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Engaging with movies:
a perspective from bullet-screen comments

How do we, as readers or movie viewers, enter a fictional world? This question has long been of interest to psychologists and filmmakers. To offer a fresh perspective on the topic, we analyzed a specific type of comments made by users on some online viewing platforms: time-synchronic comments, i.e., comments superimposed on the video which appear at the time a user entered them, and which therefore reveal their immediate response toward a scene or an event.

We collected over 3 million Chinese time-synchronic comments from a video streaming website and analyzed them with a range of techniques and tools from machine learning and natural language processing. These techniques prove very useful when dealing with huge volumes of information that cannot be studied in a qualitative, pen-and-paper manner. We centered our approach on 240 well-known movies, so that we could compare the comments with the scripts.

By extracting specific words related to emotion and cognitive activity in the comments, we focused first on the unfolding emotional and cognitive engagement of the viewers. As shown below, we found that only two main trajectories exist for each type of engagement, with either increasing or decreasing trajectories:

Project – Ni Wenjing and Christophe Coupé

Prototypical trajectories of evolving emotional (A,B) and cognitive engagement (C,D) in time-synchronic comments The X-axis represents 50 time-slices of the movie narrative (each corresponding to 2% of movie time). The Y-axis shows the standardized proportion of emotion-related (upper panels) or cognition-related (lower panels) words used in the comments.

We then further described the various topics discussed by the commenting viewers, using clustering techniques applied to the meaning of the comments expressed as numerical vectors. We found different commenting behaviors in front of various movies and prototypical trajectories of the psychological engagement of the audience. We further identified how topics are discussed through time, and finally tried to account for viewer’s engagement, considering successively movie genres, topics and movie content.

Project – Ni Wenjing and Christophe Coupé Bachelor of Arts in Humanities and Digital Technologies

Distribution of the 15 main topics across time, with narrative time divided into five successive segments of equal length. The vertical bars indicate that color variations should be considered column-wise only, and not row-wise, because of a normalization to better visualize the profile through time of each topic.

Project – Ni Wenjing and Christophe Coupé Bachelor of Arts in Humanities and Digital Technologies

Distribution of the topics addressed by commenting viewers among different movie genres.

Overall, this research underscores the potential of time-synchronic comments as a resource for detecting real-time human responses to specific events. It provides a new perspective on using social media data to answer questions from psychology and film studies.


Ni, W. & Coupé, C. (2023) Time -synchronic Comments on Video Streaming Website Reveal Core Structures of Audience Emotional and Cognitive Engagement in Movie Viewing. Frontiers in Psychology 13. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1040755

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