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Live-streaming loneliness

Live-streaming loneliness


Watch me be sad

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This week, it was revealed that the price-gouging pharmaceutical exec Martin Shkreli was the highest bidder for Wu-Tang’s single-copy album, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. At the time, he had reportedly not listened to it yet, and had no immediate plans to do so. Instead, in the wake of the news, Shkreli hosted a YouTube live stream in which he asked fans to suggest the next musician who should make a million-dollar album just for him. Fun!

Am I projecting this?

On camera, Shkreli made a list of the suggestions in a spreadsheet and reacted to each one as he typed it. He was, at times, enthused ("The Beach Boys might be the best suggestion yet"), unimpressed ("I don’t think I want a Rihanna album"), confused ("Electric Light Orchestra? Aren’t they dead?") and more confused ("Who is Death Grips?"). This dynamic back-and-forth between host and commenter lasted for an hour and a half, and stopped only when someone off-camera reminded Shkreli he had a meeting to go to.

When the stream ended, with the camera still on, pointing at an empty blue swivel chair, I felt weird. Shkreli obviously did this so people would notice him and the power of his enormous wealth, which would be purely unpleasant if it weren't also sad. He was sitting in a dim, carpeted room that appeared to be largely free of furniture. He spent two hours making a list of musicians who probably want nothing to do with him, with the help of people he would probably never speak to again. Let’s be clear: I don’t pity Shkreli. He’s incredibly rich and has done nothing to prove he’s anything other than a self-obsessed dimwit with a shiny T-zone. But this week's live stream felt like an admission of fallibility. Because if you think about it, Shkreli is in possession — the sole possession — of an album a lot of people would like to listen to, but he ostensibly has no one to listen to it with. With the above tweet, he tried to trick the world into thinking he was going to play something they wanted to hear — so that they would spend some time with him.


People have been broadcasting their loneliness online for as long as the internet has existed. Although much has been said about the ways in which the internet exacerbates loneliness, it has always simultaneously offered ways to combat it. From chat rooms to Craigslist casual encounters to 2004's infamous "i am lonely will anyone speak to me" forum thread, the web has created the opportunity for rapid global connection. And now, with the ever-increasing popularity of live streaming, people from around the world can witness a visual of that loneliness in real time. Strangers can see the grey bedroom you’re broadcasting from, the week's worth of coffee mugs stacked up behind you, the small, disappointed shifts in your facial expression.

Shkreli isn’t the only person this year who has betrayed his loneliness by live streaming it to the world. A quick Google search of "sad Periscope" will result in at least a few lonely live streams preserved on YouTube. You can watch people do their grocery shopping alone, looking exasperated while caring for their children, ramble on about their days, or merely acknowledge each comment as it comes, like a telephone operator swiftly deflecting responsibility. One of the most popular trending topics on the amateur live streaming app YouNow is #bored, a feeling that's at least a precursor to loneliness, if not a euphemism for it. I watched one user sitting with his back to a loud television, silently looking at his phone, for at least 15 minutes. Every so often he would hold his phone up to show viewers a photo from his Instagram feed, and smile.

Live streaming your day-to-day life is not an automatic admission of loneliness, nor is it an antidote to it. But it is a reminder that almost everyone spends some time alone when they don't want to be alone. And now we can join them, live.