Working from a bustling coffee shop or a bustling library is a perfectly normal routine. Plenty of people, in fact, feel as though they can’t work any other way: Without others around them, even strangers, to give them the illusion of accountability or the sanctioning of time and space intended for productivity, some flounder under the weight of their workload.
Usually, this requirement is easy to accommodate — most colleges are even designed with these people in mind. But during quarantine, whether we’re in high school, writing our Master’s thesis or typing away at our day jobs, we’re confined to our homes.
Fortunately, the internet provides us the means to pretend we’re working someplace else –– or at least, with someone else.
On YouTube, some creators have built an entire brand around this concept, years before quarantine even began. Like those endless streams of “lo-fi beats to study and chill to,” there’s a large audience of people who find this kind of task-focused background noise to be exactly what they need to open their textbooks.
YouTuber ElloItsAngela, with more than 55,000 subscribers, has been creating these types of videos for over two years now. At the beginning of her first video, she sits down at her desk in her bedroom and explains that she’s been procrastinating all weekend on her schoolwork, and has decided to film herself catching up for two hours utilizing the Pomodoro method –– 25 minutes of studying, with 5-minute breaks in between. She’s made a cup of coffee for the occasion. The video, as promised, is two hours of her studying, with occasional breaks to stretch or grab a snack. She intermittently explains what she’s working on or how she’s feeling, but for the most part, it’s just her reading along and taking notes.
It’s not a role-play, though compared to ASMR videos where someone pretends to apply your makeup or cut your hair, the effect is almost the same. If ASMR is intended to promote relaxation, these “study with me” videos are intended to promote focus and productivity. The idea isn’t that you just sit and watch for two hours, but instead that you actually work alongside her, using her schedule of breaks. You could just as easily apply the Pomodoro method yourself, using a timer on your phone or one of the many apps designed for it, but the added visual of having someone else in front of you, doing what you’re supposed to be doing — perhaps even in a coffee shop or library with the added sounds that come with it — seems to be the added push some people need.
While many of the comments on two-hour long videos are of viewers expressing their dismay at someone’s ability to study for that long, the genre has more extreme versions, too. One YouTuber, StudyVibes, with over 103,000 subscribers, regularly live streams herself studying for more than five hours several times a week. (For college students in school full-time, the general recommendation is to study three to four hours a day.)
All of StudyVibes’ videos are livestreams of her studying industrial chemical engineering, with some as long as 12 hours. Typically, she studies for 50 minutes and then takes 10-minute breaks. In some, she allocates an hour for lunch, while in others she only takes those 10-minute breaks to eat. The comment sections mirror those of the shorter videos, with general amazement at her commitment. But among the original comments of the livestreams, the majority seem to be grateful that she’s available to study with.
“You are my inspiration to study hard, love your videos,” says one viewer named Allissa. “The reason this works as such a good motivator is because seeing the expression of seriousness on your face fires up our mirror neurons and puts us in the same mood, which uses our own brain to influence itself to study,” writes Clay.
According to psychologist Cathy Allsman, who works with students at the University of Miami, there’s good reason to believe that these videos are genuinely helpful for some. “While a personal mystery to me — I wouldn’t be motivated! — students would get online to study together before the coronavirus,” she says. “It’s the modern version of ‘Let’s go to the library and study,’ so yes, that can be motivating.”
Some might particularly benefit from the fact that these YouTubers are strangers, and that they can’t actually see the faces of their viewers. “Watching strangers study seems like it would be less motivating than watching someone you know. On the other hand, that might be less of a distraction,” says Allsman.
So, maybe for some, these videos provide the necessary inspiration, environment and encouragement to get shit done. For me, working on the same computer that’s streaming the video, the videos are almost a distraction in themselves — instead of focusing on my own work, I’m tempted to read through the comments or click one of the strategically designed thumbnails to a related video.
But more than anything, the longer videos strike me as a hustle porn brag –– a demonstration of the creator’s willpower and work ethic that maybe isn’t even healthy. After all, no matter how many hours you put into studying right now, you can’t magically fix an economy that won’t have any jobs for you upon graduation.