When it comes to strange and surreal content on Youtube, you may have some questions. Like: what did I just watch? What’s the purpose of these videos? These types of questions are the cornerstone of these channels… Curiosity is the cornerstone of these channels.
If created for the sole purpose of entertainment like a lot of other online content, these videos would often miss their mark. So what do these videos do differently to attract an audience? They present their content in an ambiguous, sometimes shocking way. They prey upon the fact that we, as human beings, crave to make the unknown, known. We get a sense of gratification when we find out something new for ourselves, for the first time. But that feeling is quite hard to come by now that we’ve entered the digital age where information is instantaneously presented to you after a quick google search – there’s no gratification from that. It makes the very idea of discovering something about the unknown even more fascinating. The human brain doesn’t like leaving things unfinished. It doesn’t like having questions unanswered.
Step one for any content creator is to draw an audience – take the aesthetics of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared into account. The striking colour palette, the use of puppets and a unique title can all be derived from the above image, and this can be enough to provoke a person to watch the clip. Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, the creators of the series, wished to parody the look of educational children shows like Sesame Street, or the Muppets in an effort to, in their words, show how “not to teach something”. Their inspiration is something that they conveyed purely through the aesthetic of their series, and this design choice prompts more clicks from people when they realize the title seems somewhat out of place for a kid’s show.
So for these channels, attracting an audience is all about the presentation of the videos. Every one of the channels has a strange title, coupled with content that all maintains a similar visual theme – either extremely bright or extremely cartoonish. These themes are unique enough to generate interest, yet plain enough to not be flagged as surreal right off of the bat and often play off of nostalgia to seem as non-threatening as possible. Siivagunner is an exception to this rule, as he instead creates content based around videogame music and generally only provides the title of the game he is satirizing as a background for his videos. This still provokes people to click his videos, however, as people believe his upload is the original song from a videogame they’ve played in the past – which can be just as effective as mimicking the aesthetics from a children’s show that one watched in the past.
Step 2 is to generate discomfort, or actively antagonize the audience. This is where a lot of the fan theories begin to spring up from and the artist’s main messages shine through. All through step one I was really pushing that the visuals for this type of content is often bright or cartoony – that’s important because a lot of the traction these channels gain is due to how effectively they play upon cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time. We generally think of children shows or cartoons being bright and lighthearted, so when one of the characters from the bright video we’ve been watching begins to roll a heart in glitter or pierces their own finger with a rusty nail, the disturbing images make us even more uncomfortable than they already would because of how much our preconceived ideas of the theme and the content conflict with each other.
The creators utilize a number of techniques to compound this effect, with sound design being one the most important. The music and sound effects used in a video can amplify discomfort tremendously when used effectively. For instance, the music that accompanies a lot of the Salad Fingers animations is creepy enough on its own. The entire composition gives off an unnatural vibe. Combine this with unsettling sound effects and voice acting and you’ve created a mighty uncomfortable soundscape. You could play an entire episode of Salad Fingers without once looking at the screen and you would still have a feeling of unease, which shows the impact that the sound has. Especially if the audio itself is intentionally unsynced with the visuals or a sound is played while the visual is showing something that doesn’t make that sound in reality – something the That Poppy does frequently. Intentionally disjointing the audio from the visuals can, again, compound this dissonance that the videos illicit.
So there’s a whole plethora of techniques used to make these videos strange, all of which is always used so effectively to create a surreal experience. These techniques are the main reasons why the content is popular among certain circles. If you can make a work in which a viewer assumes they know the direction the video will take then circumvent that expectation and present them with the exact opposite instead, your creation becomes more memorable and will inspire more questions than they started with. This is what gets the video shared around. This is what creates viewership.
Having a viewership leads to Step 3 – interacting with your viewers.
So that Poppy video was awfully blunt with it, but that was a call to action. It gave the audience a simple instruction that they could choose to follow or not follow. That was an example of a channel establishing a link between the content and viewer. It humanizes the character a little more and connects their world, a world that was intentionally disjointed and separate to ours, to the same conceptual space as the real world. This link works to help the viewer understand the contents of the videos a little better, as it sometimes provides opportunities for them to uncover new information to satiate their curiosity, while also providing even more questions.
This is most evident in the case of Siivagunner, who you may have thought seemed a bit out of place in comparison to the other videos I showed earlier. Although only starting out with meme-filled remixes of videogame soundtracks that bait-and-switched his viewers, his community has now become the driving force behind his popularity, with fan theories and interactions constantly being integrated into the channel’s internal lore. His call to action comes in the form of ARGs – Augmented Reality Games – in which he leaves a trail of clues referencing his content and the in-jokes that his fanbase has created all throughout the internet for them to track down and decipher.
He allows them to pursue their own answers to his questions, only to present them with more once they complete the ARG and are presented with the ambiguous ‘congratulations’ image. This is the most extreme case of these abstract channels being fuelled by their fanbase in the pursuit of answers; although Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared got financial backing from fans in 2013 who wanted more episodes to discover what was happening with the main characters. The viewer’s inquisitive attitude towards these channels is only heightened when they become a part of the process through interaction.
So overall, the content of these channels work on a system of giving and taking information. They attract people through a specific visual style, and through their content, generate questions. With each subsequent release they answer some of these questions, but not all, and simultaneously create new ones. This trend continues, and it creates communities and sparks discussions, with multiple people proposing their own theories and striving towards a collective goal. The eerie and surreal concepts help the videos mirror the unknown to provoke the fan’s curiosity and they appeal to our psychological need to discover. Wanting answers is human nature and these videos are excellent at playing off of that.