Chinese video streaming hub Bilibili announced “ah?” (啊, a) — a single character with a question mark — as its 2023 word of the year.
Expressing awe and shock at jaw-dropping content, the word “ah,” which sometimes carries a similar meaning as “huh,” was used more than 13.2 million times this year in “bullet comments” (弹幕, dànmù), which flow across screens or hover on top of videos playing on the sight.
Originating in Japan, the “bullet screen” was introduced to China by the Chinese video sector pioneer AcFun in 2007, serving as an emotional channel where people behind screens can communicate and express themselves. It was later popularized by Bilibili and has become one of the well-known features of the platform, whose main users are Gen Z and millennials.
The word “ah” in Chinese can convey a broad range of sentiments, from amazement and skepticism to perplexity. The video site explained that young people frequently drop the “ah?” comment when seeing content that blows them away, such as the remarkable skills of content creators, hidden video gems, or scientific and technological breakthroughs.
When a creator wowed viewers by skillfully writing down “Shu Dao Nan” (蜀道难, The Difficulty of the Shu Road), an approximately 300-word poem by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, with just one stroke, the video received the most “ah?” bullet comments of 2023, in addition to accumulating nearly 6 million views and 1.2 million likes.
Other hit videos flooded with the top buzzword include a gameplay demo of Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom” by the gaming review website IGN, and a short clip created by a 17-year-old high school student who built a liquid rocket engine himself and posted the test video on the platform.
The annual bullet comment reports have become a tradition for Bilibili since 2017, allowing the site to highlight some of the most representative internet trends of the past year. Previous winners include “elegant” (优雅, yōuyǎ) and “my youth is coming back” (爷青回, yé qīng huí). The former is used to compliment someone who is able to adapt to change and stay composed in any circumstance, while the latter represents moments when a video evokes childhood reminiscences and a sense of nostalgia in audiences.
“I’ve come across it in many videos; it can mean so many things,” a Bilibili user commented.
“It’s the charm of Chinese characters,” read another comment under a WeChat post.
The platform said the report not only “observes how young Chinese’s ways of self-expressing have changed over time” but also “holds the shared memories of countless netizens throughout the year.”
“[Ah?] as the hottest word makes me feel our lives are currently imbued with confusion and doubt,” said another user on Bilibili.
The dual video-sharing and social media platform, in tandem with its user base, is establishing itself as a growing trendsetter on the Chinese internet. Founded in 2009 and listed on the Nasdaq since 2018, Bilibili has evolved from a site primarily focused on anime, comics, and games (ACG) into one of the mainstream video platforms in China.
In the third quarter of 2023, its daily active users surpassed 100 million for the first time, and the monthly active user count reached a new high of 341 million, as reported by the Shanghai-based company. Among the platform’s 21.1 million subscribers, more than 80% opt for either annual or auto-renewal plans, proving its knack for appealing to the preferences of younger Chinese generations.
Cover image via Weibo.
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