The Media Lab
Drew Austin has two beliefs about YouTube comments:
that much of the best music criticism actually lives in YouTube comments, and that YouTube comments are not nearly as awful as people say they are.
I agree with both —
I only learned about these recently, thanks to Kicks Condor’s internet exploration. When a YouTube video is determined a suitable haven for checkpoints, its comment section is, by mutual agreement, no longer “about the video” but instead a shared space for brief, diaristic reflection.
Here’s an example comment:
Checkpoint: Not too long ago, I graduated from Community College with an associates degree. It’s not like I don’t enjoy what the degree covers (being Digital Media) but the only reason I got said degree was because I was unsure of what I wanted to do with my life after High School. […]
I’m going to keep trying my best and use this comment as a time capsule, to when I’m finally successful and actually able to, at bare minimum, survive off of what I make; I can look back and think of how far I’ve come.
There are many more examples, spread across many more videos, and some are very compelling, but —
Here is a much-visited checkpoint video; you can explore it for yourself.
The use of “checkpoint” here is an allusion, I believe, to the feeling of playing a JRPG (the vast JRPG… of life) in which you’ve just slogged through a dangerous section, maybe only barely surviving, and then you come, by surprise, to a peaceful space —
It’s important to say that barely any of these commenters visit these videos intentionally —
The recommendation algorithm’s “participation” gives rise to a recurring sense of the mystical in the comments. I don’t know why the algorithm brought me here, but…
I was chatting about these videos with a few internet acquaintances, and someone proposed (I’m paraphrasing) that it is precisely the inconvenience of the system that makes the activity appealing. You can’t “subscribe” to anyone’s checkpoints; you can’t search through them; you can hardly even sort them! So, the baseline experience is to see a checkpoint once, and never again. There is, perhaps, safety in that; an invitation.
(YouTube’s refusal to provide a comment search engine is very interesting. Think about how much that omission would change Twitter —
Without any of the traditional publicity mechanisms, everything depends on “foot traffic”. You could post an unsearchable, unsortable checkpoint on a custom website… and no one would ever read it. Attaching it to a YouTube video —
I shouldn’t totally ignore the actual content of these videos, which is very often the kind of wistful JRPG music that, when you play those games, burns itself into your brain, and becomes, for many, a potent cue for nostalgia. I like the way the videos “set the tone” for these spaces; somebody could write a whole academic paper about the interaction here of music, writing, ~vibe~, and more.
So! If I had to summarize, I’d say we are looking at an archipelago of social spaces where some “missing” features have created pleasant lacunae —
Earlier this year, many of the most popular checkpoint videos were taken down: found at last by YouTube’s copyrighted music hunter-killer algorithm, carcasses delivered proudly to Nintendo. (I always wonder, did Nintendo even care before getting the alert from YouTube? It’s one of those strange compulsory corporate-legal situations in which they “have to” care, even though they don’t, not really —
Happily, the videos had been archived in anticipation of this day. Here’s one of the all-time greats. If you change the word “videos” in that URL to “comments”, you can browse the attached checkpoints, also archived. (You’ll see, in this one, a stronger commitment to the conceit, with more checkpointers concluding their comment with something like: “Game saved: Sunday, July 18, 10:00 a.m.”)
Checkpoints taken one at a time are nothing special: artless reports of 21st-century life. For me, it’s the mutual agreement that’s interesting, and the very palpable “places”, the magic circles, these commenters have created together.
Here, I will overcome my reluctance to quote them, because I want to share a kind of comment that seems to encapsulate the checkpoint experience:
This video showing up in my newsfeed for the first time an entire year and a half ago was, undoubtedly, the start of a major turnaround in my life. I hope it was for many others.
This phenomenon relates, in the whorls of my imagination, to my recent questions about Discord, which were premised, I’ll remind you, on this impulse:
Whenever I think about ~social infrastructure~ related to the Society of the Double Dagger, I think about tapping into the experience, erudition, and sensitivity of the group of people who receive these emails. Like: I am able to ask questions of this group, and it’s an enormous asset; a privelege. It might be cool if the group could do the same!
A while back, in an email to a friend, I wrote:
Honestly, about once a month, I feel it rising again: the cold certainty that I am, eventually, going to have to program my own mini micro social platform, because everything that already exists bums me out.
Your thoughts and reactions are invited! I will probably be a little more relaxed in republishing these back into the newsletter this time, but I’m always curious to hear how this discussion connects (or doesn’t) to your experiences.
Some comments, as usual, from newsletter subscribers.
Here is Maurizio with a stunning image:
When I first read your post, I had immediate visions of the scary zombie-like infected in The Last of Us. Of course, they’re infected, decrepit beings, but on these walking manifestations of hideousness, beautiful organic growths began to appear, an assembly of graces on top of the frightful. In this case, the infected are traditional YouTube comments (the kind we all know so well and try so hard to zoom past), and these checkpoints are the flowering hope of humanity just beginning to bloom on the surface.
Here’s a reflection from Joe:
I really love your observation about the mysticism of “I don’t know why the algorithm brought me here…” Even though I have never stumbled upon a checkpoint video before now, that sentiment of algorithmic fate has popped up in so many video comment sections I’ve seen, but I haven’t stopped to think about how strange of an idea that is.
Sometimes when I want to listen to a song that really hits home, I’ll go to YouTube instead of Spotify, just to scroll through the comments and experience some sort of communion with everyone else who resonated with the song. It feels like entering a room where we are all listening together.
Videos like these feel like a refuge, but I sometimes wonder if they would work quite the same way in an environment where there isn’t a torrent of stuff to seek refuge from. The algorithm that makes the white water rapids is the same one that serves up these eddies. If YouTube as a platform is a river, what would a pond be?
Here’s an observation from Cory:
There’s something really beautiful not just in the checkpoint itself but in the ponderings it prompts: “Where am I at now? Where do I want to be? Is this the beginning of something new and I don’t even know it yet?” And so there is also something beautiful in that camaraderie of thought. The thought that prompts the thought, and so on.
Sent to the Media Lab committee in July 2021