Twitch was founded in 2011 by Emmet Shear and Justin Kan as a streaming website primarily for gaming. The live gaming of Twitch that acts as the main appeal for most of its viewers was actually not the original intention of its creators. The website began as Justin.tv in 2006 as a “lifecasting” experiment. Shear and Kan wanted to stream their lives 24/7 on this website just to see how people would react. Eventually viewers began to grow tired of watching Justin’s everyday activities, so the creators decided to open streaming up to anyone. Soon after, the creators began to notice a trend: people using the site to stream themselves playing video games were by far the most popular. “It became the tail that wagged the dog … It ended up taking over our whole company.” Once Twitch spun off from Justin.tv, it began to grow rapidly. Streamers began making names for themselves and amassing huge followings. By 2014, just three years later, the site had millions of viewers and was purchased by Amazon for $1 billion. Today, there are over 140 million Twitch viewers and almost 4 million streamers, with a large boost coming from this year’s pandemic. Although the variety of content on Twitch has grown greatly over its lifespan, the focus of this paper will be on the gaming portion of the site for my analysis as well as how Twitch is setting itself up to replace television. I will be examining Twitch through the lens of the five aspects of the circuit of culture; production, consumption, identity, regulation, and representation.
In the circuit of culture, production refers to what content is made on Twitch and how it is made, while consumption refers to who consumes the content and how it is consumed. The connection between production and consumption is an integral part of Twitch’s business model. The two methods of interacting with Twitch are to be a streamer or a viewer. Streamers produce content, viewers consume it. Streamers broadcast themselves playing video games or performing other activities in real time, while viewers can tune in to active streams at any time. The connection between these two groups may seem simple, but there are actually many layers of interaction provided by Twitch. Viewers are able to contact streamers through the chat, a live message board present on all streams. If they are particularly interested in a certain streamer, they can subscribe, meaning they pay a monthly fee that is split 50/50 between the streamer and Twitch. Subscribers gain access to exclusive perks like avoiding ads on that creator’s streams and unlocking special emotes. Streamers can designate viewers as chat moderators who are responsible for keeping things under control during streams. This may not seem important, but for a stream with tens of thousands of viewers it can be very helpful. Streamers can also make it so only subscribers’ comments are shown in the chat to limit the amount of activity or run subscriber-only streams. Once a streamer crosses a certain threshold of viewers and streams, they can become a partner. Partners are able to accumulate ad revenue, gain subscribers, and unlock certain channel customization options. The partner program allows Twitch to moderate which streamers represent the site through controlling who is best able to gain popularity.
The circuit of culture defines identity as what identities are associated with Twitch. Through their many methods of interaction, Twitch provides unique opportunities for communities to form around streamers. The qualifications for creating content on Twitch being so low allows for countless demographics and identities to thrive on the site. Many streamers start with a following of just a few hundred people and are able to form meaningful connections with many of them while they are streaming daily. As streamers grow in popularity, they tend to lose this sense of community and it becomes more like performing for an audience then spending time with friends. Features like the ability to turn off non-subscriber comments help this, but don’t eliminate the problem. For some streamers, a combination of timing, skill and luck transform them into overnight celebrities. A famous example is Tyler Blevins, also known as Ninja. In 2016, he was a semi-pro gamer working at a fast food restaurant. In 2017, he struck gold when he began streaming himself playing Fortnite. Fortnite happened to see a massive surge in popularity at this time, and within a couple of years, he had amassed millions of viewers, smashing streaming records left and right. He has 226 million views in 2018 alone, making him the most popular streamer on the site. He also set the record for most concurrent viewers on a stream that year with 600,000. Today, he is making almost $1 million each month and is a household name among kids and teenagers. Ninja was the first streamer to become so popular that he broke through the barrier to become a full-fledged celebrity. He has appeared on TV shows, late night shows like Jimmy Fallon, tons of advertisements, and more. Ninja’s success story demonstrates how the way Twitch operates allows anybody with a webcam and a mic to build a loyal following and even become a star.
With great power comes great responsibility, as many large Twitch streamers have discovered. Amassing huge followings has put many streamers in a position where they have a great deal over their audience. This is especially important because the majority of Twitch viewers are young and impressionable. Many streamers are using their platforms to share their political views with their audiences. One example is Shaun “Hutch” Hutchinson, a streamer mainly known for playing the popular game series Call of Duty. Hutch has been a content creator since 2008, and has never shied away from sharing his political views. He started integrating politics into his streams during the 2015 presidential primaries. It was around this time when Hutch discovered the number of Trump supporters watching his streams: “It was a little alarming to me, to be honest. I just made peace with the fact that I was probably going to lose some fans.” Here Hutch is referring to how his left-leaning views were drawing out the Trump supporters and pushing them away. While Hutch does not attempt to change his followers’ opinions or push an agenda on them, he still highlights a problem arising with streaming. For young viewers, there is no difference between getting their news from CNN or a Call of Duty player. Since Hutch also provides gameplay, they will usually prefer to watch him. The problem becomes clear when these political views become radical and stop being based in facts. These streamers have no qualifications to be talking about politics, but their viewers are too young to realize this and take what they say at face value. In order to combat this, news organizations and politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have begun to try their hand at streaming. AOC recently streamed the popular game Among Us on her channel, bringing in a huge number of viewers. This may just seem like her relaxing and connecting with fans, but there is also the underlying motive of spreading her political beliefs with her viewers. It is becoming clear that the next generation of voters will be gaining their political beliefs not from traditional news, but from places in which politics are mixed with entertainment like Twitch.
Regulation is the section of the circuit of culture that focuses on what mechanisms regulate the distribution of content on Twitch. In order to understand how Twitch regulates its content today, it is important to look back at the days of Justin.tv. Back then, live streaming on the internet was a revolutionary concept to people. It was like the wild wild west in the sense that Shear and Kan had almost no control over what people did when streaming on the site. There was a plethora of controversies associated with Justin.tv in its first few years, from people streaming copyrighted shows and movies to nudity to a man streaming his suicide live. When the site transitioned to Twitch, the creators knew they needed to put in strict regulations this time. Within the user guidelines, they mention how “we at Twitch reserve the right to suspend any account at any time for any conduct that we determine to be inappropriate or harmful.” The guidelines themselves are all fairly common sense; no harassment, nudity, copyrighted material, cheating, etc. Twitch has set a standard of strictly enforcing these guidelines, suspending/banning both streamers and viewers when they deem necessary.
As with any form of media, there have been some controversies surrounding content regulation on Twitch. One interesting case that occurred just a few months ago is that of the US Army and Navy being called out for violating free speech during their streams. The military has been streaming on Twitch for some time now as a recruitment tool for young viewers. They play popular games like Fortnite and Call of Duty while they describe military life and answer questions. They did not take well to negative comments in the chat like when Jordan Uhl asked “what’s your favorite u.s. war crime?” Uhl and several others were banned from the stream. The viewers filed a complaint to Twitch claiming a violation of free speech, but the Army responded by calling the negative comments harassment, violating the user guidelines. Twitch was thus put in a difficult position, and their statement ended up being that channels are free to ban viewers when they want to. The issue is now being brought to courts. This is just one of many dilemmas Twitch has to deal with regarding content regulation. The lines are often blurry in issues like this and Twitch must adapt their policies as times change.
The final branch of the circuit of culture, representation, describes how Twitch represents itself as a service and as a company. Twitch has been a trailblazer in the streaming industry since its founding. They continuously make an effort to support their users and embrace the communities they have created. Twitch keeps their “creators first” policy at the forefront of their business decisions, ensuring no bad blood between the company and the creators. Other media companies like YouTube and Facebook have tried similar strategies, but Twitch stands out with having best achieved this goal. Creator Emmett Shear mentioned how he himself is a gamer, and that he has always tried to make Twitch a place that embraces gaming culture. Another important part of the community that Twitch embraces is the meme culture. As with any social platform on the internet, Twitch has built up a catalog of memes from their users. Twitch has a unique feature in which they allow users to create custom emotes for their channels, and the site allows most emotes to be usable by all users. This has led to many emotes becoming memes in the community like Kappa and Pogchamp. The site now includes a list of the 100 most popular emotes at any given moment. It is clear that the leadership of Twitch have used their own love of gaming and internet culture to create a space that puts those things before money and profit unlike many other media platforms.
According to Kan and Shear, the interactive nature of Twitch represents the future of television. They are firm believers that live streaming will overtake traditional forms of media, and it seems like they are going to be right. The massive growth of Twitch and other streaming platforms over the past decade has demonstrated that this is the way younger viewers want to get their entertainment. One example of Twitch overtaking television is the charity stream. Charity streams, in which all revenue brought in from viewers are donated to a worthy cause, are being called the new telethons. Charity streams feel like the natural progression of telethons because viewers can view the event, chat with the hosts, and donate money all on one page. Twitch allows for charity streams and many other events traditionally on TV to be more accessible and fulfilling for everyone involved.
Competition for Twitch has never been much of an issue for Twitch. In the past few years, however, big tech companies have been creating their own streaming platforms that are beginning to catch up. Youtube now has Youtube Live, Microsoft has Mixer (had would be more accurate, the service was shut down a few months ago), and Facebook has Facebook Gaming to name a few. These platforms are more or less copies of Twitch that are throwing money towards a share of the market. Youtube Live has the perk of convenience for Youtubers who already have a channel and an audience. Mixer signed a $50 million exclusivity deal with Ninja, Twitch’s former top streamer, earlier this year. Even so, Twitch remains the top dog in the industry. A mix of reputation, user satisfaction, and innovation have ensured that Twitch will continue to dominate in livestreaming.