About a year ago, Stephanie Barber looked up Bob Seger's 1976 classic "Night Moves" on YouTube, trying to figure out the lyrics.
"I started reading the comments, and I just spent hours reading, and I cried, and I was like, 'Oh my god, this is so moving, this forum," Barber said.
Barber, a Baltimore artist and writer, turned those unedited YouTube comments into a book called "Night Moves." It's her way of exploring human nature, especially through relatively new public forums like YouTube. Friday, she'll celebrate the release at Atomic Books in Hampden.
"Particularly with 'Night Moves,' there's some beautiful, tender comments that people make, some really emotional statements about the first time they had sex, or their first love or their impending mortality," Barber said. "And then there's these horribly stupid [comments] just out of nowhere. It's really fascinating."
Barber could have used any song for the project, but "Night Moves" works particularly well, she said. It's an ode to youth, "trying to lose those awkward teenage blues / working on our night moves."
"This song is sort of this sexy, bar rock," said Barber. "It's effective and talks about the things I'm really interested in, like sex and death and nostalgia."
Comments in the book come from all ages — teenagers who relate to the song, people in their 60s, who remember listening to the song when it came out. There are opinions of the song, personal experiences and connections.
"It's a pretty neat balance," Barber said. "It's like art contemplation and sex contemplation."
There are also multiple comments scattered throughout the book about the same woman, from someone who is remembering their time together and wondering where she is now.
"In the few years of people writing, every few months some man would talk about this woman, Pam," Barber said. "He ties in the lines from the song, like 'I'm so glad we worked on our night moves together.' It's really beautiful."
And, as with nearly every YouTube comment thread, people argue about the song and swear at each other.
Another type of comment, which Barber refers to as a "palette cleanser" because it doesn't have any emotional content, is about how someone was introduced to the song.
"People throughout the book write the same comment, like 'How I Met Your Mother brought me here' ... letting everyone else know how they first heard the music," Barber said. She points to another comment that simply says "THAT 70s SHOW YEAH."
Re-purposing the work of others to make something new has been done before in the art world, but YouTube is a new medium, Barber said.
"I think it's a really new and potentially really radical forum," she said. "It's something that could have a great impact on our society and be a really powerful force."
Barber's works, including this book, reflect her interest in how people act. YouTube comments, in particular, interest her.
"I feel a lot of times like an alien in the world, so spaces like YouTube are sort of an anthropological gold mine, like 'That's what the people are thinking, interesting,'" she said. "I'm glad to know, and sometimes sad to know. There are a lot that are just so stupid and so mean or just ugly."
The democratic and anonymous nature of YouTube comments, and the speed at which the tone and nature of the comments change are things that interest Barber.
"It's a pretty unique public forum for artistic contemplation, and I think that's rare and important, with all the beauty and ugliness that comes from that," Barber said.
Despite the negative comments that people can make on forums like YouTube, the interaction and dialogue is something Barber thinks is important.
"I guess I often feel sad or worried for our society when I think of how passive people are, and this is a pretty active gesture," Barber said. "They're not just taking in entertainment and going about their day, but they're responding to it, and by doing that they're enlivening the dialogue, even the creepy ones. They're making an art gesture."
The song "Night Moves" may be nearly 40 years old, and YouTube went online in February 2005, but people continue to add comments.
"I just went on the other day, and there are new people," Barber said. "That's another thing that's really fascinating about YouTube comments, is that for the foreseeable future, there's no actual end in sight to when the discussion closes. It's going on right now."
If you go
Stephanie Barber celebrates the release of "Night Moves" 7 p.m. Friday at Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Road. Barber will read exerpts from the book and hold a discussion, and cellist Kate Porter will perform. A cover of "Night Moves" (the song) will also be played. Free. Call 410-662-4444 or go to atomicbooks.com.