So, Uh… What’s Going on in the YouTube Comment Section?
For the longest time, internet comment sections have been considered a hive of foolish, bigoted opinions and suspicious links to genital-growth products. However, in recent years a new trend has emerged: That of the Misery Commenter.
Few songs are more outwardly, obnoxiously cheerful than REM’s classic Shiny Happy People. Hell, the song itself was reportedly written in response to assertions that the band’s usual output was too dour, and the lyrics are dripping with a cynical irony. That being said, the song itself is undoubtedly a radio staple, beloved by optimists the world over for its poppy melody and vibrant Day-Glo music video.
So why are the YouTube comments so bloody miserable?
If you, like myself and approximately two billion others, use the video content service to listen to music while working, you may have noticed an unusual trend in the comment section of classic music videos: Everybody is apparently having a right time of it.
Now, it would be easy to assert that these comments are a product of our increasingly wretched times, proof that crises after global crises are weighing on the collective unconscious like a sack of pitiful hammers. However, on closer inspection many of these comments were not made in the dumpster fire of 2020: One comment on the music video for the aforementioned Shiny Happy People, which details the tragic death of the commenter’s daughter, dates back to 2017 and refers to events that took place nine years earlier. For Robbie Williams’ pop ballad Angels, one commenter talks about the death of her husband in 2019, and on the video to Fine Young Cannibals new wave hit She Drives Me Crazy, one top comment alludes to the commenter’s ongoing battle with cancer and diabetes, with over fifty replies detailing similarly awful experiences.
So the question remains: Why is the YouTube comment section so upset right now?
It may have something to do with algorithms, SEO, and the increasing commodification of human emotion.
For the last few years, it has been decidedly vogue in advertising to present one’s brand as close to being an “individual” as possible. This is hardly anything new – there’s a reason KFC is represented by an avuncular Confederacy general – but it has grown to be more apparent in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and direct customer communication. Often, brands will attempt to mimic the behaviour of the customer, sharing memes and interacting with one another the way two chronically-online friends might. Occasionally this backfires, such as when vibrant orange sugar-water company Sunny D tweeted “I can’t do this anymore” back in 2019 in an attempt to seem #relatable to the many, many sufferers of depression who also drink orange juice. However, for the most part, this tendency for unthinking, unfeeling brands to remarket themselves as living, breathing entities seems, if the YouTube comment section is anything to go by, to be based on a deeper cultural impulse: Marketable sympathy.
The reason the heartbreaking comments seem to constantly float to the surface of these YouTube videos speaks to a deeper capacity amongst humans to sympathise and empathise with their fellows. After all, responding to a short essay on the tragedies a person has overcome with anything other than support is callous and inhumane. The issue lies not in human nature – as is often the case when it comes to weird shit on the internet – and more in the way our interactions are mediated online: through likes, clicks, shares, and comments.
In an interpersonal interaction, one might respond to tragedy in any number of ways. One may share a similarly woeful tale, hopefully concluding with evidence of how things eventually got better. One might console with an assertion that pain, no matter how intense, is temporary, and that as the saying goes this too shall pass. More often than not, you might just cry with them, a cathartic sharing of emotion that has bonded humans for over two hundred thousand years. However, in order to do any of these things in an online setting, you must first interact with the ever-growing web of data, numbers, and code that is the internet. Any compassion shown in response to another’s suffering must be done via ‘The Algorithm’.
This has manifested historically in a variety of ways: leading up to and immediately following the election of Donald Trump in the US, the internet seemed to actively favour combative interactions between political sides: nothing drums up the numbers like two people going at each other with increasing intensity while like-minded spectators judge either side, flinging likes and replies down in support like a Roman emperor casting a gladiator to the lions. More recently – and perhaps in response to growing scrutiny surrounding the role of Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter in the shaping of public opinion – ‘The Algorithm’ seems to have softened its focus to more humane emotions. The grieving, frustrated, heartbroken, and destitute can find solace online, where hundreds of strangers extend their sympathy from across the globe.
This is, nevertheless, also a bit weird.
You see, for as long as algorithms exist, there will exist humans seeking to exploit them. This is usually demonstrated in the final stinger of almost every YouTube vlog: Don’t forget to like, comment, and subscribe. However, we are beginning to see how this knowledge of the algorithm, and the emotions inherently tied to it, can be manipulated. On the music video for Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House, one commenter writes “My mom just passed away i came here for memories.. I miss her so bad.. my best friend is gone.” before concluding with “Press like if you love your mom”.
To date, this comment has received 4900 likes, and approximately four hundred and fourteen replies.
This is not to say that the commenter’s feelings are not sincere. Loving one’s mother is a basic human instinct, arguably the most common emotional response felt by people. What is more concerning, however, is the drive experienced by certain people to commodify their tragedy for social capital, a desire to – like the aforementioned brands – remake your pain as something #relatable.
Grief is a messy thing. It manifests in a host of ways, many of which are brutal, unpalatable, and unpleasant. Grief is experienced by almost every person – as one reply to a comment on the music video for Eternal Flame put it, “no-one is immune to pain”. But that does not mean that grief is or should be relatable, approachable, or marketable. Algorithms exist not in a vacuum, but in a feedback loop: They are made by people with thoughts and feelings that are carried into their functionality, and from there they replicate those same thoughts and feelings. Humans, interacting with said algorithm, mirror those thoughts and feelings, and the cycle continues.
Do I think this will end in some hellish cyberpunk dystopia, an ill-fated Black Mirror episode where grief can only be measured by its capacity to gather likes in the online marketplace? Not necessarily. But this is nonetheless an interesting and unusual trend, a reminder of the very human nature of the technological world that surrounds us, and perhaps an augury of the intermingling between the organic and the algorithmic.
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