Are you bored? Do you have a computer monitor facing away from the hall and at least 20 minutes to go before you’ll be expected to respond to that latest email? Are you waiting for your bus, clicking and scrolling aimlessly, looking for something funny or interesting or at any rate more engaging than the asphalt under your boots? Or maybe you’re staying in for the night and — well, it’s not FOMO exactly, and you wouldn’t call it loneliness, but you’re home and it’s quiet and none of your shows are on and you are feeling maybe a little bit unmoored.
Might I suggest the Facebook Live Map?
Facebook’s pushing of a platform that superimposes all of its active, public livestreams onto a map of the world is not exactly an earth-shaking innovation. Streaming isn’t new — Periscope, Meerkat, and Twitch.tv did it first — and neither is mapping it out geographically. Nor is Facebook the only major social network to introduce a splashy feature for going live, as Instagram did in late 2016. But if you’ve noticed Facebook Live’s marketing blitz — the billboards at airports and train stations and the streaming tutorials sandwiched onto network TV — and wondered what end the network has been steering toward, the map is the best suggestion of an answer so far: a parade of strangers in their idle moments, raging and geeking out and often just staring listlessly into their cameras in real time. It is basically no one’s idea of good content. I highly recommend it.
Some caveats, in ascending order: (1) The map doesn’t always work very well; feeds drop suddenly, zooming is somehow both too slow and too fast, and audio echoes sporadically. (2) Because the map is organized by one attribute, the geographic location of the broadcaster, you do not stand a very good chance of finding anything that appeals to literally any of your stated interests or hobbies. (3) If you spend more than a few minutes on the map, you face skyrocketing odds of tuning in to something that leaves you with the impression that simply by viewing it you have broken some inviolable social norm, if not an outright law.
The Facebook Live Map is StumbleUpon for the modern era, ChatRoulette for baby boomers. It is not for the faint of heart or anyone looking for any kind of rationale. It is probably not, if we’re being serious, for the gainfully employed, or at least anyone who aspires to stay that way. But in a time when everything online is optimized and filtered and scrubbed, when every website is fighting to be the most interesting voice at the dinner party, there is something wonderful here in the wilds of internet boredom.
Facebook wants you to stream the cleaning of your gutters. It wants you to broadcast the intense, solitary dreariness of waiting for your kids to get out of school. It wants you to show the world your friend Marcus’s attempt to dunk, and if we’re being serious, it probably wants Marcus to fall.
And therefore, it wants your grandma, who keeps seeing those funny ads between reruns of General Hospital, to learn how to use her front-facing camera. It wants her to realize that she can ping every one of her grandkids at the same time, right here in line at Ralph’s. It wants bald dudes to brag about their vacations, and for you to look at your freaked-out baby and see the potential for ricocheting cartoon hearts. Facebook wants the olds, the procrastinating, the idle. It wants people who have nothing in particular to say to go right ahead and say it. It appears to be succeeding.
One side effect is obvious, the one that surely interests a tech giant: that with the kid from your freshman-year seminar’s empowerment to show you his cubicle comes the sudden access to the eyeballs and purchasing powers of his acquaintances. But Facebook has built us a map, so it’s worth considering one of its other effects: that we now have a nonstop, hyperkinetic hub of our fellow man’s eclecticism.
So what can you find there? On a recent morning, three men in baseball caps in New York finish the detailing on a green-and-black Harley Davidson as indeterminate rock music blares. “Hello from Hungary!!!!!” someone writes. A young man in Singapore blasts a Marc Anthony remix as he stares into a computer screen, face lighting up between puffs on an e-cig (12 viewers). In a livestream of a court hearing in Wyoming, commenters post “Can’t hear” over and over and over. A woman in her underwear and high heels in Leipzig, Germany, dances lackadaisically for the camera (416 viewers). A shrimp clambers around an aquarium in Thailand (111 viewers). Two hundred and forty-seven users watch a man stopped at a red light in South Florida. A family in a hot tub at Big Bear Lake wishes someone named Justin a happy birthday. “I’m so appreciative, Ezra,” the man in the hot tub tells his young son (plus me and seven others). “When I was your age, we didn’t do stuff like this. So you’re very fortunate, my man.”
This is the extent of what happens on the Facebook Live Map: mostly, not very much. Watching the people of the world broadcast the minutiae of their lives, you can get the urge to skip ahead in the videos to the interesting part. It’s an itch for curated content that by definition cannot be scratched by the map, which is too weird, dull, unreliable, and totally unpredictable to offer much of anything worth aggregating. It is a delightful mess.