Audience Engagement Guest Columns
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Bullet Comments: The cross-cultural trend publishers need to know

The first generation of internet users tended to use social platforms to exchange information. Newer generations are now using platforms intended to make that exchange more interactive and fun. Subsequently, young people are using technology more and more to show their personalities. Bullet comment culture is just one of those new and exciting mediums.

Market Context

With the rapid development of the Chinese short video market (the second biggest globally with expected revenue of approximately 18 billion USD in 2020), ‘bullet comments’ are a trend worth noting. They are also popular in other parts of East Asia including Japan.

Bullet comments provide a shift in the viewing experience because they allow viewers to become both the consumers of the video content and editors of the content simultaneously. These comments float across the screen, just like flying bullets.

Unlike normal comments, bullet comments are displayed directly over the video content in a scroll bar and appear only at a specific video timestamp. These instant comments act as timed feedback on exactly what the viewer is seeing on the screen at that moment.

Sometimes the comments are so dense that the text overwhelms the screen. Some viewers find it distracting while others find the bullet comments more interesting than the video itself. 

Image: BrightSide video on Bilibili

The origins

The bullet comment culture began with ACG (Anime, Comic and Games) video sharing websites. Japanese video sharing website NICO NICO was the first to develop the bullet comment function, which led it to become one of the most popular video-hosting websites amongst Japanese youth.

Image: Bilibili website is no longer limited to AGC content

In China, bullet comment culture is not only limited to the AGC world but is transitioning into mainstream culture as well. The bullet comment turned into an internet phenomenon among Gen Z, when it first became available on Bilibili (China’s hybrid between Twitch and YouTube).

In Q4 2020, Bilibili’s monthly active users exceeded the milestone of 200 million monthly, with about 1.2 billion average daily video views and 54.7 billion average monthly interactions. The company is publicly listed on the NASDAQ and HKEX.

More than just a comment

Bullet comments published by the audience are not directly equivalent to comments on YouTube videos. YouTube comments are often at the conclusion of or an opinion on the video. In Bilibili by comparison, in addition to reviews, the comments refer to the changing lines of the plot, instant interaction with other bullet comments, and sometimes explanation or translation of the content. They relate to the viewer experience at a moment in time. For example, if you go to Bilibili and watch Star Wars related videos, as soon as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader appear, you will see a screen full of “I am your father” comments.

What’s more, compared to actions such as likes, comments and reposts, the “synchronicity” of the bullet comment breaks the geographical, time, and space constraints between audiences, and meets the immediate interaction and social needs of young audiences.

Going global

It remains to be seen whether this trend will catch on beyond East Asia. Cultural differences have previously clearly defined how different societies have consumed and interacted with video content. If the TikTok craze sweeping the UK and US is anything to go by, audiences outside of Asia may be more receptive to trends, like bullet comments, taking place in the video-on demand market.

The key difference this time though, when looking at why previous trends from Asia may not have caught on, is that there is a universality that has been previously lacking. The true purpose of a video-sharing website is to provide a platform that helps younger generations find commonalities amongst themselves.

Bullet comments in many ways have become a social feature embraced by a generation known for being “antisocial” (Gen Z spend more time on social media and on their phones than any other generation) because they allow for a type of spontaneous, cumulative, and public conversation between strangers that is increasingly rare. It can be fast-paced and collaborative allowing for inside jokes and memes to be shared and created; content then that is both cross-cultural and universal. 

Barriers to entry

There are some obvious barriers to overcome particularly on language. Unlike Bilibili, whose users are predominantly Chinese (or NICO NICO’s who are Japanese), YouTube and Facebook users will see bullet comments in various languages, making them hard to understand and separate.

The bullet comments also cover the video content and are hard to distinguish as they sit on top of one another. Users who are used to having a clean screen may find bullet comments unwelcome and distracting. There is also a danger that bullet comments could be misused to direct abuse and offend. Platforms would need to be significant filters, approvals, and safe-guarding measures in place.

Interestingly, Bilibili makes potential users take a test based on their familiarity with both the platform’s code of conduct and their areas of expertise. At 100 questions long, it’s designed so that potential trolls either lose interest or simply fail to make the cut. While it works for Bilibili, further measures would be required for a more international and diverse audience.

Even though neither Facebook nor YouTube have enabled bullet comments on their platforms, Twitch and YouTube live streaming have, to some extent. Going one step further wouldn’t require a significant change in thinking or technology. It will be interesting to see which platform decides to add this feature next, and how it will impact the greater social media ecosystem, which as ever, is always ready for disruption.

Qiyao Lin
Greater China Platform Partnerships Lead
TheSoul Publishing

TheSoul Publishing  is an independent digital studio that produces entertaining, positive and original content for a global audience. One of the world’s most prolific and popular online media companies, their globally based creative team continuously and consistently delivers engaging and irresistibly shareable content for all ages — in 19 different languages — distributed via a social media-driven cross-platform network.  From handy life-hacks to clever craft projects, from head-turning beauty tips to brain-twisting puzzles, TheSoul Publishing’s portfolio of media brands emphasize the positive and the purely entertaining. Their most-viewed channel, 5-Minute Crafts, is the No. 1 DIY digital brand in the world and ranks among the Top-10 of all YouTube channels with over 72M subscribers.