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What a Billie Eilish Youtube comment diarist can teach us about forging meaningful online rituals
A week after the birth of our second child, we invited our 100 closest friends to a gathering and paid a stranger $1200 to cut his body in two pieces.
The first part of him, a potpourri of the essential bits — the cavernous elbow dimples, the big, bulging eyes, the heart that beats faster than thought — this we get to keep. This we get to take home, snuggle, watch grow. This is the part for which we jolt awake in panic in the middle of the night, checking that it's still there, whole, breathing.
I do not know what became of the fold of skin that makes up the second part of him, because I did not ask. Maybe it is still at the synagogue where we last saw it, tossed to the bottom of some trash can. Maybe it has been trucked off to a landfill where it shares a mound with candy wrappers, torn romance paperbacks, and rusted bicycle chains. Maybe it is still in the liminal space of the mohel's messenger bag, a rote errand on his to-do list. Maybe it has been buried in the dirt, as some foreskins are, organic matter for a future organism.
Rituals permeate my life, but circumcision has always brought complicated feelings about pain, gender, and consent, and has never felt legible to me. So in a way, I did it because I was always going to do it, because it was done to me, because [cue the fiddler]... it's tradition.
Some people keep their journals locked away in a bedside table; some who are bolder might post entries to a personal blog. But for a period of 365 days, the user known as A Million Little Things (aka @fivecoloredbeanies) posted daily in a less likely place: the comment section of a Billie Eilish song remix video on Youtube.
When I first saw these comments, I was immediately entranced—obsessed, even. But it was not immediately clear to me where that impulse came from. Some of the comments offered brief glimpses into A Million Little Thing’s life: studying for tests at school, attending barbecues, playing guitar, but most were extremely banal, if not numbingly formulaic.
But the more I have revisited them, the more their edges have shifted into focus: I was witnessing the creation and performance of a ritual. And this ritual stood in sharp contrast to so much of what passes as such on the internet. Something about it felt like a set of instructions for potential online interactions that are more subversive, communal, and sacred: repetition, reciprocity, replication, resistance, reverence.
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A ritual is a steady beat in the rhythm of life. Sometimes this beat drums within the ritual itself — a mantra hummed, a steady count of inhales. Even more importantly, the ritual is reinscribed over time: a cup of coffee brewed once a day, a candle lit once a week, a melody whispered once a year, a party thrown once a lifespan. For only the most persistent rituals, the reiteration may even span generations or centuries. This repetition, as described by the writer and poet Linda Besner, has the benefit of "grounding the profound eeriness of human life in the rhythms of nature and the passage of time."
One way of looking at the practice of adding an entry to the comment section of the same video every day is that A Million Little Things is acting as an executor of loops. And when you put it this way, the digital space becomes an extremely natural locus for repetition. Loops, after all, are the computer's first language. The only difference is that here the user is turning the lever manually.
A ritual can certainly be repeated in solitude. A runner may depart at the same time each morning, pausing at the halfway point of their route to stare out at the same breathtaking view. But the capacity of a ritual to ground is amplified in community. Indeed, much of the time, the very thing we are aiming to ground ourselves in when we ritualize is community itself. A meaningfully enacted ritual should not be surprised when, without its intending it, a community begins to bloom around it spontaneously.
If you scroll through the comment section of the PatrickReza bad guy remix, among the diaries themselves, you'll find many comments about the diaries by others. Some of the commenters talk about coming back to the page repeatedly to see new entries. Others are on a futile quest to infinite-scroll their way back to the first entry. Others still provide liner notes, or reflect back to some of the author's low points, wondering if they're okay. This feedback turns an otherwise private act into a shared ceremony, giving it a transcendent glow.
A Million Little Things was not actually the first person to write a daily journal in the comment section of a Youtube song. By their own admission, they were inspired by The_Pie_Is_A_Lie's journal on the video for the song Ghost Town. An entire community of copycat journalers has popped up underneath Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle theme song, inspired by the user Anxley. It's impossible to know if there are more predecessors or successors, or how many. That's because the ritual shuns provenance and differentiation in favor of stillness and propagation. A ritual replicated becomes a site of a softer kind of creativity: rather than asking “how can I make this unrecognizably my own?” it asks “how can I adapt this to my needs while still conforming to its existing rhythm?”
In his book Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Power of Ritual, the theologian Tom Driver describes the separate mode of being that a ritual creates:
When people engage in ritual activity, they separate themselves, partially if not totally, from the roles and statuses they have in the workaday world. There is a threshold in time or space or both, and certainly a demarcation of behavior, over which people pass when entering into ritual. Ritual activity, existing as if outside the structures of society, existing in a subjunctive mode of play and pretend, is neither here nor there. It is liminal.
The freedom with which meaningful rituals replicate gets to the heart of why they can be difficult to achieve online, and why understanding and seeking them out is worthwhile: on the internet, rituals are perpetually in danger of being swallowed up and pumped for traffic. Patterns, after all, are the basic building blocks of a brand. But successful rituals resist the normal machinations of the internet, in which you must stand out in order to compete, and constantly adapt or perish.
Rather than working towards future expansion, rituals find meaning by dragging their feet in the mud of history. In the case of our commenter, this is evidenced not only by the hypnotic repetitions of the entries, but also by the publishing medium. A Youtube comment section is not built for growth hacking.
According to Ronald Grimes, who wrote the textbook on ritual studies, to act ritually "is to be committed to not being the author of one’s actions." Case in point: I could not find any way to identify A Million Little Things or contact them for an interview.
It is precisely this mode of slowness and separation that separates an effective ritual from the mundane and elevates it to a tool for accessing something sacred. "That a behavior is 'ritual,'" says the writer Sarah Perry, "is a hypothesis presented when the behavior appears irrational – for example, when resources are sacrificed or behaviors are performed for no visible gain." Within the economic logic of the internet, what is more irrational than commenting blandly on the same Youtube video every day, with no notification strategy or way of connecting to a broader online presence? And as an audience, what is more irrational than tediously visiting the same url every day just to read someone else's inner thoughts?
The author and orator Charles Eisenstein writes about ceremonies as a way of seeing the nature around us as a sovereign being, and paying attention to its needs:
The mindset that calls us to ceremony is the same mindset that calls us to ask, “What does the land want? What does the river want? What does the wolf want? What does the forest want?” and then pays close attention to the clues. It holds land, river, wolf, and forest in a status of beingness -– counting them among the holy beings that are always watching, and who have needs and interests entwined with our own.
What does a website want? What does this website want — not the corporation that owns the domain, but the space created by the page itself? What does this video want? What does this song want? What does this textbox want? What does this community want? What does my time spent here want?
A. Kendra Greene's wonderful book of essays about the museums of Iceland, titled The Museum of Whales You Will Never See, contains a chapter on the Icelandic Phallological Museum (i.e. penis musuem), which contains a passage that I haven't been able to stop thinking about concerning the enduring Icelandic tradition of eating large sea creatures:
You would think the old traditions are strange because they’re old. You can easily imagine that they made sense once but have hung around too long, have outlived their purpose and grown anachronistic, vestigial. And surely sometimes that’s true. But if traditions are often strange, perhaps those acts and objects and stories and songs are traditional precisely because they are strange. Is it not the very strangeness, the unique curiosity of a thing, the arresting transformation or the essential contradiction of expectation that makes it worth sharing and repeating and passing along? Museums, I have said, are born of novelty. Indeed, they are borne upon it. They have no finer tradition. Yes, you eat—the first time—the corpse of a poisonous shark buried six months ago because you are starving. But you keep eating it, in a nation of plenty, because it is so eye-open stunning that such a thing can be done.
At the same ceremony in which my child lost his foreskin, we named him after a biblical prophet who, according to tradition, ran away from his divine mission by sea, and was swallowed whole by a whale before being spit out safely on dry land.
What is more stunning: that a whale can swallow a human, or that a human can swallow a whale? That reverberations can come from the presence of a cursor, or from the absence of skin? That a ceremony can linger for centuries, or that in the midst of the frantic pace of the internet, someone can slow down daily for just long enough to listen to a melody?
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