Something a little different and special

In this week's edition: hygge porn, collab houses, the SEO arms race, conspiracy moms, bad colors and Facebook antiquities.

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I assumed the YouTube fireplace started on YouTube, but its origins actually stretch back into the predigital past. Some 54 years ago — in 1966 — a local TV news station shot 17 seconds of hygge porn on 16mm film and looped the footage into a long, ambient broadcast.

The idea was novel for its time. (For years, a devoted fan base sleuthed out and lambasted imitators.) Now fireplace videos — and ambient YouTube, generally — are jam-packed niches vying to soundtrack our respective pandemic prisons from any available second monitor or smart TV. YouTube searches for fireplace videos spike every December, according to Google. But they’re headed for a new high this year, exceeding even the fireplace-crazed winter of 2015. (And that one I put down solely to this Nick Offerman video.)

Anyway, there are now ambient fireplace videos with snow and rain and howling storms and kittens and puppies and … Florida tourism. There are fantastical animated fireplaces, the details lavish and fairytale-esque. There are long loops of fireplaces in penthouses and luxury ski chalets, the captions promising not just “something a little different and special” — as the OG Yule Log creator did in 1966 — but “relaxation” and “stress relief” and “deep focus.” Ditto a growing bench of ambient, environmental YouTube videos, designed to mimic the look and sound of a crowded coffee shop or moving train or oceanfront pool. One of my favorite channels, called Calmed by Nature, grew from roughly 100,000 to 1.8 million weekly views in the past year alone.

In my mind, this genre is distinct from what Kyle Chayka recently called ambient TV, pointing to the likes of “Emily in Paris,” and maybe closer to the world of first-person, ambient walking videos that Aaron Gilbreath wrote about at the start of the pandemic. But even those feel a little more active, a little more ambitious.

In the walking videos, an unseen, unspeaking cameraman meanders around a foreign city, showing you what he sees through the lens. In place of plot or other conventional narrative tools, Gilbreath wrote, these videos offer “passive entertainment to distract and soothe”; they promise “atmosphere” and “discovery” and “movement.”

Fireplace videos also promise solace and distraction, but they veer a little more melancholic, I think: There’s a lot of longing looped up in these imagined holiday dioramas, where the Christmas lights are always on and the snow is always falling softly. No wonder searches are up in 2020. Never have we so badly needed a dual hit of both “something a little different and special” and “relaxation/stress relief.”

Happy holidays to those of you who celebrate; Links is off next week, but will be back with a year-end wrap-up the last week of December.

One additional programming/personal note: Today’s newsletter is slightly shorter than usual; this is why. Good vibes appreciated.

If you read anything this weekend

  1. This thought-provoking analysis of how “the SEO arms race” has made the internet worse. I’m researching SEO practices for a story right now, and this piece articulated a lot of the fascinating/insidious things I’ve picked up … specifically re: how search quietly shapes many sites’ style and content. Do not understand why the author chose to term it “SEO gentrification,” though. Officially safe to say that term has no meaning anymore...? [Nick Slater / Current Affairs]

  2. This profile of Atlanta’s new, all-Black TikTok collab houses. More than just a write-up of Collab Crib and Valid Crib, this piece is an infuriating look intp the (wildly inequitable) experience of Black influencers in America. Pair with this Wired story on TikTok and “digital blackface” that I shared in August. Actually maddening that these people with combined millions of followers can barely get some podcast-bait start-up to donate their mattresses. [Taylor Lorenz / NYT]

  3. This all-too-resonant meditation on all the lives we haven’t lived. Okay, yes, this one’s outside our normal scope … but I truly can’t stop thinking about it. These sort of timeless (cliche??) questions about mortality and existence feel nearer after a year in which so much time has vanished. After the 2020 we’ve had, what’s one more existential crisis! [Joshua Rothman / The New Yorker]

And now for something completely different


Blob opera. Tough cookies. r/MomForAMinute. Checking in with Marilyn Hagerty, the internet’s favorite food critic. The country counting on the .tv domain. The problem with Slack. How to stop conspiracy moms. (We talked about them a while back!)

Here’s a tool that recommends books outside your bubble. There’s an ethical alternative to Uber. “Accessing the black market for antiquities is no more difficult than requesting membership in the popular ‘Dogspotting’ Facebook group.” 2020’s best Tik-Toks and its worst tweets. The Pantone color sucks this year, like everything else. Last but not least: Is Wisconsin … okay? I mean … has anybody ever checked?

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One of my enduring fears in life is that my work and also personality, probably?, are over time actually getting worse. You know the anxiety I’m talking about, right? Like in 2014 I was a fun, carefree baby taking tequila shots on Wednesdays; now I’m an embittered Old. So imagine my boundless joy and gratitude when Tracy tweeted that Links has in fact … gotten better????! … over the time she’s read it. THANK YOU to Tracy & everyone else who shares this newsletter. Your referrals are the main way it finds new readers!!

— Caitlin