It should not be surprising how influential the internet is to our current political landscape. We have seen it become a powerful tool to disseminate information (or misinformation) to prop up political movements. We can look at the rise of the alt-right, a collection of “extreme right wing ideologies, including white nationalism… and antisemitism” that became particularly prolific in the 2010s, culminating in the Unite the Right Rally in 2017 (Bartlett, 2017). Alt-right commentators gained prominence through YouTube’s lax Terms of Service in the mid-2010s (Ellingham, 2021). At the time, there was no real counterpoint to these alt-right commentators. Only recently has there developed a group of left creators called “Bread-Tube” (named after A Conquest of Bread, by Pyotr Kropotkin). Out of Bread-Tube rose prominent voices like Chapo-Trap house (a leftist podcast), Vaush (a popular debater), and video essayists such as ContraPoints or PhilosophyTube.
I mention this to contextualize the landscape Hasan Piker, otherwise known as HasanAbi, exists. Piker is a Turkish-American political commentator, well known for his leftist politics, or criticism of capitalism. Piker is primarily on Twitch, a popular live-streaming platform best known for its gaming and esports content. The appeal of Twitch is that it offers live interaction between streamer and viewer through the chat function to the side, where users can send messages and reactions (called emotes). Readers may know him from his election coverage (his 2020 election stream garnered a high of 226,974 live concurrent viewers), debates, and live events such as the January 6th riots and the recent invasion of Ukraine. This success has allowed Piker to achieve a comfortable position as the 7th most-viewed Twitch Streamer and 4th most-watched English-speaking channel in the last month.
Piker is an interesting case study because political commentary on Twitch is not a massive genre, and, more broadly, leftist politics has never reached the level of prominence that far-right politics has in the US. Despite that, Piker has managed to amass a swath of loyal followers and individuals more likely to be receptive to leftist politics online, no small feat. I strive to analyse Piker’s career through the circuit of culture to understand how he achieved this.
We can begin by considering Piker through the lens of production. Most days, Piker discusses relevant major news internationally but focuses on the US. Interestingly, Piker consumes the news and produces analysis simultaneously. That means that he (and thereby the rest of the stream) consume news coverage, articles, live video, tweets, and other streams, while Piker constantly pauses to offer his own commentary or analysis of the situation through his leftist lens “in a way that makes politics legible and understandable, even at its most cruel and confusing.” (Jackson 2020). He does discuss socialist/Marxist concepts on a high level, but he also constantly connects them to the viewers’ lives, making his streams engaging.
For a better understanding, we can look at Piker’s recent coverage of the railroad strikes in the US. For those unfamiliar, after negotiations fell between rail companies and unions, Joe Biden halted the looming railroad strike that would have crippled the US economy. Piker considered how the media portrayed the railroad workers who argued for (which many understood as sensible) work-life improvements as greedy and unreasonable. Piker believes that the media makes “it seem like there’s only one side that’s responsible for a work stoppage: they always blame the workers, they always say, ‘Oh well why the [ __ ] don’t the workers get back to work, they’re being selfish, they’re [ __ ] over other workers’. That is reactionary right-wing capitalist framing.” (Piker 2022, 5:05). On analysing Biden’s actions, Piker discussed how Biden, despite portraying himself as a pro-union, sided with the railroad companies, forcing a new contract that most workers rejected. The crux of Piker’s argument was to sympathise with the railroad workers and emphasise that the viewer, often working class, is no different. He stressed that in a Marxist analysis of the situation, workers everywhere are denied the opportunity to gain proper wages and benefits. He highlights it isn’t restricted to hard labourers, like railroad workers or miners, but office and service workers, even doctors and lawyers. To Piker, there is a lack of “class-consciousness,” and he is, through his streams, helping to awaken it.
If Piker only covered politics on a primarily gaming platform, he likely would not have reached the level of prominence he has. So, he spends a lot of time watching light-hearted news, relevant topics, amusing content, or gaming. This is where the stream frankly runs the gamut. Piker can go from covering serious news such as the railroad strike to deep diving into silly, oft obscure TikTok communities. This style of content is typical across Twitch, which allows Piker to be more accessible: You may show up to watch him react to 90 Day Fiancé, but you’ll stay to see him talk about Biden’s latest moves on foreign policies. The high energy of his streams means that he is “constantly on… like AM broadcast radio for Zoomers” (Press-Reynolds 2021). Simultaneously, there is a pressure to modulate tone and attitude in order to maintain viewership, (Woodcock & Johnson 2019, 815).
Piker uniquely straddles the line between creator and political figure, and he does this by crossing the two worlds together. He frequently has content creators or even celebrities appear. Although Piker often just continues to do his typical content, he also discusses politics or answers questions from his visitors. Although we could discuss his live interviews with other political commentators, candidates, union workers/leaders, and academics, we need look no further than October 2020, where he hosted the famous Among Us stream with representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar (Lorenz 2020). This stream was so massive, it hit national news immediately, highlighting the impact of crossing these two worlds together.
I mentioned earlier that Twitch is an inherently interactive platform, and Piker’s stream takes this to an entirely new level. Often, he is answering questions, watching videos viewers send in, and picking apart comments and analysis in the chat. The chat is, in a sense, the content: it takes up more of the screen than Piker does most of the time. Chatters (colloquially) contribute to the point where when chat is no longer on screen or Piker is not reacting to it, the energy rapidly changes. The rapport between chat and streamer is important for the content being produced and makes Piker’s streams as accessible as they are.
Interaction is also key to creating an income on Twitch. In the immediate, viewers are monetised by optionally paying a subscription (essentially a perk package that offers things like ad-free viewing), donations (by gifting subscriptions or text-to-speech), or through ads. When they are large, Twitch streamers can negotiate how much money they receive from subscriptions. Originally, this was a 50-50 split for most creators and then 70-30 for the highest echelon of streamers, although Twitch removed this during the most recent round of contract renegotiations for a standard 50-50 (Grayson, 2022). The second method is leveraging a streamer’s platform to work directly with companies for advertising and sponsorship deals. So, Twitch rewards having a large, consistent audience that is gained, at least initially, by streaming for long hours (although there are exceptions to the rule).
Piker is no different. Currently, he has 57,000 subscribers on Twitch and contractually runs ads for four minutes every hour. Although this may seem like a lot, TV runs 15 minutes of ads an hour, and the average number of advertisements on Twitch is above what Piker puts out (Luckerson 2014). Piker previously only ran one minute of ads an hour until Twitch forced him to increase it in the latest contract renegotiations. That means that Piker essentially makes most of his income through subscriptions, which, through simple calculations, yields over $60,000 per month, although this fluctuates. More accurately, Piker made $2,810,480.11 from 2019 to 2021, according to a Twitch leak last year (Grayson 2021). To Piker’s admission, this amount could have been easily verifiably by taking the number of subscriptions and multiplying it by two (at the time). However, the perks Piker offers are not incredible (only ad free viewing and the opportunity to send links in the chat).
Although this is an incredible amount, most streamers would further supplement this with many ad deals and sponsorships throughout the year (or month), but Piker is a rare exception. He seldom takes ad deals, and the ones he does are for games he enjoys. Although the money he makes from these deals may be large, they’re hardly going to overcome the sheer amount he makes from subscriptions, considering how infrequent they are. One can also consider revenue streams outside of Twitch. Piker does have a YouTube channel, but most, if not all, of the revenue, goes to his editors, as he believes since they put the labour into actually making the videos, they should get all the money those videos subsequently garner. He does have a podcast with a Patreon, but he only takes in a portion of that, splitting the rest of the profit with his co-host, Will Neff, the producer, and other workers. You could also consider looking at Piker’s merch line, Ideologie, but for two of the three lines, which donated all the profit to national strike funds. Meaning Piker is solely funded through money (practically donated) by his viewers.
Consumption and Identity
Next, let’s delve into who’s consuming Hasan’s content (identity) and how it’s consumed (consumption).
Twitch streams are inherently communal, so we would expect individuals on Twitch to seek that collective experience. Hamilton et al. thus characterise Twitch streams as third spaces, where people “come together, form, and maintain communities through informal public social interactions” (Hamilton et al. 2014, 1318). While this desire to seek a third space is the primary motivator, there are auxiliary motivations described by Hilvert-Bruce et al.: meeting new people, social interaction, and a sense of community (Hilvert-Bruce et al., 59). This sense of community and the content of the stream is a strong motivator for interaction (Hamilton et al. 2014, 1315). Hilvert et al. argue that the chat allows socially anxious users to communicate with others in a low-risk environment while still having a sense of live interaction. It is interaction that’s still with other people but separate from the high-stress reality of meeting new people in the real world.
Using this framework, we can construct a generalised image of a Twitch viewer as someone seeking community and social interaction online. Notably, Piker is a political commentator, and his politics thus form a part of why anyone chooses to watch (or not watch) him. Perhaps it is best to hear from the man himself on his appeal:
I think a lot of people feel angry. I try to direct their anger at the system rather than individuals and explain to them why they feel the way that they do. Use that anger that you feel towards more productive avenues instead of getting upset at wealth and equality in the system, try to change the system. I have an empathetic worldview that centers around uplifting marginalized people on not only the basis of identity, like whatever kind of marginalization that they experience, but also class, which is something that is devoid from the American conversation most of the time. As long as you are willing to learn, as long as you’re willing to change, then you’re welcome. I’m going to talk to you and try to educate you because I think that that is how you change people’s minds. I think I’ve been relatively successful at deprogramming a lot of people’s prior confirmations, prior attitudes, and beliefs.Hasan Piker, Padilla 2022
We can see that in Piker’s perspective of why people watch him, it’s political: People tune in because his worldview resonates with their own. Unsurprisingly, most of Piker’s watchers are young people. This political slant, however, also produces a sense of “us” vs “them”, as much as any online political community does. However, even within Piker’s viewership, there are divisions between those that watch the stream for Piker himself, for his political news and those that vehemently despise him.
The first category is viewers that arrive as soon as the stream goes live, those that make content about/for the community, and engage with the community off-stream. As Hamilton et al., explain, “viewers are attracted to streams where they are recognized by the streamer and other participants, and can participate in stream activities, such as gameplay.” (Hamilton et al. 2014, 1318). The first category is simple to understand through this lens. Piker frequently interacts with his chat, knowing many community members by name, and even hiring some. Within the community itself, there are those well-known for the content they produce, the jokes they make, etc. It “tends to exhibit a shared social atmosphere instituted by the streamer and regulars.”, which is characteristic of a third space (Hamilton et al. 2014, 1318). So, viewers in this first category are drawn in by the community that Piker fosters and eventually even contribute.
The last category is equally as interesting since they watch Piker because they dislike him. While this may seem odd, it’s always important to understand that Piker is a divisive political commentator. Although he may joke and have fun, there will always be those that disagree with him and will let him know from both the left and right. Many people will say things to get a rise out of Piker, leading him to modify his behaviour over time. As Piker explains, “I have to constantly and consistently qualify every single sentence that I put out there … there are people out there that are watching every single thing that I’m saying and doing and will …. make it seem like I believe in the opposite of what I act actually believe.” (Padilla 2022).
Simultaneously, Piker’s content is available on multiple platforms. If you miss a stream, the VOD (video on demand) is on the Twitch channel, and older VODs are on YouTube. Additionally, an entire army of YouTube channels readily clips Piker’s streams and reuploads them online, often with minimal edits. All of these make Piker’s content much more accessible since if you couldn’t watch the stream live, you can watch it later. The only downside is converting from live video to recordings removes communal interaction. On the other hand, many want to watch the content rather than interact with others.
To not tread trodden ground, for the overall regulation on Twitch and a generalisation of how streamers often regulate their content, I refer readers to my previous analysis of regulation on Twitch. In this section, I aim to focus primarily on how Piker manages his chat. In my earlier essay, I explained that subscriptions on Twitch act as a level of regulation, especially when streamers activate “Subscriber Only Mode,” but as I’ve outlined earlier, there is little reason to subscribe to Piker besides removing ads and supporting him. In general, he will respond to anyone. The only barrier to sending messages is to have followed Piker for at least a few minutes to halt hate raids.
With such a large political presence online, it’s not surprising that Piker’s chat requires more regulation than most: Hateful messages may target the marginalised groups he covers. To foster a safe environment for marginalised groups, as he claims he does, we expect moderation to be stringent and target a range of hateful messages. But, Piker’s chatting rules are sparse and humorous. While chat rules are a form of regulation, they’re weak: They must be enforced by the streamer/moderation team. That means there must be background knowledge of what hateful messages look like beyond just the use of slurs. Piker starts at a bit of an advantage: he (and thus his moderators) are familiar with right-wing dog whistles. So, harmful messages which can go over a layman’s head are swiftly dealt with. Although the moderation team works overtime to catch these messages in a hyperactive chat, it is only possible through moderation bots that immediately flag slurs and ban them. Piker is also at work, banning accounts as they pass.
Of course, some messages are not hateful but sent in bad faith and can often slip through the cracks. To combat this, Piker is known to catch (often the most offensive) messages. Rather than ban or mildly scold viewers, Piker pulls up their message history and berates them for several minutes, if not more. It’s not unheard of for Piker to get so mad he yells at not only the chatter but the rest of the chat for upwards of an hour (“stunlock”). Sometimes innocuous questions can flare Piker’s temper and spark rants (“malding”, a portmanteau of “mad” and “balding”), while other times, the messages are heinous. This public flaying convinces many viewers to be on their best behaviour, lest they endure it. Simultaneously, these moments embolden bad actors to say things to get a rise out of Piker.
House Drama PepeLa
As a public figure, it is perhaps best to view how Piker is represented by others through his controversies. Piker becomes a symbol of leftism, so to criticise him to equally criticise socialism, or rather, his brand of socialism. That means that any discussion of Piker is always placed into a larger discussion of socialists, especially in media. A common criticism, especially online, is perceived hypocrisy. A common term is “champagne socialist”, someone that espouses socialist ideals but lives a wealthy, comfortable lifestyle. Piker’s “house-gate” was criticised as exactly that: In August 2021, Piker purchased a $2.74 million home in Hollywood (Asarch 2021). Once this hit the news, it exploded.
Criticism launched on both sides. Right-wing pundits said Piker was hypocritical by saying he believed in socialist values while benefiting from capitalism. For those that recall, similar criticism was levied at Bernie Sanders for his multiple homes (Kruse 2019). Piker responded swiftly, arguing not only was the money gained ethically (almost the entirety of his money was through subscriptions), but that the criticism itself makes no sense. To Piker, no aspect of socialism says that you cannot be wealthy and advocate for its principles, so the perceived hypocrisy is no hypocrisy at all.
Naturally, he also fielded criticism from other leftists. Activist Alexis Isabel raised this tweet in response to the news: “it’s just flat out unethical to be profiting off of socialism and buying yourself a 3 million dollar home in a state that has one of the highest homelessness rates in the country.” (Asarch 2021). So, the criticism from both the left and right was quite similar! The only difference is that the left argues Piker should be putting his money where his mouth is by donating and raising funds. Piker’s response was:
He argues that socialism isn’t “poverty cult”: being poor doesn’t make you any better of a socialist than someone else. Meaning, that poverty is not a virtue to espouse. Simultaneously, Piker states that although he routinely donates, philanthropy doesn’t make someone the best socialist in the world. Of course, there are numerable examples to substantiate both Piker’s charity and his work on raising funds, like raising $150,000 for Ukrainian relief funds (Santana 2022).
What this means is that there are essentially two different Pikers. We’ve seen that Piker presents as an approachable, if aggressive, political commentator. And, while we haven’t picked apart each of his political points, he has been consistent across the board. With how active his community is, it’s unsurprising that members see Piker as a flawed, if genuine person: He can be mean, but his heart is in the right place. On the other hand, by being the largest leftist streamer in the world, Piker’s controversies become a vector for broader political criticism.
Hasan Piker falls into a unique case when viewed through the lens of the circuit of culture, in that the product is himself, however dehumanising that may seem. Few of his viewers will ever know Piker on a personal level, and yet many feel like they do. There is no denying, however, that Piker is representative how much politics has moved into the online world, where it is likely to stay.
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Piker, Hasan D. “JOE BIDEN IS A TRAITOR.” YouTube Video. November 29, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zs_jRHAL21k.
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