Whenever a new TV format or video service emerges, it’s common to hear the cry “Why would anyone want to watch that?” It happened with reality TV and user-generated video and it’s happening with e-sports and personal live streaming. And yet again the critics will be proved wrong.
Something Andy Warhol said really puts things in perspective for me. “I think people look at anything,” said the pop artist way back in 1971. “So I think if you just had the camera on anything that would be nothing special, and people would look at it – just like sitting looking out of a window or sitting out on a front porch. You could just watch things go by. I mean, you could do that for hours.”
It’s a description that even the most conservative critics of new forms of video can relate to. Many of us enjoy watching the world go by, whether from a park bench, bar stool or seat of a car. We also like to “people watch,” stare into log fires, and gaze around us as we walk. We really do like to look at things. What’s changed is the way we do it. Screens are the new windows onto the world.
The rising popularity of the world of Twitch and competitive videogaming is easiest to explain. People like watching sports; this kind just happens to take place in virtual worlds. Videos of log fires, fish tanks, and rotating fans are more bemusing, but popular. A three-hour clip of a roaring fireplace has clocked up over 6 million views on YouTube. Periscope, Meerkat, and other personal live-streaming apps allow people to look at the world effectively through other people’s eyes.
Arguably, the critics are worried less about what we are watching, than how we are watching. The act of watching through a screen seems a lonely and alienating experience to some, conjuring up images of sallow youths spending friendless lives indoors.
The outlook’s not that bleak. Apart from the fact that connected screens can enable people to see things beyond their economic and geographic horizons, the new breed of online video services have a strong social dimension. They make looking at the world a collective act, enabling viewers to message or talk to each other about what they are watching in real time.
Larger, richer displays that cover walls like wallpaper might make digital video feel even more like looking through a window. Virtual reality technologies will enable people to feel like they are actually in the world they are viewing. It remains to be seen how popular these last two technologies will become. What seems certain is that video will not only be everywhere, it will also be about anything.
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