Laughing Baby vs. the YouTube commenters.

Culture and technology.
April 16 2008 1:23 PM

Laughing Baby vs. the YouTube Commenters

A battle of Internet good and Internet evil.

What happens when pure good meets pure evil? I exaggerate, but only slightly. A year and a half ago, a Swedish father posted a video of his son laughing on YouTube:

A few months later, the video was reposted by another YouTube user. This second version of the video has racked up 45 million views, putting it ninth on the All-Time Viewed list, behind Alicia Keys and ahead of Akon. Two weeks ago, "Laughing Baby" achieved nerd immortality by appearing in an episode of South Park.

Like many baby videos, "Laughing Baby" was placed on YouTube to share with friends. But I'm always surprised that parents put these videos up, considering what fate awaits them: YouTube commenters. It's like dipping a bunny into acid.

In our time, Internet commenting has become its own special form of social idiocy. The best demonstration of this is a series of brilliant skits by College Humor that imagine what real-life situations would be like if people spoke as Internet commenters. (In "Internet Commenter Business Meeting," for example, a guy yells "First!" every time a new graphic is shown.) YouTube comments are harsher than those on message boards—something about watching a video inspires noxious responses—and also more random. It's as if there were unwritten commandments: No woman's boobs shall go unjudged; no man shall not be called gay; no popular video shall not be spammed with "KKK FOR LIFE!!!"

What happens when a sweet laughing baby encounters the YouTube commenters? To find out, I powerbrowsed the 57,840 comments (and counting) for "Laughing Baby." Things start off well with "lol. when people laugh, i tend to laugh so i was cracking up" and "Cute, cute, cutee!!!" Soon, however, the malcontents appear: "This child is possessed by satan. Exorcism needs to be performed." And more insidiously: "Guaranteed there are perverts watching this." And more emphatically: "INSANE DWARF."

To be fair to YouTube, the majority of comments salute Laughing Baby's cuteness, adorableness, and all-around joy-bringing abilities. (My favorite was this grudging praise: "DUDE IM A GUY AND IM SAYING HES CUTE.") The noncute comments cluster into these areas of inquiry:

Armchair pediatricians: Many people think that Laughing Baby is sick: "The baby is very sweet, but he sounds asthmatic. They should have him checked out." Even better: "I read a scientific study that had to do with dopamine levels in toddlers and how they affected their personality. This little guy obviously enjoys the dopamine 'high' he's getting out of laughing this much. Unfortunately, children like this have very high rates of drug use later in life. Strange, but true." The armchair pediatricians also declare a persistent belief that people can die from laughing too hard.

Drugs: The majority of drug commenters use their wisdom to discern that Laughing Baby is obviously high, or that the father must have smoked up just before the video was shot. Other suggested influences include crack, nitrous, and peaches with crack in them. The notion that Laughing Baby himself could be used as a drug is often aired.

Actual analysis: Very rare. " 'Bing' appears to be more humorous than 'Dong' " being the most astute observation that I came across.

Good wisecracks: Also rare. "Birth of a Dane Cook fan" and "Better Than Cats" are the highlights.

The horror: Many commenters write that the baby's laugh is evil and not funny or joy-bringing. Laughing Baby is "like a Scottie dog with rabies" or the "son of Hitler," and watching him will lead to nightmares. Closely related to these commenters are those who say they watch Laughing Baby and wish never to have children.

Sounds like: Laughing Baby's cackle is compared to smoker's cough, an old man laughing, Conan O'Brien, the guy in Saw, "Chucky and Exorcist combined," and Joe Pesci.

Predictions: Laughing Baby will ... be a 350-pound American, grow up to be a cheerful person, be the next Jim Carrey, have a great personality, be a "freaking awesome person. maybe annoying at times. but freaking awesome," be a comedian, be a rapist or something, be an actor, be a politician, be a zookeeper, find a cure for cancer.

Sell-out advice: Laughing Baby should be on America's Funniest Home Videos. Laughing Baby's laugh should be sold as a ringtone.

Look at me: The slightly craftier spammers offer praise for Laughing Baby before plugging their own videos. This guy had the best pitch: "if you have 14 seconds. I have a life changing video on my profile. (you will never forget it until the day you die, and maybe even after that)."

Mean: The occasional commenter will get provoked by all the cute remarks and say that Laughing Baby has a "bigass forehead" or that he'd like to see Laughing Baby laughing "while engulfed in flames." These comments typically set off little wars, such as, "Don't hate on the baby," "You obviously have no life and no children," and so on.

Religious: Some commenters speculate that Laughing Baby might be the voice of God. I assume this is not meant literally, but rather that Laughing Baby was sent to YouTube by God to make us all happy. One commenter suggested that Laughing Baby "must be a jewish baby" (because he has a sense of humor?), while others assumed he was Buddhist, while still others asked that Allah make him a Muslim.

Insane: "Retarded human infant!!! I will destroy you all!!!!" and "Imagine the US president being honest like this baby—the world would be more peaceful, I think!"

After reading a few thousand comments, they begin to fade into similar patterns: cute, cute, cute, evil, spam, I think the baby is ugly, How can you think that!, cute, cute, I want to have a baby, cute, baby is high, look at my videos, cute, just like my kid, cute, LOL, cute, cute, etc., etc. It's soon overly clear that the comments aren't a conversation or debate. Laughing Baby has become an Internet monument, and posting a remark is like tagging your name on the Statue of Liberty.

Still, there is one meaningful debate that can be gleaned from the tumult. There are those who complain that Laughing Baby is a pointless waste of time, while others respond that happiness is made up of small, simple pleasures like the laughter of a little boy. It's a debate that speaks to the essence of YouTube itself. Do these little video distractions buoy our spirits and connect us to our fellow humans, or are we frittering away our time and talents with two-minute diversions? Do we laugh at the Laughing Baby, or is the Laughing Baby laughing at us?

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.