The intimate stories hidden in YouTube comments | Technology | The USA Print

Last year, on Valentine’s Day, the Filipino artist Chia Amisola was feeling especially “lonely and disconnected”, so she went to an unexpected place to feel more accompanied: Youtube. “Every time I click on a YouTube video I can’t help but scroll down to the comments. I browse alone, but I never feel that way when I am in the midst of the millions of people who have found themselves on that same URL before me, some of whom have even left their thoughts”, she explains.

Amisola had been collecting some of those thoughts for three years now: the especially emotional comments that some users leave under song videos. That Valentine’s Day, she decided to give those comments a new home in which the dynamics were changed: human experiences took center stage. This is how your website was born, in which, while a song is playing, some of the comments that someone left on YouTube is displayed in a large size. “They are mostly love songs that I like; I would open the song, play it, copy the comments that made me cry, and move on to the next one,” she says via email.

Your website It is not the first project that was born as a way to highlight and preserve these comments in which the user suddenly tells something very personal. Between 2012 and 2015, Canadian screenwriter and writer Mark Slutsky was active Sad Youtube, a blog hosted on Tumblr in which he would post the comments he selected next to the video of the song where he had found them. “I always read the comments that people left on songs. Many were almost mimetic, the typical ‘music isn’t made like that anymore’, but sometimes very interesting stories appeared, people talking to nothing. The comments section is a space in which to express yourself with the almost certainty that no one you know is going to see what you have written. Like a confessional, very public because anyone like me can see it, but at the same time very private”, Slutsky reflects on what led him to notice these types of comments.

What kind of comments, exactly? In one of his favorites, for example, left under a video of the song Telstar by The Tornados, a user named mjchael meneen explains that he was the only witness to an accident in a car race in 1962. “Telstar was playing on the radio of one of the cars when I got closer. I felt like those who had died were being taken up to heaven on the sound waves of this song, I was 12 at the time. I felt the touch of death, but also of the afterlife…”, says part of the comment. It was the first time he heard that song.

Many of them speak of love and nostalgia, like this one, now in Spanish, left under a Spanish subtitled video of the song Something Changed by the British band Pulp. “With this song my ex-partner and I came together. This song meant so much to our relationship, it described our situation, and it even seemed like Jarvis Cocker wrote songs that were made for our circumstances and fit perfectly. We’re not together anymore, but even so, it will always be our song,” says user Becky Blond. On some videos and some songs, the comments section becomes almost a group therapy space. Low the song If they kill me, by the Mexican singer Silvana Estradaabout sexist violence, more than 2,000 comments remember murdered or disappeared relatives or friends or dedicate the song “to my 12-year-old self, who didn’t speak.”

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Something personal in an unexpected corner

A few years ago, the YouTube comments section was as famous as Twitter is now, which is to say, as a place that could be very hostile. “The internet can be a very harsh and unforgiving place when strangers are talking to each other, but it can also be very kind,” Slutsky said over a video call. “Especially when you share a passion, people can also be very, very nice and it’s nice to read, even if you don’t participate,” he adds. Quoting Rihanna, these comments are like finding love in a hopeless place.

But, what leads us to open up in this way in a place as strange for this as YouTube? “Leaving comments is a way of reaffirming our presence, that we have visited the site, that we have something to say, that what is manifested there has challenged us,” says anthropologist and expert in digital culture Elisenda Ardèvol, professor of Arts Studies. and Humanities of the UOC. About this type of emotional comments on YouTube, the expert remembers the song Message in a Bottle, from The Police. “In it, a lonely castaway throws an SOS message in a bottle and realizes that he is not alone in his solitude, that there are millions of lonely beings like him, throwing bottles into the sea. YouTube would be, in this case and following the metaphor, one of the beaches where the sea drags those thousands of bottles ”, he indicates by email.

The specificity of YouTube is also, adds Fernando Checa, professor of the Master’s Degree in Digital Marketing at the International University of La Rioja (UNIR), in that it is not a social network. “It’s a digital space with a social layer: we can comment, we can say if we like it or don’t like it, but as such we don’t enter YouTube to make friends, regardless of the fact that we sometimes interact with other users,” he explains over the phone.

This is also what Slutsky sees: we do not enter YouTube with the intention of communicating (it is not Twitter or Facebook). His favorite comments, in fact, are in which it seems that the song has assaulted the user and has caused an unexpected emotion or memory. “You could not design a web that provokes the same. If you create a space for people to go and share their opinions on music, you would have people who go specifically for that, with their story in mind, it would be less authentic. What I think is interesting about a lot of these comments is that whoever left them didn’t even know he had those stories. They played the song and suddenly remembered something they hadn’t thought about in a long time. It is almost like an ambush that generates a kind of accidental literature ”, he opines.

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In these little stories that are sometimes lost in the comments of some videos —hidden between positive or negative evaluations of the song and the classic comment with the lyrics that some user with a vocation for public service always leaves—, there is also a recovery of a space, an attempt at human connection on a platform that belongs to a large technology company. “Most of what we see as the ‘internet’, especially the social internet, claims to connect us, but fails to do so. This always happens as a result of hyper-optimization, of the fact that most of the internet is ‘public, but privately owned’ and that it is geared towards profiting and using our data. The YouTube comments section is a little refuge from the corporate machine, albeit a very fragile one. Many of the comments that I have saved in the last three years have disappeared when the videos have been deleted due to copyright complaints”, explains Chia Amisola.

That is one of the reasons that also led Mark Slutsky to copy the comments: so that those stories would not be lost when YouTube deleted a video. “YouTube was born in 2005, so it’s a very deep archive. But it was never designed to preserve or organize comments. There is no way to order or download them, when the video is deleted, they are lost forever”, he explains. His website is currently full of broken links to videos that no longer exist.

Regarding this creation of small refuges for community and humanity on private platforms, Amisola points out others that also generate this space in which to share feelings and confessions, such as hyper-specific groups on Facebook or a Twitter feed that is always chronological and very well selected. The video platform, however, is different. “The YouTube comments section is special because there is a contextual focus: the reactions are not general, they are specific to this upload of this version of the song. It also lends itself to anonymity that is more difficult to access on the other platforms. There is nothing that unites us except having chosen to be at this URL; there is nothing more important than our identity, nor are there metrics or algorithmic feeds ”, she points out.

Although, technically, YouTube does have a feed and an algorithm, Fernando Checa recalls that it is different in that the interests of the users prevail more than if something is recent. For this reason, even without going to the search engine (which does not work as well as it should) and letting yourself be guided by what the platform offers, it is possible to reach old videos, with comments left years ago by someone who may not have returned to that URL (sometimes someone says “it’s been 3 years, but I hope you’re okay”). Mark Slutsky, who left his Sad YouTube project because it was taking up too much of his time, still likes to get carried away like this and see if he can come up with those special comments. “Looking for particular songs that are more obvious for that emotional response often makes those comments seem more performative, more elaborate, and less authentic,” he explains. He likes them raw, often written with spelling or grammatical errors that he never corrected when copying them.

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Chia Amisola, on the other hand, likes not to know how much truth there is in a comment and keeps the feeling of intimacy. “It’s magical to see a comment from POOPINMYBUTT934 [’CACAENMICULO934] about a lack of love that he had twenty years ago, I feel part of his life. I don’t know you, but I know of a completely intimate encounter that you have chosen to share”, he exemplifies.

A few years ago, for an article he wrote in the middle buzzfeed About Sad YouTube, Mark Slutsky managed to contact some of the users of his favorite comments, including the witness to that car accident in 1962. “It didn’t even seem strange to him to receive a phone call asking him about the subject. Sometimes it even seemed like they had been waiting all their lives for someone to call them and ask them to tell that story,” he recounts. Proof that the message in the bottle has come to fruition.

Study what causes the music as a result of the comments

The specificity of some of these comments has also been noted by researchers seeking to answer how music makes us feel. Studying this is complicated because, both when visualizing how the brain activates when listening to a certain song and when trying through interviews, the situation is very elaborate and not very spontaneous. Researchers at several British universities are already looking into how to use YouTube song comments to amplify research on music and emotion. “The comments of the listeners are closely connected to the listening experience, thus providing a huge amount of rich, realistic and easily accessible data”, they explain in the summary of a conference that took place in 2020. Through analysis methods, both manual and automatic (detect the most used words, for example, or discard comments that do not contribute -such as the spam—), this information can be contrasted with and extend existing models for the study of emotions and music.

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