In January 2019, Rick Segall and Korbin Miles’ YouTube channel, Our Stupid Reactions, had 1,800 subscribers. The two Los Angeles–based actors had started a channel in which they reacted to popular Hollywood movie and TV show trailers — already a popular genre on YouTube — last September, but nearly four months in, it was sputtering along at best. Their videos reacting to trailers of films like Captain Marvel, Creed II, Aladdin, and Bird Box were getting anywhere between a few hundred to a couple of thousand views. Then, one of their subscribers requested their reaction to the trailer of Gully Boy, a hotly anticipated Bollywood movie about a street rapper in Mumbai.
“I had no idea what it was,” said Miles. They started recording and hit play on Gully Boy. The two head-banged through the trailer’s catchy soundtrack and laughed out loud during its funny moments; it was fun, though not mind-blowingly so. Yet within 24 hours, their Gully Boy trailer reaction had 50,000 views; the comments flooded in with Indian viewers cheering them on. The response was surprising — and addictive. “We would love to do more reactions to movies from India, any recommendations???” they posted to fans in the comments section. Hundreds of requests immediately poured in.
“Brace yourself,” someone posted. “Indian subscribers are coming!!!”
Five months later, Our Stupid Reactions’ Gully Boy trailer reaction had over half a million views, and the channel, which now posts videos of Miles and Segall reacting exclusively to all things Indian, has over 230,000 subscribers — 70% of whom are from India, and 30% of whom are Indians living around the world, according to Miles.
It’s not just American companies that want a slice of India’s more than 500 million internet users anymore — individual American YouTubers are now looking for their shot there too. Inexpensive data and cheap smartphones have helped bring YouTube more than 265 million users, making India the platform’s largest and fastest-growing market in the world. There will be plenty more as 500 million additional people are eventually expected to come online in India.
There’s not necessarily a lot of money in it — the money earned per thousand views through advertisements, the metric digital marketers use to value online content, is substantially lower with views from India than from the US — but it’s a views-and-subscribers growth hack fueled by India’s video explosion that, for now, seems to be working. Once you have a sizable audience and brand, there are all sorts of ways to try to monetize it besides ads. Just ask any successful YouTuber or influencer.
Indians say they find Americans watching videos about their culture validating. “Finally, the rest of the world is seeing us for who we really are,” said Abhishek Sapre, an Indian engineer who lives in Sydney and watches Our Stupid Reactions and other reaction channels. “Most Americans don’t know anything about India or Bollywood or our culture at all … [This genre] really helps breaks the image of India as a poor country propagated by films like Slumdog Millionaire.”
“Indians want the rest of the world to finally hear their voice and recognize them as world players at every level,” said Segall. “It’s being affirmed by global superpowers, and the global superpowers have always been Great Britain and the United States.”
Dozens of American reaction channels on YouTube — the Reel Rejects, the Tide Pool, and ReactoPhile, among others — have found big audiences reacting to Indian movies, trailers, commercials, stand-up comedy clips, music videos, speeches by Indian politicians, and pretty much everything with an Indian connection.
Typically, a channel posts a video reacting, for instance, to a Bollywood trailer, and YouTube’s aggressive and frighteningly effective recommendation algorithm targets it to millions of Indians, the demographic most likely to click it. More views leads to more engagement, with hundreds of viewers lobbing in their react requests in the comments section. Keep honoring these requests and, with some luck, the channel's numbers snowball.
One of the most well-known YouTubers in this genre is California-based filmmaker Jaby Koay, whose videos regularly get hundreds of thousands of views each from Indians. In March, Koay’s channel crossed a million subscribers. To mark the milestone, Koay, uploaded a dance video of himself set to a popular Bollywood song, which got more than 740,000 views. In 2017 and 2018, he traveled to India and uploaded a series of vlogs from the country to his channel that showed him frolicking around New Delhi and meeting with his fans in the country. Then earlier this year, Dharma Productions, one of India’s largest movie production companies, posted a clip of Koay’s reaction to the trailer of one of its upcoming big-budget productions to its Instagram. Koay did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment, and it’s unclear if Dharma Productions compensated Koay in any way for this.
“He’s extremely genuine and his reactions are heartfelt,” said Aniruddha Gokhale, a financial consultant in the Indian city of Pune who has been watching Koay’s videos for the last two years.
Scientists have attempted to explain the popularity of reaction videos on YouTube by saying that they tap into human empathy and our innate desire to form social bonds by trying to understand people’s emotions. Reaction videos “allow us, at the time of increasing cultural difference, the comforting universality of human nature,” writer Sam Anderson observed in the New York Times.
Segall said, “To have outsiders like us with no connection to India to say to Indians, ‘You know what, everything you feel about your country, we feel it too,’ is pretty deep.”
But there’s a bigger reason why so many Indians seem to be hooked on Americans’ reactions to all things related to their culture: a sense of global validation. At its heart, it’s an Indian desire for white validation, a Colonial-era hangover, and something that still plays out in the country .
You can see traces of this in the requests people leave for the YouTubers in the comments sections. One of the most common is to react to a video called “15 Things You Didn’t Know About India,” which features positive, nationalistic facts about the country (India invented shampoo, thorium-based nuclear power, the number zero, yoga, and plastic surgery, it claims). Another is to react to a witty, powerful speech by Indian politician Shashi Tharoor about how Britain owes reparations to India for hundreds of years of colonization.
“I feel proud that these people are learning about my culture,” said Rakesh Kamble, a data entry operator who lives in the Indian town of Nashik. “We’re rich culturally, and I’d like them to learn about it.”
When Life Meets Family, a Georgia-based YouTube channel, uploaded its reaction to the “15 Things You Didn’t Know About India” video on Jan. 26, India’s Republic Day, it racked up a million views.
The channel is run by 38-year-old Dan, his 36-year-old wife Erin, and their three children, ages 7, 10, and 11. The couple — who declined to give their last names for this story and live in the predominantly white town of Flowery Branch, where Asians, including Indians, account for just 1.6% of the residents — said that they didn’t really know much about India until they started doing these videos. “We have a close friend who is Indian,” said Erin. “Aside from that though…” she trails off. Today their channel has more than 300,000 subscribers, 80% of whom are from India, and 20% of whom are Indians living mostly in Canada, Dan told BuzzFeed News.
“Indians are a proud people,” Dan said. “I think some of what they request may be to sort of gain acceptance with the white man. I take it as, ‘Look, America is the leader there, we are the leader here.’”
One of the most common requests from their viewers? To react to a video of Indians who lead Fortune 500 companies. “We got a lot of requests to do that one,” said Dan.
Still, as these American YouTubers grow their audiences in India off of Indian content, it’s tough to shake off the skepticism around how much of their interest in India is genuine and how much of it is a convenient grab for a billion eyeballs.
Ever since Our Stupid Reactions blew up, Segall and Miles have been overtly catering to their core fanbase: Segall posted a photo of himself wearing a traditional Indian kurta on Instagram and dropped a “Jai Hind!” — Hindi for “Hail India!” — in a reaction video. Last month, the duo played cricket with Indian fans in Los Angeles. Segall also got a large Hindi tattoo with the iconic line “Apna time aayega” (“My time will come”) from Gully Boy, the film that catapulted their channel to fame, across the inside of his left arm all the way from the wrist to the elbow. “I’ve got six tattoos and every one of them is something that has changed me and had a permanent impact on me,” he said. When India beat Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup on Sunday, Segall posted a picture of Indian vice-captain Rohit Sharma with a caption that (again) said "Jai...feeaking...hind."
Yet Segall and Miles of Our Stupid Reactions, and Dan and Erin of Life Meets Family, all insist that their channels’ growth has been entirely organic, driven solely out of their love for all things Indian and a desire to cater to their subscribers’ needs.
“The skepticism is valid,” said Miles. “But if I wasn’t enjoying this, the channel wouldn’t be happening.”
“I know it’s hard to believe, but we wouldn’t sell our souls for views,” Segall said.
The YouTubers also pointed out that having millions of views and subscribers doesn’t necessarily translate to lots of money. While Life Meets Family monetizes using YouTube’s pre-roll ads, they said the money isn’t enough to cover the cost of their cameras and internet.
When the channel was an American family blog with viewers who were mostly from the US, he said, the family made $6 for every thousand views, compared to just $1.23 for a thousand views from India. “A thousand views from India are not the same as a thousand views from North America,” Dan said.
The creators are now thinking of other ways to make money. Dan and Erin are in talks with an Indian chat app to run targeted sponsored content. And Segall and Miles are currently seeking funds from their Indian fans on Patreon to fund a trip to India.
“Hopefully,” said Dan, “as more Indians come online and things grow, there will be more companies willing to sponsor us, and maybe the price per thousand views will go up. I’d like to do this as a living.”