The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Puddles, bird feeders, rural intersections: How live streams of nothing became online obsessions

The busiest intersection in the state of Wyoming sits at the corner of Broadway and Cache, in the tiny Rockies resort town properly known as Jackson. It has two lanes in each direction, plus or minus a turn lane. The only reason for outsiders to take notice of the corner is that you need to take that left to get to the parks upstate.

But lately, the corner of Broadway and Cache has enjoyed a bit of a buzz. More than 2,200 people are currently watching the midday traffic on YouTube, apropos of nothing we can dream up. The pickup trucks and minivans and pedestrians trundle past, all apparently unaware that they are being observed.

What’s there to see on the live stream, after all? In the words of one afficionado: “My favourite thing in the world.”

This may be the apex of the “slow Internet” — a genre that’s gaining viral traction, no matter how oxymoronic its name may be. The logical offspring of live streaming and zeitgeisty “slow TV,” the slow Internet revels in the indeterminable, in scenes of ordinariness so banal they hardly bear recording.

Think live streams of unhurried traffic or empty bird feeders, city sidewalks or cleaning crews. The subjects are everyday, humdrum, dull — and suddenly, very popular.

“No one really knows why so many people are watching,” said Bob Strodel, the bemused 41-year-old online marketer who launched the Jackson live stream in 2014. “It has been pretty surprising.”

A five-day boat ride. Twelve hours of knitting. Are Americans ready for Norway’s Slow TV?

Surprising, perhaps — but not unforeseeable. Only days after Strobel’s live stream went viral, the American Museum of Natural History began promoting a live stream of maintenance workers washing the museum’s blue whale model. (While the in-person passerby seemed generally unamused, several dozen were watching online every time I checked in.) More than 200 viewers can be found streaming footage of the outdoor bird feeders at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in Ithica, N.Y., at any given time; as many as 3,700 have logged on/zoned out to Big Train TV’s railroad crossing in Bergenfield, N.J.

There are zoos streaming exhibits, national parks broadcasting peaks, aquariums, churches, urban malls, nonprofits and for-profits airing their (frequently unexceptional) surroundings for all of the Internet to see.

My personal favorite is Big Rig Travels, in which a gentleman named Steve live-streams his long-hauls from a mounted dash cam. In between the hours and hours of unfolding highway, you’ll sometimes catch a glimpse of a rest stop or a pretty sunset.

Very few of these accounts are new — Steve has been broadcasting since 2008 (!), and Strobel since 2014. The difference is that, for the first time, people actually seem to be watching. Strobel installed the Jackson cam and more than two dozen others as part of a larger project promoting “Wydaho” tourism, and they seemed to do the job: His usual watchers, Strobel said, were prospective visitors who wanted to get a feel for the town.

“Now there’s this new segment of viral video watchers — they’re not the typical webcam users,” Strobel said. “They’re the ones who made that YouTube feed very popular.”

But why are these viral voyeurs watching? That’s the real mystery. Some of the appeal doubtlessly springs from the same sources that fueled slow TV: the meditative, plodding quality; the ease of tuning it out; its suitableness for putting on merely in the background.

Thomas Hellum, the producer who first pitched slow TV in Norway, theorized early on that the form would appeal because it demands so little from viewers: “You can easily have one laptop, if not two, on your lap,” he told The Washington Post’s Stephanie Merry, “and if you blink for 10 seconds you haven’t lost anything.” (Whether that’s the exact or only reason slow TV has drawn hordes, Hellum was clearly onto something: Even Netflix has picked up his shows — including a four-hour ode to knitting.)

But slow Internet is also distinct from slow TV — in many ways, it’s very much its own genre. Because slow Internet transmits in real time and is often accompanied by live chats, the form is inherently social: Those who want to engage with it more can ask questions and joke with other viewers. Fans of the Jackson live stream have made a sport out of celebrating passing dogs and #RedTrucks; each time one appears, the commenters go nuts.

“There’s definitely the feeling of a communal activity,” said Richard Rippon, who famously live-streamed a British puddle to an audience of 500,000 in January. “We were all watching the puddle and commenting on it together. It’s like knowing that you’re all watching a big football game and once you start, you don’t want to miss anything. Even if not an awful lot is happening. … There’s that live, in-the-now feeling that anything can happen.”

But ultimately, slow Internet’s recent popularity may have more to do with the sites it is found on than anything else: Live streaming has, after all, just recently become a priority for the world’s largest social networks. YouTube, where many slow Internet auteurs can be found, has beefed up its live infrastructure over the past year; Facebook launched its own streaming product in April and has promoted those videos heavily in News Feed since then. Meanwhile, platforms such as Periscope and Twitch have continued to grow, and not only with streams from video games or breaking news events; in October, Twitch went so far as to launch a “creative” hub, where streamers can be found knitting, carving or sketching for hours on end.

Strobel, for one, doesn’t think anyone would be watching Jackson’s downtown if YouTube were not giving live videos some kind of algorithmic boost; he can’t otherwise explain why, after two years of obscurity, his stream has become so popular.

Strobel isn’t getting too attached to his newfound fame, though — he says the attention will inevitably pass. And to him, the slow Internet has always been more than a short-lived cultural fad. He set up his webcams with the goal of showing Jackson to the world, and even when the craze is over, he’ll keep doing that.

“This isn’t some flash in the pan for us,” Strobel insisted. “This is what we do.”

And so, at the corner of Broadway and Cache, the traffic continues.

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