Embarrassing open mic nights, topical parodies, gaming tutorials—these are the YouTube videos we know. The ones we replay and the ones we send to our friends, coworkers, families, and everyone we know. But YouTube has another layer. One where view counts sit at zero and bizarre bits of film rot away in indifference. It’s a dark, morbidly fascinating world—and it’s easy to invade.

Statistically, those big, breakout hits that overshadow everything else are rare. Demonstrably rare. Those aren’t what make up the majority of YouTube videos. Instead, a significant portion of the site’s catalogue is, in essence, nothing—over one-third of YouTube videos have fewer than 10 views total. It’s not that they’re simply blocks of white noise; rather, it’s that many of them might as well be. For all the hundreds of thousands of hours of footage that make up this particular sect, not a single person has ever laid eyes on any of it.

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“Basic hat flipping for beginners,” starring the most menacing looking tween I have ever seen.

That’s because the vast majority of these unloved digital orphans are wholly amateur—if that. Parents recording kids’ soccer games. Friends dancing at a wedding. Someone’s dog just sitting. Silently. And those are just the ones being recorded intentionally. It’s painfully clear (particularly with names like LJAV.mp4 and My Unedited Video) that some of these people don’t even realize their videos are being uploaded. Does it begin to feel like a mild invasion of privacy? It sure does. Did that stop me from wanting to watch on? Not in the slightest.

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This look into another person’s existence is exactly what makes unseen footage so fascinating. Sure, a fair share of the never-viewed come from people recording TV shows and FIFA video game replays, but that’s not what got me hooked. What I found was a raw, earnest portrait of humans at their most vulnerable—either because they thought no one was looking or because they so badly wanted someone to, and no one ever did. Until now.

Barely more than a year old, Petit Tube is just one of several gateways into YouTube’s virgin underbelly—that sizable mass of uploaded videos with a total view count of no views at all—and the first I happened to stumble upon. But in terms of uninterrupted, easy watching, Petit Tube is just about as good as it gets. When I first saw the site, it felt less like a random collection of videos and more like a long, bizarre film with a singular narrative (albeit one with poor character development and a drunk toddler directing).

The site simply exists as little more than a novelty—something to stand in stark contrast to the viral meme machine that is YouTube’s current recommendation engine. Clips play one after the other, picked entirely at random from YouTube’s cache of zero-view videos, leaving you free to sit back and let fate take its course or click through to the next if you start to get antsy.

While I still have no idea what Morris Media actually does, I do know that is one mean little girl.

I sat and gawked as the parade of unseen videos marched along—my first taste of all the weird, wonderful, and off-putting uploads YouTube has to offer. But why bother looking when no one else cared? The (admittedly sizable) voyeur in me couldn’t resist. It’s free, unfettered window access—and someone’s already pulled up the blinds. There’s no fear of being found. No need to stifle any impulses to gasp or laugh. Instead, I was free to stare candidly, directly into the life of another human.

Oh no.

And though I’m loath to admit it, there is a deep, gruesome sort of ego validation in knowing that you are literally the first person to ever behold this short, frozen flash of a stranger’s existence—which is a wildly intimate thing to partake in in itself. But it was hard to dwell on any one thought or scene for very long—the videos never stop flashing by.

Old car commercials turned to 80s Turkish talk shows turned to high school French presentations to many an abuela’s birthday party, and these tiny moments from around the world began to blur and blend together, erasing all intrinsic meaning. For the briefest of moments, I was certain I’d grasped at least a modicum of a fraction of a sense of the so-much-greater-than-myself breadth of what humanity actually was.

And then the man in the horse mask began to masturbate.

Thankfully, the camera never actually points below the belt.

The total lack of any eyeballs ever baffled me. What reason could you possibly have for uploading a video without an audience already in mind?

Still, when reasons were hard to come by, inventing an explanation proved just as useful. In the case of Kitty and Witty’s 300 30-second sitcoms—and considering the bad jokes and uncanny valley-ness of it all—I reasoned that the target audience was Twitter’s entire arsenal of Will Ferrell parody accounts. For spambots cannot click.

I think Kitty and Witty are confused by the definition of the word “live.”

Kids’ intentions, on the other hand, tend to be pretty straightforward. They’re their own audience, recording their accomplishments for no reason other than to cement the fact that, yes, they created this thing. And in the case of one child, what a lovely, not-at-all-PETA-friendly thing it was.

That trailer is definitely not made for multiple horses.

It was videos like this, were no public audience was ever really intended, that I started to feel like I was violating some sort of sacred internet trust.

What’s more, that feeling started popping up in some wildly unexpected places. Taking the horseman video above, there was no question in my mind what was happening off-screen. Until I looked at the rest of his videos.

Joerg: The Early Years.

A bow and arrow. He was playing with a bow and arrow. The entire account is him recording and acting out scenes from anime. I immediately assumed depravity, but what was actually there was—in a certain light—vaguely sweet. And entirely depressing.

In fact, most of what I saw on Petit Tube wasn’t threatening. Rather, it was sad on a very real, human level. These people just weren’t as weird as I wanted them to be. Because I probably wasn’t that far off myself.

The more relatable these total strangers became, the more infuriating it was wondering why. Why hasn’t anyone ever seen these videos? And what’s even the point?

Is this a Soylent ad?

There were, of course, a few things I could know for certain.

  • Whether or not the subject knows they’re being filmed, for the most part.
  • The general part of the world in which its taking place.
  • Judging by the title, whether the video was uploaded entirely by accident.

And that’s pretty much it, leaving quite a bit of room for wild speculation. For example, I wanted to believe that the man below made a video of himself half-heartedly working out for some vain, wildly self-indulgent reason.

Not necessarily what I would choose for pump-up music, but to each his own.

Maybe he’s making a video dating profile. Maybe he likes to fall asleep to the sound of his own grunting. And maybe it’s just a one-man, low budget sequel Rocky—delightful possibilities, all. But they’re also probably far more interesting than the reality.

A man selling exercise equipment is far less compelling than a man selling his body, and though I might feign relief at finding out its the less scandalous option, it’s hard not to feel disappointed upon the realization that these people really aren’t that different from me, my friends, my family—really, from everyone.

And as I began to see these people as more than just flat images on a screen, another sense started creeping up. The sense that, despite the anonymity and implied willingness of all involved parties, I was probably peering in on something I neither should nor needed to be. Even when it was totally innocent. Even when it was a sad, tired old dog.

The silence makes me wildly nervous/dear god, please don’t eat that dog.

The title of this video? He want a suitable place to take a rest. Why did he choose a couch in the basement of the set of Deliverance? That is beyond me, and also irrelevant. He want a suitable place to take a rest.

And yet, throughout this (disconcertingly) quiet video of Frankie (the dog looks like a Frankie), I was given an odd, very specific set of clues about the silent cameraman. I knew what his house looked like. I could take a stab at his general income bracket. And he certainly appeared to care deeply for his dog. All of this was enough to form a hazy, bizarre sort of connection to this person I know absolutely nothing about.

A palate cleanser for you.

Just as in every instance, I’d shared in this impossibly small part of a person’s existence that literally no one else before me had. And in an internet that prizes irony above all else, these very real, intimate portraits of others’ lives are almost overwhelmingly earnest. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

These unassuming videos offer a much-needed, blessed respite from the self-importance that litters so many corners of the internet these days. But more than that, they’re a reminder that the things we see and share and fav on a daily basis aren’t what make up the totality of the world. That role belongs to the millions of others who, frankly, don’t even care whether we’re watching or not.

And that horse mask is going on regardless.

Illustration by Sam Wooley