The most-watched YouTube video of all time is Psy’s “Gangam Style.” With more than 2.5 billion views, it’s been seen by more people than you will ever meet; more people than you can even really comprehend. “IMG 0629” on the other hand, only has around 12 views. It features a blonde boy in the woods holding a toy chainsaw. “IMG 0594” (a view of a spiral staircase inside what is presumably a church tower) has only four views.
I found these unlabeled, unpopular videos through Astronaut.io, a website created by engineers Andrew Wong and James Thompson this past November, that recently surfaced on Hacker News. The site pulls random YouTube videos with only a handful of views, creating an unending stream of mundane, strange, intimate, and barely watched moments in strangers’ lives.
Over the course of 30 minutes, I caught glimpses of a high school basketball game, the view from the side of a mountain somewhere, the inside of a dorm room, a translucent fish scuttling along the ocean floor, an aerial view of a mansion, and the inside of a car. There are recordings of college seminars and grade school dance recitals, tiny dogs and newborn babies.
The site is called Astronaut because, as its splash page implies, it gives you a view of a world you might never see otherwise. Astronaut.io is just one of several sites that does this — PetiteTube and 0views are nearly identical, and Vpeeker does a similar thing with Vine. But its design is slightly sleeker and more sophisticated than its counterparts: the edge of the Earth crests just over the borders of each video, creating a floating sensation for the viewer. It’s obvious Wong and Thompson had a specific type of immersive, anthropological experience in mind.
That experience could also be a solitary one — you’d be hard-pressed to find an acquaintance familiar with these videos. But Astronaut.io provides a shared experience for moments that might otherwise be entirely unshared. On the Hacker News post, Wong wrote, “The feed is synchronized across everyone so you should be all seeing the same videos at the same time. The videos also are constantly updated, so when it's Christmas time, you should start to see family dinners.”
The site’s slice-of-life design has been compared to reality TV, but reality TV is edited, produced, and censored to create a narrative that might not really exist. Astronaut.io is closer to reality, but it’s harder to understand. You’ll never know whose hands are petting that dog, or who was standing on an empty beach one year ago, or who decided to film their saltwater fish tank for 2 minutes and 41 seconds.
The videos’ view counts are so small that watching one feels like being let in on a secret only available to a handful of people. But such a lack of context is a good reminder that the secret was never really meant for you at all.