Present Perfect

How chats and live streams let us consume “real time” as a commodity

Media subject us to rhythms not wholly our own. The choices we make about the media we consume sometimes stem from this, from a desire to submit to time rather than control it — or to “control” time by deciding to relinquish our agency over it. In purchasing experiences too, we purchase their quality of time along with a particular quantity: Meals in restaurants and sporting events, for instance, imbue us with their particular temporalities just as music, films, and television shows do. We depend on prerecorded media to provide us with specific distillations of time. Knowing what to expect, we can consciously surrender to the foreign time of media — spending several hours binging on a slowly paced detective show or listening to high-tempo songs for energy. Throughout the day, we negotiate between our internal rhythms and the speed of media to yield the most desirable experience of time available to us. Whether we realize it or not, temporality is a decisive factor in the choices we make about our own consumption.

A live stream conveys a sense of time lived rather than managed or processed

This is also true of social media feeds. Their compulsive pull may have as much to do with how they impose their rhythms on us as with anything specific in posts and updates. We consume feeds to experience a sort of submission to an external temporality — often construed as “real time.” But this temporality is different from the relatively predictable experiences of time that prerecorded media content can provide. Despite efforts at algorithmic smoothing, social media timelines are fragmented and erratic, often demanding exhausting feats of interpretive acumen to keep up. But this also means that they can give users a heavy saturation of presence, understood as correlative with immediacy: On Twitter, for example, new posts can appear at a breakneck pace that amplifies the sense of here-and-nowness, offering a more concentrated experience of “real time” than offline clock time. This, in turn, allows people to access presence, a sense of “really being there,” in a commodified form.

Live streams, which make up a growing percentage of social media traffic, also capitalize on a sense of immediacy, drawing on the presence of others to help establish it and make it salient. A live stream gives viewers the option to experience time as it is controlled by other people rather than by algorithms. This preserves an element of spontaneity that is often thought to distinguish human from machinic behavior. A live stream conveys a sense of time lived rather than managed or processed.

Even if we can’t grasp the precise inner workings of algorithms, we know that they are bound by both technical rules and the bespoke functions for which they were developed. These variables structure our personal timelines on some social media platforms, but they are guided by impersonal considerations. The temporality of live streams, on the other hand, appear to not be constricted by the vested interests of digital developers. Live streamers seem to conduct time according to their whims and creativity, introducing a human organicism into other’s feed. The temporality of a live stream is as distinctive as the user that makes it, alleviating the remote, overdetermined time produced by algorithms.

Part of the appeal of live streams is that they remind us of the inimitable humanity that pervades the web. The desire to consume a human kind of time within the machinery of algorithmic time may help explain the popularity of the burgeoning YouTube subgenre known as Anime Chillhop, which features mostly static depictions of anime characters as live-streamed music plays. When I first watched “Lofi hip hop mix — beats to study/relax to,” I felt the uneasy pull of foreign rhythms. The stream features an anime girl hunched over a desk while the weather and the sky change in something like real time in the window beside her. I found its simulation of time disconcerting, as if I’d landed in a temporal uncanny valley. The video time felt close to my own unmediated time, yet it was unnatural, as if presence itself was being packaged and sold to me as a commodity.

I found its simulation of time disconcerting, as if I’d landed in a temporal uncanny valley

The sense of unease was perhaps amplified by the fact that, while the DJ set streams live, the visuals mirror the temporality of its viewers with digital animation, foregrounding the experience as a simulation rather than a representation or retransmission of something “real.” Anime Chillhop videos obviously don’t present themselves as windows into real human experience. They are transparent about the fact that the sense of “presence” they convey is a contrived product. But in spite of the self-reflexive acknowledgment of their own artifice, the experience of watching and listening to Chillhop streams feels closer to non-algorithmic temporality than that of social media. Occupying a place between poles of digital and non-digital time, Anime Chillhop helps mark the distance between them.

This gap between the feigned presence of the video and my own endogenous, idiosyncratic feeling for time became more pronounced as I watched the scrolling chat. The point of Anime Chillhop is, at least nominally, to help people relax and focus. But as with all live YouTube videos, “Lofi hip hop mix” features a cacophonous chat feed in a sidebar. Chat is an inexhaustible font of immediacy, furnishing users with a heightened quality of presence. It depends on the ambient and ceaseless chatter of strangers who essentially remain strangers, who never fall into the enduring sort of relationship that can be sustained in silence, like we have with family and friends. This helps foreground chat’s immediacy over and above any subject matter — as if it were about spontaneous participation in and of itself and nothing else. This makes it ideal for mass-producing “real time” as a kind of reified commodity.

By bringing viewers together, chat makes their shared construction of time more palpable. They become engaged in a project of collaborative sensemaking — not as a matter of interpreting what is happening in the video so much as a matter of establishing a shared temporality, with the feeling of immediacy fortified with the spontaneity of new contributions. Users will remark on the video’s events (or lack thereof), but more often, their messages respond to one another. In this sense, the relative lack of content in something like Anime Chillhop helps galvanize participation: Nondescript content may help inspire more generic chat, which in turn may encourage a broader number of people to join in. If the comments on a feed are widely relatable, more people will see themselves reflected there. The uniqueness of user perspectives is irrelevant and counterproductive.

Live streams can seem to indicate the possibility that human beings are still the primary constituents of the web

Reports on technological automation conjure a world in which human life is increasingly redundant. Technology critics maintain that we are laboring in support of digital tech, not the other way around. As much as we rely on it, we know that social media sees users mainly as wellsprings of capital. But if we co-create a time — a “real time” that evokes immediacy and presence — with other social media users, it means that our individuality still matters online.

Live streams thus can counter the sense that we are being exploited by social media. They can seem to indicate the possibility that human beings are still the primary constituents of the web, rather than impersonal and profit-motivated technical functions. When we know that other humans are there with us, the internet appears to resume its original function as a peer-to-peer conduit — not an imperialistic network governed by the interests of big tech, a space in which humans are little more than connective ligaments or fonts of monetizable data. Live streams make a living place out of the digital domains that so many of us already treat like home.

But that does not necessarily make consuming “real time” as a feeling automatically liberatory. Graphic and disturbing videos generate rapt attention, drawing viewers into the immediate moment. When live-streamed content is sensational and explicit, it becomes difficult to look away, and viewers are trapped in the here and now. Profoundly violent, sexual, or suspenseful streams are direct channels to congealed presence. And our seemingly unwitting surrender to them emphasizes our human vulnerability — that is, we are reminded that the agency we have over our own time is more susceptible to influence than the control wielded by code.

Live streams aren’t intrinsically a form of resistance, and they don’t fix the problem they appear to address simply by existing as a capability: The non-machinic time of live streams is just a new commodity for big tech. As tech rentiers introduce streaming features to platforms, temporality-as-a-service appreciates in value. Escaping from the feelings we associate with exploitation isn’t the same thing as resisting exploitation. The provision of temporal presence online as purchasable only points up the fact that even the most subtle, intimate experiences can be transformed into a digital product.

Emma Stamm is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University. She specializes in critical theory and philosophy of technology. Her website is www.o-culus.com and she’s on Twitter @14floating.