Robin Sloan
the lab
July 2021


The Search for an Inn, 1861, Charles François Daubigny
The Search for an Inn, 1861, Charles François Daubigny

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 — Mark Slutsky’s Sad YouTube is a monument to the moving, melan­choly comments on music videos — and, reading Drew, I thought again about the subcul­ture of “check­point” comments.

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 — this is interesting — I feel weird quoting (in effect, republishing) them here, so I’m not going to do so. I truly just discov­ered that inhibition, my fingers hovering over command-C, and it says a lot, I think, about the powerful feeling that somehow swirls up out of these spaces.

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 — a little town, an oasis — where you can save your game. (This is opaque to people who haven’t played JRPGs, I know, so just trust me when I tell you: it’s a very good feeling!)

It’s important to say that barely any of these commenters visit these videos intentionally — at least not the first time. Instead, they are delivered to them by YouTube’s recom­men­da­tion algorithm. This seems key to the whole feeling: the sense of wandering in the forest, and then, ah, is that a light up ahead … ?

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 … 

Interior of an Inn, 1861, Charles François Daubigny
Interior of an Inn, 1861, Charles François Daubigny

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 — for the better, I think!)

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 — even an obscure one — feels, perhaps, like writing a message on a wall in a crowded city. You are basically assured that, eventually, someone will pass by and read it; you are likewise assured that you won’t know who they are, nor they you.

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 — their very absence supporting something new and interesting. Tell that to the product managers.

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 — not even in the most vanish­ingly commer­cial sense … )

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.

But it’s interesting: the appeal of these checkpoint videos is precisely the fact that they are NOT designed. This subcul­ture has repur­posed a plot of unloved YouTube real estate and totally turned it around, charged it up with emotional energy, all without changing a single line of JavaScript or CSS. So, maybe the deep lesson of the check­point isn’t “make it like this!” but “don’t MAKE it at all”.

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.

July 2021, Oakland