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Online Trends

Published March 19th 2021

Living Vicariously and Exploring From Home

A data-led look at how we've been travelling and experiencing the world from the comfort of our own homes.

Online and housebound

A while back, our CMO Will McInnes posted the following tweet:

A number of people replied with their own tonic videos: the view from a Norwegian train as it wound its way from Trondheim to Bodø, people walking through Japanese forests, and 4K GoPro skiing.

It reminded me that I’ve been doing the same thing, including spending hours watching a Chinese farmer plant crops, cook food, and build a cat-shaped bread kiln.

While in the vast majority of these cases the videos pre-date Covid-19, clearly something about them has drawn people in, even those who may have scoffed at watching YouTubers or streamers before.

Boredom, free time, and the search for new content all play their part, but what if there’s something else that’s attracting us to this type of content?

What nearly all of them have in common is that they offer the viewer the chance to live vicariously, and to explore some inaccessible part of the world. The videos are often more personal and intimate than a regular TV show, too.

With that in mind, this blog is split into two-parts – living vicariously through the internet, and 'exploring from home’.

Living vicariously through the internet

I’ll have what they’re having

Living vicariously through online videos is nothing new. The Hidden Brain podcast covered the topic back in February 2019. That offered a bleak view at times though, suggesting that as we watch more videos of people woodcarving or cooking, we feel guilty that we’re not putting time into learning these skills ourselves.

But 2019 was a different world. While many have made valiant efforts to learn new skills under Covid-19, there is full sympathy (from us at least) for those who haven’t. It’s a pandemic. We’re stressed, people are out of work, parents are having to homeschool, and so on. There often isn’t even time to feel bad about it.

Whatever the case, talk of vicarious living is up.

We also found that 65% of the mentions we were able to categorize by sentiment were positive. This suggests that, for many, guilt certainly isn’t on their mind.

But what kind of vicarious living are people doing? We’ve already touched on hiking and skiing. We also found mentions of watching others play video games, or doing it through games like The Sims.

Interestingly, an old fad has also seen a resurgence. One that falls under vicarious living, but in a very unique way.

Back with a mukbang

The concept of mukbang, a form of media originating in Korea, is simple: a person films themselves eating a huge amount of food and interacts with the viewers. It’s been around for about a decade, but interest jumped during the pandemic and is showing early signs of rising again.

While there’s not too much exploring to be done in a mukbang video (although it’s a perfect way to introduce you to the culinary world of other cultures), they can be pretty intimate. With restaurants closed around the world, maybe there’s something comforting about watching someone eat as though they’re across the table from you.

This interest in connection when we’re so disconnected helps to explain the rise of a similar Korean fad: gongbang (공방). In these videos you simply watch someone study, often with a cosy or relaxing backdrop. They offer a way to study without being ‘alone’.

What’s clear is that people are looking for content that does more than pass some time. Instead there’s a clamor for education, exploration, and connection.

A bloke on YouTube

We spoke to Simon, who runs the Simon, a bloke in the woods YouTube channel. Simon is a UK-based outdoors enthusiast, and his channel mostly features videos of camping, canoeing, and campfire cooking (plus Maggie, Simon’s black dog who guest stars from time to time).

He told us that his channel’s growth has been exponential “especially during the pandemic.”

He says that there’s been a specific spike in interest from viewers who have been unable to get into the countryside, with people in cities and towns unable to travel or having to shield. Simon said that he’s had “many, many comments and messages from people who have found watching the videos to be a huge help to the tedium and to the state of their mental health.”

This backs up the idea that it’s not all about boredom, but that channels like Simon’s reconnect people to a world that’s been shut off to them, helping them get through the pandemic as best they can.

Simon himself has been curtailed by the UK’s lockdowns, forcing him to adapt by filming what videos he can in his back garden or on walks near his house. But he’s carried on, saying that the positive effect his videos have on his viewers drives him to keep filming despite the circumstances.

Exploring from home

Getting out and about

Without leaving your desk, have you found yourself aimlessly wandering the streets of Tokyo recently? Or biking down a mountain trail? How about riding a Moscow metro train with the sounds of a local radio station in your ears?

The pandemic and its lockdowns have curtailed our activities in countless ways, but, humans being humans, we’ve all been looking for creative ways to mitigate this. After looking at vicarious living, we’re now looking at how people are exploring the world without leaving their homes.

Going for an international wander

The idea of an hour-long video simply showing the point of view of someone walking around a city may not fill you with excitement at first thought. But the popularity of this genre has exploded during the pandemic.

Take the VIRTUAL JAPAN YouTube channel, for example.

Their content is generally all high quality POV footage of places in Japan, often in cities. They attempt to recreate the atmosphere of actually being in these places, with long shots and atmospheric sound.

VIRTUAL JAPAN was created in January 2019. According to data from Social Blade, they had just over 1,000 subscribers in March 2020, and today they have 111k. Their most popular video, a nighttime walk around Tokyo’s red light district, was published last August and has already racked up 2.6m views.

Listening to the world

Someone who has been missing the feeling of exploration is software engineer John Ornelas. YouTube videos weren’t enough, so John decided to create Travel Remotely, which he published last month.

Travel Remotely is a web app that allows you to pick a city, a form of travel such as train or walking, and the time of day. It then pulls in a video matching your specifications. On top of that, you can set the volume of the street noise and listen to a local radio station.

That means in just a few seconds you could find yourself on the Moscow metro in the morning listening to Russian pop music, or wandering the streets of Bangkok at night as electro music plays.

The addition of the radio stations is a genius touch, and came as Radio Garden, a site that lets you listen to local radio stations from around the world, saw a massive jump in interest.

This suggests that people want more than to just see other places. What they want is to feel immersed in the sound and culture too, and apps like Radio Garden and Travel Remotely offer exactly that.

Windows into the world

From one creative piece of work to another, except this one is a bit more stationary. WindowSwap went live back in July, aimed at all of those who were stuck at home but had the urge to see another part of the world.

The site allows you to turn a computer window into one that looks out on places all over the planet.

All of the views are submitted by users, offering a breadth of views, locations, and sounds. It may sound mundane on paper, but in reality it’s relaxing, and gives you a sense of having got away for a quiet break from the humdrum of your own home.

What makes WindowSwap stand out from the other escapist options we've discussed is the lack of control. You’ll be randomly assigned a window video, which means you’re just as likely to get a serene view of a tropical beach as you are to get a windswept and hail-battered scene on a tiny Scottish island.

Often it’s nice to get one that isn’t so picturesque – it makes the experience feel more real. Maybe a quiet suburban road on a gray day isn’t the most beautiful of scenes, but the normality is a reminder that we’re all in the same boat. Something as simple as a different view from our window is enough to feel some connection to the outside world.

And that's something we could all do with at the moment.

This piece originated as a Brandwatch Bulletin. You can subscribe here to get the latest insights on emerging trends straight to your inbox every Monday and Friday.

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