'Watch People Code' is the weird internet's latest phenomenon.
The latest thing you can watch on YouTube or Twitch, a site where you can watch other people play video games, isn't a League of Legends match or a Starcraft championship. Instead, it's a dude, sitting in his house in Russia, staring at a black screen, writing thousands of lines of Python as he tries to create a new search engine.
Welcome to the world of Watch People Code, a premise which couldn't possibly be any more straightforward and is exactly what it sounds like. It's an idea that hasn't exactly taken off yet, but that has at least gotten a bit of a following. The associated subreddit that it grew out of has garnered nearly 5,000 subscribers in less than a month, and at any given time, you can, well, watch someone code.
On a recent day, I watched a guy program a dartboard game on Twitch, a search engine on YouTube, and a program to connect League of Legends players with each other. At any given time, there's at least someone to watch code, and while I confess I didn't stick around long enough in any given feed to pick up any tips of my own, its boosters say it's a good way to improve your coding.
"We're kind of puzzled that it took off this fast, but it's not boring. Streamers provide commentary about what they're doing, and there's always a lot of stuff going on in the chat," Alexander Putilin, the Russian programmer working on a search engine told me. "And, as a streamer, I've actually learned from some of the viewers who asked me a question about what I was doing or who offered helpful advice."
And maybe we shouldn't be so surprised it's taken off. When Twitch originally launched in 2011, the dominant narrative was this is so stupid—who would want to watch someone else play a video game, when you can just do it yourself? Well, Twitch is now the top livestreaming video site in the world, and more than 55 million people watch Twitch streams each month. The site was even home to a veritable cultural phenomenon, Twitch Plays Pokemon, in which thousands of people controlled a Pokemon master using keystrokes programmed in the site's chat box. Twitch sold for nearly a billion dollars to Amazon last year.
So if people like watching other gamers defeat a hard boss, maybe it's only logical that a programmer might enjoy watching a colleague solve a tough problem.
Putilin runs the Watch People Code subreddit and website with a friend and his girlfriend, and it's kind of taken on a life of its own already. His "Building a Search Engine" series now has 11 archived episodes dating back to early November. Some of them are short—a quick explainer is just two minutes. Others, such as a two hour session spent building the backbone of the engine or an hour spent only fixing bugs, require a bit more patience on the part of the viewer.
The plan, he says, is to teach people, but it's also to create a better search engine than the one reddit currently provides, which is notoriously terrible.
"I wanted to demystify things for people," he said. "But I also wanted to see if I could make an easier way to search reddit."
Putilin has even organized his coding sessions into "seasons" and episodes, as you would a drama. So is there much entertainment value here? Not unless you're super into coding, as you'd expect.
A recent thread on reddit asked viewers why in the world they're spending their time watching someone else write a bunch of lines of computer code, and the responses were surprisingly varied: Some wanted to watch other people's setups, to see what they could change about their own; others hoped to learn by being immersed in something, rather than starting from the ground up; others were simply scouting for new projects. And then, a couple people said they did it simply because they thought it was fun.
"There's a certain unpredictability to it—I don't know if I'd call it drama, but it's interesting to watch people struggle and think for 10 minutes and then figure out what they need to do," Putilin said. "I think that's really awesome to watch."