Last spring, a new tenant moved into the building across the street from mine. I know this because I watched the agent show him the apartment, a formal and nervous darting from room to room while she stood in the doorway. I watched him and a friend carry box after box up the stairs and deposit them in the two rooms of the apartment. I watched as he set up the bed in one room right under the window, and I noticed how long it took him to put sheets on it, and how long the other of the two rooms was just a pile of clothes and books on the floor. I watched the day a girl came over and helped him hang up all the clothes on the floor. I watched him bring home a series of girls to his bare mattress under the window and I noticed when it started being the same girl over and over. Almost two months into his living in the apartment, he bought furniture and a rug and the house looked like a real person lived there. It is perhaps the proudest I have ever been of another human being.
I have never spoken to this neighbor and I never will speak to him. New York City offers a wealth of other people’s windows, a gathered and accumulated interest in the lives of others, a daily and thoughtless voyeurism more pervasive and more permitted than can be found anywhere else. I have never actively watched this neighbor, never planned or intended to check on what he’s doing. But in this city we all live pressed up against one another, and his life unfolds in front of mine—it would be more of an effort to avoid its observation than to watch, becoming invested in him as though he were a fictional character. In this city, at every moment, one is sharing one’s life with a vast number of people one does not and will not ever know.
When my next door neighbors fight, it sounds like television—they are in their sixties or seventies, maybe, and their voices sound like Turner Classic Movies come to life; it took my boyfriend and me months to realize that they were actually talking, not watching television. I once lived next door to a classical cellist, who would practice each day at the end of the afternoon. His cello soundtracked my coming home from work or getting ready to go out, as I stood at the mirror in the bathroom with slow strings aching out from the walls. My life in New York has been as much defined by the lives of numerous strangers with whom I have happened to find myself in proximity as by anyone here whom I’ve loved.
I recently started using Snapchat, the appeal of which is not only its impermanence but also its banality. By offering its users the promise of the ephemeral—your images will be gone so soon—it has permitted not salaciousness so much as the boring, the uninteresting, the small moments unlikely to compel attention. It relieves users of the obligation to join aesthetic building blocks in a finely honed narrative. We all made fun of Twitter when it first began to be popular because “who wants to read about what everyone had for breakfast,” but that’s the version of the internet we all want. The kind of everyday, ongoing, ceaseless voyeurism into which both technological modernity and this city pitch their residents isn’t about seeking titillation. What we look for in the lives of others is not something sexy but rather the opposite, those boring, unsexy moments that seem to prove real knowledge of a person.
Social media offers an unearned closeness, or at least the illusion of it. One does not have to invest effort—neither the labor of emotional presence nor the sacrifices of choice—to witness the small dumb events of another person’s day, the bottom line of intimacy where another person is eating take-out from the carton while doing a face mask, all polish and staging dropped. I have rarely seen my neighbors undress, have sex, or do anything particularly dramatic, but what feels at once reassuring and uncomfortable is watching them sit cross-legged on a couch illuminated by the blue glow of the computer, watching them order and eat an entire pizza alone, watching them slump dejectedly after a date or a friend leaves. The tabloid was an earlier form of popular, sanctioned voyeurism. It promised salacious details of affairs and heartbreaks and bankruptcy, all the indignities that prove celebrities are no better than the rest of us. But much of what tabloids publish is deeply boring—celebrities getting in and out of cars, going to the gym, walking down the street with an iced coffee, eating lunch. It’s the “everyone tweeting what they had for breakfast” internet, but with famous people—the false closeness that comes from witnessing not the dramatic details of someone else’s life, but the most boring ones.
Both New York City and social media are essentially repetitive while appearing to be inexhaustible: the same places, the same people, the same revelations appear again and again, signposting our navigation of these public worlds. Watch enough people’s stories on Snapchat and you quickly begin to realize that for the most part the same people post the same things over and over again in very slightly altered forms. We navigate cities by finding things we can repeat: the same coffee order at the same coffee shop and the same sandwich order at the same bodega, the same pattern of steps to the same subway, so that these spaces that seem chaotic in fact become a pre-loaded dance diagram, repeating on an endless loop. The comfort of voyeurism is to witness this repetition in strangers—each night the old couple on the top floor across the street come in at the same time after a walk around the neighborhood and settle into the same chairs. The ongoings of the lives of strangers root us in our own lives. They create the landscape of the city in the way trees create the landscape of a forest; other people are the scenery, the material that gives the city dimensions. Social media is similarly a landscape made up of the lives of others, in which we know where we are because we know who we’re watching. Both spaces accustom their inhabitants to voyeurism, until it’s so constant that it seems strange to give a name to it at all. Watching other people live their lives has become the fabric of our day, the thing we do so ceaselessly that we don’t notice we’re doing it.
We live in an age of permitted voyeurism, and in this way social media has made us all city-dwellers. Lying awake in bed at night, I watch the end of a party in another apartment across the street—people are going home, receding out of the warm yellow light that pours from door to sofa across the small room. I imagine stories onto them, abandonments and betrayals, triumphs and reversals. Voyeurism, in the city and on the internet, is also an exercise in greater compassion, an imperative to remember that people who are not oneself or one’s loved ones, who do not look like oneself, are still struggling in the same small ways, making the same small mistakes, and gaining the same small victories. The city is a reminder that everyone is a whole story of their own, and everyone is equally human. Three people have stayed at the party after it’s no longer still a party. The story I imagine onto them is, I’m almost sure, more interesting than the real story of their evening, but I dream it onto the canvas of their observed life anyway. Then I turn over and go to sleep, lulled by the noises of this gigantic buzzing place, this massive social network made up of other people’s windows.
Illustrations by Alisha Sofia