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Saturday, 28 October 2017

Tabulating Comments to “7 Ways to Maximize Misery”

In June 2017 CGP Grey, a YouTube star known for excellent explanatory videos, released a 7-minute video based on my book How to be Miserable.

This week it has reached 3 million views, with 148,000 likes and 12,829 comments. I have been monitoring the comments and decided to mark the 3m mark by tabulating and categorizing a sample of these – an exercise that seems quite revealing.

First, though, here’s the link to the video in case you haven’t seen it.

Grey doesn’t cover everything in the book. As the title suggests, he selects seven strategies: avoid going outside or exercising, randomize your sleep schedule, maximize your screen time, focus on the negative, set VAPID goals, make 100% happiness your aim, and follow your (often-faulty) instincts.

As you might expect, the comments range all over the map. People are free to say anything they like, and they aren’t given a suggestion along the lines of “Which of the following statements best describes your reaction…” which would make it easy to do a numerical tabulation.

Instead, I’ve had to create categories of replies based on a subsample, then make judgment calls about which category a particular reply seems to fit. Another rater might create different categories and wind up with somewhat different results. It’s also possible that I have misinterpreted the intent or meaning of some comments, placing them in the wrong category. But here we go anyway.

First I clicked on “Sort by” and selected “Newest First” to get a sequence of comments not biased by popularity, as might be the case with the default “Top Comments” listing. Then I examined all comments in sequence, starting from the newest (as of October 28 2017), until I felt I had enough to constitute a good sample. My goal was 200, but it turns out I had gone overboard: there were 472 sequential comments in the sample.

What got me going on this little project was noticing that many of the comments were of the “This describes my life” variety, suggesting that many viewers see themselves in the lifestyle Grey outlines. This is, perhaps, not surprising: people who spend a great deal of time indoors and online are most likely over-represented in viewers of YouTube videos.

So what actually turns out to be the #1 category?

Well, I was right.

1. “I do these / live this life / do 5 of the 7 / and so on.” 257 replies, 54.4% of the comments. This category involves a fair bit of interpretation on my part, and could easily be subdivided or argued about. Some replies are obvious: “I’m doing all of these.” “My life.” “This describes my life perfectly step-by-step.” But I also included here many comments that strongly suggest recognition, and some may think I’m being overinclusive. The equivalent of “Well, poop” (in all its many forms) I took to be a form of recognition. Others: “Me.” “Why is this so relatable?” “No wonder I’m a pile of sadness.” “This hit hard.” “This is literally all I do, I really gotta change.” “Well crap. I haven’t left my house in 3 days.” “I’ve just watched a 7 minute description of my life.” “I’m putting tape over my laptop cam right now.”

No other category managed to account for over 10% of replies. In order, here are the others:

2. “This helps me / thank you for this.” 8.1%, 38 replies. Most of my inclusions here are pretty straightforward. “Honestly, this helped me more than tips on how to be happy. Like, knowing what NOT to do helps more than knowing what to do.” “Thanks for the tips.” “Hopefully if I figure out how to not do these things, maybe things will change.” “You made me realize why I’m feeling so miserable lately … Cheers man, I hope you keep this up.” “I’m inspired to clean the house today.” “This video was a massive wakeup call.” “I accidentally come across the most helpful video I’ve ever seen … scary how most of this applies to me and I really need to improve my life right now.” “I saw this video late August. I’ve been lifting 6 days a week since, started college, and I’ve lost 20 pounds. Reverse psychology is some powerful stuff.”

3. “I like this.” 6.4%, 30 replies. “Best sarcastic movie ever.” “Finally! A video for me.” “This may be the best video ever made.” “Awesome video.” “I love this so much.” “God I hate/love this video.”

4. An incomprehensible reply. 6.1%, 29 replies. Vague references to other material, abbreviations that I can’t make out even with google searches, “uhhh,” and so on. Some people more plugged into online culture might be able to make some of these out. “This (insert error) was this video for?”

5. “I do much of this but still feel okay.” 4.7%, 22 replies. An ongoing theme has been recognition of the lifestyle followed by saying that their mood remains fine – i.e., this is not really the road to misery. “Somehow this seems like my road to happiness.” “Dude I’m all of these and yet I’d consider myself reasonably happy.” “Uh, I am already doing all of these and still haven’t felt as miserable as I was in high school. You’re a fraud.” Some of these comments seemed to have a defensive quality, but I may be reading that in based on my own biases.

6. Sarcasm of some sort toward Grey or the video itself. 4.4%, 21 replies. Many of the “Instructions unclear, did X” type of meme – essentially an Internet version of a knock-knock joke. “Instructions unclear, built a boat.” “Implies Grey plays football. Lmao.” “Would be funnier if the voice wasn’t so sarcastic.”

7. Helpfully stating the point of the video in case anyone missed it. 3.2%, 15 replies. “Reverse psychology at its finest.”

8. Criticism of the ideas in the video. 2.3%, 11 replies. “Go to school to be sad forever.” “Some of these could be in a video called ‘how to get rich.’” “Judging by the rest of the comments [this video] only makes people feel miserable … I would say these 7 ways are invalid, and there is only 1 way, which would be to watch this video, which shames people …”

9/10 (tie). “This video makes people sad.” 2.1%, 10 replies. These comments are from people who didn’t spot the irony or reverse message, believing instead that the intent really is to promote misery. “It encourages being sad. It giving a very wrong message.” “Why would you encourage this? I expected better from you.”

9/10 (tie). A note regarding a small bit of the content. 2.1%, 10 replies. “Don’t do overtime if it affects your sleep.” “Save the whales by saddest saddo.”

11. Additional ways to be miserable not covered in the video. 1.9%, 9 replies. “He forgot to mention alcohol – what a loser!” “Step 1: get meth.”

12. “Watching this is part of how to be miserable.” 1.3%, 6 replies. “I’m actually doing it now.” “So be a youtuber?”

Plus 8 more categories, each with 3 replies (0.6%) or less.

What can we conclude from all this? 
  1. Grey seems to have done a good job of appealing to people and creating an enjoyable video (148k likes, 3k dislikes).
  2. Most people could see the irony in the approach and seemed to appreciate the humour. 
  3. A surprising number of people seem to live the life described and can see that this might be having a negative impact on their mood – though many find changing old habits extremely difficult. 
  4. A small number see themselves in the description but report that they are content living this way – indeed, that to be more engaged in the outside non-digital world would be worse rather than better.
  5. The longest replies tended to be the critical ones. Authors wanted to point out exceptions, argue (correctly) that people sometimes adopt the lifestyle depicted due to earlier factors, state that pointing out areas of personal influence over mood was shame-inducing for depressed individuals, suggest that this lifestyle is an inevitable consequence of an unforgiving society out of control of the individual, or fault Grey (and, by extension, me) for not having any understanding of mood problems. 
One of my strongest clinical interests in recent years has been the difficulty many young people have in making the transition from adolescence to adult independence. Around the world, clinicians are noticing a surprising number of young people who seem “stuck” at the cusp of adulthood, living restrictive and isolated lives and connecting with the outside world mainly via the Internet.

In Japan, individuals with this difficulty have been called Hikikomori; in Britain they are NEETs (Not in Education Employment or Training). These terms appear with some frequency in the comments to Grey’s video, and in a way that suggests that the authors believe they will be widely understood.

Through the worldwide communication medium of the Internet (the primary community with whom these individuals interact), we may be seeing an increasing knowledge of the issues involved. As this occurs, it will be interesting to note whether we also witness an increased awareness of the depressogenic and anxiogenic nature of a disengaged, unstructured, and physically isolated life.

We can hope.

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