On April 13, 2016

Live from anywhere

There’s a new feature on Facebook that allows users to broadcast live video. Within the usual Facebook content parameters, the subjects of these videos can be anything, but so far, most of the broadcasters have turned their cameras onto themselves, creating video streams that resemble unedited personal vlogs, achieving a small degree of excitement through the borderline-uncomfortable immediacy and voyeurism of the format, not by showcasing anything particularly interesting.

These videos can target a specific group of friends or appear on the broadcasters’ Timeline for all their acquaintances to see. Webcammers can even consent to appear on the Facebook Live Map, which turns each lonely stream into a single blue dot on a clickable world map (viewable to all 1.6 billion Facebook users) of many blue dots, each representing a single Facebooker’s live video. Unsurprisingly, there are a fair number of people in the United States and beyond who like the idea of giving 1.6 billion strangers temporary unfiltered access to their lives.

Other live video services—on YouTube, Twitch and Periscope—have existed for a while, but Facebook promises to bring this potent tool of digital self-revelation to the everyday Internetter. Pretty soon all of us (not just elite gamers, techies, and people with something specific to say) will—by choice, for some reason—set the unblinking eyes of our webcams upon ourselves day after day, recording the mundane routines of our mornings and nights.

In a way, Facebook Live seems inherently self-defeating: the only reason you’d ever click one of the blue dots on the Live Map is that you’re super bored and have nothing to do, yet this is the same reason each blue dot exists—someone else in the world is super bored and has nothing to do. It’s a refuge from boredom that is itself inescapably mired in boredom. Still, I don’t doubt that it may become hugely popular: if YouTube and Snapchat—social media in general, and even reality television—have taught us anything, it’s that people don’t actually want “good content,” with artfulness and purpose. They just want relief (without having to leave their homes) from the relentless loneliness of human life: unenhanced banality is, it seems, the best cure.

Facebook Live sounds really boring, but last night I had trouble sleeping and spent nearly two hours—roughly between midnight and 1:45 a.m., EST—clicking randomly on blue dots and fighting through the often painful tedium to see what there was to see.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, a shirtless man with a gold dental grill alternated between listening to a Big Freedia bounce album and ranting disconnectedly about various aspects of his personal life, including a recent sexual encounter that had displeased him. The man sweated profusely despite the whirring ceiling fan above him, wiping himself down (by necessity) every few seconds with a blue rag. At one point he lamented that he was “still unemployed,” then changed his mind: “No, I work for Facebook.” His viewership ranged from eight to 12 users.

In Bismarck, North Dakota, a young lady (an employee of the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s, according to her profile) wore a backwards baseball cap in a wood-paneled living room and complained about having run out of cigarettes. The woman was accompanied by two male friends—both also wearing backwards baseball caps—who took the reins briefly while the woman paused to chew tobacco, about which she felt self-conscious. But otherwise the video’s star occupied the screen with energetic confidence, singing along badly to hip-hop and R&B tracks (this by far the most common activity on Facebook Live overall), swigging Mountain Dew, teasing potentially desirous male viewers with her lack of interest (“I have a girlfriend”), and once, in an overly enthusiastic ad lib between songs, using the N-word, for which her friends lightly chastised her.

In Concord, New Hampshire, a caterer in a white shirt and black pants skillfully twirled and juggled a pair of flaming torches on a dark, empty basketball court with cars occasionally passing behind him. His show, perhaps the only genuine “entertainment” I came across all night, was impressive, yet I was one of only two viewers. Similarly unpopular was a young man from Compton, California, filming his stoned meanderings through Walmart, where he attempted to buy a handgun (alas, the store carried only rifles) and complained about the racially insensitive packaging of an electric fan, whose cardboard box displayed the word “negro” as a Spanish-language color designation.

In Portland, Maine, and Boston, Massachusetts, nightclubs had live streams running to show the entire world how boring clubbing really is, and in Spokane, Washington, a TV station live-streamed its local news broadcast from a webcam pointed at the lead anchor—who, whenever the TV camera turned to another correspondent, seamlessly switched gears to interact with international Facebook commenters, asking them where they were from and how the weather was near them.

In Paris, France, the only live video in the early morning hours belonged to a Thai fellow, mostly speaking Thai in front of a white wall but occasionally practicing his French, including the verb “bavarder” (“to chat”) and the phrase “tais-toi” (“shut up”).

Based on the numbers, Thai people, for whatever reason, seemed more enthusiastic about Facebook Live than other foreigners. Thailand boasted far more Live Streams than any non-U.S. country, followed probably by the Philippines and then by various roughly equal European nations. There were only two live streams in all of Africa last night, coming out of Tanzania and South Africa.

The most popular stream of the night, with 189 viewers, was predictably sexual in nature. Controlled by a 19-year-old girl (apparently a minor Internet celebrity in southern Alabama) and promising “nasty” content in the video description, it featured a group of young women practicing their twerking. The second most popular video (140 viewers) belonged to an Iraqi man in Sweden, playing traditional Middle Eastern music on a guitar, eliciting enthusiastic feedback (“LEGIT LIT AF”) as well as racist taunts. I listened for a while, lulled finally into sleepiness.

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