Ideas are abstruse things. Sometimes the worst ones smell like solid gold, sometimes the profit-driving powerhouses masquerade as giant turds. Cogent the difference, it seems, takes a assertive admeasurement of certifiable genius. Where, for example, is the hazy abuttals of accuracy that separates the Slinky from, say, Picnic Pants?

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Maybe I just have no vision, but if you’d asked me to guess which one of the two was going to sell a few actor units, I’m cogent you right now, I would have estimated wrong.

“Hey, I know,” said addition in a design affair once. “How about we let users post live comments as they watch their admired shows. Then we could scroll those comments across the viewport so they cover the entire screen, like a blind of agog verbal abuse?”

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” laughed alternating absoluteness me, “Who hired this asshole?”

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That’s right. That’s a chat amid hundreds of users, laid over the top of a video player, while the video is playing. Addition implemented that. Addition institutionalized that chaos, and what’s worse, they did so with great success. The affection is called danmu(??), and it’s the hottest thing going in Chinese alive media UI.

I’m not even sure there’s a accepted English word for it, but it was dubbed “Barrage Video” in a 2016 study out of Jilin University. The name is apt.

It does kind of feel like your sense of UX appropriateness is being pelted with atomic rounds. Or rather, it’s like trying to watch TV while having assorted personality disorder. Or like sitting in a movie amphitheater with 300 day-traders in the middle of a stock market collapse. It is a clinking aberration so absolutely effective, so all-consuming, that it absolutely overwhelms the page’s primary function.

As a Western user, the actualization of danmu gives me the same acute all-overs as porn pop-ups that aback auto-play when no one’s talking in the office; I get so abashed scrambling around for the off switch that I just start mashing buttons on the keyboard. I am not the only one who feels this way.

“Ugh,” said Jess, yet addition voice in the echo-chamber of Western danmu haters, “The first thing I do is turn them off.”

And yet, Chinese video administration platforms can’t add the affection fast enough. Beyond the video administration websites accurately focused on danmu, they’re also accessible on China’s boilerplate Youtube equivalents, Youku, Tudou, iQiYi, Sohu TV and others. Yeah, and not just “available” via some backcountry ascendancy panel, either – in many cases, they’re on by default.

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Danmu settings panel allows users to adjust color, size, transparency, placement, and scroll direction.

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When did this abhorrence happen?

From Japan, you ninny. Always from Japan. And like so many other horrors, this one came beeline out of Otaku culture. Danmu first made their way to the China market through anime video fansites AcFun and Bilibili (affectionately referred to as A? and B? respectively), and bound thereafter spread to sites like Tucao ??, and from thence on to the rest of the videoverse.

The abstraction wasn’t born in a vacuum.

In terms of user experience, Asian TV pioneered the contextual activated bury well over 20 years ago, so Eastern audiences are well-acquainted with the idea of arresting a single affairs from assorted perspectives.

If you’ve ever watched Japanese talk shows or sitcoms, you know what I’m talking about – the primary chat rolls blithely on while hand-drawn doodles pop on and off the screen, axis the whole thing into a hodgepodge format of part live action, part manga.

An illustrated bird flaps in and craps on someone’s head, anticipation bubbles appear and abandon over the family dog, Bachelor Number 2’s animation heart breaks. These little additions action as added commentary, acceptable affecting undertones that were originally quite subtle, or adding layers of acceptation that were never present at all. It’s like, yes, you’re watching the show. But you’re also watching the show watching itself.

In terms of content, danmu culture is really just addition appearance of egao (??), a rather vague abstraction that “indicates an online-specific genre of abusive humor and aberrant parody circulating in the form of user-generated content.” 1

Memes, in other words. And much like 4Chan or Buzzfeed or any other accepted community, danmuculture has given birth to its own accent and rules of etiquette. Spoilers abound (<—– He dies in the end!) and ASCII art is common.

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The public response

Couple of weeks ago, I got a coffee with Saber Zou, the artistic brain behind Co-Designer studio, and in my opinion, one of the best UI minds in the country.

“So. Danmu. What’s the deal?”

“It’s super fun right? I love it.”

“Dude, what? No, it is not fun. It is the complete worst. It is the worst thing there is.”

But Saber was not to be swayed. He’s cerebration of basing his next 20% activity app around a danmu function, in fact. What makes it great, he says, is the sense of community.

It’s like you’re watching TV with a rowdy crowd of your funniest friends, some kind of participatory live-action adventure of MST3K. If the admirers is really on point, the danmucan end up being way more absorbing than the show itself.

And for the most part, it seems like China’s 80? and 90? user ancestors – those born in the 80’s and 90’s – agree with him. A assay of Zhihu (China’s Quora) and forum threads turns up an overwhelmingly absolute acknowledgment from respondents. This thread asks “Does anyone think danmu are super annoying?”

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These replies aren’t cherry-picked, I’m just going down the list here:

  • “Danmu absolutely makes sense, you know, and it’s cozier when you’re watching a horror movie.”
  • “At first I wasn’t used to it. After a while I couldn’t stop [watching them]. But you have to watch them on the websites that do them well, not like on Baidu video.”
  • “Pfff, No. A bunch of guys that know how to crack jokes and warn you (when article is about to happen) making fun (of the show) together, is that not a good experience? It’s so lonely when you don’t turn them on and you watch all by yourself. (?_?)”
  • “Just when you want to say that the lead appearance in some show isn’t much to look at, and aback you see a danmu float by that says “Man, I think that lead appearance is super ugly!” , don’t you think it’s an awesomely acknowledging experience? Plus, there are some kinds that are accessible in deepening your acknowledgment for the video. Can I ask if you’re watching the poor danmu on Tudou or Souhu? They’re not as good as the ones for registered users on Bilibili. Someday you’ll really get danmu culture.”
  • “Dude, they let you turn it off and you’re still complaining…”
  • “Maybe it’s really about loneliness, but when I watch by myself, and there’s a funny part but no one to make fun of it with, if you turn on the danmu you feel like there’s a ton of people watching with you. Then you can laugh along and not feel alone. The best ones are on Bobo, there’s not a lot of fighting, everyone’s pretty chill. If it gets in the way of your viewing, there are settings for that. Danmu clearly are a warm, fuzzy invention.”
  • “They make you feel like there are people watching with you. It’s just that they’re really best when your assessment is the same as whatever’s being posted.”
  • “You’ll love them once you get used to them.”

I’m not saying every Chinese user drank the danmu Koolaid, but make no mistake, this garble of visual white noise is a admired affection of online video in the Chinese youth market. No question. The only real catechism is “why”.

China’s bareness epidemic

I have a theory.

At the alpha of May this year, Tantan (China’s Tinder) partnered up with Netease News to release the after-effects of a user survey profiling China’s “Empty Nest Youth” ???? – young, bachelor singles living alone. The survey corrective a account of an urbanized bearing analytic stable but emotionally adrift:

On the one hand:

  • 43% make amid 5,000 and 10,000 RMB per month – not great, but enough to pay the bills
  • They work in IT, finance, media, anesthetic or the public sector.
  • 46% get their asses out of bed before 10 on weekends. 78% eat breakfast at a reasonable hour.

But then again:

  • 76% have sex once every six months or less, 45% once a year or less.
  • And they don’t really seem to care all that much: only 1% of respondents said that their sex life was their better concern.
  • 82% have felt all-overs about their future (shocker).
  • Only 19% have pets. I don’t know if that’s a abatement from antecedent Chinese generations, but I can tell you that 35.2% of Millennials own pets, barter Baby-boomers as the top pet-owning articulation of the American market.
  • And the kicker, 68% of Empty Nest Youth feel lonely on boilerplate about once a week, coders being the loneliest of all.

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Those stats in themselves are interesting, but what caught my eye is this: Match.com did one of their own. Yes, the survey explored sex and dating, but they also asked about loneliness, which by whatever metric they’re using, clocks in at around 57%. Compare that with China’s 68%, and Empty Nest Youth, it sounds like, are 11% more lonely than their Western counterparts. Huh.

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So what?

As always, the numbers are easy to scrape together, the accurate “why” less so. I’m not assertive that the 11% differential, or even the alarming lack of sex this market articulation is having, necessarily accounts for the acceptance of danmu, but it does explain a assertive isolation, a need for accurateness and validation. Other cultural elements absolutely play a part, like the Chinese abstraction of renao – the idea that fun is not being had unless it is being had loudly and en masse.

What I can tell you is that this is a trend on the upswing, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Video blogging platforms are starting to lean heavily on danmu as the primary advice alignment amid live-streaming approach hosts and viewers: hosts talk or sing or tap-dance or whatever, and react to danmu comments as they appear. There’s talk of architecture danmu-enabled movie theaters, even. You’ve been warned.

It’s hard to appraise UI elements built for a target market that does not accommodate you, but if I’ve abstruse annihilation on this side of the firewall, it’s to assets judgement on alien-seeming appearance until I’ve spent some time dorking around in the ecosystem that supports them. I guess I feel like UI elements can’t be adjourned out of context. It’s like trying to determine anachronistic skin pigmentation by staring at a pile of fossils.

Anyway, a few days ago, armed with all this backstory, I cozied up to iQiYi and left the danmu on. I think I get it now. I’m not a fresh-faced Chinese academy student, but I get the appeal.

To my eyes, the active factors behind the acceptance of danmu are the same factors that make any social-driven alternation successful: validation, of course, but also the little flame of hope that we’ll skip a pebble out onto the cesspool and addition out there will skip one back.

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