April the giraffe has been somewhere near the end of her pregnancy for more than three weeks now, and the live feed from a webcam in her stall has attracted a wide following. The month before that, an eagles’ nest in Florida holding two eggs was the focus of intense observation.
Webcams are nothing new. Zoos, tourist attractions, and countless "regular people" host webcams to showcase their interests, hobbies or in some cases, the most intimate details of their lives.
“One of the first video ‘successes’ (actually it was an auto-refresh still image) was the Trojan Room Coffee Pot,” said Colin Helb, a Pennsylvania communications professor and Internet culture studies chair for the Popular Culture Association. “Initially, the cam was set up so people working farther away from the break room could see if there was coffee in the pot, others on the Internet started watching. I did as well. I'm not sure why, but the voyeurism of watching someone else's life (even as simple as a coffee pot) seems to have been a part of the Internet from the start.”
The desire to step out of your life and experience someone else’s for a moment, be it a caffeine-deprived office worker or a giraffe in the late stages of pregnancy is often rooted in an escapist impulse.
Since the dawn of the Internet era, increasingly we have lived in this weird world where there are cameras everywhere, and social media and other Internet sites disseminate information live right into our home computer or tablet or cell phone. Give or take some spotty reception in remote areas, people have the world at their fingertips most of the time.
It’s what they do with it that makes the difference between technology that enhances or takes over your life.
Now more than ever, with alarming political news and conflict filling people’s social media newsfeeds, escape is a valuable commodity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. In fact, the Internet opens us to a whole world we otherwise might not have the time or resources to explore, and certainly giraffes are not the worst company to fall in with in the depths of the Internet.
“Smile a little bit – it’s okay to find some bits of pleasure whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on right now,” Helb said, adding that as someone who makes his living studying online social and political discourse, even he is overwhelmed these days by the onslaught of serious issues clamoring for attention.
A healthy balance is a good goal for online activity.
The mere fact that you can open a screen and watch a sunrise in Sydney, the grass grow on a suburban Denver lawn or the bubbling of a lava lamp in the U.K. might seem like a good enough reason to do so.
Dr. Nancy Kalish, a retired Sacramento State University psychology professor didn’t see harm in it.
“If someone wants to watch grass grow, well, so what really?” she said in an email. “As a time out from a stressful day, why not? I doubt that anyone is actually sitting in front of the screen for any length of time doing that, but if it bring some contentment, as a restorative environment, who am I to criticize?”
Most people are probably not sitting for hours at a time glued to their screens staring at April the giraffe, who has been pacing restlessly around her stall for weeks now, breaking for meals, occasionally pausing to canoodle with her partner or lick the camera lens. Rather, it’s something they might check in with during a few idle moments in their days, Helb said.
But it should never be a substitute for real life.
The allure of so much “real life” drama out there at the click of a mouse can result in a life lived behind a screen rather than out in it. Helb said making a point of putting down your devices, stepping away from your screens and not being in on the latest meme or viral video can help to restore a good balance as well as stemming the flow of information overload.
There's a world of experiences outside your own door waiting for your discovery.
“Pay attention to your own creature you birthed!” Helb said.