I had died for the fourth time that day, this time to a sniper’s bullet while sprinting through a field. After this disappointing end to a frustrating series of losses in the video game I had recently become addicted to, I began to think I needed some outside help. I logged on to Twitch.tv.
Here, on the forefront of internet video streaming, I was presented with thousands of players broadcasting their strategies on how to survive in a game that they were literally being paid to play.
For those unaware, Twitch is an increasingly popular online video streaming platform primarily geared towards gaming.
If the idea of spending your free time watching someone else play a video game strikes you as weird, you’re not wrong. I occasionally watch the uber-nerds on Twitch in an attempt to try and improve my gaming skills, but even I can’t imagine watching these streams for serious entertainment value. Millions of other people do, though, and many are willing to pay for the privilege.
To support streamers and make the website more financially viable, Twitch introduced the concept of “subscribing” to streamers. To be clear, the website is free and no streams are locked behind paywalls. So, what’s the attraction of paying these streamers a voluntary monthly fee that ranges from $5 to $25 or to “tip” them money beyond that? Aside from some unimpressive chatroom upgrades, Twitch subscriptions feed into the dynamic that keep many viewers watching: community, or at least the vague sense of one.
While watching any given stream for a while, you’ll start to notice that the person streaming will speak to people in the attached chatroom directly. They’ll call out their username, respond to their comments, and even develop a rapport with regulars.
This interaction between streamers and their viewers isn’t comparable to any previous form of entertainment. The closest precedents are reality television shows where participants compete over a sport or craft, like mixed martial arts or cooking. Viewers come to feel they know reality TV actors personally and become emotionally invested in their lives as depicted on the screen, celebrating their successes and lamenting their failures.
While most consider reality shows to be trash TV, their appeal is completely understandable and profoundly human. Now, imagine if those reality show celebrities were extremely interested in the same hobby as you, and there was a chance they would speak directly to you through the screen. This is the real source of Twitch’s popularity. Package the incredibly popular hobby of gaming with reality TV on steroids and direct community interaction, and you’ve got a form of entertainment that is both monetizable and incredibly addictive for its audience.
But the interaction between viewers and streamers on Twitch is a grotesque parody of true community and interpersonal connection. We’re talking about, in many streams’ cases, thousands of consecutive viewers watching someone play a video game. In many of these popular streams, the chatroom is limited to paid subscribers. The streamer personally thanks their fans by username, but only when a monetary transaction occurs – when someone subscribes or tips. Streamers sell the ability to plaster a text message across the video screen for a few seconds. Anyone can tune in, but only those willing to pay market price can take part in the community.
The visible degeneration of what could have been an important new tool for community-building and speech is impossible to ignore. Video streaming coupled with online communities represent incredible potential for human communication, but Twitch’s current business model incentivizes frivolous content that leeches off the gaming industry and creates nothing new. Streamers are reduced to pandering to the lowest common denominator, and find themselves being most successful when they produce the least insightful content imaginable.
Twitch is, in a way, our economic future in microcosm. Individual agents work permanently precarious gigs, their fortunes resting entirely on their own force of personality and social media presence. Twitch farms these faux-entrepreneurs, giving them the chance to waste away some of the best years of their lives making money playing games for hours every day while generating huge profits for Twitch. Its internal public sphere is restricted to those willing to pay, and those who can’t must migrate to some less popular, peripheral stream if they want to enjoy the privilege of speech. Community exists solely to be monetized. Viewers can buy their way into tiered classes, enjoying greater privileges and services as long as they can afford it. An upper class of super-users spends ungodly amounts of money subsidizing their favorite streamers, driving the business model of maximizing donations and subscriptions through incredibly vapid and pandering content.
Like video games themselves, Twitch is a fun toy. Unfortunately, the profit incentive in both cases has led to incredible technologies being wasted on forms of entertainment that have little to no redemptive value beyond having something to occupy ourselves when we feel like turning our brains off for a while.