After coronavirus quarantines began in Europe, Twitter was awash with photos of dolphins in Venice’s Grand Canal, whales in the Seine and deer drinking from the waters of the Thames. These were obviously hoaxes, but there were also numerous newspaper articles about animals taking to the streets of empty, locked-down cities. Meanwhile, animal videos and nature-themed television shows and video games surged in popularity as a third of the world went into lockdown. The Verge recommended a livestream of baby goats as ‘the mood booster we need’; the Scottsburg, Indiana farm sharing the feed is using it to promote its goat-milk soap. ‘Play, eat, sleep, repeat,’ reads the article’s deck, as if to suggest that humans and livestock are not so different now, locked in their homes or in their pens.
The ‘we need’ in The Verge article's headline is internet speak. ‘We’ assumes a shared culture and ‘need’ recognizes that light-hearted diversions travel faster across the internet. But, do we need them? In a New York Times article published last month, Helen Macdonald proposes that the increasing popularity of wild animal videos – deer crossing the streets of Nara, Egyptian geese on the tarmac of Tel Aviv’s airport, wild boar roaming a small Italian town – is a sign of hope in times of despair. She argues that, by watching nonhumans, we can learn how to pay attention to the world and, in particular, to the ‘disregarded, unvalued and oppressed’ – from endangered species to essential workers – who are ‘returning to reclaim their spaces.’
I don’t believe so-called ‘essential’ workers have as much of a choice as Macdonald seems to think they do, nor that the act of paying attention to animals teaches users to pay attention to other humans. I take more comfort in the communal experience of watching them. On a recent afternoon, for instance, when I tuned in to the Great Danes Main House Cam on explore.org, the view count in the corner of the live feed informed me that 61 other people were with me, watching these slow, gorgeous animals at a service dog charity in Ipswich, Massachusetts. In isolation, it felt like real human connection, or as close to a shared experience as I could get.
In the dining section of The New York Times, restaurant critic Pete Wells described watching a six-hour video of sheep grazing in a vineyard in Napa Valley, California, and his envy of the sheep’s focus. ‘Nothing gets between the sheep and their grass,’ he wrote. Within days, the YouTube video he discussed had surged from 6,000 to 198,000 views. Wells’s inability to concentrate during the lockdown – something he surely shares with many of his readers – led him to compare ‘Relax with Sheep’ to ambient music, as defined by Brian Eno on the liner notes of his Music for Airports (1978): something ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’.
There are few things we seem to ignore right now. As the world outside our homes shrinks from view, the appearance of animals, in their natural habitats or on city streets, feels almost unreal. And viewers tune in. Zoos have had live cams since the early days of the technology; the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Panda Cam, for example, has been popular for years. But, why have videos like ‘Relax with Sheep’ achieved viral success lately? Perhaps the thin line between ignorable and interesting is all anyone can muster attention for now. Viewers can also project their own feelings onto animals, like avatars for exploring other worlds.
Just as animals have been trending in this new context, they have also been the subject of experiments with other ways of watching. In August 2015, when Facebook launched Facebook Live, the broadcasting feature was initially restricted to celebrities and then made available to journalists and people with verified accounts. During the initial rollout, Facebook paid media partners like Buzzfeed to use the feature. The result? More baby goats. Buzzfeed staffers released four baby goats into their boss’s office and filmed it via Live. Journalists at Neiman Lab, the Harvard University think tank focused on journalism’s future in the digital age, reported on the live event: ‘Would the goats escape?? Would chaos ensue?! Five of us waited for the grand climax, baffled by our own interest, along with 81,000 other viewers.’
As internet use has spiked, ambient livestreams and videos have grown more popular. Friends have told me they’ve been watching videos of haircuts, marble racing, a livefeed from Times Square, ocean waves, an open fire. What we watch online is a natural extension of ourselves and, now that there’s not much ‘real life’ beyond the digital world, what we seek out might be the primary index of our desires. The comfort and satisfaction of watching something atmospheric, as well as coming together as viewers in digital spaces, are what is available to us now. If there is one thing we can learn from the quarantine, it is that our digital experiences can be intense, communal and real.
Main image: Tian Tian, female Giant Panda. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons