Posted by: Leek | March 5, 2011

An Idiot’s Ethnography of Nico Nico Douga: Introduction

It’s been around four very quick years since I’ve been registered at Nico Nico Douga, one of the strangest video sites in existence. And after those four long years, it’s come to mean a lot to me. Not just in respect of what odd memories I can tie with it but with some of the many people I’ve managed to acquaint myself with through it.

As always, I bet you’re thinking the same thing. Just what in the heck is Leek getting at THIS time? The thing is when I first registered, I could probably tell you very little about Nico Nico Douga as a video site. To me it had become some sort of Japanese phenomenon. Some sort of strange door to whole underground that I hadn’t seen. It was essentially where you’re not just being given a product but you’re taking away an entire experience.

Four years and how times have changed

But now you could try asking me again. Just what is Nico all about? It’s not a question that I would want to tell you in a sentence. But Nico has in fact evolved into a community and, by exaggeration, a family as it were. Nico has become a place where a modern generation has found a bit of home with each other and a means to connect through a multitude of pathways. At the same time the community came for relatively similar reasons and probably stay for much of the same.

As a mark of my 4th year with the site, I decided to turn out a bit of a joking ethnography. Actually trying to proclaim it a serious ethnography would easily offend many of my Professors or the various Anthropologists in existence. Still I would like to offer my piece of personal experiences and how a makeshift community has developed around some odd unifying principles.

The series will follow a general construction pattern. First, I want to introduce the early beginning of site and what started the Nico craze. At the same time, I want to try and field what the hook of the site was and possibly dismiss certain assumptions hanging in the air about it. In following pieces I plan to go into the various and large communities that have formed around Nico that draw different crowds. Somewhere embedded in these discussions I will go into the developing years of Nico and how it turned itself nearer to where it is today. Last, I’ll wrap up my entire project as it were and try and look at what may lie ahead for such a offbeat community.

But first a bit of intro…

YouTube, 2ch, and the birth of Nico
Just as one would imagine, Nico was far from the first online video site in existence. It’s earliest stages came about near the very end of 2006 with very limited access…and that was just it. Nico was a very enclosed community even up until early 2007 where it went through early Beta stages. At this point, there was very little word that floated out about it. And who would blame people? YouTube was easy to access, free to view, and required absolutely no hoops to jump through. There was no reason to look into other video sites when you had an obviously superior and convenient system in existence. Even I heard very little about it from my overseas friends and carousing of 2ch, it was just that minor at the time. YouTube’s “universal appeal” did have it’s fall backs though. The entire world viewed YouTube and it had it’s certain restrictions as to what could be uploaded. The thought of many of what thrives on Nico nowadays seems like a high impossibility to exist on the YouTube community. This can be chalked up to a lot of things but it’s a subject that I’ll try and hit on later.

As Nico entered it’s Beta stage in early 2007, things began to erupt. The newer features of rankings had begun to surface among other things. More members were allowed but you were put on a nasty waiting list for approval. But at the same time, word began to surface. Nico was beginning to become a heavily discussed topic on 2ch for the chaotic nature of the community. Word got out of it’s unique active time scrolling comments that only further people’s interests. In other words, Nico was beginning to establish what set it apart from YouTube. Being a member set you apart from others and there was certain pride you could hold in having a account there. At this time, the foundations of Nico began to form and several core videos were uploaded.

I think…I’m watching a video

But just who was the audience of Nico? It really just came down to a branch of 2ch’s members that had stumbled across the site. Exploring the new frontier as it were, these 2ch members began to turn Nico Nico Douga into a hub for site exclusive jokes. Much of the videos either expanded off of 2ch discussions or videos taken were turned into 2ch discussion. This could only draw more attention to the site as it were as jokes were cycled back and forth between the communities. Nico Nico Douga at this time remained a very strong branch of 2ch as no member of one was not aware of what was up with the other. It was a closely knit relationship.

Things continued this way for awhile and Nico gradually opened up to more members. In early stages there were still many reprints of common videos though. YouTube was still and still remains the site to go to for your video needs by the populace. This is both in fact to that Nico remains a somewhat closed community and that YouTube still holds it’s ultimate convenience. But there had to be something that people went to Nico for that made it thrive…

Scrolling comment mania? Or something else?
I believe there’s always these ongoing perceptions about what really goes into making Nico what it is today. If you were to have asked me when I first got my ticket at the beginning of the gamma era, I would have said those crazy scrolling comments. I mean…it’s so entertaining to watch those w’s scroll across the screen right? It might have been solid reasoning back then but it’s something I would much detach myself from now. That’s not to say I don’t recognize Nico’s comment system for something but it’s not just that people are in love with a onslaught of nonsense on their videos.

The significance of comments can be traced to the type of video you are watching and, to an extent, what era you were watching a video in. For example, the early Nico community was proud of the comment spam. It was possibly what made Nico…well Nico. Minor comments would be far from constructive and what would literally be on screen was nothing more of built up sound effects. In other words, people were acting much like a sitcom audience in just giving the background noises. Still, it gave you something to familiarize yourself with. The early appeal was that these active time comments let you know that you weren’t laughing or yelling alone. There was a communal response and a bit of fun of everybody “yelling” with one another. This was the chaotic draw that many people heard about when Nico was described. But it only lasted for so long.

Eyes on the prize

Nico does in fact still retain it’s use and pride of the active time, scrolling comment system. That’s not to say that “w” is the only thing you’ll see. As Nico has matured there was a large step taken away from such spam related comments. Much became constructive and the “active time” element was incorporated more to utilize actual conversations between viewers. Rather then simply communicating by laughing together, viewers began to point out different things to one another or even ask questions that they could in turn check back and possibly see answered. It was almost as if 2ch’s forum structure had been entire recreated on a video.

To be perfectly honest, I know more then a handful of people who watch videos with the comments off (depending on the nature of the video). Instead, the accompanying side comment display is where people will turn to see what people are actually saying. So what does that mean? Doesn’t that essentially mean that Nico holds no precedence over YouTube? Yes and no. For one it’s important to remember that these comments can be made to actively scroll along and follow the timestamps that they were set at. In other words you will still actively see comments but merely that it won’t be plastered directly over the video. With YouTube (up until recently) there were no real time stamps and nobody REALLY want to have elicit conversations on YouTube because there’s no real organization. With the Nico system it becomes rather easy to have active time conversations, merely with how comments are displayed. And since comments are actively swapped in and out due to a limit, you often will see different comments depending on the popularity of the video. In other words there could be a discussion one hour about one part of the video that is entirely flushed out when a conversation arises during another part of the video.

Of course, the site itself has lent a hand in controlling comments and help gravitating towards a more constructive community. For one, there was the incorporation of the personal filtered comment system. This allowed people to filter comments so they didn’t have to see either a color, a size, placement, certain words, or even direct users. It allowed people to directly block out things that weren’t contributing anything that they wanted to see and allowed more people to leave comments on without having to worry about just seeing nonsense they didn’t care about. Uploaders were given the same privilege in that they can directly control a filter and prevent certain comments from showing up or turning them into something that’s a lot less like spam. For example replacing words that spammers are using with anything of your choosing can help reduce the pain on everybody’s eyes.

For something a little less about spam comments, there was a history system implemented. This allowed (albeit it’s use is somewhat restricted) users to go back in a video by date and check comments from certain times. This was often helpful if there were certain threads of conversations lost with the passing of time. This was to account for the fact that, more often then not, people would be seeing the middle of a conversation rather then the beginning. By implement this comment log it allowed people to look backwards and hopefully find the root of what may have sprung such a conversation. And again, it also kept constructing the idea that Nico could be used more akin to a BBS then just typical comment fodder that people may mistook the site for.

Hole in one…

So you’ll realize I talked a lot about comments. But does that mean I would refute the idea that there is something special about Nico’s comment system? Would I say that the on video feature is incredibly POINTLESS? Well, I realize I made a bit of a step in that direction but I would say nothing of that sort to be honest. Like my focus on Nico as a community, I did mention that I planned to put a large focus on some of the major Nico communities. How the comment system is utilized and the altogether necessity of on screen comments that comes with it happens to vary rather drastically.

I posted the above video as evidence of this as it illustrates two things for me. One was it was actually taken from another implemented system, the “My Memory” feature. Rather then just simply bookmarking a video it allows you to save a snapshot as it were of the comments at the time. This allows you to go back and possibly watch a video when something just so drop dead phenomenal was done using the comment system.

And to be honest, these comment artisans (as they’ll affectionately be referred to by viewers) are just another important member of the Nico society. When I first joined the site, I marveled at how people utilized several of the features and studied hard to get a grip on the spacing of everything. Eventually I would too begin to help enhance certain videos in certain communities with this “comment art”. Of course, where I would choose to do such things drastically varies. If I were to simply draw things in random places it could be seen as unwelcome as screaming fire in a crowded theater. With the heavy uses of comments comes the community comment etiquette that viewers should stay aware of.

And that’s just it. The comment system could be said to be cornerstone of Nico. But is it because they’re on the video? Is it because they scroll? In my experience, not so much.

Rankings and Community
So you’ll see that I like to throw the word “community” around a lot when talking about Nico. For one there’s the entire Nico community that I’m getting at with this series. The spectrum of the Nico community is, of course, incredibly large. And just like many communities, it can be divided into much smaller sub-communities, some of which may never interact or get along with others. In fact I have seen that when someone tried to carry jokes over from another it could easily spark some negative reactions. Nonetheless, there is a general Nico community and unifying elements that manage to keep everyone together.

Since the Beta era, there had always been the ranking system. But there is only one ranking that one would really need to check as a regular. The infamous hourly rankings and the hub of where uploaders can try and prove the worth of their video. Just by checking the hourly ranking at peak times during the year, you can always surmise what the real buzz is about.

Rankings…the big leagues

Just as one could imagine, getting on the hourly rankings during peak hours is no easy feat. It takes a real video to hold the number one spot and managing to rank in is a dream for anyone. Sure, you’re video can get a lot of small attention and probably show up on the daily or monthly rankings but it really means something if you can show up on the hourly rankings for a decent period of time.

Of course hourly rankings were never just meant for popularity contests. They act as a bit of news hub and even are meant to commemorate certain days. If it’s the anniversary of any joke form an older era, you’ll probably be able to tell when checking the rankings on that day. It is, in a way, a strange way for everyone to celebrate and it keeps everyone aware of those classic things that everybody can laugh together about.

With that, I believe that’s all I can say in terms of opening up the very large field of Nico Nico Douga. As you can see, it’s no easy place to understand. It was the large reason that where I had planned to address everything in one post, I chose to make this a project. Just skating over describing the big communities doesn’t do the site much justice. But I do hope that I in fact could make more sense of the larger community in this post and hopefully it will reduce me having to explain greater concepts later in separate community descriptions. And in having described the large community and history to you, I plan to cover one of the most well known and oldest of communities. And also one that could be thought of as the real “core” of Nico Nico Douga.

Next – The Sound MAD Community
Extra Aside: Comment Culture Part I – History, Styles and Evolution



  1. I wonder, what would Youtubers (including the die-hard users and stars e.g. RWJ, MGM, Toby, etc) think of this site – would they be like “Youtube is superior to NND” and would people on NND think vice-versa?

    Also, Youtube has its way of making videos go viral and is encouraging people to go viral with their videos… is NND like that or has the wide community of user-made and user-uploaded videos achieved that goal of viral-ness?

    • I’m not sure what YouTube users would think of Nico as I’m sure they’re likely not familiar with it. Ultimately, Nico was created and most likely will remain a Japan focused video site. And I believe everybody in Japan understands that YouTube is THE video site to go to for videos. YouTube offers higher quality and worldwide publicity and, to be honest, it’s the reason Nico thrives like it does. Nico is based around Japan and it allows a smaller and locked down community so it feels a little friendlier and not always just about watching videos.

      As for being viral, again, it’s on a local basis. For internet viral videos (that don’t come from the West) it most likely is something that came from Nico. Nico doesn’t quite have a worldwide viral affect but I believe those in anime based communities might have familiarization with some of the older jokes that came from it. As far as a local basis, Nico has had an incredible impact. As of recent many believe Milky Holmes would have never gotten as much attention had it not aired (as one of the earliest streamed anime) on Nico. Haiyore! Nyaruko-san’s opening and all the popularity that came out of it was the fault of Nico as well. And whether people want to admit it or not, Vocaloid and Miku’s popularity were birthed from Nico as well.

      Dwango (the big company behind Nico) has found ways to encourage and support creators within the website. But since it’s something that generally came from the newer features of the site, not all users are in agreement with the idea of it. But, regardless, some users have been able to make a living off of their content and found work because of it.

      Hope that answers some of your questions.

  2. “The Sound MAD Community” was still on your “To Report” list!

    Can’t you write it up already?

    • Sorry about that. The article was actually being written after this got posted but I suffered an HD crash on my old laptop. Because of that a lot of research notes and all of that post (it was about 70% done) was lost.

      Not too shortly after I started basing all my academic work around Nico and was doing papers left and right over the community. Generally because of that I didn’t much want to use both my academic and leisure time writing about it.

      I still want to continue this project. But since it is over 6-7 years of personal research being put up for completely free, I don’t put a huge priority on it. Just generally because I’ve picked up a lot of small projects since I started this (and actual work also calls). So I’d say to expect it but I can never know when I’ll have the urge to work on it.

      • Can you recommend me some blogs that mentioned or reported what you are talking about (Sound MAD/音MAD)?

      • The only thing I know people avidly follow/talk about on Nico are in regards to the Vocaloid and Music Cover communities. I know there are plenty people aware of what comes out of the Sound MAD community but I don’t know anybody that avidly talks about it. The fact the community’s activity fluctuates quite a bit as of recently certainly doesn’t help though.

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