A screen with a view: Window Swap website offers relief from pandemic cabin fever
It all began with a restless soul in Barcelona, someone yearning to travel, but stuck at home during the pandemic.
He posted a photo of the view from his window, and announced that he was thoroughly tired of it. His friends in Singapore offered to find him a new vista and the Window Swap website was born. (History does not record how someone gets tired of any view in Barcelona.)
Window Swap's invitation to the user is as straightforward as it is tantalizing: "Open a new window somewhere in the world."
Vaishnav Balasubramaniam and Sonali Ranjit, the Singapore-based couple who created the website, said people are using it in ways they couldn't have imagined.
"One of the most interesting messages we received was from a retired nurse who worked at a hospice. He thanked us so much for this slow content that all those old people could watch, and that it might be the last view they would see of the outside world," said Balasubramaniam.
There's a certain intimacy about the Window Swap experience; you're stepping into the living quarters — and the life — of a total stranger, often on the other side of the planet. It's a strange, liminal space: you're on the threshold, you've been invited to step inside but you aren't physically there, and your view is limited to what your host sees outside the window.
At last count, the website offered window views from about 175 countries, and the user experience is constantly changing.
"We have about 130 videos on the site every week that we keep refreshing and updating," said Ranjit. The couple has amassed a library of about 6,000 video submissions, so there is no shortage of new views.
If you take Ranjit and Balasubramaniam up on their invitation, you might end up gazing out the window and seeing a downpour in New Delhi, or a garden in Edinburgh.
Real people live here
In a sense, Window Swap is the anti-Airbnb; you won't find the uniform white walls, spare decor, and tasteful Scandinavian aesthetic so common to holiday rentals — no matter where in the world they're located. Real people live here: messy rooms abound, as do plants and pets. Oh, yes, the pets: another attraction for certain users of the website.
"We get a lot of tweets talking about how many pets people have spotted that day, what kind of cats or dogs and stuff like that," said Balasubramaniam. "And yeah, every week [after updating the videos] there's this group that comes back talking about pets and how many cats or how many dogs or what breed [they've spotted].... It's pretty serious business."
Something strange overcomes you when you look at all these personal snippets of people's lives.- Sonali Ranjit
For Ranjit, the glimpse of lives being lived on the other side of the world evokes a powerful feeling of sonder, a word coined in 2012 by John Koenig for his project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Sonder has been defined as the profound feeling that any random person, including the stranger you pass in the street, has a life as full and complex as yours.
"We didn't think of this when we originally started the website," Ranjit explained, "but once we started getting all these views from all around the world, something strange overcomes you when you look at all these personal snippets of people's lives. And I realized that it was this - what I heard somewhere called sonder.
"It's that feeling you get sometimes when you're on a bus, or you're walking through a crowded street and you realize that everybody around you, that you're walking past, you're bumping into, everybody has their own rich, complex lives," she said.
Ranjit said that Window Swap can offer that same realization. "You click on a random window and you realize that you're peeking into a life of someone who is living a life every bit as complicated, and strange, and hard, and wonderful as yours is."
A screen that helps users calm down
To be sure, not all users of the website will be seeking a profound life experience; some are just looking for distraction at a time when home offices, computer screens, and Zoom meetings are constant COVID-19 companions.
Balasubramaniam says the project's popularity does make sense from a tech perspective.
"There's this unsaid rule that that says, you know, when there's a huge audience bingeing on something, let's say like TikTok or other short-form, bite-size content, there has to be another huge group of audience on the opposite end of the spectrum, waiting to be served. People who are tired of constant action on their screens - or just tired of noise," he said.
Balasubramaniam believes Window Swap appeals to that second group. "A lot of people are saying they're using Window Swap as the second screen while working, you know, just to calm down, just to calm down the sounds and concentrate on work," he said.
As you gaze out of a stranger's window, you might develop a certain strange kinship with whoever lives here: admiring the posters on the wall, checking out the glorious array of plants, and wondering at what it must be like to peer out at the Tokyo train tracks from your living room window.
Balasubramaniam recalled landing on his dream window, which brought him a certain kind of comfort, complete with soundtrack.
"Mine was this gorgeous view in Italy, which had this very hypnotizing wind chime, which just kept revolving all the time. And the view was to die for. But I could just look at that for hours. And there was this really soothing kind of classical music playing in the background. That was definitely one of my windows I was drawn to."
The creators say Window Swap may be helping people "travel" during the pandemic, but they hope it outlives COVID-19.
"Yeah, wanderlust is a big part of it," said Ranjit, "but it seems like people also use it as a distraction while working or, you know, to brighten up the cubicle. So hopefully that sticks around for a bit longer… As long as people are interested and we can afford to keep it up, we'll keep Window Swap up."
Written by Mary Hynes. Interview produced by Rosie Fernandez.