When you look at the title, I bet your first thought will be: What is Bullet Screen?
A clear answer would be DIFFICULT. Originated in Japan as 弾幕 and popularized in China, Bullet screen is exclusively used in these two countries. In simple words, bullet screen refers to the comments made by the viewers of the videos that would show up on the screen in the way of scrolling from the right side of the video to the left. (The way of how they fly just like bullets!) In another way, you can also say that those comments are like the “annotations” of the videos, because you can see all the comments made towards certain moments in the video made by others previously. Bullet screen has huge impacts on people’s viewing habits. In this article, I will analyze the positive impacts that brought on people’s viewing experience as well as the positive impacts. I will also find the potential reasons why it is exclusively used in Japan and China but not in America. Hope you will learn more about this culture after reading the article!
First, bullet screen increases interactivity among viewers. In conventional social media platforms such as Youtube, viewers’ comments are posted underneath the video. This means that if one wants to see other people’s responses, he or she needs to scroll down the screen to see them. This presentation is passive, because viewing comments needs an extra step taken by us. The invention of bullet screen, however, make the comments automatically appear on the video; when viewers open a video, they show up straight up to your face. Also, because they only appear for a few seconds, one can possibly see every comment made on the video without spending extra effort. This is why compared to the traditional way of showing comments, this presentation is active (and beneficial for lazy people!). By using bullet screen, people can see and reply to others’ comments much faster and easier.
The increased interactivity can benefit people’s viewing experience because people feel more socially connected to others. Because of the technological invention (computers and iPad), people tend to watch videos and shows alone. In the past, a family may stay together to watch shows on TV, but nowadays, it is more likely that everyone in the family has a portable technology that allows him or she to watch anywhere at anytime alone. I know this gives you a lot of freedom to choose whatever you want you want to watch, but to be honest, don’t you feel lonely sometimes? No worries–bullet screen solves the problem. When you watch videos, you can feel the “presence” of others. In one study, the researchers conducted an interview to ask participants questions such as “whether bullet screen made them feel more social or more connected to others compared to their experience of watching traditional videos” (“Social Viewing”) The results show that most participants think that they are more connected to others when they use bullet screen.
Second, bullet screen can also influence people’s viewing experience from psychological aspects. It is proved that the usage of bullet screen would make people more engaged in the content of the video. In one article that I found, the researchers gathered a group of participants, and showed two versions of a short video, one with the bullet screen and one without, to them (“Social Viewing”). Then people were asked to fill out a survey regarding the content of the video, their personal opinions of the video, how much they are engaged in the video, etc. Researchers found out the result the most obvious improvement between the two versions was that people became more engaged in the content they have watched for the video that with the screen bullet. The result is reasonable to think about, for when people make comments, they are actually processing the information from the content of the video first, form thoughts about it, and then make comments on it. The process makes viewers more engaged in the content in order to interact with other viewers through using bullet screen.
Bullet screen also give people positive feelings. First, they encourage viewers to share their instantaneous emotions and feelings. Because bullet screen only remains for several seconds, viewers don’t have to write about lengthy comments. This gives people sense of freedom to share their emotions at the moment. Second, because making comments on bullet screen is anonymous, people enjoy more freedom to be their authentic selves and express their opinions (“Watching a Movie Alone yet Togther”). At the same time, people don’t need to worry about this anonymousness would lead to inappropriate comments, because if a person says something bad, he or she would be reported to the administrator of the website. The comments will be deleted and the person’s account blocked. Third, bullet comments lead to the intensification of emotion in certain scenarios. For example, in the A Certain Scientific Railgun, which is one of the popular Japanese animation on the website Bilibili, in the moment when the protagonist is attaching the monster, up to total 3000 comments shown up together. It creates a sense of Ran (燃), which is a verb for “fire burning” in Chinese. This shows as an example of how bullet screen can lead to emotional intensification by uplifting the emotions in the viewers.
From another perspective, bullet screen also adds more fun when people are watching videos. One article that I found includes the words by the president of NicoNico, which is the first website used bullet screen as an invention (“A new viewing”). The president said that the value of bullet screen lies in how it could make a video with boring content interesting, which shows the entertaining aspect of bullet screen. This sets the tradition of using bullet screen as it is not really used for serious comments, rather it is often used by the young generation to jibe/complain worthless productions online (“Social Viewing”). Those comments become the major source of entertainment when people ridicules the content together. As the video is watched by a larger audience, more interesting comments may come up, which makes viewing process more entertaining.
Third, bullet screen has utilitarian functions. Bullet screen fulfills utilitarian needs because people can obtain additional information provided by others. For a lot of time, if people don’t understand something, people can @ people who know such things in the bullet screen. One example of how people are benefited in such case is that in many videos, there are volunteers translating the subtitles. This kind of videos is called fansub. In the website Bilibili, a lot of videos are from other countries such as Korea and Japan, and for many of them, the subtitles are not translated after they are posted on the website. In such case, viewers who understand the language of the video would voluntarily post translated subtitles on the bullet screen for no compensation. The researchers in one article conducted a survey to know how people think that they are benefited from the bullet screen most (“Watching a Movie Alone yet Together”). For the 248 people participated online, the survey showed that the strongest motivation for people to use bullet screen is that it provides extra information.
At the same time, bullet screen also brings negative impacts on the viewing experience. Many viewers complain that it causes a lot of distraction when they watch videos. Sometimes when there are too many bullet comments showing up together, they would block the screen so that you can not even know what is going on in the video at the moment. Also, because viewers can choose different colors and different fonts when they send bullet comments, bullet screen may look messy for some time. In the article “Online Social Viewing”, the study shows that another reason why people who don’t like using bullet screen is that they think those comments contain “useless” information that distract them. One example can be that they can be the spoiler of the content of a film. Imagine when you are watching a film, and people would tell you what is going on later, you can expect how annoyed you would be.
Secondly, people don’t associate bullet screen with the idea of “seriousness”, and this explains the limitation of its usage. The first reason for this lack of seriousness that the original usage of bullet screen is to mock at the content of the video. It is a common acknowledgement that bullet screen, for most of the time, increases the sense of “amusing” of the video because it is a joking tool. Second, because each bullet comment only shows up for several seconds, and there is a limit of words, the comments often lack depth in their meanings. You can seldom find any profound meanings behind those simple expressions, because very often, people are just sending phrases like “hahahahaha”. Bullet screen is used for people to share their instant feelings rather than do some serious analyzation of the content of the videos.
The previous two reasons explain why the usage of bullet screen is quite limited. This is why even though a lot of filmmakers see the potentialities in bullet screen, they are pushed back by the voice that bullet screen should not be adapted to art forms that have more serious content. One article that I found talks about an experiment conducted by Shen Leping, who tried to apply Bullet screen in his directed film The Legend of Qin.(“Chinese Theaters Test System”) Shen conducted the experiment that people could send bullet comments while they watching films in several theaters in cities such as Shanghai and Hangzhou in China. In order to make bullet comment on the big screen, people need to pay 0.1 yuan (10 cents) for each message. After the movie, Shen did an interview of those viewers, and found that people had mixed feelings towards the application of bullet screen. Even though many thought it was an interesting and new experience, more thought it was distracting. This experiment suggestes why bullet screen has been a trend in China for several years, it is still not adopted by film industries.
Why popular exclusively in Asian countries?
At the same time, an interesting question rises: why bullet screen is so popular in East Asian countries but not in Western countries?
One possible answer is relates to the origins of comedy. In western countries such as the United States, you can see a lot of stand-up comedies and talk shows. For those shows, it is often the case that only one person is performing. In East Asian countries such as China and Japan, the comedy culture is different. In China, the most popular form of comedy is named Xiangsheng(相声), or crosstalk. Xiangsheng is based on the dialogue of two performers through an extremely fast rhythm of talking. In Japan, Manzai(漫才) is the most popular form, which is also conducted through two people’s performance, for one is acting like normal, and the other is acing stupid. This might plains why bullet screen is so popular in both China and Japan, because bullet screen (as we mentioned, it is a mocking tool) can also be considered as a double act comedy between “the content of the video” and “the viewers”.
Also, from a grander perspective, this also relates to the cultural difference between Western countries and Eastern countries that lasts for centuries. Western societies are penetrated with the idea of “individualism”, which is certainly a product of Capitalism. It is often the case that people prioritize personal will and freedom over collective actions. This is why people who were born or live in Western countries are more used to do solitary actions. Eastern countries, however, puts more emphasis on the idea of collectivism, because many countries are hugely influenced by Confucianist ideology. You can see this collective idea almost from every aspect of Chinese culture, from the family structure to eating habits (like having hotpot). Japan is an interesting case, because while society is dominated by the individualism that people are distanced from each other, society also incorporates the collective ideas. This can be clearly seen in Japanese family structure. Members in a family follow a hierarchy that it is often the case that men would be the breadwinners and women to be housewives. The needs of a family, are put in front of the individual needs.
This Collectivism vs. Individualism is a possible reason to explain why bullet screen is popular exclusively in Japan and China. As I mentioned above, bullet screen gives us a sense of belonging by making people feel that they are accompanied by others. This conveys a strong message that maybe the reason why bullet screen is popular in Japan and China is because it fits into the larger picture of Chinese and Japanese cultures. But we can not say that it is the reason hundred percent–maybe one day it will be popular in Western countries, who knows?
In conclusion, bullet screen brings both pros and cons to people’s viewing experience. It is proved by researchers that while bullet screen helps to increase the interactivity between viewers and gives people a sense of belongings, it can also make viewers more engaged in the content of the videos, add more fun to the viewing experience, and provide extra useful information for viewers. At the same time, however, many people also dislike using bullet screen because it can be quite distracting for a lot of time. Its applications in the future is questioned because of the lack of depth in those bullet comments. At the last section of the article, I provide two possible reason why bullet screen does not gain its popularity in western countries, one is relates to forms of comedy, and one is about the larger theme of Individualism vs. Collectivism that is happening in the world.
Nowadays, bullet screen becomes a new culture in China, and the messages carried by this social phenomenon can be significant. Rather than just being a new presentation of comments, it likes a “sign” that implies a trend in the future that people want a more “interactive” and “live” experience when we use those media platforms (VR and Bandersnatch are also showing this trend). It also reflects how people try to find a balance between a “solitary” and “accompaniment” in today’s world. Anyway, bullet screen’s future applications can be expected, and it is an invention with many potentialities and possibilities. Maybe one day in the future, they will become popular in many other countries and be adopted by many major websites that people use today. Remember –if you open a Youtube video tomorrow and you find comments are flying across the screen like bullets–don’t panic. It is not because your computer is broken. Stay clam and be ready for this new kind of culture.
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