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How virtual fireplaces entered our daily lives

Virtual fires have managed to establish themselves in homes within a few years. On Netflix and Youtube, they now accompany their users throughout winter, and even beyond. How and why have these strange digital objects entered our daily lives?

In Quebec, “se tirer une bûche” (“pulling yourself a log”) means grabbing a stool to sit at a table full of guests. Indeed, what could be more representative than a log, in all its forms, to encapsulate the magic of the holidays, during the long winter nights. But the log smelling of earth and the humidity of the cabin has had a new major challenger in recent years: the virtual fireplace, or rather the video of filmed fire.

Dopamine & chill

The first time you hear about it, you may find it incongruous, even silly, and take it as a new absurd ephemeral trend, like 30 year-old Pauline: “I discovered these not so long ago. At first, I looked at them quite critically. I come from Haute-Savoie, where real fireplaces are legion. I didn’t understand the principle, nor that of online fireplace fires, nor that of false electric fireplaces”. Since then, it has been impossible for her to do without them, alone or with her family. Same story with Marie, who also became a fan of virtual fires on Youtube after a negative prejudice:

“My grandmother had this on VHS. On the cassette, there were even other videos, like an aquarium. At the time I judged her quite a bit, I thought it was kitschy. But today I’ve gotten into it as well”.

How to explain the attraction for this use of virtual fireplaces – including from the most resistant?

Last November, journalist Angela Lashbrook wrote a post on Debugger (native of the Medium platform) entitled: “The Life-Changing Magic of Virtual Fireplaces”, a real plea for the use of virtual fires, whose virtues she describes in detail.

In her article, Lashbrook also lists several studies that shed light on why virtual fireplace fires are so popular. Overall, the research in question shows that watching a virtual fire (just like watching nature videos) helps to calm us down and make us “less restless”.

A study by the anthropologist Christopher Dana Lynn on the relaxing effect of fire (but for which he used a virtual fire for convenience), highlights that it lowers blood pressure in people who observe and listen to it: “fire induces relaxation as part of a multi-sensory, absorbing and social experience”.

The soothing effect is explained by the fact that the fire helps us to refocus our attention. This is also confirmed by Matthew Browning (Director of the Virtual Reality and Nature Lab at Clemson University):

“We’re all exhausted by Zoom and we don’t always want to be focused on something, it’s just exhausting. A virtual fire captures our attention so that we can daydream and just chill”

This feeling of well-being provided by virtual fires has the same soothing effect as the ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) videos, as musicologist David Christoffel explains to Madame le Figaro in January 2019:

“It’s the same type of quest for an emotion remotely controlled by stimuli. We look for every opportunity and every means of relaxation at our disposal to disconnect (…) the sound of a crackling fire is not a metaphor for the passage of time, a heavy and distressing notion. It takes us beyond the ticking of the hours and out of the daily routine”.

There is therefore a meditative and soothing side to watching or listening to a fire (be it IRL or IVL).

The musicologist also relates this to the effects that music can have on us, with one difference: “music turns on more areas of the brain. It’s the same mechanism that acts on neurons and releases dopamine”, the happiness hormone.

A success since 1966

No wonder, then, that virtual fireplaces have been a great success since their invention. Because the filmed chimney fire is not a recent fashion phenomenon, as one might think. It was around long before “relaxing chill out music” and other “lo fi study girl” streams, which abound online.

Broadcast for the first time on New York television in 1966 to allow all New Yorkers who did not have one IRL to enjoy a fireplace on New Year’s Eve, the Yule Log programme – now a veritable institution – was repeated each year as viewers were so enthusiastic. Here’s a  peek, with a bonus chat:

The filmed chimney fire then went through all media (from VHS to DVD) before invading our screens on online platforms. Its first Netflix version dates from 2010 (“Fireplace for Your Home: Crackling Yule Log Fireplace”) and the oldest version that we could find on Youtube, which dates from 2008, comes with instructions: “Make yourself a hot chocolate, relax, unwind and enjoy a virtual fireplace in this high-quality widescreen version”.

With the advent of streaming and the deployment of fibre (you still need a good speed for video to be fluid, and therefore realistic), uses have become massive and have gone beyond the American borders.

On Youtube, the most viewed video (online since 2016) has garnered nearly 45 million views:

Netflix figures are not available, but in an interview with the British newspaper The Independent at the end of 2018, the Steven Spielberg of the virtual fireplace gave his conservative estimate:

“I imagine that over 70 million views would be a good number, as people often watch them over and over again. But it might be higher, since Netflix has now made it available worldwide”.

Diversification and evolution of uses

While viewing yule log videos was initially reserved for the festive season – which is always a good time for new releases – the diversification of the offer and the deployment of very high bandwidth has also led to new uses.

Just like this Internet user who uses them as  “background sound / mood” to accompany his gaming sessions:

In his study on the effects of fire, Christopher Dana Lynn points out that fire allows us to refocus our attention. The anthropologist goes even further and tells Le Monde that “it is often easier to look at a fire when you listen to someone talking than to look at them”. It is probably for this very reason that virtual fires have also become perfect companions for work, as Pauline confirms:

“I started this when I saw people doing it on Instagram, I needed a visual background to work with. I would have been distracted by launching the TV, and it seemed like a good solution”.

This practice has been facilitated by the generalisation of remote working during confinement, but also seems to be proven outside the home:

A companion for moments well defined in time – and initially exclusively for a few days or weeks during the end of year festivities – the virtual fireplace has gradually made its way into the daily life of its “users”. Pauline admits that she has developed the “habit of letting the fire run in the background and watching a series or a film at the same time”, as has Meghan, a virtual fire user whom Angela Lashbrook met:

“For me it’s just a nice way to feel at home during a bleak season. The crackling is such a beautiful white noise, and it’s a little joy, accessible on grey days. I used to start my morning with it, coffee and a fire and then relax with the evening reading. But now it’s always running in the background”.

The habit therefore extends for some people well beyond the winter season. In an article published in 2018, a journalist from Mashable describes in detail how you can experience the same benefits of the crackling log in summer:

“What you should feel if you are doing well is a kind of summer conviviality. It’s a level of comfort that you usually only feel in winter”

Whether it is to relax alone, to concentrate while working, to create a cosy atmosphere when you receive (received?) guests, or even to accompany your nights, the uses today have largely exceeded that of New York television’s Christmas Eve alone. For some, the “fireplace” is even a radio substitute, and helps to dispel the leaden silence of solitude.

Regular users of yule log often have different habits depending on the context. For example, Pauline watches different videos depending on the time of the week: “At weekends, I put the version with Christmas music on”, she confides.

Infinite variations

Since these virtual fires have arrived on streaming platforms and their use has become widespread, we have seen not only the widespread and diversified use of virtual fires with a standardised integration into our daily lives, but also real preferences in the types of virtual fires.

Like Margot, 25 years old and a purist of the fireplace 2.0: “I’m a fan of fairly basic fires. When the videos are not zoomed in, or when it’s a view from a distance with decorations, I find it a little more difficult”. Or Marie, a young thirty-something who appreciates classic fires and has her preferences “like videos with logs that fall after a while”.

Others, like Lashbrook and one of her Twitter fellows, have more iconoclastic preferences and appreciate less conventional variations that feature web and pop culture figures such as the uber-famous Lil Bub fire (2013), or comedian Nick Offerman sipping a single malt (2015):

Little by little, therefore, we are moving away from the original use; the “classic” virtual fireplace was supposed to transform cathode-ray televisions into a fireplace, just like our HD flat screens today (this is also why we tend to use them more on our TV screens than on our computer screens). The television then becomes a fireplace and the fire is part of the decor, the room and the atmosphere that we want to create.

But the variations we have just mentioned go far beyond this purist usage and they are far from being the only ones. Over time, the range has expanded considerably. And if ten years ago, it was difficult to find more than 10 videos by typing “fireplace” or “yule log” on Youtube, now it’s choosing among the platform’s plethoric offer that is difficult:

  • Animated fireplace fires:
  • The lively atmosphere family meal version:
  • The adult version (2017):

Our post-internet uses reinforced by the pandemic

At this stage, we can consider that the virtual fireplace has become a digital cultural object and, in some respects, a meme. It can be iterated ad infinitum, sometimes only for the joke, for the reference, and now also to sell, since brands have started using it, like this brand of donuts (2016) from Disney. With the increasing digitisation of our lives, the spread of use and the diversification of the offer, the virtual (chimney) fire is no longer just a funny gadget that we launch to test, or to warm up the festive season a bit. 

The virtual fireplace has become standardised and has become part of our culture and everyday life, to the point of being preferred even by those who have a real fireplace at their disposal:

Since the start of the pandemic, our lives have been more digital than ever. We have become accustomed to seeing our colleagues and family on video, but also exhibitions, shows, trade shows, conferences of all kinds, and even fireworks. This may explain why the practice of the fireplace is becoming more and more popular. In addition, curfews and lockdown force us to spend much more time at home than usual and the morale of the French – and globally – is at half mast. It is therefore not really surprising that the interest in searching for “fireplace” in Google US exploded its records during the latter part of 2020, even though – as the graph below shows – the search results spike at the end of each year.

More broadly, home videos are experiencing a resurgence of hype at the moment. As confirmed by Vice, the head of trends and usage at Youtube, who note that these videos have become new ways of taking care of oneself. Vice describes it very well; if in normal times they are “open windows on the world and soothing soundtracks for studying or working”, in 2021 they also “fill a desire” very specific to the period we are living in: the need to escape.

This is what journalist and essayist Aaron Gilbreath describes in a long article entitled “Escaping Coronavirus Lockdown Through a Stranger’s Solitary Walks on YouTube”, highlighting the Youtube channel of a Japanese man nicknamed Rambalac who makes immersive videos of walks in Japan (“pure Japan only”). Gilbreath tries to explain why, apart from the fact that these videos allow you to travel when you physically cannot:

“I didn’t want any more detective series with complex plots or fictional crimes to be solved. I didn’t want subtitles to read. Rambalac demanded nothing. No narrative structure. No subtitles. I still understood the appeal of plot: a crime to solve can provide a satisfying intellectual exercise, a puzzle to work on to the point of distraction. At first I preferred the way Rambalac emptied my mind while simultaneously filling it with urban white noise, and it took no more effort than turning on the TV”.

While for some, escape may be synonymous with travel or a change of scenery, in times of pandemic where cafés and restaurants are often closed, exoticism can become very… ordinary. The video below has totalled more than 7 million views (oh yes) on Youtube since it was put online in May 2020.

AutumnMcLean, creator of ambient videos, confirms to Vice this growing need, specific to the period we are living through: “because of the pandemic, people want to see the places they miss: pubs, cafés, parks, etc., which is perfectly understandable” and adds that some are even looking for videos in which they can hear background discussions, like a deep need to reconnect with the cruel absence of social relations for almost a year now.

Bonus: We leave you with this very 2020 Yule Log and very… #ShittyTimes 👹

 Good links: 
 - A Ted on slow TV
 - A Brief History of The Yule Log from Time
 - A Virtual Fireplace Made Out Of Bacon from Buzzfeed 
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