Sonali Ranjit and Vaishnav Balasubramaniam
When the couple, better known as Sona and Vai, created WindowSwap back in June 2020, they weren’t expecting its quick rise as an online sensation. With daily views in the tens of thousands and a steady stream of submissions, the web experience has gone on to touch millions.
The idea was sparked from a yearning for a different sight from their everyday, as would most of us have during lockdown. With the support of a few friends, they created a platform to share and watch recorded snippets of one’s daily view.
Open windows — to homes in Ibiza, Hong Kong, Arizona — and listen to pitter patters, music playing off speakers, and sometimes deafening silence. Sounds so foreign yet so familiar.
Somewhat a divulgence, this opportunity to peek through people’s private views reveals a quiet intimacy you rarely find today with more performative media like vlogs and livestreams.
During our conversation, Sona and Vai shared about their greatest joys and lessons from creating a shared online space, and touching anecdotes of old and young born of it.
Hi Sona and Vai, tell us who you are and what you do.
Sona (S): We're Indians who moved to Singapore about two years ago. Before that, we lived in Shanghai. Both of us work in advertising. I'm an art director, and I work in an independent agency here call BLKJ.
Vai (V): My name is Vaishnav Balasubramaniam, and I am a copywriter [at Leo Burnett].
How did WindowSwap come about?
S: We were feeling stifled during the lockdown. Back in May, we could only leave the house to buy groceries and come straight back home. We live in an apartment with not a very exciting view: shiny glass of the buildings next door.
We were looking out and feeling a bit bored of the view, but happy to be safe. I don't know, I guess we had mixed feelings.
Around that time, we saw a friend’s Instagram story. He had this amazing picture of his window in Barcelona. It was such a great view, but he was complaining about how tired he was of looking at the same window everyday.
That's when we started joking a bit and thought, we’re sure he would appreciate being able to look through our window; and I wish we could get a chance to look out onto the streets of Barcelona. Like we could swap windows and I guess, while joking about it, that's when the idea struck.
It started with 16 videos. As soon as we got the idea, we realised that we had to move really quickly because it seemed like such a simple idea, that we're sure someone in the world would do it if we didn't. We scrambled to get some videos from our friends, and the site development took two weeks.
V: We had to make it fast. And I guess at that time, we were quite hopeful that this whole thing would end very soon.
View from Sona and Vai’s home
Were there hurdles during the pilot phase?
V: No, the idea was pretty simple – to be able to exchange views to cure your wanderlust.
S: Originally, our plan was to have 30 minute videos. That would really feel like looking out the window. But then we realised that was pushing it — the videos will end up being really heavy for one thing, and then it's also kind of cumbersome to record, which is why we changed it to 10 minute videos.
I remember when we first put them up, people were like, Are you crazy? No one's going to want to consume 10 minutes of nothing. You should put them on Tik Tok.
V: And that was exactly another reason why we built this. Because, you know, when you have a billion people using something like Tik Tok, there's another group of people who really want to be served as well. If you have fans for one thing, there will be an opposite end of the spectrum. We kind of knew that place was untapped. So, we had hope for the 10 minute videos.
Views from Hong Kong and USA
That’s true, and how has the response been so far?
V: Right from the start, we were getting a lot of input from the community. Pople wanting to know if they could, for instance, go back to ‘find’ a window or ‘save’ a window... some people wanted to go to a particular country. Originally, we liked the serendipity of not knowing where you're going to land at next. For example, you might have a picture of Kazakhstan in your head. But when you see it and realise it's nothing like how you imagine, that changes your mind in a certain way. It kind of shatters on preconceived notions — the shuffle system. But it seems like people want the search function, so we are thinking of introducing that. We realised at some point that we'll have to give people what they want.
S: All our videos have sound — some of them have music, sounds of crickets or bird song, and others have traffic. We realised that some people didn’t want sounds. That was a straightforward feature that we could work to get fix immediately, and so we added the mute button.
People have been really helpful in giving us feedback in that way. We don't have a big testing team. It's just the two of us, our freelance developer, and some friends who try it on their phones. Through our users, we found out that it wasn't working on a few devices, Safari, the iPad, things like that, and so we got them fixed.
Can you describe your experience of getting your first 1000 viewers?
S: It was a slow burn. We shared the first 16 videos on our Instagram and Facebook. Some of our friends shared it with their social networks, and people seemed to like it. So we got a little bit of traction, but not crazy amounts.
Then we thought well, let's try put up a post on Bored Panda, where people like to share wholesome and uplifting content. We did that and that's when we started getting four or five videos a day from strangers around the world, which we were so excited about. Then we sent a few mails to industry magazines like Campaign Asia, It's Nice That and The Stable. After that, someone posted about us on a subreddit called Internet is Beautiful. And that really went viral.
V: But the thing is, I believe the reason why WindowSwap took off is word of mouth. In our survey, one of our questions is, Would you recommend WindowSwap to friends? Out of thousands of replies, 96% of them have said that they will recommend us to a friend.
S: A lot of people have said that they loved it so much they shared it with all their friends and family. The cute thing is that it's not just people our age who enjoy WindowSwap. It's so universal. We have quite a few viewers who are between 50 to 90 years old.
We got an email from an 87 year old woman who sent us this shaky picture, just a picture. We said, Oh, we only put up videos. She said, Oh, I'm so sorry. I don't know how to do that my age, but I will enjoy the website. Very sweet. And then we got a video from a seven year old boy whose mother had sent us a video from his window.
It’s nice to hear about how WindowSwap can be something for everyone. What have been the most memorable for you both?
V: It has to be the love we have received. I mean, feeling like a celebrity is one thing. But then, people don't know who we are; they like WindowSwap. That's something we created. They don't even know our faces, but there's so much love coming in — that, I was not ready for. It feels incredible.
The biggest joy is to be able to make so many people happy. The second one — I didn't make this the biggest joy because it's also a heavy piece of information — was when we got an email from a nurse in the United States. She has been playing these videos to her patients in the hospice, and they are loving it a lot. These might be the only views they get to see before they die, the only chance for them to see the ‘outside world’ or a different country. She said that she's going to spread WindowSwap to other hospices as well.
S: It was really lovely. Apart from the hospice, we've also gotten quite a few emails from people with disabilities and senior citizens who are homebound or cannot leave the house because of COVID, sharing with us that WindowSwap is helping to ease their anxieties. It’s nice to that something that we just built as a fun project have an effect that we didn't know would be this profound. We didn't know that it will touch people so deeply.
V: It's gone from wanderlust to a lot of other forms of, I don't know, emotions.
Views from Taiwan, Japan, USA
That’s powerful. How have these stories shaped how you’re thinking about what’s next?
V: We weren't sure about how big or viral this would be. Or you know, how long it would last. I mean, some viral content lasts for about a week, or two, or three, and then it vanishes. But this is still going strong. We have regular viewership everyday — tens of thousands of people coming in daily. So we'll have to start really thinking about the infrastructure and servers; at some point, we will load all 9000 odd videos we’ve gotten so far.
S: It seems like people are going to be using this past COVID. Beyond using WindowSwap to ‘travel’ or feel less housebound, people are also using it to relieve anxiety and stress as a de-stressor relaxation tool, such as a background while working and tiny meditation sessions.
On the point that Vai made, we now have 150 videos on the site at any point — we replace videos every week with new batches — because the current site is only made for a small number of videos to preserve quality.
V: Yeah, we are planning to showcase all those videos. It’s not only going to be the nice ones or the fancy looking houses.
We're working on a platform that will help us to host all of these. That's going to be expensive for us, so we are working out a way to cover those costs. I'm sure we will be come up with something pretty soon where people would be able to seamlessly enjoy the videos, search for particular countries, or seek them out based on sounds.
I'm sure it's also been a great self-discovery journey. What are lessons you had, or perspectives that have shifted over the past few months for you?
S: I think something that we noticed from the beginning is that, at the end of it all, our differences are just superficial. We're more alike than we are different. Maybe we speak different languages and eat different food, but at the end of it, people are people at the heart of it.
I guess WindowSwap evokes connectedness, when people realise that someone across the world has taken the time to record 10 minutes of their view, and then send it to WindowSwap just in the hopes that it would brighten someone else's day. It is nice to give the community this spirit of interconnectedness.
V: For me, apart from what she said, it's also, as a creative, you know, you'll never know until you do what you love. You can just keep thinking about stuff in your head and not do it, and nothing's going to happen. It is to care about what you do, and to do what you care about. We have also tried many ideas in the past. So, it's to do what you care about and keep doing it.
S: True, and don't give up if your first try doesn't work.
Thanks for sharing that. Before you go, is there someone's story that you're curious about?
V: Wow, there are so many people I'm curious about, that's the problem. I think I'd write about all of them someday.
S: There was this one guy who wanted us to call him Jef Badger. He had five badgers in his backyard. And in the UK, badgers are feral — you can't really tame them, and you’re not allowed to feed them. But he seemed obsessed with them — he sent us a video of a badger party happening at night in his backyard. We would really like to know his story.
View from France