Twitch Studies

The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one
https://www.theverge.com/2018/7/16/17569520/twitch-streamers-zero-viewers-motivation-community

The rise of popular (and profitable) influencers on platforms like YouTube and Twitch has also made the idea of being an online influencer aspirational. Some parents note that their children pretend to unbox toys to a nonexistent audience, and teachers report that their students often say they want to pursue YouTubing as a career. But when seemingly everyone wants to record footage or live stream, who ends up watching the content?

Starting a career on platforms like Twitch often means spending some time broadcasting to absolutely no one. Discoverability is an issue: when you log into Twitch, the most visible people are those who already have a large following. While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

I found this article by searching for the title, which I saw in a screencap photo in a Kotaku article about a professor who taught a session of his class about Twitch on Twitch.

Although I sometimes fantasize that I’m recording myself when I do 100% completion speedruns of Zelda games, I have to admit that I never got into Twitch. I understand the appeal, but like… Okay, how do I put this.

So much of being considered cool in high school and college is about sharing communal experiences. You don’t just watch a movie and talk about it, you have to watch it with your friends and share inside jokes that mainly take the form of repeating the lines from the movie that everyone in your friend group laughed at. I enjoy spending time with people, but I have trouble relaxing enough to passively consume content in the company of a group, so doing something like quietly watching a television show or sports game has always felt like having to sit through some sort of awful and boring lecture.

What I’m trying to say is that Twitch isn’t for me. I’m not suggesting that Twitch isn’t worth reading about and writing about and teaching an entire college class about; but, to me, it’s really nothing more than how teenagers and people in their early twenties have always spent time with their peer groups.

The primary difference, I guess, is that people aspire to do this professionally. In fact, some of my own students are already well on their way to making a career out of streaming or Let’s Play videos.

Anyway, I was thinking about teaching a class through Twitch (or possibly Discord) myself, but I ultimately decided against it. I understand the drive to hold class sessions via videoconferencing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely fair to assume that everyone will have access both to a good internet connection and to a quiet space where they can be alone, especially not during an arbitrarily set time, and not while they’re back with their families. See also:

‘Zoombombing’: When Video Conferences Go Wrong

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/style/zoombombing-zoom-trolling.html

How Instagram and Tumblr Work

I’m a big fan of Gal Shir’s texture brushes, and yesterday I read his self-published book View Insights, which is about how to grow a following on social media, specifically Instagram.

The first 2/3 of the book contains good general life advice, such as:

(1) Do what you actually enjoy doing
(2) It’s not necessary to quit your day job
(3) Divide your ideas into “big projects” and “small projects”
(4) Learn how to balance and prioritize your projects

The book also contains a few pieces of advice that are predicated on assumptions that strike me as somewhat “masculinist,” such as the idea that no one cares about pictures of your face or your personal life – which is not even remotely true in the online spaces I have experience with, where people tend to care just as much about the artist as they do the art. So your mileage may vary, I guess.

What I found interesting about this book was the last third, in which the author digs deep into how Instagram’s algorithms work and why they work in the ways they do. Tumblr is an altogether different platform that works in different ways for different reasons, but Shir corroborates some of the tendencies I’ve noticed on Tumblr, such as:

(1) The “value” of a post is algorithmically ranked within a limited number of tags
(2) This “value” is partially dependent on the “user rank” of the poster
(3) This “value” is also determined by interaction from other “high-rank” users
(4) The level of interaction needs to be significant, like commenting or sharing (and not simply liking)
(5) This “high-rank” interaction needs to happen within the first few hours of posting

A while ago I speculated (here) about what I called “anchor blogs” on Tumblr, which are blogs that may not necessarily post original content but still manage to be influential. I was thinking about how actual person-to-person social networks tend to function within fandom; but, if this algorithmically based “user rank” theory is true, this would help explain the patterns I noticed relating to how any given post spreads.

Tumblr has passed its prime, so I’m not sure if any of this still applies; but, according to this theory, this is what you would have needed to do in order to become a “high-rank” user:

(1) Interact with a lot of content
(2) At a significant level
(3) Within hours of it being posted
(4) And follow a lot of people
(5) While having “high-rank” followers

What all of this boils down to is that these two platforms reward “engagement,” which is essentially extroverted behavior combined with the condition of being on your phone all the time. Shir says that, when he first started trying to build a following on Instagram, he would devote three hours a day to interacting with other posts and people on the platform during peak hours. Unlike Instagram (and Facebook), I’m almost 100% certain that Tumblr doesn’t apply a secondary “positivity rating” to posts and comments, but actually being genuinely friendly probably doesn’t hurt.

Technologies of Behavior Modification

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff review – we are the pawns
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/age-of-surveillance-capitalism-shoshana-zuboff-review

While insisting that their technology is too complex to be legislated, there are companies that have poured billions into lobbying against oversight, and while building empires on publicly funded data and the details of our private lives they have repeatedly rejected established norms of societal responsibility and accountability. And what is crucially different about this new form of exploitation and exceptionalism is that beyond merely strip-mining our intimate inner lives, it seeks to shape, direct and control them. Their operations transpose the total control over production pioneered by industrial capitalism to every aspect of everyday life.

I’m not sure I’m up for reading the actual book, which sounds miserably depressing, but this is an interesting review. Two paragraphs are devoted to a blunt deconstruction of Pokémon Go, which is fair.

Even though most of the people (especially artists) I used to follow on Tumblr have moved to Twitter and Instagram, I still feel a bit weird about engaging with those two platforms. Despite its flaws, I appreciate that Tumblr is relatively chaotic and isn’t making money for anyone. Activity on the site has dropped off since the beginning of the year, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone. Also, as much as Discord annoys me for being exclusive, inaccessible, and difficult to use, I’ve found myself spending more time on art and sketch channels during the past few months.

Meanwhile, AO3 remains the Gold Standard of Internet and continues to be my happy place.

Mildly Cursed Content

How the Furby went from adorable pet to cursed object
https://aux.avclub.com/how-the-furby-went-from-adorable-pet-to-cursed-object-1841816828

Artificial intelligence had been a source of experimentation, speculation, and science fiction since the 1950s, but the Furby represented one of the first attempts at domestic AI mass production. With built-in sensors and infrared detectors, the Furby could learn from and adapt to its environment, which allowed it to respond to shifting conditions. Hold it upside-down, and it would tell you, “I’m scared.” Pet its back, and it would say, “Me love you.” The Furby was meant to be an endearing foothold uniting man and evolving machine, and in some circles, that earnest adoration for the toy still exists today—for example, in a few very wholesome communities on Tumblr—but outside of that niche, the Furby’s cuteness has increasingly become cursed by a culture of techno-paranoia.

Today, as AI and evolutionary algorithms continue to become integrated into our day-to-day, the Furby remains an avatar for our fears of a technological takeover. People have responded with cursed Furby content online, which either involves mutilating the toys or refashioning them into entirely new beasts.

This is probably true of every internet subculture to a certain extent, but it’s my personal opinion that the “Furby torture” people really need to find a new hobby. It’s not that I object to the creation of cursed objects; rather, I think these people are putting a lot of time and energy into something that isn’t that interesting – or even that transgressive, relatively speaking.

I’ve seen things during casual searches on Etsy that have made my skin crawl, and these cursed Furbies have nothing on the “action figure mods” and “haunted dolls” that people routinely create with a (seemingly?) complete absence of irony. This in turn makes me wonder how common and widespread knowledge of these subcultures is. Screencaps of these sorts of things turn up all the time on Reddit, so they’re a part of my daily visual landscape, but is there perhaps a meaningful generational divide between “people who see Furby microwave videos as the shallow end of a very deep pool” and “people who don’t know what Reddit is”?

Algorithmic Time

The 2010s Broke Our Sense Of Time
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/katherinemiller/the-2010s-have-broken-our-sense-of-time

How did everything get so jumbled? Stories about our phones, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest often concern Nazis, grifters, scammers, plagiarists, the aesthetes who reject that online life, the famous, the infamous, people who are making a buck, and anyone else who pushes the logic and limits already in place. But what about the rest of us?

The 2000s were a bad decade, full of terrorism, financial ruin, and war. The 2010s were different, somehow more disorienting, full of molten anxiety, racism, and moral horror shows. Maybe this is a reason for the disorientation: Life had run on a certain rhythm of time and logic, and then at a hundred different entry points, that rhythm and that logic shifted a little, sped up, slowed down, or disappeared, until you could barely remember what time it was.

The writer isn’t wrong, but holy hell do all of the flashing GIF images make this article difficult to read. I understand that this is (probably?) the result of an intentional artistic decision to create a format that mimics the experience of having your attention constantly divided between multiple competing demands online, but it works a little too well. The essay is about how having our lives mediated through social media disrupts our memory; and, lo and behold, I can barely remember what I read.

All that being said, I’m planning to cut and paste the text into a document to study later, as what the author is describing mirrors my experience of the past four years almost perfectly.

Don’t F**k With Cats

This three-part documentary series on Netflix is really upsetting, and I mean really upsetting. It’s difficult to write a summary, but basically, a group of people on Facebook tries to track down a man who posts videos of himself killing animals, thus giving him the attention he craves and inspiring him to post a video of himself killing another human being. The documentary itself is well-made and doesn’t show the grisly bits of the actual videos, but it’s still not a pleasant experience to watch. Thankfully, there’s nothing particularly sensationalist about the project, and the “internet nerds” are presented as normal and intelligent adults.

The director has said that he created this documentary for the purpose of spreading awareness, which I appreciate. My experience with trying to get my anxiety treated over the course of the past year has been that a lot of people – especially people born before around 1980 or so – just don’t understand how violent and upsetting online engagement can be sometimes. Even people my age and younger haven’t responded well when I try to talk about this, and common responses include:

– Maybe the person attacking you has a mental illness. (That’s not a valid justification.)
– Maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time online. (That’s not the problem.)
– Maybe you deserve this. (No one “deserves” death and rape threats.)

What I think people who haven’t experienced extended episodes of online harassment aren’t getting is that sometimes it’s possible to encounter people on the internet who are genuinely scary. When you become the target of a person like this (as one of the primary “narrators” in Don’t F**k With Cats does), it has nothing to do with you specifically, and there’s really nothing you can do about it.

I also recently read the book Nobody’s Victim, which is written by Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer and advocate for victims of internet stalking and harassment. This book is just as upsetting as Don’t F**k With Cats, especially since many of the people Goldberg represents (as well as Goldberg herself) have had to suffer through intense and pervasive victim blaming. No one they go to for help understands what happened to them, and everyone thinks the fact that they became the targets of scary people is somehow their fault. Very few people believe what they’re saying in the first place, and a lot of the evidence they produce to document what they’ve experienced is used against them.

I personally haven’t been the target of anything as severe as what appears in Don’t F**k With Cats and Nobody’s Victim (thank goodness), but it was still very easy for me to recognize the patterns of how popular online platforms enable abusive modes of behavior and the hate crimes of disturbed people. I’m finally starting to see people within fandom share resources (like this) discussing best practices regarding how to process and handle these types of encounters, and that’s wonderful, but I’m really looking forward to there being a greater awareness of these issues in mainstream society as well.

Writers Have to Be Supported to Survive


I’ve recently seen several posts with tens of thousands of notes circulating around Tumblr that are extremely critical of the idea of fanfic writers accepting donations to support their activities. Many of them, such as the one excerpted above, refer to the guidelines of AO3, which are meant to defend the right of the site to exist on the basis that the content it hosts is purely transformative and not intended for profit. The undertone of these posts, however, is a strong pushback against the idea that fanfic writers might aspire to the same levels of professional success and support as other creators in fandom.

I would like to argue that the idea that fan writers deserve to have a choice whether to receive compensation for their work is reasonable, especially since many highly visible fan artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands of dollars every month through donation sites like Patreon and Ko-fi.

Yes, intellectual property is protected by law and legal precedent, and it’s important to understand fandom history and to respect the ongoing battle AO3 has to fight. And yes, fan writers use copyright-protected names and scenarios. At the same time, fan artists use protected names, scenarios, and images, while YouTubers and streamers use protected sound and video – and sometimes the entirety of the protected work. If the “transformative work” and “added value” and “critical commentary” and “performance” arguments of fair use laws apply to visual artists, video creators, and streamers, why don’t they work for writers?

There are three things going on here.

The first is that AO3 is an independent NPO, not a giant media conglomerate. Even if YouTube is forced to take down certain videos that violate intellectual property laws, YouTube itself is not in danger of being taken offline. AO3 is in a much more precarious situation and therefore has to be extra cautious. This is an issue specific to AO3, however, and it’s not universally applicable to other hosting and sharing sites.

The second is that many media corporations in the United States consider digital images to be ephemeral, meaning that they have a short shelf life in the popular consciousness. Fan art and video streams shared on social media will help to promote a piece of media while it’s still trendy, but they also tend to be quickly consumed and discarded and thus aren’t perceived as being in danger of becoming long-term competition for the original media property. Because it used to be published in the form of physical books and magazines, fanfic was considered to be competition, but this perception has changed, partially due to the support fanfic has received from commercially successful writers like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

The third is sexism. This is complicated; but, to make a long story short, fanfic has been treated differently because, unlike illustration and video editing, it is primarily associated with communities of women.

Media industries overwhelmingly dominated by men, such as comics and movies, have always provided ways for younger male fans to enter the industry as professionals. There is a long history of commercial studios actively scouting emerging talent from popular fan artists and amateur video producers, so media corporations have a vested interest in not completely shutting down spaces in which these creators can develop and exhibit their talents. For example, an aspiring comic artist can take his portfolio of X-Men character illustrations to a comics convention to show to an industry representative, and Marvel will hire him if they like his fan art. Because these industries have traditionally been male-dominated, however, the work of women was seen as derivative and embarrassing. A male artist who drew a fan comic would get a job, and a woman who wrote fanfic of the same media property would get a cease and desist letter.

Moreover, women have historically been expected to be the keepers of public morality. For instance, a male professor who writes mediocre novels about cheating on his wife with underage female students can easily be promoted to the head of a prestigious creative writing program, while a woman in any profession can be in danger of losing her job for writing any novel at all. Because of this, many female writers have had to hide their creative careers in a way that male artists and video producers have not. Even though these prejudices are fading, many fic writers are still very serious about protecting their real names and identities. At the same time, many fan artists and other creators use their fanwork to promote themselves while using their professional names – and, thanks to social media, we can now see that not all of these creators are male.

Because a new generation of female and nonbinary fan artists, animators, video producers, and streamers are now comfortable pursuing their creative careers while using their professional names and accepting donations while they establish themselves, it only makes sense that fan writers would want to do the same thing. After all, if people like Rebecca Sugar and Noelle Stevenson can go from posting popular fan art and fan comics on Tumblr to becoming mainstream showrunners, why couldn’t a female or nonbinary fanfic writer go on to become an actual scriptwriter for the next, say, Star Wars or Pokémon movie? If illustrators, comic artists, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers can receive donations to support their fanwork while they establish their careers, what arbitrary rule says that writers can’t do the same thing while still respecting AO3’s legal guidelines?

There is an entire generation of younger writers who have come into fandom with ambitions of professional success and no understanding of why they should feel pressured to separate their fandom identity from their professional identity or why they shouldn’t have the choice to receive the same support as creators working in other mediums. Instead of mocking younger writers for not knowing fandom history – and instead of shaming older writers for resisting outdated prejudices – I think it’s worth it to support them and hopefully change the culture.

Most people don’t want donations and only think of fandom as a fun escapist hobby, but writers should still be able to access the same choices as other creatives. I’ve already shared my thoughts about the issues I personally have with Patreon, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want other people to explore that option for themselves. After all, writers have to be supported for fanfic to survive.

I feel like I could write an entire book about this – and I have! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the publisher can stick to the May 2020 release date, because I’d really like to talk more about fandom and cultural change, as well as what the achievements of artists might suggest about the future of fiction.