By Elizabeth De Luna
Like cats with strings, days at the zoo, and bedroom sing-alongs, reaction videos are about as old as YouTube itself. For the past 10 years, the genre has maintained a relatively consistent look and feel, even as the platform around it evolved into the second-largest site in the world. Now, change seems to be catching up with it. Slowly but surely, over the past two years, YouTube reaction videos have been taken over by the pros. Lawyers, doctors, plant experts, and folks of seemingly every other kind of occupation are reacting to videos related to their line of work. Want to watch a Wiccan react to a YouTuber becoming a witch for a day? You can. How about a magician critiquing beginner magic? Or a music producer swooning over the harmonies in "Bohemian Rhapsody?” Those are available, too.
Professional reactions aren’t feats of filmmaking, editing, or artistry. Instead, their crowning glory is having breathed new life into one of YouTube’s oldest and most consistent pillars of content. Data confirms that professional reactions are having a moment: YouTube searches for videos with the term "react" in their title are the highest they’ve been since 2014 — the starting point for available data — and searches for videos with both "real” and “react" in their title (as in “Real Engineer reacts to The Big Bang Theory”) saw their biggest week in five years this past January.
Around the birth of YouTube, before video editing services were widely available, reaction videos were limited to home videos of children gleefully ripping open Christmas presents or reacting to The Scary Maze Game. As time went on, editing made it possible to superimpose videos on screen, alongside the reaction, allowing the viewer to watch them simultaneously.
For the most part, reaction videos on YouTube showed regular people reacting to mainstream movies, television, viral videos, fails, and memes. Anyone could react to anything, no expertise necessary. Over time, some channels attempted to set themselves apart with video titles like “dad reacts,” “couples react,” or even "Black guy reacts.” The Fine Brothers, the pre-eminent pioneers of the react genre, were granted trademark registrations for "Kids React" in 2012 and "Teens React" and “Elders React” in 2013 before eventually spinning out “Adult,” “College Kid,” “YouTuber,” and “Celebrity” react series as well. The new wave of professional reaction videos have taken inspiration from those series titles, adding “real” or “expert” to an occupation as a way to legitimize their content, as in “real chef” or “dinosaur expert.”
All reaction videos, professional or not, tend to stick to the same standard set-up. The reactor sits in front of a laptop computer or looks off-camera to a large monitor, positioned to one side of the screen to allow room for a video inlay in post-production. They press play and the reaction begins, with the audience at home following along through that little video-inside-the-video. The reactor adds commentary, sometimes pausing to complete longer thoughts before moving on.
But where reactions by non-professionals tend to be structurally loose and emotionally unbridled, pros take on a more constrained air of authority. They quibble over small details, and assert their expertise by recounting their own experience on the job. Their familiarity with the topic adds new dimensions to the viewing experience, which is especially effective in giving new life to classic movies or television shows that have been etched into the pop culture zeitgeist.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when reactions got professional, but it was likely sometime in 2016. In November of that year, Wired uploaded a video that featured dialect coach Erik Singer analyzing accents in Hollywood films. The video, “Movie Accent Expert Breaks Down 32 Actors' Accents,” was a hit and Wired expanded the series to include four more videos with Singer, in addition to the reactions of other professionals like a lawyer, a hacker, and the CIA’s former Chief of Disguise. Since then the format has absolutely exploded, with Buzzfeed, Glamour, SELF, New York Magazine, GQ, INSIDER, and countless independent YouTube creators making their own videos of experts reacting to or reviewing scenes from television and movies.
It was a video from the Wired series, “Surgical Resident Breaks Down 49 Medical Scenes From Film & TV,” that prompted Dr. Mikhail "Mike" Varshavski D.O., known to the Internet and his patients as Doctor Mike, to consider the reaction format for his channel. Doctor Mike began making videos on YouTube in April of 2017 out of frustration. In 2015, Buzzfeed had written up his Instagram profile, telling readers “You Really Need To See This Hot Doctor And His Dog.” After that Doctor Mike says that “what seemed like 1,000 other outlets” wrote about him, too, fascinated by the “paradox of seeing a good-looking doctor who is also practicing in real life.” People named him “sexiest doctor alive.” This exposure helped him attract more than one million Instagram followers, but he felt that his attempts to post “meaningful content” about medicine on the platform were futile. He saw YouTube as the right venue for educating a young audience.
Over the course of Doctor Mike’s first year on YouTube, his videos about medical myths and how to get the right amount of Vitamin D had attracted more than 380,000 subscribers to his channel. Still, he wanted to reach more people. While watching Wired’s video, a reaction struck him as a great idea. He had seen the success of a video he made comparing his life as a doctor to the portrayal of doctors on TV and decided to lean in to mainstream media’s depiction of him as “real-life Dr. McDreamy,” the fictional doctor from Grey’s Anatomy. In April 2018, he uploaded “Real Doctor Reacts to GREY'S ANATOMY,” which showed him watching the TV drama for the first time, pausing to provide his thoughts on when it was stretching the truth. The video was an immediate hit, with several million views in the first few days, and his follow-up videos reacting to The Good Doctor and House M.D. were similarly well-received. It was the spark his channel needed; less than one month later, he hit one million subscribers.
Inevitably, not everyone believed he was for real. Doctor Mike sees 30-40 patients a week in addition to writing for the American Academy of Family Physicians and making regular appearances on the Fox Business Network and various morning shows. Despite all this, he is still asked if he really practices medicine. Brad Mondo, a hairdresser with a popular series called “Hairdresser Reacts,” has fielded similar doubts from viewers. He no longer works day-to-day in a salon, but has seen strangers on Reddit talk about looking up his license to verify that he is qualified to be styling hair. That strikes him as silly. “What would be the point of me faking it?” he muses.
By the time Mondo hit upon his “hairdresser reacts” series, he had been creating content on YouTube on-and-off for about 10 years. As a teen, he “was obsessed with YouTube,” he says, but was never able to consistently attract an audience. Plus, he wanted to be a hairdresser, so he stopped uploading, went to school, and worked at a salon for a few years. When he returned to YouTube in 2017, he still struggled to find his footing. As a teen, Mondo had been a fan of the Fine Brothers’ React videos and recalled that one of his favorite creators, Elena Genevinne, had crudely bleached her hair on camera several years prior. On a whim, Mondo sat down to film his reaction to Genevinne’s video and posted it to YouTube with an innocuous title he can no longer recall. It blew up. A few days later, to increase the video’s already impressive traffic, he changed its name to “HAIRDRESSER REACTS TO AWFUL DIY HAIR COLOR! [sic]”
The series changed his life. In the two years since posting that first video, his channel has gained more than 2.7 million subscribers and he now owns his own hair care brand, XMONDO HAIR. He has diversified his channel content to include makeovers and reviews, but his reactions are more popular than ever, consistently pulling in between one and two million views each, despite the fact that they follow the same basic format as the original. Sure, Mondo has upgraded his bedroom to a shiny studio set-up and is noticeably more comfortable and charismatic on screen, but he is still sitting at a desk and reacting to a hair care fail. And viewers still eat it up, more than 100 reactions later. He thinks people even upload their own hair care fail videos to YouTube in the hopes he will find them and include them in a video. During a recent reaction, he was visibly delighted when a young woman attempting to dye her hair a neon yellow-green shouted him out. “Brad Mondo is crying,” she giggled as she applied dye to her roots. “Aww, hi Amy!” he smiled, “You’re in one of my videos now!”
Reactions from professionals can also add new layers of interest to pop culture touchstones we already love. Doctor Mike says people click on his video because they're fans of Grey’s Anatomy, but end up sticking around for his commentary. It’s one of the reasons he doesn’t “want to let the hot doctor thing go” yet. “I can wear a flashy suit, be funny, be flirty, do something that’s going to get people watching [because] it means that I can be honest with the medical information, because I myself am the scandal.” At the end of the day, despite the detailed breakdowns of medical terminology he provides while reacting, “it doesn’t feel like you’re learning,” he says. And, for Doctor Mike, that’s kind of the point.
The honesty that Dr. Mike claims to bring to his videos may be the most compelling component of professional reactions. Experts provide a satisfying palate-cleanser to the unchecked proliferation of opinions online. In a "post-truth" world, there’s some relief in sitting down to watch a reaction based in fact and experience and grounded in authority. At the same time, reactions help us feel more connected to experiences we all share. A 2011 New York Times article summarizing the merits of reaction videos said that watching them not only allowed us to “vicariously recaptur[e]” the “primary experience” of our own reaction to something, but also reminded us of “the comforting universality of human nature.”
In a now-deleted video from 2016, the Fine Brothers said that they hoped that reactions they produced on their channels would “live on forever as a time capsule [that] people can look back on to see what various generations were saying about the culture and issues of our time.” It’s a grand vision for a genre a little over a decade old, but even Mondo is thinking that far ahead. He says he is happy to give his audience what they want for as long as he can. “I'll be milking Hairdresser Reacts until the day I die!"