bullet screen bullet comments

What Is Bullet Screen and Why Is It so Popular?

Online video platforms with ‘bullet screen’ commenting are super popular in China, thanks in large part to the function’s ability to connect viewers in real-time

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3:14 PM HKT, Tue November 22, 2022 4 mins read

When you open a video on one of China’s video streaming platforms nowadays, whether on your phone or computer, chances are that you will see lines of Chinese characters rapidly firing across the screen.

Commonly referred to as danmu(弹幕) or ‘bullet screen’ in English, the function is offered by some video-streaming websites and allows users to superimpose their comments over the video that’s playing. The viewers’ thoughts and opinions, usually in the form of ‘text + emoticons,’ will shift across the video or hover in a particular position on the screen.

It has become so popular that some people won’t watch videos without the bullet screen function turned on, and some even spend more time reading bullet comments than watching the videos themselves.

A popular 10-minute video can receive more than half a million bullet screen comments, a much higher volume of commentary than one would find in the traditional comments section below most videos.

While the function is not particularly new, RADII is here to explain the phenomenon to the blissfully unaware, exploring its origins and importance in Chinese internet culture.

From Military Term to Viewing Habit

Bullet screen first gained popularity in China in 2014 when a theater in Shanghai offered special screenings of the poorly received films Tiny Times and The Legend of Qin, where attendees could shoot bullet comments across the screen.

However, bullet screen has been popular among fans of Japanese ACG (animation, comics, games) for decades. Originally a Chinese military term, in a combat context, bullet screen refers to when many guns and artillery are fired simultaneously, and the ammunition becomes so dense that it covers the sky like a screen.

Its usage among ACG fans can be traced back to one particular anime from 1979: Mobile Suit Gundam, a sci-fi drama set in an unknown future and replete with violent wars throughout a made-up universe. In the story, the battalion commander famously says to his soldiers, “The bullet screen on the left side of the ship is too thin!”

The commander’s words, which frequently recur in the anime, rubbed off on ACG lovers, who started playfully using the term.

Touhou Project

A colorful onslaught of bullets in the game Touhou Project

In the 1990s, the phrase went viral again because of a Japanese shooting game titled Touhou Project, which gained popularity among ACG fans. In the game, players must operate their characters to dodge enemy attacks while firing ‘screens’ of bullets to kill their opponents. The game’s plot was not particularly noteworthy, but the colorful and abstract bullet barrages that gamers could fire quickly gained popularity.

This is when the term ‘bullet screen’ took on a new meaning, referring to when players unleash bursts of colorful bullets that light up the screen.

However, it wasn’t until the Japanese video platform Niconico introduced a new function — allowing users’ comments to float across their screens — in 2006 that ‘bullet screen’ began to carry its current meaning.

The concept was then introduced to China by AcFun in 2007 before blowing up thanks to one of China’s most popular video-streaming websites, Bilibili.

Bullet Screen Slang

Bilibili has been publishing its ‘Bullet Screen of the Year’ report, a roundup and explainer of the most used bullet screen slang on its platform, for five consecutive years. 2021’s winner is ‘It breaks down my defenses’ (破防了, pofangle).

‘Break the defense’ was initially used in combat video games to describe when substantial physical damage is exacted upon one’s enemies.

Chinese netizens now use the phrase to express what it’d be like if the metaphorical line inside one’s heart has been breached.

For instance, one’s defenses can be broken down by a touching movie. Real-world heroes, from Olympic athletes who make great efforts to overcome their opponents to scientific titans who are making their mark on history, can also ‘break down one’s defenses.’

bullet screen bullet comments bilibili

Bullet comments from users watching a fan edit of the 1987 film Dream of the Red Chamber

Some of the most popular bullet screen phrases in recent years include ‘Congratulations on your marriage’ (囍), ‘True’ (真实), and ‘My youthful years have returned’ (爷青回). The last of these was widely used in 2020, beating ‘Go for it! Wuhan! ‘(武汉加油), ‘That’s the spirit’ (有内味了), and some other buzzwords.

AWSL,’ the top bullet comment in 2019, is an acronym for ‘Oh! I’m dead’ (啊!我死了) in Chinese pinyin. Generally speaking, it indicates an intensely positive response to something, for example, a video of cute puppies tussling with each other.

A simple but profound word, ‘True’ was 2018’s top bullet comment on Bilibili. At first glance, it might seem an unlikely winner for its brevity. However, the word has gained a new cultural meaning online. ‘True’ can be used when a video’s content is unexpected but reasonable or to show that you resonate with its characters and their experiences.

As shown above, popular bullet screen phrases are varied but share one thing in common: all focus on the audience’s overall mood and feelings.

Emotional Internet ‘Gunmen’

But what about the bullet screen mechanism makes it irresistible to viewers?

Jiemian News believes that it is so popular because it gives lonesome young people a chance to communicate from behind their screens. Bullet screen allows them to speak to strangers hundreds of miles away and find empathy despite spatial and temporal hindrances.

They can finally drop their pretense in the virtual world, freely express themselves, and feel released. They voluntarily participate in the story and undergo the joys and sorrows of the characters.

As the bullet comments flow across the screen, they magnify the excitement, the anger, or whatever other emotions the crowd is experiencing.

For example, in a recent viral video that profiled the life and struggles of a rural craftsman living with disabilities, many of the bullet comments highlight viewers’ sympathy and admiration for the man. Some comments that exemplify the overall sentiment of the online crowd include: “I was moved to tears,” “I have watched this video many times,” and “I respect this man.”

bullet screen comments on bilibili

Bullet comments fire across the screen of a tech-related video on Bilibili

But as with almost everything else on the internet, some viewers use the function for less wholesome expressions of emotion — criticizing video makers or complaining about society (among a whole range of other grievances).

Vulgar language can sometimes appear, but many platforms automatically censor this content by singling out offensive keywords or employing people to monitor chats and delete immoral or illegal messages.

Rude remarks aside, the bullet screen format is so popular in China that Chinese tech companies are now investing in its development.

In September, Alibaba Group was granted a patent for a ‘verbal bullet screen’: When a video is played, a program will collect audiences’ voice data to generate ‘verbal bullet comments,’ which will presumably be more vivid and entertaining than just text.

All images/screengrabs via Bilibili

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