There was one communal big-screen television in my freshman dormitory. It was on almost all the time, and, consequently, the living room served as a meeting place for strangers. This TV was just as much a source of spontaneous friendship as it was conflict. The set was almost always littered with little notes taped to the corners (“American Idol. Wednesday. Reserved. Hearts, Kaitlin and Steph.”). Sometimes these notes would flitter away, another group would squat watching basketball come Wednesdays, and sabotage would be a legitimate topic at our next house meeting. Fighting over TV programming is a great American pastime. Or, it was.
When online television streaming got popular during the end of my college career, the arguments within housing communities had vanished because communal TV watching could happen anytime. No need for notes. Friends would cuddle up in my bed and watch Glee off a laptop during lunchtime (BACK WHEN IT WAS GOOD). If people got busy, we’d all just watch individually then make time to talk about it. Then we’d just watch it alone, and we’d forget to share the experience altogether.
Now, a few years later, when I come home and my roommate is watching that Kardashian show, I go up to my room and watch whatever I want. Zero conflict. But have I missed an important interaction?
These interactions — or non-interactions — are pretty common occurrences since my two roommates and I are all completely different. We get along great, but our tastes’ Venn diagram is just three unconnected circles. If I’m in the kitchen listening to Louis C.K. over dinner, and Sean gets home, we chat as he cooks, and then he disappears into his room to watch CSI on his computer by himself. On Sunday afternoons Allison watches all her recorded ABC family dramas. I do not join her. But, if I weren’t watching TV alone so often, I probably would. Aside from whether or not Pretty Little Liars would be good for my sanity, it’d probably be healthy for me to interact with my roommate more often.
With this in mind, I recently watched an episode of Teen Mom with her. I was home from work with a plate of hummus, destined for my bed and Hulu, but as I walked by my roomie engrossed in these stories, I decide to eat my hummus nestled into the sofa. I really enjoyed myself. I mean I enjoyed the experience — not the show itself, but honestly, does that matter? We had favorite moms and bantered about how we would react to different baby daddies’ actions. Over commercials we discussed the ways we were raised. It was stimulating despite the show not being so.
A perk of streaming is that people that share my interests and views can collectively talk about art and media we have taken in individually. The ability for everyone in my sketch comedy team to watch any segment of SNL on his or her own time and then discuss it brings us closer together. But would we be even closer if we all got together on Saturday night to just watch it live? Or, because that would never feasibly happen, should I just be extremely grateful we can all use Hulu? Furthermore, if I made a point to watch SNL at home, and my roommates happened to watch with me, might I get some unique perspective on the sketches instead of only being exposed to the familiar opinions of my comedian friends?
Hence, I see instant streaming as both more and less of a waste of time than live television used to be. On one hand if I’m going to just chill (“waste time”), it’s handy that I have access to “good” (critically-acclaimed or educational) television to digest at all times instead of wanting to chillax and puttering around aimlessly. On the other hand, when there was nothing to watch on TV, I used to putter around with friends, or find friends. Now, I have less need for human interaction — especially with people whose tastes differ from mine. I think this trend has been crystallizing in more ways than television in our society.
I would put myself in a category of someone who is actually less involved with technology than most people my age. I am not addicted to my phone. I generally stream about 5 hours of TV per week. I don’t have a Facebook profile, and I only read things I have specifically looked up — no reddit, no StumbleUpon, no roaming about. But even I feel jaded by this thought that intoxicates us all when experiencing anything in real life: “Is this worth my time?” For example, is this class worth my time when I can look up anything on the internet? Is this social event worth my time when I can enjoy a movie for free in my own bed whenever I want? Is this discussion worth my time when it’s probably already happened somewhere on the web, and I can just read it? I perform in a weekly sketch comedy show, and over the past five years attendance has dropped at an alarming rate. People used to get stoked to see comedy — even if it wasn’t the most professional. But we’re not going to be as good as SNL or all the stand-up specials on Netflix. Why should people bother? Consider how often you go to movies compared to before you had access to thousands of movies with the click of a mouse.
It’s not just me. Ticket sales have gone down 10% in the past decade. There are lower numbers in concert attendance too. I obviously can’t say our waning interest in cultural events is due to streaming, but I can bet it’s a major contributor — at least in the last five years. Why should people bother looking outside their laptop for anything?
I think people should bother though. I think we really should keep trying to remember to be entertained outside of our own ear buds because while the internet can give us a lot, it can’t give us life. Clichéd but true. Maybe Teen Mom sucks compared to the show I would have streamed had I not sat down with my roommate, but the experience was probably healthier. Sure, you can skip watching the Oscars and instead get the ten-minute best-and-worst-dressed version via fashion sites and YouTube. It’d be less of a “waste of time” on your life than if you threw a party, but what would you do with that saved time anyway? Waste it a different way? In person we laugh, we discuss, we foster communities. Alone, I waste my time, and that might be all.
Illustration by Sabrina Scott