Pragmatic Language & YouTube Reaction Videos

Could YouTube reaction videos be used to teach pragmatic language skills?

I’m not a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), so I’m not pretending to be an expert in the field of language processing. However, I rely on data from SLPs to inform my understanding of the communicative aspects of individual learners’ respective abilities to process information and put it to constructive use.

I’m familiar enough with the concepts of language processing to have some informed questions about things I see in the world, every now and again. One of those things that just dawned on me most recently is the question of the relationship between pragmatic language processing and the popularity of reaction videos on YouTube.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with reaction videos, they are videos made by YouTubers in which they react to videos that have become popular on YouTube, as evidenced by their respective number of views. So, to be clear, it’s videos of people watching videos, usually for the first time, so that other people can watch their reactions.

The pay-off of watching reaction videos is to connect with the reactor’s emotions through the reactor’s body language, facial expression, word choice, and tone of voice. Of those four elements of language watched for by the audience in a reactor during a reaction video, three of them are pragmatic language.

Here is my hypothesis, but I need the SLPs in our audience to weigh in on this, too: You know how when you see something cool, your first impulse is to share it with somebody else and see how they react to it? It’s like we only get one first time of experiencing something, but we want to relive it and the only way we can is to watch someone else experiencing it for the first time.

We ride the emotional roller coaster with each new first-timer we expose to the cool thing, relating to that other person’s emotional response based on our own memories of enjoying our first time with whatever the cool thing is. It sounds like a weaker version of the behavior we otherwise refer to as addiction. The first time is always the best time and the experience can never be fully recaptured, but it can be approximated. It goes to show that all behaviors occur on a spectrum, including those we typically regard as extreme.

Art is the manipulation of media in order to convey emotion. It is often non-linguistic. Light, color, sound, shape, space, and a host of other things can be manipulated according to the laws of physics to evoke feelings and tell stories without words. Other forms are art use words as one more medium to enrich their creations, whether written, spoken, and/or sung.

One of the most popular forms of reaction videos on YouTube is devoted to music, specifically individual music videos. This involves the manipulation of visual and auditory information, only, as the other three senses cannot be actively engaged. The exception could be bone conduction of vibrations from the music in reactors wearing headphones or near loud speakers, creating proprioceptive input that goes to the sense of touch.

There are dozens of reaction videos apiece to a great many songs on YouTube. The number of people reacting times the number of songs to which reactions can be given creates exponential exposure for the artist of each original performance video. Reactors increase their own exposure on YouTube by riding on the coattails of artists who have millions of views of their content because of the quality of their art.

When people search YouTube for an original artist’s work, all of the videos of people reacting to that artist’s work will also come up in the search results. It’s only natural that once one has viewed the original video to want to see it again through the eyes of someone else who has not seen it before and determine if they reached similar conclusions. People are not just looking to relive the experience, but also to be emotionally validated for feeling the ways they felt experiencing the original video for the first time.

Which then begs the questions, “Why do people get so sucked into these videos that are so heavily based on pragmatic language?” and “What are the implications of those facts for individuals who struggle with pragmatic language disorder or autism spectrum disorders that compromise their abilities to accurately read the facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice of others, and express themselves appropriately that way, themselves?”

This boils down to the research question of, “Can reaction videos be used to teach pragmatic language skills through video modeling to individuals who struggle with pragmatic language?” Only scientific research can tell. I’m all about encouraging such research, because now my inquiring mind wants to know.

One of the most powerful examples I can think of is the song, “My Mind,” performed live by Yebba at Sofar New York a few years ago. I have never heard anybody take people on such a hypnotic journey through sound in my life. Watching the reactors getting sucked into the song and becoming mesmerized is something to witness unto itself.

The impact of the reactions to her videos led to a compilation video of several reaction videos, that was basically the YouTube version of a meta-analysis, in which all of the reactors’ reactions were displayed simultaneously, allowing viewers to see which parts of the song triggered the strongest reactions from the most reactors at once, like a living performance graph. Me analyzing that now is like the reflection, within the reflection, within the reflection … like, a metaphorical nautilus of analysis.

Another mesmerizing performance is “SOS” by Dimash Qudaibergan at the Slavic Bazaar, also from just a few years ago. Watching people who have never heard of him before reacting to Dimash singing “SOS” is something to behold. The first time you watch it yourself, you’re immediate reaction is, “No! That can’t be real. He’s not human!” Then you watch it again in the reaction videos and see other people having their responses and you think, “Okay, it’s not just me.”

Another one that requires additional inquiry is Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” which doesn’t even have a video. It’s just the song with a still image of the album cover throughout, and yet it has over 500 million views on YouTube as of the time of this post. Watching people who have grown up on rap and hip-hop reacting to this song with surprise is a joy. They are the ones that give animated visual life to what is otherwise a largely auditory experience.

Anyone watching the Kodi Lee AGT audition reactions can see a handful of egocentric attention- and click-seekers suddenly reduced to puddles of humility over and over again. In an instant, Kodi’s performance puts things into perspective and they get it. The clicks to watch the reaction become earned because it isn’t a trick; these people are legitimately shook by what they see and that’s what engages viewers of reaction videos.

In all of the above-referenced original videos, surprise is always a key element. In every reaction video that gets any kind of traction on YouTube, the reactors are shocked by what they are watching for the first time, and become emotionally engaged with the song and performer to which they are reacting. In all the instances cited above, there is an emotional story being told with which listeners can identify.

The reason the views of the original videos are so high in the first place is because the content is so emotionally engaging. People reacting to them for the clicks suddenly forget about the clicks, find themselves transported, and start talking about things that actually matter in the world. What often started out as an exercise in narcissism for pay can become a transformative experience that snaps a selfishly motivated YouTuber right out of it and puts things into proper perspective.

The sounds of the originally performed songs conform with their respective story lines in a way that takes the listener along for the emotional ride of each. With the exception of the Chris Stapleton example, above, reactors also have the benefit of watching the performance, which adds the benefit of facial expression and body language to the communication. Each song conveys a different emotional experience, but one must have intact pragmatic language skills to appreciate what makes each song so uniquely impactful that it inspires so many views and, thus, so many reaction videos.

And, I want to be clear that, even if the reactors are initially reacting to these specific videos only for their own marketing purposes, the ones that get the most traffic are the ones in which the reactors are caught off guard and have authentic responses, like crying or, in the case of Yebba, getting moved by the Holy Spirit in the middle of a song that is not about religion in any kind of way. The value in watching these reaction videos is seeing real people moved for real in the moment without the opportunity to fake it.

There’s no way to conceal authentic surprise and awe, and those are the feelings viewers seem to be trying to experience by watching these reaction videos. What is it about the human psyche, then, that causes us to seek experiences that make us feel surprise and awe? Why do we want to witness miracles so badly? Why are the outliers who receive the most favorable public attention usually artists rather than scientists? Why do we tend to think data is boring and seek emotionally extreme experiences when data is practically useful and emotions often are not?

I don’t have the answers. I just think this is a line of inquiry worth exploring. I’m curious to see if the evidence in support of video modeling as an instructional strategy could be applied to using reaction videos to teach pragmatic language skills to those who struggle with this area of language processing. Are there any communication researchers out there who might want to conduct some studies so inquiring minds can know?

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