the fantasy of reality

there's a young woman in a rural region of the sichuan province of china who lives with her grandmother on a family farm in the mountains.

she cooks painstakingly crafted traditional dishes. she plants and harvests fruits and vegetables. she shears sheep and rides horses. she forages for mushrooms in the woods with handmade baskets woven out of leaves. she sings and plays instruments. she does construction projects—a bamboo wall for growing cucumbers, or a rock pathway for the garden.

her name is li ziqi, and she's the most popular chinese youtuber in the world, with tens of millions of followers across platforms. i first encountered her years ago on facebook when a video of her making a wood-fired oven out of mud crossed my feed. i was immediately transfixed.

the only way i can describe her videos is that watching them is what i'd imagine swallowing a xanax would be like. they sedate you on a physical level. it's like slipping into a pool perfectly calibrated to your body temperature and just floating, eyes closed. many times in the past year, i would soothe myself by watching her tend to her little garden, the fears and stresses of the pandemic temporarily allayed.

to watch these vignettes of life in the chinese countryside is to be pulled into the fantasy of a simpler time and place, the beauty of a life grounded in the earth and in centuries-old traditions. there's a deep tranquility that permeates every moment. each frame is vivid and tangible; you can just feel what it's like to be there, what it might be like for your life to be like her life. li is infinitely resourceful and seemingly capable of making anything from scratch, and yet what she does is presented so simply that you feel certain that you could do it, too.

but one persistent thought has lingered at the back of my mind with every video i've watched, starting from that very first one. if she lives this way, how am i watching her?

the sheer amount of time that goes into production is obvious as you see watermelons bloom from seeds, seasons passing, constantly shifting angles seamlessly stitched together. her apparent solitude, removed from the modern world, is contradicted by the existence of a cameraperson and, well, us—the viewers. much of her life must happen in front of a computer, but there's rarely a trace of even basic electronics inside the home of her videos. months of work vanish with everything we don't see, everything that went into producing this digital artifact that works to erase any evidence that it had to be produced at all.

if the observer effect states that observing a system changes it, we should consider its inverse: any subject inviting observation is necessarily constructing what is observed. that's not unique to li ziqi's videos, of course, or unique to online content at all. for instance, most of us are aware of that we're seeing a manufactured reality when we watch reality tv, with meta-commentary increasingly built into shows like love island. there is no perceived trickery because we understand that the point isn't to witness how people would interact in ordinary settings; it's to be entertained.

but we've seen an aesthetic shift in online content in recent years, from obviously posed and produced to seemingly unaffected and naturalistic. facing the mounting pressures of a social media universe where we all have to be brands, more people have called for a reversal, a return to "casual posting," where it's not so much work to be online, where the minutiae of everyday life can be worthwhile content. that's perhaps most apparent in the rise of livestreaming, where content is uncut and unscripted. on twitch, you can watch streams of people playing games, drawing, doing chores, often set to lo-fi beats. it offers the illusion of perfect fidelity to real life by capturing everything in real time.

on the other end, tiktok's "for you" page is a revolving door into people's daily lives, with glimpses at someone's morning ritual or an inside joke between friends. these brief snippets represent the opposite of the totality that streams convey, and yet they're able to capture that same essence of unfiltered life. tiktoks that invited viewers to simply "hang out with us for a while" exploded last summer, turning ten-second, one-way videos into simulations of communal spaces, temporary realities where everyone could feel safe and accepted. the magic of brevity is that a tiktok can just allude to a feeling, a vibe, and our mind fills in the blanks. we can extrapolate entire lives—universes, even—from a few captured moments.

it's for that reason that i daydream sometimes about what it might be like to make tiktoks for a living. i know, though, that when i'm wistfully thinking of making tiktoks, i'm not thinking of making tiktoks. i'm thinking of doing what i see as a viewer (dancing in a parking lot with my friends, stirring cocktails against the manhattan skyline, scoring intricate patterns into a loaf of bread) without ever worrying about "making a living" again. i don't want to edit videos or grow an audience or sell merch. i want to inhabit the world i see, the world inside the tiktok. but that isn't the reality of the tiktoker; it's a reality they construct, for all of us.

maybe the big difference between reality tv and the latest wave of "reality" content—li ziqi's idyllic videos of rural life, "a day in my life" tiktoks, "study with me" videos, and so on—is that the latter is new. we're still witnessing it undergo the process of value extraction, and so there's still an air of plausibility, that it could be "real."

because it's dispensed with the need for narrative or structure, it can distill content to its fundamentals—the ambience, how it makes us feel. it's harder to identify that as a product, entertainment. part of the allure of this genre is that we need to believe that it's possible to exist this way, that a calm, focused life, without anxiety or fear or loneliness, is within reach if we just choose it. we hold onto the worlds we see on youtube or twitch or tiktok as proof.

but perhaps we should be cautious about investing too much in the reality of the content we consume. terrace house, the japanese reality show, walked the line between these two worlds. it became a hit specifically because it was focused on the quiet moments, the trivial happenings that mark the lives of ordinary young people in japan. it bore little resemblance to the over-the-top drama usually associated with reality tv; instead, it depicted the everyday and the mundane. i loved terrace house for the reason so many others did—it portrayed life in a way that felt honest and real.

but after whispers throughout the years that, counter to popular belief, the show wasn't as "real" as it appeared, it all fell to pieces last year. house member hana kimura was targeted on social media by angry viewers, furious with her for behavior she said the producers had directed, and she killed herself. her death swiftly led to a reckoning as cast members spoke out about how they were coerced by the production staff to create a more interesting reality for viewers, and the show best known for its sincerity was canceled.

it's easy to feel like we've been deceived when we learn that the reality we took to exist somewhere in this world, somewhere outside of the media we consume, was crafted for our viewing. and yet we don't stop fantasizing, imagining, dreaming. we say we want what's real, but maybe what we really want is the texture of realism applied to idealized representations of the world—the conceivably real, rather than the genuinely real.

do tens of millions of people really want to know the lived reality of the average rural farmer in china? or do they want to escape from their own complicated, messy lives laboring under capitalism in a technology-mediated world? the reality that li ziqi constructs is an impressionist painting; with some distance, you can appreciate its beauty and (for just a moment) forget where you are. but look too closely, and the illusion collapses. you realize that you're yearning for a life—a china—that doesn't exist and never did.

i want to get into the practice of writing fewer words at a time but more often, and it is hard. the past few months, i’ve been going through the artist’s way with a few friends in an effort to write more regularly (rather than in sudden dramatic spurts), but mostly that’s just produced a lot of agonizing and many unfinished drafts. got advice on creating? i want to know what works for you!

responses are my single favorite part about sharing to this newsletter, so if anything sparks a thought for you, i would love to hear it.