Monday, 11 February 2013

Re: Fwd: Reply Girls: a retrospective

I realised I never wrote anything about these videos I made. Maybe I should do that, as on their own they're quite confusing. If you were the sort of person who liked Youtube videos in early 2012, you might remember a trend called Reply Girls.

On Youtube you can reply to a video with another video instead of a comment. Maybe you want to link your video to a similar popular video to encourage people to watch it, like this person replying to the Alien Easter film with this brilliant stop motion and After Effects lego thing. Or maybe you just want to say how you feel using a webcam instead of a keyboard, like this guy did to a couple of the One Minute One Take vids. By replying to that video, it showed up as a link and thumbnail underneath the video and probably in the sidebar too, so your video got a little popularity boost.

The term "Reply Girls" most prominently refers to a couple of Youtubers called MeganSpeaks and TheReplyGirl rather than general girls who reply to stuff. They were incredibly prolific, producing hundreds of videos in just a few months, replying to as many popular Youtube videos as possible. They didn't exactly say anything in these replies. Mostly they just described what happened in the video, sometimes vaguely recommending it without really saying why, sometimes just in a state of confusion, as if they hadn't fully understood what they'd just seen but still needed to describe it to you right away. Then they'd ask you to subscribe to their channel and plopped a few revenue-generating ads on the bottom (at the time MeganSpeaks had a sponsorship deal with Machinima).



I guess it could be useful. Like if you were super busy and needed someone else to tell you what was happening in all these Youtube videos the kids love these days. Or you have a short memory and needed to be reminded of exactly what you'd seen just after you'd seen it. I think they wanted to be those You've Been Framed-ish Youtube people that other people go to for video recommendations. Or they were just trying to connect to the community in their own way, like thousands of other video bloggers. One of their most prominent features were low-cut, cleavage enhancing tops that were emphasised in the thumbnails (MeganSpeaks had those giant arrows, TheReplyGirl looked incredibly uncomfortable and tended to frame out her eyebrows). And they got very, very popular very, very quickly.

Thousands of Youtube users were instinctively clicking on their videos, then leaving furiously misogynistic comments for daring to use a picture of an attractive lady to distract them from videos of people playing Minecraft for nearly a minute. But it didn't matter, the Reply Girls were getting thousands of views, quite a few subscribers, and maybe even a respectable amount of advertising money. Soon the sidebars for any popular video were filled with links to all their videos replying to it and similar videos, and people got even angrier.

My first response to this was "What a brilliant idea." I wanted to be a Reply Girl. There's something incredibly reassuring and flattering about the idea of quickly churning out a hundred videos in a day, sticking a handsome picture of yourself on the thumbnail, then knowing that because of this all of these videos will gain several thousand views and will, in a sense, be popular. It didn't take me very long to realise that it wasn't going to happen for me. So I went for the next best thing: complete deception.

This somehow led to me making a weird arrangement with Nic Lamont. Nic is an amazing comic writer and actor who I've worked with for ages and deserves way better than this. We - me, her and Geoff - came up with ideas for a few parody Reply Girls videos, both replying to their videos and replying to other new popular videos. Then we'd record Nic adlibbing. Then Geoff filmed me lip syncing to her talking, in a variety of weird locations. I wanted to run through the woods and be under a single swinging lightbulb in a darkened room, but we were a bit strapped for time and learning to lipsync to someone else's lines is really hard. Me and Geoff did duct tape my boobs into boob shapes as much as we could, and did something weird involving tomato soup and a hospital gown. Then we'd use a picture of Nic in the thumbnail wearing the pushy uppyiest bra she could find. So people would click on a picture of her expecting standard Reply Girl stuff, and find a video of a strange ladyman doing Reply Girl stuff instead. We did this one as a response to a MeganSpeaks video, and this one as a response to a CassetteBoy video (CassetteBoy actually commented and said nice things, which was exciting!)

It was a weird concept. I wanted to make more quick videos based on flash in the pan online stuff, so there wasn't much of a pause between coming up with the idea and making the damn thing. We recorded Nic doing loads more responses for potential future videos, and while I can't say I was too happy with my video bits I'm incredibly sad we can't use her audio bits somewhere, they were hilarious. Especially her one about Yogscast, I might dig that out again and have another listen.

Unfortunately Reply Girls were a shorter flash in the pan than I thought. So many people complained about them that Youtube actually rewrote their algorithm to make it harder for people to see their videos. The Reply Girls were backing down and morphing from celebrities lots of people watched and hated to ordinary videobloggers that not many people watched or had strong opinions about.  MeganSpeaks, who we'd parodied specifically, started claiming that almost every video she'd ever made had been some kind of elaborate meta-parody of itself. These things all started to happen the week I planned to upload the videos. Nooooo, stop it! We can't parody you if nobody knows who you are! Our videos will be even harder to understand! Also I felt uncomfortable when the misogynistic Youtube commenters seemed to think we were on their side, against "those fucking Re: bitches" as one commenter said. In some ways that's worse than someone hurling abuse at you on Youtube. If prejudiced people are angry with you, at least you're pissing off the right sort of people. If they're agreeing with you, you can't help feeling like there's something wrong. Even when we were recording the videos we thought about parodying TheReplyGirl, but she seemed so genuinely upset about the hatred her videos seemed to be collecting that we felt bad and gave her a wide berth. I didn't hate them, I wanted to join them.

So that was a potential series that ended before it started. I thought about not releasing them at all, the actual video parts feel wrong to me. But my mum really loved them. She was watched them over and over, and inviting friends round and explaining what a Reply Girl was just so she could show them the video of her son wearing a dress and talking with a silly lady voice. Sometimes she even called me up just to come over and show the video again, and stick a copy on her laptop to watch when she felt bad. It was strange because she was such an honest and vocal critic of mine, she said what she liked but she also said what she disliked, or if she didn't think something was going to be popular or she thought I could do better. Sometimes I think she watched them so much because she knew they would be some of the last films of mine she would see before she died. Then I think about what a disappointment I've been, that I haven't produced some soaring and beautiful epic masterpiece that she can watch with pride, instead she got this. But she always told me to stop being so gloomy with this blog. Maybe she liked seeing me be acting in front of a camera for a change. Maybe she just thought they were funny. I hope she liked them.

- Will.