#114: Paper Thin Walls

We skipped from #112 to #114 today. That’s not due to superstition (I don’t think 113 is unlucky) but because I noticed I sent two consecutive #108s in December (none of you noticed) and this gets us back on track. When you number your newsletters sequentially, your only real job is to ensure the number increases by one each time, but apparently that’s too much for me. Anyway, here we go:

Last week, Taylor Lorenz wrote about the explosion of videos filmed in the bathroom on TikTok. “Videos shot in the bathroom consistently outperform those shot elsewhere, many creators say,” because bathrooms have mirrors, good lighting, and favorable acoustics, among other qualities. People have been performing in front of their bathrooms long before that was “content”—before there was a platform for sharing it with the world—but TikTok has finally turned the bathroom inside out, transforming that most private and solitary domestic enclave into a public stage, the most important room in the Hype House. A week before that piece, John Herrman similarly analyzed Ring, describing how the Amazon doorbell cameras have turned the suburban front porch into another kind of stage where the creepy and the whimsical commingle. Paired with Lorenz’s piece, Ring seems like TikTok’s evil twin, and together the platforms repurpose two traditionally mundane and functional parts of the house that have suddenly become symbolic loci in a despatialized internet galaxy.

I write a lot here about the shifting relationship between the home and the outside world in the age of streaming content, Amazon Prime, and investor-subsidized food delivery, all of which have increased the appeal of staying in relative to venturing outside. But what’s happening in the bathroom and on the porch attest to something even more powerful: digital platforms’ ability to disrupt the internal equilibrium of the home itself, and to rebalance the supply and demand for private domestic space. Instagram has fueled an overtourism boom in places like Iceland; TikTok has done the same for the bathroom, where capacity isn’t always sufficient for the kids trying to crowd in and film their material. And if the bathroom is the most porous and connected room in the house, at least for now—the foyer where you welcome your online friends to come inside—then the physical entryways are being correspondingly fortified and we won’t even answer the door. Herrman describes Ring footage in which a neighbor knocks on a door, locked out of her house and freezing: Instead of being invited inside or even encountering another human, an unseen entity simply summons the police. The porch is bigger than it needs to be while the bathroom is too small.

Everywhere we look, networked technology inverts the center and the periphery. Physical boundaries and thresholds diminish in significance as the most connected and centralized hubs gain importance. Airports and data centers benefit from spacious interior locations where they can catapult passengers or bits across borders at high speed, and that transition changes what physical structures we require to mediate the world. In their articles, both Lorenz and Herrman reference Paul Ford’s great 2014 essay “The American Room,” which examines the bland, shabby “YouTube room” as an internet trope. Ford writes, “The people dancing and talking and singing in beige rooms with 8’ ceilings are surrounded by standards, physically and online. Technological standards like HTML5 also allow us to view web pages and look at video over the Internet. All of their frolic is bounded by a set of conventions that are essentially invisible yet define our national physical and technological architecture.” With enough time, maybe, the architectural standards that shape the house will adapt themselves to their digital counterparts. To invoke one digital cliché, the internet has connected us in unprecedented ways, but that connectivity isn’t pure gain. We never open a window without closing a door.

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