The communal watching experience

Chris Reads
5 min readJun 13, 2024

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The proliferation of friction-free home video has been considered an existential threat for innumerable entertainment industries since the advent of television. In the age of high-definition video streaming over the internet, abetted by entire companies and industries built around this service, the film, sports, and even music industries are feeling the crunch. In a desperate attempt to save their bottom lines, the traditional entertainment industry often appeals to social atmosphere of entertainment in public venues. But with improving technology and the advent of increased spectator participation within various streaming platforms, the at-home experience is beginning to offer an alternative that has notable benefits aside from simple convenience.

There are many obvious advantages to on-demand entertainment, which is why it’s such a compelling alternative. Chiefly among them are cost and comfort: twenty dollars a month for a Netflix is cheaper than twenty dollars per person for a movie ticket, not to mention the barriers of becoming presentable and stepping out the door. But the entertainment industry is right about what people crave while consuming content of any sort: validation and engagement is a key part of the experience. And while an online streaming platform cannot replicate the environment of a sports stadium, concert venue, or movie theatre, it can improve on the communal watching experience with all the conveniences of the viewer’s home.

I am not ashamed to say that I have watched basketball on illegal streaming services. So what, LeBron does it too. For the record, it was only when watching at a friend’s house. One feature that illegal streams have is a chat, which may be an even more attractive feature than the cost savings. Anyone can make an account and discuss the game, in real time, with everyone else who is currently watching. For those who are watching alone, it mimics the communal experience of watching as a group or in the arena. More than that, it provides a broader variety of perspectives and fanbases than any other possible mechanism to watch live sports. To our modern attention deficit chimpanzee brains, this is by far a better viewing experience. Instead of being distracted by my phone during commercial breaks, time outs, or even foul shots, I can be involved in vigorous debate with strangers over the internet.

This is also why people will watch reaction videos, or like watching streamers consume content: it becomes a communal watching experience. Certainly, the streamer is entertaining and has valuable commentary, but the streamer is also a friend in a parasocial context, and all the viewers are peers. Furthermore, the streamer actually reads the chat, transforming what is previously considered a one-way information information transfer to an exchange. Like streaming basketball, I’d argue that this is a different and perhaps superior social viewing experience than going to the theatres to watch a movie with a few friends; you aren’t even supposed to talk during movies anyways. The conversation that would occur immediately after a movie is minimal compared to what can be said during the two hour runtime. This isn’t to detract from the uninterrupted movie-going experience, which is sacred for filmbros with attention spans, but it is certainly more appealing for the rest of the caffeinated goldfish.

China and Japan, the vanguard of technological wonders and their science fiction-esque consequences have spawned the next logical evolution based on this schizophrenic need for socialization. Danmu or danmaku subtitling are user submitted comments that run across the screen of the video, anchored to times in the video. Though the trend started out on video streaming platforms centered around anime, it is now prolific in most streaming services in China. In effect, this has removed the need for a streamer to mediate the chat, and embeds the chat directly within the video, democratizing the experience for all viewers. These comments are almost like annotations because they are synchronized to specific times in the content. Although I imagine it takes some getting used to, this is the hypersensory ultrastimulated environment of the future that the TikTok youth are evolving towards.

This is present on shortform video content such as TikTok and YouTube as well. One of the most popular genres of YouTube video is the “reaction video”, where the content creator consumes another piece of media and provides their thoughts simultaneously. TikTok takes this a step further, embedding collaborative functionality directly into the creative application, allowing editors to “stitch”, “splitscreen”, and “greenscreen” existing videos to provide viewers both context and commentary. This style of feedback and discourse simply isn’t possible with traditional one-way media. This is all enabled by the powerful algorithms which underlie these platforms, ensuring that right people are viewing the content, stimulating engagement and constructive creation.

Even for content that is purely original and invites no collaboration, the decentralization of judgment is visible within the comments section. Whether it’s a video, song, picture, or even news article, the comments are sometimes as telling as the content itself. Not only about the efficacy of the creator’s message, but what followers of that creator think about the message. Is it boring, right on target, or too risque? I frequently click into the comments section of social media post, and I think part of my fascination with Reddit is viewing what other internet dwellers think about news headlines. Sure, there are interesting things to be learned, but what I really want is to have my ideas confirmed by others on the internet.

I’ll end of with an observation of zoomers and millennials that live on the internet, the phrase: “hey chat” delivered in real life with the absence of a chat. The speaker asks this imaginary chatroom to do something, usually fact-check or clip the moment. Of course, this is rhetorical: the speaker isn’t breaking the fourth wall on The Office, but would simply like to express their incredulity at whatever is happening. Still, the proliferation of the term shows the appetite, even in the West, for this style of two-way media consumption. It’s no surprise given our egos and need for validation, and I think that the future of entertainment will continue to develop towards this communal watching experience: content can be created at a studio or independent level, but the platforms through will to consume that content will inevitably support this sort of interaction. So, what do you think, chat?

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