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Japanese Studies, 2013

Vol. 33, No. 3, 297313, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10371397.2013.859982

Polyphonic/Pseudo-synchronic: Animated Writing in


the Comment Feed of Nicovideo

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DANIEL JOHNSON, University of Chicago

Nicovideo is a popular video-sharing site in Japan that incorporates several aspects of social
media into its design. Key among these is the projection of user-made comments into the video
display by having text scroll across the screen like an animated subtitle-track. The movement of
comments across the screen and the pseudo-synchronicity created by the way they are projected
produces a feeling of live viewing via a sense of virtual time shared between users. In this
article I argue that the feeling of movement and time on the site directs users toward a certain
kind of vision that, when considered alongside the modes of counter-transparent communication
taken up by its user base through things like orthographic mistypes, is part of a shift between
denotational and pictorial forms of text production that troubles the distinction between reading
and other modes of vision. The article conceptualizes what kind of vision Nicovideos interface
suggests and its relationship to a distinct kind of polyphonic, anonymous communication that
intersects with ideas of animation and performance. It is particularly through the intensity of
textual representation that I will pursue these questions.

A barrage of text rushes over the computer-generated images of dancing gures in


columns of brightly colored letters, spelling out the chanted dialogue of the characters
in layered, animated streams of writing. These messages are, however, not part of the
video content itself, but rather comments added by users watching from their computers
and mobile phones. Some of these users chime in with incredulous laughter at the
spectacle, commenting what is this, lol (nani kore www) and why is this so popular?
(nande konna ninki na no?). Others engage in the lively, playful atmosphere by entering
emoticon images of faces to produce caricatures of the expressions being made by the
characters depicted in the video. All of these comments pass over the surface of the
image in a matter of seconds moving from the right edge of the video display to the left
in a steady wave practically blocking out the content of the video through their sheer
density and the attention-grabbing properties of the reds, yellows, blues, and blacks they
have been rendered in. The textual repetition of the chants spoken in the video being
reproduced in these comments is met by deliberate mishearing of other dialogue that
inscribes the phonetic sounds of the characters speech in non-standard characters and
ideographs. What kind of culture of writing is this indicative of, and how can an
audience make sense of the animated, over-owing quality of the comments being
projected here?
The above is a description of the comment feed on the Japanese-language videosharing site Nicovideo (Nico nico, or Nico nico d
oga). The video in question is Blood Clan
Temple: Free Your Passions Lets Go! Onmyoji, one of the rst videos uploaded to the

2013 Japanese Studies Association of Australia

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Daniel Johnson

FIGURE 1. The chant disperse the evil spirits! (akury


o taisan) is repeated in a urry of text in
the comment feed of Blood Clan Temple, shown on the left side of the image. Deliberate
and creative mis-hearings (soramimi) of spoken dialogue such as narita teru and nani
taberu can be seen in the center third of the image.

site (Figure 1).1 As with YouTube and similar sites, Nicovideo hosts user-submitted
videos of a variety of genres of content, ranging from video diaries and political rants to
instrumental performances accompanying recorded music and videos of dance choreography. However, one feature that distinguishes this site is the incorporation of the
comment section into the video display screen: the user-made comments that accompany videos here are projected over the video image in a scrolling column of text,
meaning that visitors to the site will see the comments written by other users within
the same image as the video content. This invokes the sensation that one is watching
alongside other audience members, although as I will explain later, the temporality of
the comments is based on a virtuality of shared time rather than a real simultaneity of
experience.
Conceptually I intend to look at these practices of reading and writing on Nicovideo
as a kind of polyphonic animation. I am borrowing Mikhail Bakhtins use of the term
polyphonic here to capture some of the properties of the textual cacophony of the
comment feed. Bakhtin contrasted monologic narration which grants a singular,
sovereign voice to the author or narrator with a polyphonic mode that leaves a
multiplicity of possible voices intact.2 I see a related dynamic occurring in online,
anonymous environments such as Nicovideo, which favor aggregate forms of membership and participation, even precluding individual representation in some cases through
the lack of attribution of authorship and emphasis on alternate modes of (non) representation. By animation I refer to the practices by which the writing of text becomes a
kind of image-making as keyboard input systems transform characters typographically
and blocks of text move across video screen surfaces. Here I am drawing on Teri Silvios
1
The Japanese title of the video is Shin Goketsuji Ichizoku: Bonno Kaiho Rettsug
o! Onmyoji. The video of
the dancing characters was taken from the Playstation 2 game Power Instinct series (Noise Factory, 2006).
It was originally uploaded on 6 March 2007, and as of 18 March 2013 has had over 13 million views and
over 4 million comments entered. The video capture being used for this article was taken on 15 February
2013: http://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm9
2
Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevskys Poetics, 14. My reading of Bakhtins notion of the polyphonic is
indebted to Naoki Sakais use of the term, particularly his gloss that the polyphonic allows the reader
to become a participant; Sakai, Voices of the Past, 26.

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recent re-imagining of animation in dialogue with concepts of performance, looking


particularly to her description of some forms of internet writing as a kind of group
affect that remediates precursor modes of communication and gesture.3
But what kind of orientation toward communication does this kind of writing and its
tendency to spectacularize opacity and illegibility suggest? What forms of reading are
invited by this kind of text-production and the movement of text across screens?
Accompanying my analysis of these modes of writing that foreground their own mediation will be an investigation into how time is experienced on this site, as user-created
comments are projected onto the video display screen in a way that suggests a sense of
live and simultaneous viewing between users. My argument will then be that the
aesthetic and communicative mode on Nicovideo is one structured around a culture
of anonymity that precludes individual attribution or authorship in favor of an environment of textual intensity in which typographic play and image-oriented writing are part
of a polyphonic regime of representation. It is an environment organized around a
culture of reading that depends upon both the ability to identify the linguistic referents
of what I will call counter-transparent, image-oriented writing,4 and the interpretation
of the experience of virtual time via a sense of meta-awareness of other users contributing to the same comment feed.5
Key to this argument will be developing a concept of vision that intersects with ideas
of reading and scanning. The way that users of Nicovideo make sense of what I am
calling counter-transparent forms of written communication and experiences of time in
relation to other visitors to the site might then be described in terms of reading,
interpretation, or even translation. My approach to understanding these concepts will
thus be somewhat abstract to account for these types of practices. For example, how do
these modes of reading and writing function in the case of deliberate mistypes or
mishearings of words written in Japanese with non-standard ideograph characters
selected through the character input system during typing? In relation to other forms
of electronic and computer-based media, such as video game display screens and
television graphic projection systems, this kind of orthographic image-making can be
seen as another example of text production that produces writing as both pictorial and
linguistic. However, I would also like to consider its relationship to the meta-interactive
sociality of online communication and the ways that counter-transparent communication directs users toward a certain kind of performative vision. This engages with a mode
of reading based not on a transparent, reciprocal understanding of language, but rather
a more rhetorical or challenging kind of in group communication that requires a
different kind of activity of reading. Similarly, the way that comments entered by
viewers as they watch a video are added to the projected feed of subsequent viewings
Silvio, Animation.
My use of the phrase counter-transparency borrows from Shunsuke Nozawas concept of counterspectacularity. He develops the term to describe the appearance of masks and other forms of camouage
on Nicovideo that avoid full representation of the seeming grossness of the human body. Here it is
intended to capture the pronounced manner in which the mediated properties of written communication
are put on display by users of this site via deliberate mistypes, to give one example. Nozawa, The Gross
Face and Virtual Fame.
5
In highlighting the counter-transparent, I do not mean to assume other forms of language or communication to be transparent. Rather, I wish to make a precise claim about the particular way in which the
mediated properties of written communication are rendered visible in these cases. In other words, while
some forms of language may feel transparent due to conventionalized use, this form of image-oriented
writing and use of deliberate mistypes draws out the possibilities of not being able to understand or of
misunderstanding that I think should be recognized.
3
4

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by others offers another case for thinking about how internet sociality is organized
around the users ability to interpret or read the communication practices associated
with the site. In other words, rather than thinking about communication on Nicovideo
as simply a degraded form of language (as so-called netspeak is sometimes characterized) I would instead like to focus on how the distinct social properties of the site involve
different kinds of vision and communication based on practices of reading and writing
that engage with counter-transparent modes of exchange.6 In pursuing these topics I will
take up multiple points of focus on both kinds of users and methodological approach;
different practices of reading and writing will be discussed, and my analysis will draw on
elds such as media studies, linguistics, and anthropology.

Animated Comment Scroll


Nicovideo is one of the most popular video-sharing and social media websites in Japan.
Users of the site can upload, watch, bookmark, and comment on videos, as well as join
communities based around mutual interests and follow recent news through the portal
of the front page. A wide variety of categories of user-created content, media mash-up
collaborations, and commercial and semi-commercial videos are hosted by the site.7 In
this sense Nicovideo is similar to other video-sharing services such as YouTube,
Dailymotion, or Youku. However, even with those shared qualities in basic architecture,
Nicovideo has a distinct atmosphere and modes of participation due to the general
subculture orientation of its user base and its strong association with music video
montage aesthetics and amateur performance genres. Among the most popular and
characteristic of these are collaboratively produced music videos that use Vocaloid voice
synthesizer software to perform original music and remixed covers of existing songs.
The virtual idol Hatsune Miku is perhaps the representative image of this style of semicollaborative aesthetic and social space that Nicovideo has developed. The amateur
performance category in which a user imitates a favorite song or performance and then
submits his or her recording for the rest of the community to respond to is also very
popular (e.g., I tried to dance it, I tried to sing it). Videos offering other forms of
entertainment - even ones covering news and politics - also appear on the site, with
different categories used to manage the various genres and sub-genres of video content.8
Some of these videos have also been uploaded to YouTube and other sites, which has
helped spread the cultural presence of Nicovideo beyond its core user base in Japan.
The conventionalized use of misspellings such as pwn instead of own in online gaming or teh
instead of the in ironic message board posting are two such examples of netspeak in English. However,
while the mistypes in Japanese that I am looking at here depend on a deliberate mis-selection of a
character on the basis of its phonetic or orthographic resemblance to another via the input method editor
(IME), many common forms of netspeak in English are derived from the proximity of certain keys to one
another on most keyboards and typing pads.
7
For this article I will focus on the properties of the comment feed rather than the types of videos that are
common on the site. A more thorough engagement with the content of some of these videos is warranted,
but is beyond the scope of this article.
8
Videos are also categorized by user-created tags. However, as Hamano Satoshi demonstrates, the
tagging system on Nicovideo is used not only for generic classication, but also for generating new
ways of making connections between distinct texts that suspend singular authorship over a work to what
he calls Nth order derivative collaboration. This mode of generating meta-content for the videos is
dependent more on an environment of users working together (and against one another) than on authorcentric modes of creation. See Hamano, Niconico d
oga no seiseiryoku, or the English translation, The
Generativity of Niconico Douga.
6

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However, even with those similarities in form and shared content, Nicovideo distinguishes itself from other video-sharing services through the incorporation of many
aspects of a social networking website into its user interface.
The most prominent of these aspects is the above-mentioned text crawl of comments
posted by viewers. These comments are projected directly onto the video as part of a
scrolling information feed that moves from right to left, somewhat similar in appearance
to the news ticker projected at the bottom of the screen on cable news programs, or lm
subtitles. However, in the case of comments on Nicovideo, this row of text can appear at
all parts of the screen and not just the bottom. The comments in the feed appear to oat
above or slide across the image of the video, possessing their own plane of movement
but still being part of the visual experience of watching a video on the site. There is a
default text size, color and speed, but almost every facet of the texts appearance and
animation can be manipulated by the user who inputs it into the video stream.9 All of
these comments are shown without attribution, so the mode of communication is
completely anonymous.
This form of commenting also lends a sense that the posting of comments is
happening live because of the way text is projected into the comment feed based on
the point in time during viewing that they were input by the user (as opposed to
order of input). In this way the comments are projected so as to address the content
of the video or respond to other comments. This creates a feeling of time that
Hamano Satoshi calls the pseudo synchronicity (giji d
oki) of virtual time, generated by the experience of simultaneity despite real differences in time between
users.10 Users can, of course, easily recognize that these comments are not being
produced by an audience watching at exactly the same time as themselves; the
column of comments on the right of the video display, with information about
when they were input, makes this clear. However, the mode in which the text scrolls
over the video image invokes a composite of previous experiences of viewing and
reacting by other users, replayed in the present moment in a way that produces the
experience of pseudo-synchronicity. This lends itself to an experience of virtual
liveness, which Hamano compares to a concert or festival that can always be reexperienced after the fact.11 Indeed, the environment of the comment feed is one in
which posts can build cumulatively in a mimetic rush of accelerating intensity. The
layering of different rows of text upon on another across the screen only exaggerates
this feeling of intense virtual time and polyphonic cacophony. In Japanese the waves
of comments that rush across the screen and highlight this experience of pseudosynchronous time are called danmaku, or barrage because of this quality. The
comments in the feed disappear after a few seconds as they scroll out of the frame
of the video window, or, in the case of static comments that pop onto the screen

This style of commenting was also originally made available for videos uploaded to YouTube which
could then be watched through Nicovideos interface, but this was shut down by YouTube. Kanose,
Garapagosu na Nihon no nettokai ni, 71.
10
Hamano, Aakitekucha no seitaikei, 197.
11
Ibid., 210, 235236. Miyairi and Sat
o also compare Nicovideos comment feed to an experience of
liveness. However, they phrase this as part of what they see as a shift away from direct, physical
experiences of liveness, in which performers are on stage before a live audience, to ones in which
seeing and hearing are less important than feeling, such as the redistribution of musical performance
to social media. See Miyairi and Sat
o, Raibushiin yo doko e iku, 110119.

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like lm subtitles, vanish after a similar period of time.12 As previously mentioned,


these comments are displayed without attribution, so the ow of conversation or
banter that can occur over a video image is not experienced as a legible conversation
between individuals, but rather something like a digital crowd or mass that builds
upon itself through mimetic repetition and response.13
Nicovideo opened its online doors in December 2006 and has quickly become one of
the most popular sites on the internet for Japanese users: almost three million users visit
Nicovideo every day, with, by some counts, as many as one in three Japanese in their
twenties considered a regular visitor.14 The site originally catered to a subcultural userbase through the focus on anime videos, Vocaloid songs sung by a computerized voice,
and related forms of internet culture and subculture-oriented genres of entertainment.
However, since 2010, Niwango the company that manages the site has made an
effort to reach a larger, more mainstream audience by expanding the brand to include
things like live-talk shows and performances with celebrities, as well as smart and mobile
phone applications to make the site viewable almost anywhere. They have even converted a famous disco hall in Tokyo into an augmented reality technology-loaded
performance space that mixes the online social communities with live attendance.
This is achieved via walls of LCD screens that project the comments of audiences
watching online into the live space of performance.15
The comment feed plays an important role in orienting the social environment and
linguistic registers of Nicovideo. However, we should also note the ways in which it
helps organize the visual experience of watching a video on the site; the play between
text and image via the moving comments produces a distinct way of watching that
incorporates techniques of scanning and an aesthetic of density and motion drawn to the
surface of the image. This relationship between the video content, the comment scroll,
and their planar separation is a complicated one. We might think of it as producing a
visual experience that is not simply a reduction of the video image to a canvas for users
to interact upon, but perhaps something like an interstitial space of captioning that does
not necessarily engage with narration-like content.
12
In addition, the content of a videos comment stream can change over time because the comment
display system can only show a thousand comments during a single viewing, so as more and more users
comment upon a video, older comments will be made invisible. These can still be accessed by changing
the date on the comment feed, allowing the viewer to access older versions of the comment feed for a
particular video. However, one of the most distinctive traits of the culture of the comment feed is how
users attempt to recreate or repeat previous versions of a particular videos comments that have been
rotated out in favor of newer comments. The video mentioned at the beginning of this article is one such
case, in which variations on the same comments are repeated over and over as the comment feeds
maximum capacity continues to roll over. This has resonance with Hamanos comparison of the site to a
concert that can be re-experienced, although with the additional quality of requiring a kind of reperformance or re-animation by the sites user base.
13
See Nozawa, The Gross Face and Virtual Fame for more on pseudo-anonymous communication and
performance in Japan, and Nicovideo in particular. A more in-depth comparison between the comment
feed of Nicovideo and crowds in physical spaces is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article, but
there are clear points of resonance in the anonymous mode of membership in both bodies as well as in
how individuals within each body experience sensations of movement or motion, and the potential for
escalation or intensication. For more on crowds, mimesis, and affect theory, see Mazzarella, The Myth
of the Multitude.
14
Akada, Web Anonymity Nurtures Closed In-groups. Natsuno Takeshi, an assistant executive at the
company that manages Nicovideo, claims up to 63% of that age group; see Nico nico d
oga no koa ni aru
mono, 88.
15
The performance center is called Nicofarre. It occupies the building that once held the Avex-afliated
discotheque Velfarre. For more on the opening of Nicofarre, see Raibu hausu [Nicofarre] ohirome.

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As Miyako Inoue suggests in relation to the captions of photographs, we can think of


captions as providing para-textual, supplementary information for an image (whether
narrative or explanatory), indexical not only of the image captioned but of the author of
the caption.16 This might then be seen as bridging the moment of captioning by the
author with that of reception by the reader/viewer, which creates a sense of here and
now of viewing alongside the reader. The virtuality of time and experience on
Nicovideo can be compared to photograph captions in how the articial sense of
liveness of watching a video is actually a composite of multiple experiences that are
added to a larger body of time and meta-interaction, producing an intense feeling of
social and participatory viewing as more and more productive viewers contribute to the
comment feed.17 Similarly, the anonymous nature of the commenting system differs in
that it might not be seen as indexical of an individual author, but rather of the idea of a
productive community of commenters that are experienced as an aggregate of polyphonic intensity.
However, a key difference between the stable caption of a photograph and the
crowded, moving text of Nicovideo is the potential for obstructing the image with text
and for overwhelming the audiences ability to read or view the accompanying image
clearly. This is one way of considering the counter-transparency of how users produce
comments, which allows for the possibility of the viewer not fully understanding an
image or string of text. In some cases it even seems to court that kind of incomplete or
fragmented understanding of the relationship between image and text.18 I will analyze
some of the ways that users of the site engage in this kind of counter-transparency in
the following section.

16

Inoue, Vicarious Language, 130.


In some ways this can be compared with Soundcloud, a music-sharing website that incorporates the
comments of listeners into the moving Waveform time-track of a music le. However, while
Nicovideos comment feed has text that moves across the screen and appears and disappears as the
video plays on, the comments on Soundcloud are static and become highlighted as the time-track cursor
(or the users mouse cursor) moves over them. This creates less a sense of pseudo-simultaneity than a
kind of archive that the listener waits to see appear while seeing the cursor move over each comment
marker. Similarly, with the exception of the replies to individual comments (which appear as miniature
threads in the time-track), comments on Soundcloud appear one at a time, which also creates a very
different feeling of a social community that is virtually watching together.
18
David Atkinson and Helen Kelly-Holmes discussion of code-switching between English and Irish
language speech in radio comedy from Ireland provides a useful comparison for thinking about fragmented understanding and the kinds of performance of community that it can invite. The radio
performers and audience for these programs are not native speakers of Irish, so their command of the
language is often limited and on the verge of not understanding, but the use of the Irish vernacular also
helps produce a kind of linguistic in-group or even performance of border patrolling against exclusively
English-speaking communities. The counter-transparent modes of communication on Nicovideo are
different in that they do not involve spoken language or switching between two languages. However, the
possibility of fragmented understanding as a mode or performance of community seems to be a strong
point of intersection between the two groups. Similarly, the kinds of typographic play that use phonetic
or orthographic resemblance in writing have some resonance with verbal code-switching, although those
similarities are beyond the scope of this article. Atkinson and Kelly-Holmes, Codeswitching, Identity,
and Ownership in Irish Radio Comedy.
17

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Typographic Animation
At rst glance one might be struck by the abundance of apparent mistypes in some
forms of Japanese-language social media. Nicovideo, like its forerunner 2channel,19
features many instances of non-standard language that can appear obscure or even
unreadable to a general audience because of the volume of seemingly incorrect selections of characters and grammatical conjugations. This kind of writing might be chalked
up to careless typing or character selection through the keyboard IME (Input Method
Editor) typing system. However, there seems to be a semi-consistent use of some of
these mistypes, and some online communities also appear able to communicate through
this mode of writing despite the difculties that accompany the use of non-standard
characters and wordplay.20 Some of these mistypes can be understood by reading for
phonetic sound rather than what is suggested by the conventional meaning of the
ideograph character, while others are understood through the orthographic similarity
between characters from different alphabets. But what kind of vision of reading does this
mode of communication entail, and what kind of sociality does it contribute to or
emerge from? In this section I would like to approach this culture of reading and writing
as engaging with a double vision that draws upon the pictorial and linguistic aspects of
writing and orthography. It is particularly through this notion of reading at two registers
of content simultaneously that I examine some of the practices that appear on Nicovideo
and its comment feed.
The internet has proven to be fertile ground for all manner of subcultural jargon, and
the user-community at Nicovideo has for its part developed various forms of orthographical and lexigraphical play for commenting on videos and organizing tags within the
site. Much of the netspeak found in the comment feed has been derived from the
online message board 2channel and other Japanese language sites, but there are also
forms of wordplay tuned to the sensation of pseudo-synchronic time and the movement
of text across the screen; common responses to all manner of video content include
strings of www standing in for laughter (similar to lol in English, w being the rst
letter of the Romanization for the verb to laugh in Japanese, warau) and a series of
88888 representing a round of applause. Some of these forms of linguistic play can be
found on other Japanese-language websites and social media services, but the movement
of text across the screen that is characteristic of Nicovideo adds the property of
foregrounding the congruence in time between the moment of the comment being
written and that of its viewing by subsequent audiences.
The language used in comments on Nicovideo is typically drawn from spoken,
informal registers and features lots of abbreviations, slang-derived substitutions, and
plays on grammatical constructions.21 Phonological contraction or reduction is common. For example, the nal i syllable of some adjectives (i-keiy
oshi) may be replaced
2channel or 2chan is a popular Japanese-language message board that was started in 1999. Perhaps
most widely introduced to the public at large via the numerous adaptations of the story of Train Man
(Densha Otoko) in lm, animation, and drama, the site also had a public prole associated with internet
nationalism, practices of trolling and aming, and a strict form of anonymity. For more on 2chan, see
Kitada, Warau Nihon no nashonarizumu.
20
Laura Miller has written about a similar kind of bad writing in regard to young women using nonstandard writing practices (such as borrowing characters from non-Japanese alphabets) in texting and
purikura (print club) photo-captioning. See Miller, Those Naughty Teenage Girls.
21
Murakami and It
o give an overview of some of the wordplays in typography used in relation to musicrelated internet videos in two essays: D
oga saabisu ni okeru shich
osha komento no bunseki, and D
oga
t
ok
o saito de fuyo sareta d
oga tagu no kais
oka.
19

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FIGURES 2 and 3. Left: ai no te written with character for love. Right: kami written as
nem
osu via two characters that bear orthographic resemblance to the kanji for kami.

with su, making the word sound as if it has been combined with an abbreviated sentence
nal copula desu; thus yabai (amazing) becomes yabasu, and eroi (erotic, risqu)
becomes erosu.22 Here wordplay draws upon the linguistic content of a word and the
readers ability to recognize an alteration based on a substitution of a single kana (letter
in one of the syllabary sets) or conjugation form.23 Such language play will often be
reinforced by making alterations to the morphology of writing, such as by substituting
between kana sets. For example, the phonologically contracted form yabasu, normally
written in hiragana, may be written fully or partially in katakana, as or .
A more elaborate example of this kind of wordplay is the orthographic manipulation
of character input systems which, rather than changing the denotational meaning,
renders a word as an icon with image or pictorial content in addition to its linguistic
content. This mode of writing is based on deliberate mistypes produced through the
properties of the input system used for typing in Japanese. Some of these plays on
language can only be recognized by thinking about the phonetic reading of the character
and then inferring the meaning, such as when the rst character in the compound for
call and response (ai no te) is sometimes changed from the character for together,
pronounced ai, to the one for love, also pronounced ai (see Figure 2). Other types of
typographic play use orthographically similar characters to the same effect, such as the
word kami which on Nicovideo typically means awesome being written by two other
characters that, when combined, look similar: the katakana ne and the kanji for m
osu (to
say) are written together to stand in for the original word (Figure 3). Of course, many of
these plays on language originated on other websites such as 2channel, but in being
carried over to Nicovideo and altered further through the addition of an ability to render

For similar practices on 2channel, see Nishimura, Establishing a Community of Practice.


These forms of writing, of course, have many similarities with texting, in which mistypes are also used
as an in-group communication technique. One commonality that I would like to highlight here is the
use of various forms of typographic play as a way of simulating some of the qualities of expressiveness in
speech, such as tone, volume, or character. Tanaka Yukari has described the use of virtual dialects in
phone messaging as a way of encoding intimacy via textual simulation of spoken language, and we can
nd other strategies of encoding community in the textual play seen on Nicovideo. Tanaka, H
ogen
cosupure no jidai, 9.
22
23

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text in different colors and to manipulate the size of font, for example, another layer of
complexity in creating visual wordplay emerges.24
As with the movement of text across the surface of the video display and the sheer
density of comments, these kinds of counter-transparent writing can disrupt the viewers
ability to understand what is being written through their use of wordplay and movement
between linguistic and pictorial registers of communication. However, this does not
necessarily mean that the pictorial content of text in the comment feed completely
overwhelms or undermines its linguistic meaning; this kind of writing is still oriented
toward communication even if it is performed in a register that is semi-exclusive to the
language community that is versed in its peculiarities.
Zabet Pattersons work on POEMFIELDs and computer screens offers useful
insights in understanding this relationship between linguistic character and pictorial
image and the kind of vision that viewers might assume. In writing on early computer
art that produced images by arranging letters, numbers and other symbols, Patterson
shows how these characters simultaneously produced pictorial, linguistic, and schematic
meanings. She calls this a double vision of text and image that cannot simply be read,
but must also be seen at once as both linguistic text and pictorial shapes and images.25
This, then, is not only a simultaneous production of image- and language-oriented
forms of content, but also a form of vision that reads both registers as part of the
same act of vision. David Rodowicks observation that certain kinds of gural textimages disrupt the typical rendering of looking and reading as separate activities suggests a comparison with the way some kinds of text elicit different techniques of reading.26 The wordplay based on phonetic reading or orthographic resemblance on
Nicovideo also troubles this distinction between reading and other types of vision,
although with the nuance that it is also part of a social environment and not just a
media object or another kind of text; the comment feed is a discourse in addition to a
visual media object, which is why it is important to keep in mind the linguistic and
communicative properties of such writing. The technological processes, historical
moment, and cultural context for Nicovideo are very different from those of
POEMFIELDs and other kinds of text-like computer art, but Pattersons point about
an aesthetic of double vision or simultaneous signication can help clarify aspects of
the orthographic alterations on Nicovideo that confer on text some of the properties of
an image or icon.
Pattersons description of the relationship between the reader/audience and the media
object as one in which the vision of the reader is directed or invited to a particular kind
of sight the double vision of reading and seeing at the same time offers a basis for
developing this point further. In the case of Nicovideo the mode of vision is one based
not just on the reading of counter-transparent text, but also on scanning and looking as
the comments scroll across the screen. What we have, then, is a tension between (a) the
multiple interpretive processes involved in how audiences might respond to the way
communication appears on the site, and (b) the way in which the animation of the
24
Matsuda, Netto shakai to sh
udango. Sites that summarize popular threads from 2Channel (matome)
will sometimes use different colors and size of fonts to emphasize well-received or funny posts.
25
Patterson, POEMFIELDs and the Materiality of the Computational Screen, 245, 258. There is, of
course, a long history of mechanical text production, engaging in multiple forms of content, that extends
beyond the examples Patterson is looking at. However, what I am trying to draw out of her reading is not
a historical connection between POEMFIELDs and Nicovideo, but rather a conceptual approach for
thinking about the activity of reading and its relationship to problems of media determinism.
26
Rodowick, Reading the Figural, 6263.

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307

comment feed draws the viewers eye to the surface of the image or directs him or her
toward particular modes of vision. My use of the word direct over force or interpolate is meant to highlight this nuance and to suggest how interpretation is shaped by
the form and the culture of the website. In considering the meta-interactive sociality of
the site and its community, it is also necessary to consider how the culture of anonymity
and the aesthetics of unattributed, densely organized and moving text can to a certain
extent preclude the representation of individual users in favor of an abstract concept of
community against which experience is negotiated. As such, while it is certainly important to consider issues such as how individual users might participate or react to
Nicovideo and its content, we should also keep in mind how different modes of
representation and practices of participation organize how users approach the site.27
One more style of text production on the site that should be addressed is that of
comment artists (shokunin), who produce pixel-like images and static or semi-animated
sprite characters out of symbols and shapes in the character input system. These are
even less linguistically oriented in content than the typographic alterations of characters,
and are perhaps more comparable to emoticons or similar types of image-making based
on written text, which, like the alterations in typography, are organized around the
transformation of a character or letter beyond its original function. Hosoma Hiromichi
has described how the brief time in which comments are displayed in the feed
encourages symbol (kig
o)-like commenting that relies on concise, image-like messages
rather than complete, sentence-like statements.28 Comment art serves as perhaps the
most extreme example of this kind of movement toward intensied, textual forms of
representation that express pictorial content via a linguistic communication system. This
type of comment art is particularly popular with music-related videos because of the way
the comment feed can be made to link up with the soundtrack, in a kind of parasynesthesia, or to trace the movements of a dancing gure in a way that renders the
choreography of a dance as a visual pattern. For example, a video uploaded by the user
Daughter of Wota called I Tried To Dance Sweet Magic features comments by a
shokunin that trace the hand gestures of the performer, creating rst a ribbon of
visualized movement as she twirls her hands up into the air and then an explosion of
star-like pixels to punctuate the choreography (Figure 4).29 Other examples include the
production of subtitle-like transcriptions of lyrics that appear and move so as to link up
with the singers performance. This occurs, for instance, in a video for the song
Uninstall, which features a comment artist producing colorful subtitles of the lyrics
that are rendered in a double, super-imposed font that pops onto the screen in patterns
to match the singers voice (Figure 5).30 More so than other users of the site, these
27
Because comments are shown without attribution it is difcult to say anything about the identities of
individual users and what kinds of comments they might make or what videos they might watch. There
have, however, been some surveys for age demographics among users of Nicovideo. Data from 2012
show that 75.9% of users who post comments to the feed of popular videos (those that rank on the sites
internal voting system) are between the ages of 10 and 20, which generally seems consistent with the
orientation of the site toward games, anime, and idol music. See, for example, Niconico d
oga no
comment no nenrei bunseki shitara, and Niconico d
oga 3-oku comment nenrei bunseki.
28
Hosoma, Uta o sodateta kanaria no tame ni, 35.
29
Video available at: http://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm15745067. This capture is based on the video feed
from 16 October 2011. This video shows the meta-interactive potential of the comment feed quite
clearly: the performance of the dancer is augmented by that of the comment artist, who is essentially
producing a new variation on the original dance/video by supplementing the dancers choreography with
the images he or she is inscribing over the video.
30
Video address: http://www.nicovideo.jp/watch/sm3520730. Capture taken on 1 September 2012.

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Daniel Johnson

FIGURES 4 and 5. Left: tracing gesture in I Tried To Dance Sweet Magic performed by
Daughter of Wota. Right: song lyrics from Uninstall rendered in different colors and sizes,
animated by the comment feed.

comment artists highlight the comment feed as part of the visual attraction of the video
and not just part of the sites social networking design.31
This, however, returns us to the question of how linguistic meaning intersects with
pictorial content and the issues of opacity and legibility. As swarms of comments pass
over the screen, it can be difcult to focus on a single line of text or area of the screen.
To try and take in the screen as a whole renders the experience not as one of legibility of
reading but rather a kind of visual sensation of movement and energy that gestures
toward the digital materiality of the comment feed. Movement and animation might
then be productive concepts to turn to in isolating what kind of vision users might
adopt. In discussing the sensation of cinematic movement and the rhetoric of lm
realism, Tom Gunning has observed that to perceive movement or motion is to participate in that sense of movement.32 He contrasts this with still images, which, when
viewed as distinct images, do not produce the same sense of an affective, material
relationship between seeing and moving. There might be, in other words, a kind of
animating quality of visual perception that places the body of the viewer in a kind of
embodied proximity to the representation of movement onscreen. This is in addition to
the animating qualities of reading movement through the mode of realism presented
through the rhetoric of cinema; we experience a mimetic, embodied feeling of movement in and across the screen that is felt beyond our ability to visually or cognitively
make sense of a series of projected images. Thinking of movement in this way can be
useful in relation to Nicovideo, when we consider how the scrolling movement of the
comment feed animates written text in a way that in conjunction with the typographic
transformations of text and use of image-oriented writing renders the act of reading as
31

In that sense comment artists have a privileged position within the discourse of the site in that, although
comments are not attributed to individuals, the role they fulll is still one that commands a kind of
prestige. For example, while users do sometimes respond to other comments, comment artists are
typically the only ones to enjoy lots of personal attention or praise, sometimes even more than the
content of the video and its performers. This presents an additional complication in the way individual
representation is partially suspended in anonymous environments. However, these comments are still
made without attribution, and the shift toward this mode of intense textual representation or performance is precisely what I am trying to articulate here.
32
Gunning draws primarily on Christian Metzs essay On the Impression of Reality in the Cinema and
Henri Bergsons writing on movement and affect to develop this point, also making clear the difference
between the perception of realism in lm and the materiality of reality. Gunning, Moving Away from
the Index, 42. Gunnings language of participation via vision also has resonance with Sakais gloss on
Bakhtins notion of polyphonic narration as a way of allowing for participation by the reader.

Animated Writing in the Comment Feed of Nicovideo

309

a kind of visual performance taken up by the viewer. This returns us again to how the
aesthetic of the site can be seen as directing users toward a way of seeing or looking
rather than just reading.

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Performing Animation
But what then is the relationship between the pictorial-linguistic community brought
about by a group register of communication and the feeling of community initiated by
the sense of virtuality in time as it is experienced on the comment feed? Developing a
concept of typographic play as a kind of animation will help elucidate this further.
However, in order to make this connection between animation of images and animation
of community, it is also important to make a conceptual turn toward the relationship
between animation and performance. Performance has often been framed in terms of
the concepts of mimesis, identity, and an introjection of the social and physical environment toward the self. Animation has, conversely, been conceptualized as a kind of
alterity with the object-world in which the self is projected onto the environment.33
However, in her essay Animation: The New Performance? Teri Silvio questions the
obviousness of this distinction, looking to activities such as cosplay (costume play) to
consider ways in which performance becomes a kind of self-animation through actions
such as posing and lip-synching, which turn the human body into a puppet-like medium
for embodying a character or image. She then goes on to dene animation as a mediumoriented projection structured around a transitional space in which boundaries
between self and world are encountered, crossed, and reconstructed.34 Silvios essay
is mostly concerned with characters such as video-game avatars, media-mix merchandise icons, and cartoons, but I think we can also nd an interval of communication in
her idea of transitional space. I would like to take this idea up in considering the
comment feed on Nicovideo as a kind of performative animation. This is particularly in
regard to the idea of alterity in communication being expressed through typographic
play in writing that foregrounds the interpretive process of reading and the fragmentary
nature of understanding. In a similar move, Laura Marks has noted how calligraphic
animation of Arabic writing shifts the locus from representation to performance,
drawing on traditions of transformation and movement in such kinds of writing.35
This observation is productive in considering how the transformation of text through
typographic manipulation might be looked at as a similar instance of performative
quality in writing. More specically, the non-denotational, counter-transparent typography of deliberate mistypes and production of sprite-like images in Nicovideo commenting suggests a style of writing that gestures toward a similar trajectory, away from
exclusively linguistic signication or representational content and toward something like
the performative or image-oriented.
Silvios comments on emoticons in online communication serve as a good starting
point for developing this idea of reading and writing as performance. She calls these
kinds of pictorial texts icon(s) of general affect which remediate the pose, reproducing
33

This is a gloss on Silvios summary of these concepts. Most work on animation as a kind of movement
of images adopts a more concrete denition, but I nd Silvios abstraction of animation to a kind of
environmental vision and sense of relationality to be very insightful. Silvio, Animation.
34
Ibid., 427.
35
Marks, Calligraphic Animation, 309.

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Daniel Johnson

the gesture of activities like cosplay or puppetry in a new environment.36 The register of
communication is thus displaced, away from a desire to express the individual subject
(or author) and toward a group register of affective, image-oriented kinds of movement
and action. Recognition of conventionalized forms in the act of reading and the ability to
reproduce these as acts of writing can therefore be seen as to some degree taking
precedence over the desire to express an individual subjectivity. The intensity of textual
representation and performance on Nicovideo (through the use of certain kinds of
mistypes in typography that employ orthographic or phonetic substitutions of characters
to render text as image-oriented) also gestures toward a kind of general affect in which
users negotiate the group register of communication through a particular kind of reading/seeing and by engaging in counter-transparent modes of text production. This is
another important point that Silvio raises: while performance studies has traditionally
focused on expression or the production of meaning, the interpretation of performance
also deserves focus as an activity in which the viewer must engage. The form of
animating communication seen on Nicovideo cannot be grasped adequately without
paying attention to the techniques of reading, scanning, and vision that users of the site
must engage with; the multiple interpretive processes that users of the site take up in
response to these kinds of comments and their polyphonic intensity are precisely this
kind of performing/animating vision.
The meeting ground for animation and performance on Nicovideo can therefore be
found in Pattersons concept of double vision and a participatory model of reading. I use
italics here because this idea of reading is referring to a precise and perhaps more
abstract concept than might normally be the case. Opening up Pattersons concept of
double vision even more, we can think of reading as a way of seeing, a way of translating
or deciphering counter-transparent writing, or even a way of interpreting the pseudosynchronicity of virtual time on Nicovideo. It is in fact in this connection between the
ability to successfully read the counter-transparent modes of writing and read the
experience of pseudo-simultaneity that we can nd the mode of performance that
constitutes the abstract concept of community on the site; the meta-awareness of how
the comment feed suggests an experience of time and the meta-knowledge of how
language is used on the site contribute to a similar kind of pleasure of participation.
Reading as a process of animation can be found in the transformation of orthographic
manipulation and movement across screen surfaces, while reading as a mode of performance can be located in the kind of sociality a user of the site takes on in relation to the
way time is experienced and how communication is interpreted. What is being performed or animated is an abstract idea of community organized around concepts of
time and communication. In other words, rather than thinking of community as the
collection of individuals who make up and participate in the site, we can consider the
kind of aesthetic and performative practices that emerge from the discourse of the sites
user base to be forms of polyphonic animation.

Anonymity and Polyphonic Intensity


Recent scholarship and critical writing on internet cultures have observed the distinct
practices of anonymous communication and the communities of performance that
appear in such environments. That is to say, rather than thinking of anonymous internet
Silvio, Animation, 433.

36

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311

culture as a degraded or incomplete substitution for real life forms of experience, there
has been a shift to focus on how different modes of representation and participation
emerge and develop in these types of environments. For example, David Auerbachs
writing on A-culture (in which A stands for anonymity, among other concepts)
observes the connection between written forms of discourse in internet culture, the
intensication of some forms of temporality (such as the velocity of posting that
anticipates the locking of threads in forums), and meta-performative routines of membership that compete with one another via the recognition and circulation of tropes and
routines associated with the site/sub-forum of activity.37 In other words, identication is
shifted away from individual experiences of writing or participation to the register of the
culture or environment of the site. Paul Manning has similarly characterized the metainteractive mode of communication and recalled experience in pseudo-anonymous
environments (i.e., those that use handles or pseudonyms for users), such as blogs
and webforums, as imaginary. This is due to the fragmented experience of time and
the exaggerated form of inter-subjective sociality in such exchanges.38 This use of
imaginary here is not, however, meant as dismissive but rather as a way of re-qualifying
the manner in which impersonal, meta-interactive online communication (such as the
reportage of frustrating encounters brought about by institutionalized language in
service industry professions) is haunted by the image of ordinary social conversation.
Indeed, members of such online communities might recognize such imagined talk as
belonging to the same species as real talk because of their familiarity with the generic
properties being reproduced in such scenarios.
I wish to place the comment feed of Nicovideo within this critical trajectory because
of its reliance on similar modes of unattributed, anonymous participation and the way
the experience of virtual time and emphasis on textual communication orients the
culture of the site toward intense meta-interaction and performative reading. As with
Auerbachs and Mannings writings on English-language internet culture, the ability of
Nicovideo users to recognize themselves as potential participants in the written discourse of the comment feed is a key characteristic of how this type of community
organizes itself and produces a particular cultural form and mode of performance.
Similarly, this recognition of oneself in the aggregate, meta-interactive polyphonic
discourse of the comment feed can also be looked upon as part of the way that this
particular mode of subjectivity (or something like subjectivity) is awakened or activated.
Taking up this desire to dene a culture of anonymity positively, I see the prevalence
of written discourse and the emphasis on animated forms of writing not as attempt to ll
the gap left by an absence of speech, but rather as part of a shift to a different regime of
representation. This type of representation moves the privilege of voice away from the
individual language event or participation of the speaker/author and toward the polyphonic aggregate of users. This, as in Auerbachs example, places the experience of
communication not so much as one between individual members, but as a kind of
alterity that engages with the culture of the site and the mode of subjectivity suggested
by its routines of performance. The process of interpretation for users of the site thus
extends beyond the counter-transparent forms of writing and experience of virtual time
to the culture of performance that animates these qualities of the site. The intensication
of textual discourse on the site (for example, through typographic play and comment
Some of the other A-s in A-culture include acceleration, adolescent, anti-, and anarchy. Auerbach,
Anonymity as Culture.
38
Manning, Barista Rants about Stupid Customers at Starbucks.
37

312

Daniel Johnson

art) is part of this movement toward an inter-subjective mode of communicating, in


which meta-interactions between users through the comment feed and its representation
of pseudo-synchronic time become part of these routines of animation and performance.

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Acknowledgements
I thank the two anonymous reviewers who offered comments on an earlier draft of this
article, as well as the editorial staff of Japanese Studies for their patience and guidance
through the revisions process. Further gratitude goes to participants at the New Media
Workshop and the Art and Politics of East Asia Workshop at the University of Chicago,
as well as the audience of the Cinematic Diasporas conference held at the University of
Chicago on 14 April 2012, and the Critical Frameworks of Transmission graduate
student conference held at UCLA on 26 October 2012, for their questions and feedback. Special thanks also to Phil Kaffen and Shunsuke Nozawa for reading earlier drafts
and offering detailed feedback.

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