Come Into My World

Shuffling through video streams of others’ lives can offer the analgesic, escapist joy in a seemingly hostile atmosphere

Something that still always blows my mind is just how close together everything is online, design-wise and conceptually. If you’re ever feeling wrung out, ask your friends about their private online obsessions; not (just) their fetishes, but the websites they end up habitually visiting to kill time or calm themselves down. I do this whenever I want to source some new diversions for myself, or when I want to be newly astounded at the wealth of deeply specific obsessions I can explore from the comfort of my home. Advice forums, gossip blogs, puppy gifs, slime videos, people falling down, ASMR, heated knives melting through inanimate objects, beauty tutorials, cigarette reviews — a couple decades ago, you might have had to stumble into a sex party or art show or group therapy session to discover that these things lit up some previously darkened corner of your brain, to explore all the sensory pleasures and strange combinations the world has to offer. Now, you can tab between potential obsessions in fewer physical movements than it takes to pour yourself a glass of water. Everyone loves everything differently, but we arrive at it all through exactly the same gestural route.

I first discovered Periscope’s Couch Mode feature the same way I found my last few favorite websites — the same way I found my most recent job and my current partner — by clicking something, and then clicking something else. An Instagram post led me to a Twitter feed, a Twitter feed led me to a website, and that website lead me to a fixation I have not been able to shake for months.

Periscope is a livestreaming app owned by Twitter that allows users to watch or broadcast real-time video from their phones. Couch Mode is a feature designed by the app’s developers that’s basically just Periscope on speed — or, if you prefer, a one-sided, dickless Chatroulette. (It’s deeply perplexing how little nakedness I’ve seen on the site; this may have something to do with the fact that a user’s Periscope account is directly linked to their Twitter account or phone number, or maybe it’s just that there are many better, more permissive places to take your clothes off on the internet). Though Couch Mode is technically an offshoot of Periscope, the two things feel both conceptually and aesthetically opposite: Periscope is an app that draws you closer to people you’re already interested in, while Couch Mode is a browser-only website designed to drop you directly into the chaos of the unknown.

Spend enough time clicking through Couch Mode and you’ll start to notice its cycles, themes swell and crest depending on the time

Once you go to the site, there’s a brief pause, and then you’re dropped into a random Periscope stream. Across the bottom of the screen is the name of the feed you’re watching and a counter for the number of other people tuned in, which ticks up and down in real time. On the right-hand side are the likes from other viewers — a stream of hearts that multiply and drift upwards, like helium balloons released into the stratosphere. Watching the pastel-colored hearts bloom their way up the side of the page is an experience so viscerally pleasurable it seems dangerous; the animation feels like a hyperkinetic translation of the same weird, reflexive giddiness that comes from watching the views and likes multiply, as if by magic, on a post you’re secretly proud of.

Once you’re bored, you click the “next” button, and the algorithm drops you into a new stream. That’s it. You can repeat this process as many times as you like, for as long as you please — until your laptop’s battery runs out, or your roommate comes home and asks what you’re doing, or you fall asleep on your bed in your clothes with the lights on, dreaming in pixels and tinny, glitching audio.

I used to feel that good and bad coexisted symbiotically online, the big-picture stuff throwing the pettier things into necessarily relief and vice versa. The mess of living, all of it, onscreen. These days, doing anything on the internet makes me feel a dull ache somewhere in the lower part of my stomach. The facts of the world, plainly reported, scare the shit out of me, while the cadence of social media feels frantic and desperate at best. At worst, it seems like all the information I consume — to say nothing of the systems that deliver it to me — is somehow cancerous. Even the best news curdles in context. But goodness strobes in and out, and the pleasures of Couch Mode feel oddly pure, even under the auspices of Twitter: ordinary life beams through.

Spend enough time clicking through Couch Mode and you’ll start to notice its cycles, the themes that swell and crest depending on what time it is. All day long, the site is lousy with acoustic guitar players, amateur illustrators, kitchen table preachers and self-made self-help types, but aside from that, things vary. In the morning, people walk their dogs, or chat with their followers while they drive to work. In the early afternoon there’s a proliferation of radio hosts and, for some reason, small UK city council meetings. In the evening, as people get home, there’s a lot of dinner-making and creative release: close-up shots of people filling in adult coloring books and throwing pottery. The later it gets, the more people just hang out smoking weed, or staring blankly into the camera while they drink with their friends, or just shooting the shit with their audience. If there’s a big sports game or an arena show or even a political demonstration going down in a large enough city, you’ll likely see it from a few different angles. No matter what time it is, there are always more pets.

It’s easy enough to describe the details of Couch Mode, but hard to make other people understand what makes it mesmerizing. None of this, on its own, sounds particularly impressive; it’s not like it’s hard to find videos of people cooking dinner or walking their dogs on the internet, nor are any of those things uniquely engaging.

The website’s addictive pleasure is located less in the content of the individual feeds it knits together than in the textural experience of skipping through them one by one. Whoever named the feature understands this; Couch Mode couldn’t be less like cable TV content-wise, but the pace and pattern of using it floods me with the same analgesic joy I used to get from methodically channel-surfing as a kid, when our family TV had 35 channels I could cycle through multiple times over the course of an hour.

Clicking through an endless global network of live video feeds might seem like the epitome of Being On the Internet, but the experience feels like something else. Your attention rearranges itself

In theory, the experience of browsing any website shouldn’t be much different from the experience of more “analog” channel-surfing; in both cases you just sit there, sifting through large piles of boring garbage until you find something that appeals. But online, you can be a conductor of time, stopping and restarting an infinite number of narrative arcs at any pace you please. By contrast, in Couch Mode, as on a TV you can’t pause, everything in front of you happens just once. You’re still jumping through stories, but one at a time; each feed holds your attention and then slips away from it in single file. Once you click away, there’s no guarantee you’ll be returned to it again. There’s real, palpable pleasure in this; think of what it feels like to swipe through people’s faces on Tinder, one by one: like you’re crossing a single item off a list, like you’re inviting each new person to come closer. The chaos of an incomprehensibly expansive universe, brought into some kind of order before you. Clicking through an endless global network of live video feeds might seem like the epitome of Being On the Internet, but the experience of browsing through Couch Mode feels like something else entirely. Your attention rearranges itself.

The best Periscope feeds feel like public access TV — like you’re being invited, through a pleasantly anarchic medium, into the inner lives of people who are wonderfully strange. I keep a little notepad on my desk where I write down the best feeds I’ve seen: a guy in a cape and luchador mask doing bong hits he lit with a blowtorch; someone carefully welding together a tiny decorative poké ball in their garage workshop; someone sitting alone on a bench and silently vaping while pointing their camera out at a heartrendingly beautiful sunset; a young woman in her bedroom telling the very long story of a disastrous first date; a historian breathlessly narrating as a gigantic restored clipper ship docked very slowly in a California marina; a very happy-looking man DJing alone in a basement while seven mechanized disco balls spun around him; the locker room of a strip club in Atlanta where women sat around talking shit about the cops, occasionally walking up to the camera and twerking distractedly.

Last week, I spent a purely joyful four minutes watching a woman just hanging out with her pet goat in her bedroom. She and the goat sat on opposite sides of a small table; he rested his chin on its surface and looked up at her, chewing on something with his weird, enormous goat mouth, while she answered questions about his size and social life for her followers. I watched, completely rapt, until the stream went dark, immediately replaced by some guy playing the guitar.

The more mundane a feed is, the more delightful it feels to watch. This has something to do with the honest transmission of desire. Other forms of social media take the desire to be seen or liked and loved and flatten it. Even when people try to show you the mess of their lives in a post or picture, you don’t really get to see it, because they’re trying, and that’s its own kind of monotone. Effort filters everything, changes the light. But on Periscope, you can watch a woman cooking breakfast simply because she wants someone to watch her cook breakfast, without having to pretend or justify or joke it away; you can hang out with a guy who’s staring at a nice sunset just because he wants you to like the sunset as much as he does, or because he doesn’t want to watch it by himself. Instead of eliding its users’ desire to be un-alone, Periscope takes it as a given and keeps moving.

But to get to the good parts, you have to wade through a lot of shit. Periscope isn’t troll-less by a long shot — the site’s interface is designed to accommodate the same abominable behavior its parent company is famous for enabling. (Each video feed has its own comments section that scrolls up the screen’s left side, and, particularly on videos that feature women and people of color, the comments are predictably vile.) The site is basically a free platform for proselytizers, so a lot of its most dedicated broadcasters are pushing something, hard: their self-help schemes, their business scams, their Jesuses, their shitty mixtapes. I’ve been dropped in the middle of racist sermons, anti-choice protests and all kinds of alt-right raving; I’ve wasted minutes of my life trying to figure where I recognized a particular ranting conspiracy theorist before realizing he used to be one of the gigolos from the Showtime series Gigolos.

Just as the best feeds render the minutiae delightful, the worst ones remind you the kind of stuff you find scary is often just someone else’s wallpaper

It’s startling to run into hateful tirades in the middle of Couch Mode’s otherwise mundane, delight-studded trance, but the ideas themselves frighten and disturb differently through this medium than they do on other sites. I’m not naive enough to think that all online bigots lose their power to intimidate once you can see them face-to-face, but hatred lands differently in a live video than it does in text. On Periscope you can actually look into the twitchy eyes of a person spouting hateful garbage as they do it, without editing or cuts of any kind. You can see the sad lighting in their kitchen, hear the tight strain in their voice, watch them stutter. Text-based trolling operates along a gradient of anonymity; the worst things on the internet gain a frightening echo because they seem unattached to any single human being. Untethered, hatred seems endless. In a video feed, it’s embodied. Specific.

At the same time, the most truly frightening videos I’ve encountered on Periscope aren’t the ones where people yell at me. They’re the ones where evil is woven so thoroughly into the fabric of someone’s life that they don’t feel pressed to foreground it. Just as the best feeds render the minutiae of someone else’s daily life delightful, the worst ones remind you that the kind of stuff you find scary is often just someone else’s wallpaper.

I’ve watched MRAs and alt-right trolls hang out in home offices so bland and well-maintained they could be IKEA showrooms, just talking with their fans. I’ve watched a white man in a sunny backyard showing off his gun collection while a sweet-faced yellow lab trailed behind him, and felt lit up with paralytic fear while he kneeled down to stroke the dog with the barrel of an assault rifle. A few months ago, I watched a feed shot from the perspective of a man who was clearly drunk or high or both as he drove an ATV through an empty field, the vehicle perpetually listing to the side as though it were about to flip over completely. The only sounds were the growling engine and the wind whistling past his camera’s microphone. According to the counter in the corner, I was the only person watching, until I clicked away.

My obsession with Couch Mode started well before the election; for months, it was the first place I went on the internet if I was feeling sad or bored or freaked out by the news. After November 8th, I avoided the website for weeks. All social media made me feel choked; the idea of trying to mine delight or distraction from the internet seemed embarrassingly naive. Plus, everything I saw or heard online already filled me with a dark, resonant dread; voluntarily wading further into the murk and tangle of other people’s lives did not feel like the cure.

One of the most perverse things about trauma is that the most tedious parts of your life do not bend or alter in the face of it. Grief always recasts the details of living, but it never erases the need for them; when you are consumed by fear or sadness or anger or depression it seems insane that you are still bound to your idiot body, that you must somehow perform gestures as tiny and mundane as eating or sleeping or shitting — and yet somehow, there you are, making small talk with a cashier or checking your watch, feeling more alien in your body than you’ve ever felt before. Some people learn to find comfort in this; some people learn to use it as an anchor. But it always feels deeply uncanny. The world can literally change its shape around you, and still you have to drive your car, step onto the subway, wait in line, dial the phone.

When I eventually went back to Couch Mode, it still felt impossibly comforting. Though the preachers and trolls abide, there are an overwhelming number of people who still use Periscope the same way they did before — for company, or for attention, or as a kind of incomprehensible reflex, just something to do while you’re at the grocery store or walking your dog. I don’t know if it’s healthy or safe to use the internet as a balm for your feelings of loneliness or your desire to be seen. But I also think those questions matter very little now, less than they ever have before. The world is dangerous, even its magic feels untrustworthy. It is a small gift to come untethered from your perspective, to find some strange delight in two minutes of someone else’s.

Emma Healey‘s first book of poems, Begin With the End in Mind, was published by ARP Books in 2012. Her nonfiction has appeared in the LA Review of Books, the FADER, the Hairpin and more.