China’s ‘barrage videos’ are chaotic af — and say a lot about loneliness


Concepts are mysterious issues. Generally the worst ones odor like stable gold, generally the profit-driving powerhouses masquerade as big turds. Telling the distinction, it appears, takes a sure measure of psychotic genius. The place, for instance, is the hazy boundary of brilliance that separates the Slinky from, say, Picnic Pants?

Perhaps I simply haven’t any imaginative and prescient, however for those who’d requested me to guess which one of many two was going to promote a couple of million models, I’m telling you proper now, I might have guessed mistaken.

“Hey, I do know,” mentioned somebody in a design assembly as soon as. “How about we let customers put up stay feedback as they watch their favourite reveals. Then we may scroll these feedback throughout the viewport so that they cowl the whole display, like a curtain of enthusiastic verbal abuse?”

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” laughed alternate actuality me, “Who employed this asshole?”

That’s proper. That’s a dialog between a whole lot of customers, laid excessive of a video participant, whereas the video is enjoying. Somebody applied that. Somebody institutionalized that chaos, and what’s worse, they did so with nice success. The characteristic is named danmu(弹幕), and it’s the most well liked factor stepping into Chinese language streaming media UI.

I’m not even positive there’s an ordinary English phrase for it, however it was dubbed “Barrage Video” in a 2016 study out of Jilin College. The identify is apt.

It does form of really feel like your sense of UX decency is being pelted with explosive rounds. Or somewhat, it’s like attempting to observe TV whereas having a number of persona dysfunction. Or like sitting in a movie show with 300 day-traders in the midst of a inventory market collapse. It’s a cacophonous distraction so fully efficient, so all-consuming, that it completely overwhelms the web page’s major perform.

As a Western person, the looks of danmu offers me the identical intense nervousness as porn pop-ups that abruptly auto-play when nobody’s speaking within the workplace; I get so flustered scrambling round for the off change that I simply begin mashing buttons on the keyboard. I’m not the one one who feels this fashion.

“Ugh,” mentioned Jess, yet one more voice within the echo-chamber of Western danmu haters, “The very first thing I do is flip them off.”

And but, Chinese language video sharing platforms can’t add the characteristic quick sufficient. Past the video sharing web sites particularly targeted on danmu, they’re additionally out there on China’s mainstream Youtube equivalents, Youku, Tudou, iQiYi, Sohu TV and others. Yeah, and never simply “out there” by way of some backwoods management panel, both – in lots of instances, they’re on by default.

Danmu settings panel permits customers to regulate shade, measurement, transparency, placement, and scroll path.

When did this abomination occur?

From Japan, you ninny. All the time from Japan. And like so many different horrors, this one got here straight out of Otaku tradition. Danmu first made their solution to the China market via anime video fansites AcFun and Bilibili (affectionately known as A站 and B站 respectively), and rapidly thereafter unfold to websites like Tucao 吐槽, and from thence on to the remainder of the videoverse.

The idea wasn’t born in a vacuum.

By way of person expertise, Asian TV pioneered the contextual animated overlay properly over 20 years in the past, so Japanese audiences are well-acquainted with the concept of consuming a single program from a number of views.

If you happen to’ve ever watched Japanese speak reveals or sitcoms, you understand what I’m speaking about – the first dialog rolls merrily on whereas hand-drawn doodles pop on and off the display, turning the entire thing right into a mishmash format of half stay motion, half manga.

An illustrated chook flaps in and craps on somebody’s head, thought bubbles seem and disappear over the household canine, Bachelor Quantity 2’s cartoon coronary heart breaks. These little additions perform as supplemental commentary, enhancing emotional undertones that had been initially fairly refined, or including layers of that means that had been by no means current in any respect. It’s like, sure, you’re watching the present. However you’re additionally watching the present watching itself.

By way of content material, danmu tradition is basically simply one other manifestation of egao (恶搞), a somewhat imprecise idea that “signifies an online-specific style of satirical humor and grotesque parody circulating within the type of user-generated content material.” 1

Memes, in different phrases. And very like 4Chan or Buzzfeed or some other common group, danmutradition has given start to its personal dialect and guidelines of etiquette. Spoilers abound (<—– He dies ultimately!) and ASCII artwork is frequent.

The general public response

Couple of weeks in the past, I obtained a espresso with Saber Zou, the artistic mind behind Co-Designer studio, and in my view, among the finest UI minds within the nation.

“So. Danmu. What’s the deal?”

“It’s tremendous enjoyable proper? I like it.”

“Dude, what? No, it isn’t enjoyable. It’s the absolute worst. It’s the worst factor there may be.”

However Saber was to not be swayed. He’s considering of basing his subsequent 20% venture app round a danmu perform, in actual fact. What makes it nice, he says, is the sense of group.

It’s such as you’re watching TV with a rowdy crowd of your funniest associates, some form of participatory live-action episode of MST3K. If the viewers is basically on level, the danmucan find yourself being far more attention-grabbing than the present itself.

And for essentially the most half, it looks like China’s 80后 and 90后 person generations – these born within the 80’s and 90’s – agree with him. A perusal of Zhihu (China’s Quora) and discussion board threads turns up an overwhelmingly constructive response from respondents. This thread asks “Does anybody suppose danmu are tremendous annoying?”

These replies aren’t cherry-picked, I’m simply happening the checklist right here:

I’m not saying every Chinese user drank the danmu Koolaid, but make no mistake, this garble of visual white noise is a beloved feature of online video in the Chinese youth market. No question. The only real question is “why”.

China’s loneliness epidemic

I have a theory.

At the beginning of May this year, Tantan (China’s Tinder) partnered up with Netease Information to launch the results of a user survey profiling China’s “Empty Nest Youth” 空巢青年 – younger, single singles dwelling alone. The survey painted a portrait of an urbanized technology fairly steady however emotionally adrift:

On the one hand:

  • 43% make between 5,000 and 10,000 RMB per 30 days – not nice, however sufficient to pay the payments
  • They work in IT, finance, media, medication or the general public sector.
  • 46% get their asses away from bed earlier than 10 on weekends. 78% eat breakfast at an affordable hour.

However then once more:

  • 76% have intercourse as soon as each six months or much less, 45% yearly or much less.
  • They usually don’t actually appear to care all that a lot: only one% of respondents mentioned that their intercourse life was their greatest concern.
  • 82% have felt nervousness about their future (shocker).
  • Solely 19% have pets. I don’t know if that’s a decline from earlier Chinese language generations, however I can inform you that 35.2% of Millennials personal pets, supplanting Child-boomers as the highest pet-owning phase of the American market.
  • And the kicker, 68% of Empty Nest Youth really feel lonely on common about as soon as every week, coders being the loneliest of all.

These stats in themselves are attention-grabbing, however what caught my eye is that this: Match.com did one in all their very own. Sure, the survey explored intercourse and relationship, however in addition they requested about loneliness, which by no matter metric they’re utilizing, clocks in at round 57%. Examine that with China’s 68%, and Empty Nest Youth, it seems like, are 11% extra lonely than their Western counterparts. Huh.

So what?

As at all times, the numbers are simple to scrape collectively, the concrete “why” much less so. I’m not satisfied that the 11% differential, and even the terrifying lack of intercourse this market phase is having, essentially accounts for the recognition of danmu, however it does clarify a sure isolation, a necessity for closeness and validation. Different cultural components definitely play a component, just like the Chinese language idea of renao – the concept enjoyable just isn’t being had until it’s being had loudly and en masse.

What I can inform you is that this can be a development on the upswing, and it’s not going anyplace anytime quickly. Video running a blog platforms are beginning to lean closely on danmu as the first communication methodology between live-streaming channel hosts and viewers: hosts speak or sing or tap-dance or no matter, and react to danmu feedback as they seem. There’s speak of constructing danmu-enabled film theaters, even. You’ve been warned.

It’s exhausting to guage UI components constructed for a goal market that doesn’t embody you, but when I’ve realized something on this facet of the firewall, it’s to order judgement on alien-seeming options till I’ve spent a while dorking round within the ecosystem that helps them. I suppose I really feel like UI components can’t be assessed out of context. It’s like attempting to determine dinosaur skin pigmentation by watching a pile of fossils.

Anyway, a couple of days in the past, armed with all this backstory, I cozied as much as iQiYi and left the danmu on. I believe I get it now. I’m not a fresh-faced Chinese language school scholar, however I get the attraction.

To my eyes, the driving components behind the recognition of danmu are the identical components that make any social-driven interplay profitable: validation, in fact, but in addition the little flame of hope that we’ll skip a pebble out onto the cesspool and somebody on the market will skip one again.

Kendra Schaefer writes about Chinese language person interface over at The Pixellary and serves as Artistic Tech Director at Trivium China, a political, financial, and know-how evaluation store. She’s been lurking across the Beijing tech scene since 2004. 

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