NEW YORK • As Americans dutifully sequester themselves, one popular distraction has been the window into other people's rooms: the glimpses of the domestic habitats of colleagues, celebrities and newscasters that video meetings, Twitter public service announcements and home broadcasts are affording people.
The thrill is in the decor peeping, the code switching signalled by the elegant millwork and beautifully bound classics behind the shoulder of your hoodie-wearing boss; the glossy leaves of a philodendron that derail a staff meeting; the animal hide in a new manager's bedroom.
A colleague's baby. News anchor Anderson Cooper's bookshelves (the gilded bindings and was that a faux-malachite wall finish?). Veteran journalist Dan Rather's swoopy white laminate kitchen and accordion blinds. The bark wallpaper in comedian Jimmy Fallon's house. Who can concentrate on the endless news?
"Nice friggin' kitchen," Sara Sheehan, a producer and documentary film-maker in Westchester County, New York, blurted out during a strategy meeting with a male colleague.
"Before the call, I thought, 'Oh, young guy. Just starting out. Starter house.' And then I saw the kitchen. The marble backsplash. The window treatments. I probably should have controlled my response. But your inner voice becomes your outer voice by accident and change of venue."
It was the grommet curtains in Mr William Brangham's living room that set off Ms Elaine Griffin, an interior designer in Brunswick, Georgia.
It is a beautiful room and Ms Griffin was not the first to get bogged down by its details and tune out the reporting delivered by the sober Mr Brangham, a correspondent for PBS.
On this night, he was interviewing a hospital chief executive about the shortage of medical supplies and the terrible challenges her workers were facing.
Ms Griffin, briefly, allowed herself an escape. She was clocking the white sofa and was that a John Robshaw pillow? Was the painting above fibre art? It seemed to have a texture to it. She noted the fireplace and bookshelves, more elegant than most.
So why, she wondered, "does he have the US$19.99 (S$29) panels from Bed Bath & Beyond? He has a fireplace, why did he cheap out on the curtains?"
She pivoted to two bookshelves flanking the French doors behind Mr Brangham's head: "You know his ceilings are higher than eight feet (2.4m). He's in a million-dollar townhouse in Georgetown. Like, why don't they go floor to ceiling?"
When citizens were urged into self-isolation or quarantine 100 years ago, they had but books and letters to comfort them.
Now, people peer through the tiny eyes of smartphones and laptops and the world peers back. We have all become voyeurs, and critical ones at that.
"We can't help it," Ms Griffin said. "We are visual creatures. It is in our DNA to observe and judge.
"Everyone from the intern to the guy in the C-suite is having meetings from home. People decorate their homes to please themselves, and now it's open judging season for folks they would previously have never invited over."