The Covid-19 pandemic lured several users — with the time and inclination to enter the creator economy — into its no-script format and minimal production requirements. And India emerged as the hub of this content explosion.
Reason — the sheer number of creators it added to the content universe, and for making several international creators — from Chile to Nigeria and Australia to Pakistan — veer towards Indian content for their reaction videos.
The increasing popularity of the genre has made even video streaming platform Netflix and smartphone maker OnePlus, among other brands, directly approach creators to make reaction videos, even as many of them had hit a wall on YouTube ad revenues due to copyright claims.
But what exactly are reaction videos? Essentially, these are videos of other people watching videos. They belong to a genre where creators record their spontaneous reactions while watching an existing piece of content, often showing those videos within their own. Viewers watch these videos because they enjoy the momentary emotional connect of seeing those on screen react to content the same way they would.
The most striking example of the prominence of reaction videos comes 20 minutes into ‘Death to 2020’, a recent Netflix mockumentary. Here, a token millennial talks about providing online “content-ainment” during the pandemic to an audience starved of fresh content. “Especially the reaction videos where I react to 2020. They do crazy numbers,” says the fictional character in this 70-minute-long satire from the makers of the popular dystopian show ‘Black Mirror’.
Picture courtesy: Netflix (Death to 2020)
In his case, the YouTube ad revenue numbers rounded off to $16 million, he adds rather matter-of-factly.
Deepak Ahlawat and wife Aakansha Tyagi took to reaction videos in June last year when both lost their jobs to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ahlawat was a cricket coach at a school in Gurugram and Tyagi was into fashion merchandising.
While looking for opportunities online, Ahlawat, who used to run a fitness channel on YouTube, noticed the growing popularity of reaction videos. It prompted him to give it a shot.
“We went from a mere 1,800 subscribers in May to 73,000 in November,” says Ahlawat. As of January 6 this year, their channel has over 136,000 subscribers.
In August, Shobha and Mashvi Bahuguna from Uttarakhand started their reaction videos channel, Bahuguna Sisters, and it has racked up more than 10,000 subscribers now.
Prominent reaction video creators have also organically grown to become influencers in their own right.
Top YouTubers look forward to their reactions on the latest videos they post online.
“There are at least a thousand new creators who have come up in this category in the last eight months,” notes Rohit Raj, manager of YouTuber Bhuvan Bam and owner of talent management agency Artist Aadmi. “If we were tracking X number of reaction videos on Bhuvan’s BB Ki Vines at the beginning of 2020, we’re tracking 10X of that now.”
These creators rely on user comments or the trending section of the video-sharing platform to choose the content to which they will react.
Movie/series trailers and songs are the more popular picks for their videos, but creators react to any kind of short- or long-form content as long as it is popular or interesting.
Bouquets and Brickbats
Despite its growing popularity, the genre faces flak as it rides on existing popular content instead of creating fresh ones. However, comedian Tanmay Bhat’s serendipitous entry into the genre early last year has helped validate this creator community.
90% of reaction videos are bad, says Dhruv Sachdeva, founder of creative agency Humour Me. “Tanmay’s witty take on things and a discerning voice help legitimise the genre for the ecosystem,” he adds.
Sachdeva recently did a branded content video for accessory brand Arctic Fox featuring YouTuber Ajey Nagar aka CarryMinati that evoked reaction videos from several creators in India, Canada, the United States and Pakistan, he tells ET. “Reaction videos are increasingly becoming an indicator of your relevance. I’d rather have a bad reaction video than none at all,” Sachdeva says.
These videos also help one discover new content, says Raj of Artist Aadmi, highlighting how he has spotted shows to watch after combing through Bhat’s reaction videos.
Bhat himself does not think of it as a genre though.
“If you look at it, news debates are also essentially a reaction to the news. Livestreamed gaming videos also involve gamers’ reaction to the game. It’s too broad to be called a genre,” he says.
As a comedian, Bhat looks at it as material to make jokes.
“This format allows you to make 20 back-to-back jokes, which is what makes it entertaining. It is making jokes with context basically,” he adds.
During the initial phase of the lockdown, Bhat’s reaction videos caught Netflix India’s attention. The streaming player soon roped him in to do a segment where he reacts to fresh and old content on the platform.
Netflix India also has a reaction segment called Behensplaining where it gets women creators to reflect on its content through the female gaze.
How It Started
On the internet, reaction videos are a decade-old phenomenon, pioneered by media company Fine Brothers Entertainment, whose flagship channel ‘React’ has over 20 million subscribers now.
In recent years, US-based YouTuber Jaby Koay, with 1.7 million subscribers, is credited with popularising the format for the current generation of creators.
Every creator has a distinguished voice, of course, but their purpose is unique too.
In Nigeria, siblings Tiana, Victoria, and Pheabian Miller record their reactions to Indian, Indonesian, K-Pop, and Vietnamese music on their channel, ‘African Girls and Asia’, because they want to put Africa on the map.
“We have interesting reactions to things, and we want people to hear us so that they can open their eyes to our culture, too,” says Tiana, the eldest of the Miller sisters.
Celeste Griott from Santiago in Chile started her channel, ‘Sky Blü’, for love.
In August, the 32-year-old esports professional began posting reaction videos on Indian and Sri Lankan music so that she could better understand the culture of her fiancé who hails from the region.
In Pakistan, Suleman Saif got inspired to start a reaction videos channel dedicated to Indian content after spotting ‘Krishna Views’, an Indian channel with 900,000 subscribers that posts reaction videos on several aspects of Pakistani pop culture, among other things.
International creators are often, however, wary of being critical of Indian content, fearing a backlash.
Griott recounts the backlash she received on her reaction video of popular Bollywood number ‘Ghunghroo’ because she did not praise the male lead, Hrithik Roshan, as much as she did the female lead, Vaani Kapoor, in the song. “If a foreign girl doesn’t like their male icon, I guess they don’t appreciate it!”
The Miller sisters often receive racist comments on their posts such as, “We don’t need Black people’s approval.”
Even if there is one such comment among 99 good ones, it gets to you, says Victoria Miller.
“Worse is when you Google translate a comment and it turns out to be a racist one. Such a waste!” adds Pheabian, the youngest of the trio.
From Australia, Lawrence Tann, co-founder of YouTube channel ‘Asians Down Under’ says: “Lots of K-Pop and Indian songs are objectifying people. We choose to react on videos as long as they have a fun vibe.”
“We also steers clear of political content,” says Tann, whose channel with 334,000 subscribers features Australian residents of Asian origin reacting to videos from Asian countries.
Reaction videos can also be demotivating for the audience if a prominent YouTuber makes fun of another creator. It is the equivalent of the comments section taking the shape of a full-fledged video and can be brutal.
Inside this universe, though, every creator’s experience is unique.
Saif from Pakistan recalls anecdotes of all the love he receives from his Indian audience, especially from the South.
“Through user comments, I have come to discover amazing South Indian content. I am now a big fan of Telugu star Jr NTR,” he says via Instagram messenger. “An Indian user also invited me over to their city and offered to be my host,” he recalls.
A rare harmonious note amid the din of “Go to Pakistan” chants.