretty low incentive to actively pursue every video that might raise questions.

YouTube's FAQ states, “If a copyright holder doesn't provide us with an adequate explanation as to why a video doesn't qualify for a copyright exception, then the video is not removed from YouTube,“ and that’s definitely a bit blurry. Creators who receive three copyright strikes on YouTube stand to lose their channel, monetization, and their audience.

How reactions are winning the battle for viewers' attention

In the war for eyeballs, reaction videos can be clear winners, taking over screens, racking up views, and leaving original content creators wondering what the hell happened.

One example, CinnamonToastKen, a YouTuber known for his reaction videos, consistently outperforms the original content he reacts to. His reaction to "Pig Obsessed Lady” got a 2.4 million views, while the original TLC video only managed 1.9 million (at the moment of writing this article). Same story with his reactions to Kay's Cooking. While Kay struggles to hit a million views on her meatball video, Ken's reaction pulls in 2.3 million. Even PewDiePie got in on the action, with his reaction to the same Kay's video hitting 2.9 million views.

Now, you could argue that CinnamonToastKen and PewDiePie have way more subscribers than Kay (4.75 million and 111 million vs. 0.298 million), so more views are to be expected. But then there's The Graham Stephan Show. Graham Stephan used to milk reaction videos like a dairy farmer on steroids, openly admitting he was going to ride that cash cow as long as the algorithm allowed it. He'd react to CNBC's "Make It" series and Glamour's content about people living on various salaries, often getting more views than the originals despite having fewer subscribers.

Take this "Millionaire Reacts: How This Barista Spends Her $15K Salary" video, which pulled in just under 1.5 million views compared to the original's 723k. Keep in mind that Graham's channel has 1.5 million subscribers, while Glamour has 4.76 million.

Or this video, about a 19-year-old living alone in NYC. It got 1.5 million views on Graham's channel, while the original only got 998k (with 3.35 million subscribers).

But overall, there are no solid statistics or research on how popular reaction videos are. Are they taking over the Internet or is it it’s an illusion? So in this case, humble researchers’ tools are manually sifting through the pile of reaction content and deep-diving into the popular threads of Reddit.

So while the numbers presented above are impressive, here’s where the reaction to reaction videos gets confusing: in spite of all the views, there's a growing sentiment among content creators and viewers that those videos are a tumor on the industry. As one Redditor put it: "It's like a cancer these days, and it really gets under my skin when I see some random dude/dudette, that doesn't even know how to speak properly let alone know what he is talking about, doing so well and getting so much traction just by playing others' hard work and babbling like a rehashed PewDiePie every few seconds. It's disgusting."

Others go even further, arguing that reaction videos are ruining the internet and that react streamers are committing theft plain and simple.

So what's driving this obsession with reaction videos, especially among Generation Z? While psychologists say it’s about empathy, the viewers don’t seem to disagree with this assessment: and some say it's to cope with loneliness. In a world of increasing isolation and promoted individualism, reaction videos offer a way to watch things you enjoy with others, even if those others are just talking heads on a screen. It's the same phenomenon that drove the popularity of mukbang videos – a desperate attempt to find a connection in an increasingly disconnected world.

But maybe it's not that deep. Maybe it's just a symptom of a culture that values cheap thrills and easy entertainment over substance and originality. A culture where the algorithm decides what to serve you, and the only thing that matters is how many eyeballs you can grab, regardless of how you do it.

Reacting to the future: potential prospects

The low production costs and high engagement rates make them a goldmine for creators, so they probably aren’t going anywhere, at least for now. But what kind of future can we expect from this phenomenon?

One potential positive path forward for the reaction video I can see now – is community building and collaboration. Instead of seeing each other as competitors, reaction creators could work together to create a supportive ecosystem. Take Weird Al Yankovic, for example. He seeks permission for his parodies, building strong relationships with the artists he spoofs. Could reaction creators take a similar approach, working with original content creators to create a win-win situation?

Of course, there's always the possibility that reaction videos will go the way of the dodo and dinosaurs, replaced by some new format we can't even imagine yet. Maybe we'll all be strapping on VR headsets and reacting to each other's virtual lives.

Or maybe we'll see a future where AI-powered algorithms churn out reaction videos faster than humans can blink. A world where your favorite YouTuber is just a few lines of code, programmed to laugh, cry, and scream on cue. It's a dystopian vision, but in a world where virtual influencers are already a thing, it's not entirely far-fetched.

Or maybe, just maybe, we'll go full circle and start appreciating original content again.