Twitch’s Hottest New Thing: Vlogging
The video game streaming site is seeing a rise in people streaming anything but games
In 2016, two years after Amazon bought the company for $970 million, the livestream giant Twitch introduced the largest change ever implemented on the platform.
The website, known for its dominance in esports broadcasting and the burgeoning world of video game livestreaming, announced it would allow content not related to video games within its digital ecosystem.
Since opening its virtual doors to content outside the video game industry, Twitch has hosted an array of non-gaming content including partnerships to broadcast live sports with the NFL and Major League Soccer (MLS), and a catalog of classic TV shows like Power Rangers and Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting — the latter a meme-driven movement that pushed the late painter to be reborn as an internet celebrity in his own right.
The majority of non-gaming content on Twitch exists today within the world of “Just Chatting”, a category on Twitch presented the same as any video game. “Just Chatting” is the third most-watched category on Twitch, surpassing games like Overwatch, Dota 2 and Apex Legends. During the first half of 2019, the section’s popularity rose by 55% compared to the same period the previous year. Nearly 350 million hours have been watched on “Just Chatting” channel in the first six months of the year, according to data from analyst company StreamElements. Only Fortnite and League of Legends have brought in more viewership hours on Twitch so far this year.
The majority of streams within “Just Chatting” aren’t from the NFL or Bob Ross but from the website’s community. They’re vloggers.
“While gaming is [Twitch’s] core identity, what we’ve heard repeatedly from them is that they are interested in sharing their everyday lives, thoughts, and opinions with their communities,” Twitch’s CEO Emmett Shear explained when Twitch introduced the shift. “IRL is designed to help our creators foster that kind of community interaction.”
Originally introduced under the catch-all label of “IRL” (in real life), less than two years after its inception, Twitch ditched the label in favor of a number of more specific non-gaming categories like “Art”, “Sports & Fitness” and “Travel & Outdoors”. The pivot also came as a rebrand during a time when the section had become mired in controversy for providing a platform for harassment, sexually explicit content and unclear safety guidelines for those streaming within the new genre. With each passing conflict, attention on the new category increased, bringing in more viewers from across Twitch and more opportunity for streamers to grow their audience.
Only Fortnite and League of Legends have brought in more viewership hours on Twitch so far this year
Andy Milonakis, the actor and comedian who previously hosted his own show on MTV and had a cult-like following in the early days of YouTube, began streaming video games on Twitch before pivoting to non-gaming content, where he is currently one the of the category’s prominent personalities.
“‘Just Chatting’ is really two categories in one,” Milonakis explains. “Ninety-eight percent of the people stream desktop content and 2% stream outdoors.”
Milonakis’ streams fall into the latter category: a typical broadcast involves him adventuring around various Los Angeles neighborhoods and frequent travels abroad. Carrying a backpack of equipment and phone attached to a selfie stick-like rig, Milonakis can take his community (thousands of viewers at any given time) almost anywhere he pleases.
“I think people like outdoor streams because there is a sense of adventure and even danger,” he says.“When you watch someone play the same game every day we all know what to expect, but when we’re walking around a foreign city, interacting with strangers, there’s no telling what could happen.”
Milonakis’ streams are often a mix of informative, goofy and ultimately positive content, sharing his wanderlust and comedic breath with his viewers. But the productivity and positivity of his streams are a rarity in the current “Just Chatting” world, which has become dominated by rambling monologues and teenagers out to shock.
“I’m worried about [Just Chatting] getting too overpopulated with idiots that will make it worse for us,” he explained. “People are super cringe and rude to people just to provide their stream entertainment.”
In the gaming world of Twitch, popular streamers typically rise to prominence within a community due to, at least in part, their above average skill at a game or often professional status as a competitive player. Because the non-gaming sections of Twitch have less of a measurable distinction, the genre’s early days were mostly a wild west of streamers vying for viewership. Unsurprisingly, this environment rewarded the type of outlandish attention seeking that can spark virality anywhere on the web.
One of the section’s early celebrities, Paul “Ice Poseidon” Denino, rose to fame largely by allowing his chatroom to guide him on a daily trainwreck of social interaction and real life drama. His run on the platform came to an end after a member of his community called in a bomb threat under his name. The moment Denino was removed from an America Airlines flight as a suspected terrorist was, of course, captured on stream.
From misogynistic rants to allowing an unmoderated, anonymous online community to exist and interact with those in the real world, Denino’s wake left a blueprint outlining the value of controversy in molding a successful career outside the world of video games on Twitch.
“People are super cringe and rude to people just to provide their stream entertainment”
The “Florida man”-like effect of such mania can be seen by typing “Twitch streamer banned” into Google and scrolling through the flood of headlines. In recent years, Twitch has also found itself at the center of controversy for non-gaming moments on the site, like Julian Assange’s Q&A on the platform in 2017 and also when a gunman opened fire at a Madden tournament from Jacksonville, FL broadcast live on Twitch. The website also recently struggled to prevent rogue streamers from broadcasting video of the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shooting from earlier this year.
When it comes to policing content on its site, Twitch faces a unique obstacle. Unlike YouTube, which has gone through a series of “adpocalypses” that have forced the site’s hand to moderate inappropriate content, Twitch streamers’ earnings are less dependent on the site’s overall advertising as a form of revenue. Broadcasters primarily earn money through more direct methods, like subscriptions and donations, and the site is generally forced to take an all-or-nothing stance to moderation in order to affect a streamer’s finances. When a streamer is reprimanded, it is generally not a question of if they will be banned, but rather how long the ban will last.
This lack of a gray area creates a separate headache. The website is currently facing criticism for choosing not to ban the popular streamer Alinity after she appeared to abuse her cat on stream.
In the name of consistency, the community has pointed to a previous incident in which a lesser-known streamer was banned for similar actions. Earlier this year, Twitch was forced to reprimand another prominent streamer, Guy “Dr. Disrespect” Beahm, after he livestreamed from within a public restroom at the electronics convention E3 (a violation of California privacy law). Beahm’s rise on the platform had previously been underscored by non-gaming controversies such as confessing to an infidelity on stream and also after his house was struck by gunfire while broadcasting.
Despite the inconsistencies and outcry for clearer guidelines, even the most extreme digital anarchists would lobby for Twitch to let its platform run without moderation. (Twitch declined to comment for this story.) But as many of its Silicon Valley peers are coming to learn, not even the sharpest algorithms are currently proficient at policing a bottomless pit of monetizable content.
“Right now it doesn’t seem to make any sense,” Milonakis says about Twitch’s content moderation policies. “Hopefully there will be some change.”