On a laptop screen, a small rectangle surrounded by a jumble of text, ads and windows sends light into the retina of an isolated viewer, who sees the image of a chalkboard. Two tiny speakers emit the brittle, violently cheery sound of a chorus of children chanting “Kids React to…technology! This episode...old computers!”
What started as magnetic ones and zeros residing on a hard drive on the server floor of a Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, ends up here at the portals of individual eyes and ears thousands of miles away, or perhaps just down the street. The viewers are a twelve-year-old girl in her parent’s living room, or a twenty-three year old woman distracting herself from a particularly dreary workday, or a forty-seven year old father of two who clicked a link in his Facebook feed. All of them sought the same thing: five minutes of diversion. At one time or another, twelve million other people who sought the same thing watched this video.
The seven-minute show is an episode in a popular YouTube series called Kids React, in which children ranging from ages five to thirteen respond to viral videos, technology, video games, music videos and technology. The show debuted in 2010; within a year, it had racked up so many views that its channel became one of the original one hundred channels to receive funding from Google. The producers of the show, two brothers from Brooklyn who call themselves the Fine Brothers, have essentially arranged for children to be simultaneously the subject of and the reviewers of viral entertainment. The brothers make viral videos about viral videos.
New approaches often develop when bars to entry are lowered by new technology, and different types of people make it through who might otherwise never have found a foothold. The brothers, Benny and Rafi, grew up in an orthodox Jewish household in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Their father is a rabbi. Only Rafi received a film degree, at Hunter, the city university of New York. Their background, temperament and interests were not exactly an ideal match for schmoozing their way into the traditional film and TV industries and producing material that would be unveiled in the festival circuits. Lena Dunham, by comparison, was born into a household that provided her with access to elite credentials and networks of connected people. She was raised by a painter father and a photographer mother and attended Saint Ann’s, a prestigious private school in New York, and Oberlin College. She was born to be successful in traditional media. The Fine Brothers were not. YouTube has become one way for young filmmakers to bypass the traditional means of access to inner circles of industry and find another way in.
The structure of Kids React is strictly formulaic. Each episode is shot from a single static camera position in a small, low-budget set, sparsely decorated with public education-ish accouterments like apples, pencils, a G-clef. In each episode, a series of cute children are seated at a desk looking at a video monitor, are shown a viral video or piece of technology of some kind, respond to it and are then asked questions about it. This format pays off in two ways: by eliciting a nostalgia reaction from the older viewers who are old enough to have experienced the outmoded technologies or clips of older shows and web videos the first time around, and by showcasing the cuteness of the children’s first, innocent reaction.
Like Tosh.O, Ridiculousness, and World's Dumbest, Kids React is a mostly a web clip show in the business of aggregating and recycling viral material from YouTube and then adding another layer: a kind of virtual social presence sharing the digital footage with the viewer. The formula works more or less the same way that Beavis and Butthead did, if Beavis and Butthead were reimagined as smart, polite children. The novel element and source of all the heavy lifting with Kids React is the children’s affect. The show is powered by a kind of affective child labor.
The idea of capitalizing on the commercial potential of the affective labor of children is not a new one. The first show that featured child responses was a segment called “Kids Say the Darndest Things” on Art Linkletter’s radio show House Party, beginning in the 1940s. Kids’ responses were then used on Linkletter’s TV show through the 50s and 60s. Alan Funt borrowed the format on Candid Camera during the 1960s, and it was used once again by Bill Cosby in the late 1990s. Kids React recycles the idea yet again, this time adding a greater level of dialogue between the children and the producers. The Fine Brothers themselves never appear on camera. Like documentary filmmakers, they are only heard with off-screen prompts and questions, but they are very much characters on the show. One can feel them behind the scene, straining to draw out particular responses from the children, and they are the children’s audience during the filming.
American audiences prefer their reality shows to be as artificial as possible. There is a soothing effect created by dramas like Pawn Stars or Duck Dynasty that present themselves as ostensibly “real” and therefore somewhat unpredictable, but are actually highly scripted and controlled. This pattern is central to the reality show genre. After all, much of what we think of as an unpredictable “reality” in our own lives is actually the result of more or less pre-established scripts like genetics and the social roles we are born into. The fact that audiences and producers prefer realities that are the result of casting calls mirrors this situation. Kids React is no exception to this pattern. The Fine Brothers found all the children in Kids React from notices the brothers placed on LACasting.com. The show would be more accurately titled Child Actors React. The children are the subjects of the show, but they are also actors playing video bloggers, cast in that role by an agency. There is a viral element at work here, but the viruses have been manufactured in a laboratory.
Many viral videos are actually designed, produced and
promoted by professionals. Successful viral videos share certain
characteristics: they tend to be concise, and they feature humor, cuteness,
children, or injury. They trigger emotion, have a clear story, encourage
positive emotional resonance, and easily lend themselves to sharing. Kids React recycles viral videos that
already have these characteristics and replicates many of these same qualities with
the children’s responses. It is a doubling of the viral formula designed for maximum
propagation. Like viruses in nature, YouTube viral videos have information and
structure, but lack the machinery needed for replication. The cost of Web
series must be kept low because there is only a small amount of ad revenue
available through YouTube. There usually isn’t enough money at stake for video
creators to pay for advertising to propagate their shows the way network
television producers do. Viruses need to enter the infected organism’s own cells
and get the host’s body to do the work of propagation for them. This is what is
happening when viewers share videos on social media.