Twitching: a cult of hidden fame

New global cultures are emerging. Billions of people have the capacity to come together in innovative, original ways that were unforeseeable ten or twenty years ago. Communities exist in hidden pockets of the internet, divided by screens and devices and IP addresses. They organise mass anti-government protests on Facebook. They break news stories on Twitter. They share videos of terrorists beheading journalists. They read and spread fake news. They obsess over how food looks on a plate. They are wise and foolish, active and lazy, social and anti-social, but, most importantly, they are everywhere.

None of these new communities seem as future-gazing as those emerging on the live-streaming video platform twitch.tv. For those of you six years behind all things internet, twitch.tv allows individuals, groups and companies to broadcast casual or competitive videogaming and creative content to anybody who cares to tune in to their website. Two years after its conception, Twitch had 45 million unique viewers. By 2015 it had more than 1.5 million broadcasters, 100 million visitors a month and it was the fourth largest source of internet traffic during peak times in the United States (just behind Netflix, Google, and Apple). Yet, you’ve probably never heard of it.

Twitch broadcasters build their own channel and choose the visual structure of their content. They usually settle on a little box for themselves to be seen talking in the bottom corner whilst the “main content” (usually a videogame that they are playing) takes up the majority of the screen. Their channel takes up most of the twitch.tv internet window but, just as essentially, there is a chat bar to the right of the content. “Chat” is where the viewers post live comments in response to the stream. Some Twitch chat communities are known for their thoughtful, interactive relationship with the broadcaster, others are known for their decimating, meme-centred trolling of all things sacred and kind.

Watching the streams is free (there are intermittent adverts) but many of the top broadcasters are making six figure salaries. This is because there is the option for the viewers to donate or (when the broadcaster is “partnered”) subscribe. Typically, a donation is incentivised by allowing the donator to broadcast a written message, displayed centre screen, read aloud by a computer voice, live on the stream. Subscriptions ($5 a month) gain loyal viewers channel-specific emoticons designed by the broadcaster which the subscribers can then post directly into the chat-feed on any channel. Although gaining access to a few extra pixels doesn’t seem like much of a reason to spend $5, the top streamers have subscription notifications popping up every minute or two (about $150 an hour). Often, if their favourite broadcaster is not live, a posse of resolute fans will go to a competitor’s stream and spam their subscriber emoticons as a tribal act of defiance.

Kripparian, who broadcasts himself playing a popular computer card game called Hearthstone, hits an audience peak of 30,000 viewers almost every time he goes live. His twice daily youtube.com videos receive over 100,000 views within 24 hours (he has around 900,000 youtube.com subscribers and his most viewed videos have about 1.5 million views). From youtube.com alone, he is potentially earning $20,000-$200,000 a month (most Twitch users use ad-blockers across all of their viewed content so earnings are hard to estimate). It is notable that this one single video game player is watched more than the entire output of some major record labels but the most interesting thing about Kripparian is that, whilst you might have heard at least one or two of that record label’s bands or songs, almost nobody knows who Kripparian is.

This is the nature of internet culture. It remains unfound unless you are directed towards it. You have to be interested in the metrics/statistics of cross-platform websites such as youtube.com to uncover things that are globally celebrated. It is likely that when a particular song or funny video hits the one billion viewer mark it will crossover from narrow, insulated social media threads to broader mass media outlets but on the whole we tend to know very little about the things that hundreds of millions of people are actively engaged with (compare this to the 1990s when it was headline news whenever over 5 million people watched Eastenders).

Part of the appeal of Twitch, whether you are a supporter or a troll, is the community’s system of language and memes. Twitch.tv has over 200 emoticons that any viewer can use in the chat bar and all of them have different meanings. Everybody is familiar with the smiley face and the winky face but the most popular Twitch emoticon is kappa. Kappa is most commonly used as a postscript to convey sarcasm but it is also spammed (typed over and over again by multiple viewers) in the chat bar to denounce the actions, words or gameplay of the broadcaster. At the time of writing, the kappa emoticon was being typed on Twitch at a rate of 1,500 times a minute.

Kappa, like all the most popular Twitch memes, can be used in alliance or defiance of the broadcaster. Biblethump is a popular emoticon to convey sadness or empathy but it is equally used as a form of sarcasm to aggravate. Smorc denotes braindead aggressive play – and this a highly celebrated but also denounced tactic of gaming. Pogchamp expresses excitement and surprise, Elegiggle is a hilarious joke, Kreygasm is an intense emotion, 4head is laughter, but they are all used to express their opposite just as much (and usually more than) their base meaning.

In this regard, twitch.tv is the home of some the most confusing trolling you will ever come across. On the surface, the live chat bars on many of the channels are sexist, racist and homophobic. However, the spamming of anti-liberal sentiments often seems born of a group who are scared to be politically incorrect in their real lives. They spam the most awful things they can imagine and thus align themselves with the classic troll sentiments; that “everything is meaningless”, that “triggering” somebody is funny and that people who get “salty” about the subversion of ethics are pathetic. Sometimes the irony is lost and people are abused but the trolling is mostly an adolescent form of rebellion that undermines and satirises global humanitarianism. In that sense, it’s frequently hilarious.

One broadcaster called Forsen takes troll and meme culture to the point of saturation, welcoming it with full force, commenting that he courts the “plebs” for the benefit of the whole community. His chat bar is so “cut and pasta” with idiosyncratic memes that it moves far too quickly to be read. Pausing his chat and scrolling through it is an exercise in surrealism. The plebs who provide this constant stream of memes call him Dad. When they subscribe a voice calls out: “Slaves, get your ass back here!” Donators send him links to videos to see if their online finds are “memey” enough to make him laugh (and also frequently try to get him banned by linking to explicit content). His singular sense of humour is the arbiter and overlord of appropriate and inappropriate Twitch trolling.

Music also plays a big part in Forsen’s broadcasts. He has the “pleblist” linked to his chat; which means the community is choosing the songs. They frequently select the most annoying tracks they can find, or simply link to a prolonged and disturbing screeching sound recorded at an extremely high volume (most streamers wear headsets). “Meme-songs” are pleblist favourites: songs that strike a very fine line between adrenalin pumping insanity and ironic bad taste. One track, Brainpower, which would otherwise be in the youtube.com doldrums now has over 6 million views (demand for the song crossed over from Forsen’s broadcasts into other channels). It also has a version re-produced to be over an hour long. The plebs try to sneak it into the pleblist to see how long it lasts before Forsen realises it’s the long version. Amongst these meme-songs are a number of tracks that have been painstakingly written and recorded especially for Forsen (Forsenbajs, I am a Forsenboy, Old Forsen, We Miss You). Even these channel-specific tracks have hundreds of thousands of views on youtube.com. If you want to see the absolute end-point of trolling, his channel is a good place to start.

Irony and memes aside, sexism does seem to be a genuine problem within the communities. This is partly due the fact that most viewers are anonymous males aged between 14 and 34. They would no doubt use the Trump defence: “locker room talk”. The chauvinism also stems from the fact that a large number of female streamers dress provocatively in order to raise their viewership numbers and inspire donations (“booby streamers”). Of course, there is an argument for women being able to wear whatever they want without being judged but some admittance of manipulative tactics has to be accepted because the intimacy of the form soon reveals whether a broadcaster is a “sell-out” (there is a huge rejection in Twitch chat of all things “sell out”). In this sense, the sexism is sometimes a (albeit misguided) form of inverse moralism.

On sexism, it is also worth mentioning that there has even been an influx of prior sex streamers who have realised that they can earn just as much on twitch.tv without performing sex acts. The knock-on effect is that the more well-meaning female gamers are often objectified and abused in the chat bar for no reason other than being female. Hopefully, this is an aspect of the culture that will change when women are more proportionally represented in the major eSports teams and competitions.

The world of Twitch seems chaotic and absurd when you first tune in but, if you’re interested in social dynamics (or what the hell teenage boys are doing in their bedrooms these days) it quickly becomes compulsive viewing. The IRL (in real life) streams are particularly engaging. These focus on broadcasters talking about life and answering questions sourced from the chat bar. In the course of an hour you can feel like you’ve gotten to know a 34 year old Canadian man who takes himself too seriously, a 27 year old woman from South Korea who is unlucky in love, and an 18 year old Hungarian boy obsessed with the future of technology. You can watch artists painting pictures. “Social eating” is becoming increasingly popular. If you can think of it, they can broadcast it (though there are rules regarding decency).

The thrill is often the sense that the broadcast is on the cutting edge of what technology can do and offer. One of my own favourite broadcasters programs interactive infographics into his stream – drawing its animations from the memes in the chat bar and spreading them like a tonal weather over his content. He is twitchy and likes to jump around from one activity to another; one second playing four games of high stakes poker in four open windows, the next using a random website to see if he knows all the capital cities of the European countries. He streams himself playing games, making music, chatting, testing the latest innovative internet sites, absorbing the newest faddy gadgets and programs. Alongside watching him, listening to the messages from his donators, reading the chat, observing the meme weather, you have the actual content – whatever he’s actively engaging with (usually a videogame) – and the sheer mass of information, and the inability of yourself and the broadcaster to take it all in, is part of the appeal.

Most people born before the 1980s will be put off by the videogame aspect, which is fair enough, but once you’ve found a good channel (and you “know your memes”) the videogame content is one of the things that you end up paying least attention to. The real entertainment on offer is the personality of the broadcaster and how that is reflected through the nature of their channel and their chat participants. You get a feel for a person and their content. Perhaps their voice is soothing, maybe their curiosity makes you smile. Each new window is an entranceway into a miniature cult, focused on the activities of a sole, and often charismatic, individual.

One thing to look out for in the future is that you are going to know a young person who wants to play and stream videogames for a living. You should probably take them seriously. In 2014, Twitch was acquired by Amazon for close to $1 billion and global eSports revenue is estimated to reach $1.9 billion by 2018. Millionaires are popping up in every gaming scene; they are entrepreneurs in their 20s, paying teenagers decent wages to play in their eSports teams, or just highly magnetic personalities attracting huge audiences and thus lots of donations and subscriptions. Given the rate that the industry is expanding and the rewards involved (the 2016 prize pool for a single Dota 2 competition was over $20,000,000) it wouldn’t be surprising if computer game training schools started popping up in a number of affluent Western communities.

Thousands of eSports competitions are popping up every year, bringing the supporters of different broadcasters together to watch the most famous gaming personalities compete against each other for major cash prizes. As well as a whole host of famous players and teams, each game has its own pool of studios and presenters and, increasingly, their broadcasts are becoming as professional as live primetime Saturday night television shows. In fifty years, the as yet inconceivable eSports Olympics could be as widely viewed as the normal Olympics (though you might still not know that they existed).
You may have noticed that all of the figures are in US dollars. Whilst it is true that a large proportion of the twitch.tv content comes from North America, it is far from being the sole contributor. The donation/subscription currency can be changed but rarely is as it often means that an English-speaking Eastern European gamer can get paid by their global audience in a currency much stronger than their own.

However, like in any entertainment industry, it is unlikely that your niece or nephew is going to become famous within their field or outperform their competition but if they are competent and committed then it will be entirely possible for them to build up an audience and start to earn more than a standard minimum wage job. Once they have a dedicated audience (usually considered to be about 100 consistent viewers), if they are resourceful and hardworking, posting daily creative content across multiple online platforms, joining in with community projects and competitions, there really is no limit to their potential earnings.

Live-streaming is a new kind of entertainment, dense with information and personality, and evolving quickly. The content is unregulated by corporate interests and grants its creators near carte blanche when it comes to creative control. The broadcasts happening right now are the first cultural streams of information where the incorporation of infographics and news feeds and animations doesn’t seem like a cynical ploy to keep you watching; they are an inherent part of the medium. Anybody with a half-decent processor and an internet connection can open a window into their world, offer up their creations, activities and selves and find out if they have got what it takes to be a major player on a hidden but easily found global stage.
 •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on October 17, 2017 07:48 • 287 views • Tags: live-streaming, twitch, videogames
No comments have been added yet.