Nine years after the launch of the game-streaming platform Twitch, the content that hardcore gamers most vocally reviled has officially become its most watched: just talking.
A new report from stream management site StreamElements indicates that in December, Twitch viewers watched 81 million hours of “Just Chatting,” Twitch’s category for streamers who do exactly that, plus any number of other grab-bag activities. That was a solid 7 million hours more than the first game listed, League of Legends, and 23 million more than the second, Fortnite. The popularity of “Just Chatting” is bleeding into January, too, and according to StreamElements, nongaming may be Twitch’s number two category in 2020.
While it might not be surprising that people on the internet want to communicate with charismatic strangers over Twitch, it wasn’t long ago that streamers feared they’d face a stern suspension after getting caught chatting too long in lieu of popping heads in Call of Duty. In fact, Twitch’s rules of conduct strongly discouraged sitting in front of a camera and watching YouTube videos, rehashing the news, or eating ice cream with your viewership for too long. Twitch was for gamers broadcasting their slick Starcraft II plays; it wasn’t for the popular or the beautiful.
In the past four years, that’s begun to change. Twitch’s transition from a gaming hub to a general livestreaming hub has been a rocky one, but in that time hardcore gamers’ views have lagged behind those of users interested in making and consuming Just Chatting-style content. Even the people behind the platform itself seem to be unsure of what to make of the shift. Twitch declined to comment on this story on the record, but emphasized that Just Chatting isn’t currently the top category on Twitch, despite the millions of hours it’s being viewed.
Twitch launched its controversial “IRL” section for streamers who weren’t gaming late in 2016, and in 2018, the platform fragmented it into several categories, including Just Chatting. Streamers might entertain viewers with their reactions to silly videos or their gossip about a YouTube celebrity. They might dole out advice to the lovesick or just sit there in a thousand-dollar gaming chair singing along to hip-hop and talking about their glamorous life. Also associated with Twitch’s IRL section was the notorious streamer Paul “Ice Poseidon” Denino, whose unhinged stunts attracted a bevy of viewers but also real-life damage, including the month he got swatted every day, according to The New Yorker.
Byron “Reckful” Bernstein, who drew in much of his 900,000-strong following on Twitch playing World of Warcraft, now says he averages 11,000 concurrent viewers when he’s gabbing with friends and fans to upbeat music.
“They get to know the broadcaster on a personal level,” says Bernstein. “Parasocial relationships are starting to form more and more often. When I go to an event (TwitchCon, BlizzCon), anyone who approaches me already feels they know me on a personal level—better than they know some of their closest friends.”
Just Chatting encompasses everyone and everything. It includes a streamer with the handle Kitboga, who trolls tech support scammers with the wit of a performance artist; Sophia “Djarii” White, who paints her whole body to resemble videogame characters; Kaitlyn “Amouranth” Siragusa, who works out in sultry attire; and Maya Higa, who shows off her falconry skills and engages viewers about environmental conservation.
“People joke about me not playing games,” Higa says. “I’m not a gamer. I never have been.” (Most streamers mentioned here do sometimes play games, and their follower counts range from 128,000 to 1.2 million.)
“Just Chatting isn’t one game. It’s thousands of different niches grouped together,” says Kitboga.
Twitch’s predecessor and parent company Justin.tv launched in 2007 to facilitate livestreaming in all of its forms, but by 2011 it became clear that gaming was what was taking off. Twitch, named for “twitch” gameplay—the sort of reflex-based movements associated with first-person shooters—spun out and fostered its own culture of hardcore gamers looking to watch hardcore gameplay. Cameras trained on streamers’ faces might take up just a small portion of the screen, with the focus on the game and viewers’ typed-out input on it. Over time, though, streamers arrived who increased the ratio of camera-to-game or boldly devoted the whole screen to a livestreamed video of them sitting at their bedroom desks. Their person was the performance, not their gameplay.
In part because of Twitch’s guidelines against nongaming content, and in part because of the insular nature of gaming culture itself, Twitch streamers who didn’t promote themselves as hardcore gamers were widely considered unwelcome by Twitch’s gaming purists, a group protective of their digital habitat. In Twitch chat boxes or on Twitter or Discord, harassment against these so-called cultural parachuters revved up around 2012. Most of this judgment fell on women streamers, regardless of whether they were gaming.
Bonnie “Bo” Ruberg, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, has researched why nongaming streams, and particularly women’s, were widely considered less legitimate Twitch content. Analyzing /r/Twitch threads referencing so-called “titty streamers” (viewers’ term for attractive female streamers who allegedly took views from male gamers), Ruberg noted how they were often compared to “cam girls,” who also performed their jobs on livestreaming platforms.
“A lot of backlash against women streamers and nongaming content is people trying to distance Twitch streaming from camming,” says Ruberg. Gaming diehards opposed to early forms of Twitch’s IRL and Just Chatting categories believed it was “for egirls, for titty streamers, and women trying to show off their body to get sex appeal. Gaming is the serious legitimate thing,” Ruberg adds.
One /r/Twitch comment cited in Ruberg’s 2019 paper on “titty streamers” said it all: “Twitch is a GAMING site and should be focused on GAMING. … The more success these girls have, the more similar girls it is going to attract that are all in it for the money.” Said another, “Does anyone else feel like twitches [sic] content is going downhill and is just full of ‘Cam Girls’ now? Just feels like good content creators are slowly dwindling on Twitch and being replaced with these ‘Cam Girls’ that just wanna show cleavage and stuff.”
In an effort to protect the sanctity of Twitch, even after IRL launched, vigilante Twitch viewers would trawl through its directory and report women whom they believed were violating Twitch’s terms of service. In a viral 2017 rant, top streamer Tyler “Trainwreckstv” Niknam angrily told viewers, “This used to be a goddamn community of gamers, nerds, kids that got bullied, kids that got fucked with, kids that resorted to the gaming world because the real world was too fucking hard, too shitty, too lonely, too sad and depressing.” Twitch IRL, he believed, was dominated by “the same sluts that rejected us, the same sluts that chose the goddamn fucking cool kids over us. The same sluts that are coming into our community, taking the money, taking the subs, the same way they did back in the day.”
Conversely, it was not uncommon for streamers to get a rise out of Twitch’s gaming purists for both the lols and the viewership. Kacey “Kaceytron” Caviness, who has streamed League of Legends and World of Warcraft since 2013 and now streams under Just Chatting, would sometimes stall for over an hour before launching a game, which incited riotous heckling and hate spam in her channel’s Twitch chat. In her trademark low-cut top, Caviness’ tongue-in-cheek brand was “fake gamer girl.” And like a great matador, she riled up the masses who, in exchange for a dollar, could send her a message, broadcasted on stream, telling her to drink bleach.
Today, Just Chatting is home to streams on dating profile advice, jaunts in Bangkok, tutorials on how to make money trading futures. These streamers might dip in and out of games, but central to their livestreaming sessions is their personality. Gatekeeping still happens, but now there are hard stats indicating that viewers are tuning in to Twitch en masse for more than just raiding and real-time strategy.
Says Kitboga, who does his tech support pranks on Just Chatting to an average audience of 7,000, “People are more likely to be confused that I’m playing a game than that I’m NOT playing a game on Twitch.”
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