The Odd Allure of Live Streams
As apps such as YouNow and iSpy grow in popularity, the reason people use them might surprise you.
By August Wright, College of Charleston
A few years ago, when my parents were moving across the street (yes, across the street) to a new house, I had a strange experience.
I was packing up some of my things that I had left in their house and I came across a very old computer that was tucked away in the back of a closet. I dug out a very heavy, bulky monitor—for those too young to remember, computer monitors used to have colossal, break-your-back-trying-to-lift-it backsides—and then I dug out the actual tower. It was an old Dell PC that my parents had given to me way back in 2001 when I was 11-years old. I found the right cords, set the computer up, turned it on and I didn’t expect it to run, but it did.
Once the amazement passed, I decided to look at the hard disk drive to see how much memory this old thing had.
What followed was more amazement: this Dell PC, which was pretty good in 2001, had only 15 gigabytes of memory.
My iPhone, which I recognize is both a mini-computer and a cell phone, has 64 gigabytes. Granted, it’s been about 15 years since the circa-2000 Dell, but I was shocked because I had used this computer until 2008. Yes, I used a computer with 15 GBs of memory and a 9-inch screen until 2008—by choice.
So, why the anecdote? Sure, it’s interesting to read about how far technology has come, especially in such a short amount of time, but why does it matter? Well, recently I discovered some bizarre and creepy apps that can be downloaded on cell phones (or, you know, tiny computers that we occasionally use to make phone calls). Apps that are more bizarre and creepy than posting your location on Facebook, or meeting up with complete strangers you met through Tinder. If you go into your phone’s app store, you can download an app called iSpy and an app called YouNow. While most people are probably familiar with YouNow, I imagine a lot aren’t as familiar with iSpy.
But both of these apps basically allow the user to watch live streaming video of people, scenery, pets or pretty much anything. YouNow operates more as a way for wannabe musicians to practice while getting feedback, or for popular YouTubers to show their fans what they’re up to when they aren’t making videos, or for people who’re just bored and streaming for no reason (for example, one of my favorites is HelmetDJ who just rocks out while wearing a Daft Punk-style helmet).
However, YouNow has a bizarre side. And I’m not talking about the girl who live streamed her friend’s rape with the Periscope app bizarre, I mean #sleepingsquad. This group of people on YouNow is dedicated to streaming live footage of themselves sleeping. While filming yourself sleeping might not be so strange—especially if you’re paranoid and think you’re being abducted and/or haunted—what’s really bizarre is the number of people who tune in to watch. When I checked #sleepingsquad to grab the hyperlink, over 40 people were watching TheeDanielJames sleep.
If you’re like me, you’re wondering why this is a thing. In fact, even my boyfriend wanted to know why I was watching TheeDanielJames sleep. I told him I didn’t know, and then I said it was research, but then I continued watching this stranger sleep for no apparent reason. He sleeps so soundly, though, I did wonder if he was even breathing (and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did live stream a corpse. Would you?).
iSpy, at first glance, seems less invasive than YouNow because it’s mainly scenic panoramas. For example, one camera I have saved in my favorites in Big Sky, Montana. The camera is pointed at a mountain, and I like to occasionally tune in to see the sunrise or sunset. There’s also a panorama of Moscow, Russia, that I like to watch. It’s not as beautiful as Big Sky because it’s over a city, but I do occasionally see road rage, which is very entertaining.
Some of my other favorite iSpy channels include Olde Town Pet Resort in Springfield, Virginia; the Club Playground in Moscow, Russia; and O’Shea’s Pub in Dublin, Ireland. The pet resort is actually a cattery and I like watching the cats play. Moscow’s Club Playground is a 24-hour gaming center where a bunch of seemingly catatonic Russians go to play PC games. O’Shea’s Pub’s camera is pointed at the entrance/exit of the pub, so it’s fun to see people having fun—and also stumbling out into the night, wasted beyond all logic and reason.
However, I’ve also come across some strange cameras, such as the set of AXIS cameras. I’m calling them by this name because each camera title begins with the word AXIS, then a capital letter, and then a string of digits. I’m not tech-savvy, so I won’t speculate on what “AXIS M1054” stands for because it’s probably just the camera’s default title or something. But what makes these cameras bizarre is that they’re a live stream of a perfect model town, complete with a train that routinely runs at a set time. No one ever comes down to mess with the model town, or adjust the cameras or even to see if the train is running properly.
The cameras never move, and each camera gives a different shot of the train and the town itself. I mean, the model town is something straight out of the movie “Beetlejuice.” There are little cars, great landscaping, beautiful walkways and even a bridge. And the train just runs by itself, without any attendant, without any apparent reason. Life in this model town just continues, so to speak, whether or not anyone tunes in to watch.
When I found the first two AXIS cameras, I spent over an hour looking to see if there were more of them. When I found the third, I was excited to see that this camera was tagged with the location Lund, Sweden. So, this model town is either located in Lund, Sweden, or it’s a replica of Lund, Sweden. Regardless, when I watch these cameras and I see the train moving along the tracks, over the bridge, past a slightly forested home, and then around to some place I can’t see before arriving back at the station, I feel soothed.
I think watching people sleep, like watching a soundless train chug across a perfect model town, is somehow relaxing.
Being able to watch someone, or something, in such a vulnerable state, but knowing they’re safe in that state despite their vulnerability, gives people a sense of relief.
I’ll tell you a secret. When I feel lonely, I tune in to the AXIS cameras. There’s something about that little model town, with all its bizarre perfection, that makes me feel less alone. Maybe it’s the little black car forever parked in its driveway, or the red-roofed house with the faux stone steps leading to the front door, or the tiny mailboxes that’ll never receive mail. Maybe it makes me think of the places I’ve grown up, or the places I’ve yet to go, or the places I’ll grow old in. But watching the AXIS cameras is the same as watching someone sleep: there is nothing outside of that live streaming moment except for you, them, and the knowledge that you aren’t alone, that both of you aren’t so different. Why else would you stream a live feed of your sleep activity or your perfect model town if you didn’t feel lonely too?