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”.

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.

Whatever you choose, Robin will see that this response is coming from . Please also sign it with your preferred name ✌️

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