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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that large swathes of the world are confined to their homes as COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, spreads across the globe.
(If you have been under a rock, well, perhaps just stay there until further notice.)
The enforced isolation means that many of us are suddenly physically separated from the people, groups and organisations we would usually spend our time with.
This may have been an insurmountable problem in the past. But, newsflash: we’re living in freaking 2020. It’s the future, baby! We’ve got computers, smart phones, smart fridges, some of us are even stomaching using Facebook Portals to connect.
Broadcasting events over the internet isn’t new, but I was curious whether a sudden influx of viewers would lead to a golden age of streaming.
I am not a big livestreamer. I’ve dabbled, both with watching and broadcasting my own, but I’m much more likely to be found on Netflix than Twitch. So I set myself a challenge: how many parts of everyday life could I consume through a screen, from the comfort/privacy/loneliness of my own home?
I began my experiment by spending my evening as I normally do: attending a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”.
Or at least, I tried. The performance started late and the audience — who were unexpectedly rowdy for a group tuning into an orchestral performance — weren’t happy.
But after a delay — was it technical difficulties, or a touch of showmanship to build “crowd” anticipation? — the performance kicked off.
And it was pretty enjoyable! Neither my housemates (who joined me on the couch) nor I are huge classical music aficionados.
But what made the streamed performance different, and more enticing, was the lower barrier of entry. We were able to watch it while eating a meal, as well as alternating between chatting and watching in silence, which we couldn’t have done at the real thing.
(MSO managing director Sophie Galaise told me the orchestra was pleased with how the livestream went: 5,500 people were simultaneously watching by the end. The video has now had more than 75,000 views, which is about 30 times more than the number of people who would normally see a performance.)
After more than half an hour tuned into the orchestra, we decided to see what else was out there.
We found… someone hand-making dumplings? Enthralling.
A litter of puppies sleeping? Soothing, comforting.
But by evening’s end we were over the novelty of being able to peek into other people’s worlds.
The next morning, I arrived late to yoga class. But I didn’t have to tip-toe in awkwardly and find a spot that’s too close to the wall while apologising profusely. That’s because — you guessed it! — it was a livestreamed yoga class.
Erik Hinton is a developer and journalist at Medium who also teaches yoga. He recently began running a class on Twitch.
Hinton does it all from his New York apartment. It’s definitely not a studio, but the class was charming and intimate.
It was in this class that I really felt the lack of physical presence of fellow humans. Aside from Hinton, there were no others that I could compare my own (extremely amateur) yoga abilities to. And you know that motivation you have when you exercise with other people — that fear that you’ll embarrass yourself, so just hold that pose a liiiiittle longer?
Hinton told me he’d hosted four classes by then, with an average of 150 viewers. “A lot of folks have done it with me every day,” he said. “It’s becoming a nice little community.”
Other than a brief disruption from my dog Rambo the class proceeded without incident. I rolled up my mat and headed to the “office” (my other room).
I spent the rest of the workday diving deep into other experiences on livestream.
I, along with thousands of others, hung out with Twitch streamer Pokimane. In a stream titled “hello my friends”, the popular streamer played video games, watched YouTube videos and chatted with her audience. It felt just like hanging with a mate — an experience that Twitch streamers earn a lot money to create.
I spent some time with a bunch of mostly US-based journalists and other media types in an open Zoom meeting hosted by Casey Newton. Unlike other livestreams, this was technically a video conference — although one that was tightly moderated, so only the host, invited guests and select participants spoke.
After hearing the reporters talk about tech trends in the time of the coronavirus, I felt surprisingly looped in with a group of people I’d never met before. Thankfully, our meeting didn’t get Zoombombed, either.
I even attended a church service in Japan. I’m not a religious person, but I knew from my own experiences in church that the stream didn’t feel like really being there. It lacked that weighty, quiet feeling in the air that comes from having a room filled with people silent in prayer.
But still, as I watched the lo-fi stream of the sparsely attended service, I felt a sense of calm flow over me. It was the least produced stream that I saw, and felt like a genuine window into everyday life.
I flitted between a number of other streams, too. I attended a council meeting for a small US city (boring), was serenaded by Coldplay’s Chris Martin (also boring), and watched a man fish (pleasantly boring). Other highlights were a POV stream from someone wandering around a dog park, and a lively session of quarantine beer pong.
Before I knew it, my 24 hours of streaming was up. I took stock and realised that I certainly didn’t feel lonely or cooped up, like I usually would when working from home by myself. In fact, I felt good after spending an entire day passively consuming social interactions.
Yes, it was much easier to try new things. But my engagement was a lot shallower. Streaming can be pretty seamless if you have a good enough connection, but I still felt like I wasn’t getting the full experience in most situations.
In the week since the experiment, I haven’t streamed anything. I have a lot more spare time, but I’m filling it by hanging out with housemates and with online gaming. It’s also worth noting that over 24 hours I barely dipped my toe into the experience. Many people will form a relationship with streamers built up over time.
That said: if I was lonely or bored, I wouldn’t hesitate to log into Twitch or YouTube and see what was on offer.