~ my take on listicle-style content writing with a topic of my own choosing, Part 2. After watching and experiencing the rising popularity of livestreaming over the last year, I wanted to try to distill the factors that may account for its growth into a short article. The five points primarily deal with my perceptions of the sociology of what these live productions draw out of the people watching and creating.
Live streaming, on platforms like Twitch, YouTube and Facebook, has experienced an extraordinary surge in popularity over the last few years. Live-streaming, or “Livestreaming”: that is, broadcasting content live, in front of a camera, in real-time, to an audience over the Internet. Reports show the online live streaming industry has grown 99% between April 2019 and April 2020; the industry is expected to be valued at 184.27 billion USD by 2027. Since around 2018, myself and many other millennials, zoomers, ‘youths’, etc. have participated in a brand new medium for not only entertainment, but also news, online humor, memery, community, and sometimes… comforting background noise in our rooms.
Live streaming as a medium, whether it’s from the gamers, commentators, traveling vloggers, “vtubers”, or the many other types of streamer, presents a brand new age of content. Also of communication, online community gathering, and art patronage. Top streamers on platforms like Twitch and YouTube are drawing viewership rivaling television, cultivating legions of fans and fan communities, and making good money.
Simply put, in 2021, there are now large portions of the population, mostly among the younger demographic, spending a lot of time tuning in to live streaming content, from talented people that know how to produce it and how to cater to their growing fanbases. The streamers, mostly amateurs or just regular folk starting with a computer or camera and growing viewership organically, may not always be making “art” per say, but they are artists of a kind. Seeking their fame or not, deserving of it or not, it seems likely that individual star streamers will continue to be the cornerstones of the space’s growth in years to come. “Content is king,” and they have plenty of it.
Everyone knows that industries and interests change over time. Paradigms shift. Every season has its zeitgeist. The live streaming industry seems certain to continue to grow from here. Here I present five factors influencing why I think live streaming, just like Netflix-style TV streaming shaped the previous one, will shape the next age of entertainment.
Simply put — live streams, through their chat function, allow for unprecedented participation with entertainment. In real-time, one viewing a live stream can interact with the stream’s presentation. To the other viewers — who are watching and reading and may be typing themselves — the stream of chat messages becomes part of the overall experience. You can see what the rest of the channel is thinking, through short text messages and emotes, live alongside the core performer.
Sometimes, the chance being dependent upon the stream or streamer themselves and how much they read their own chat, you as a “chatter” can change the course of the streamer’s content. Your words can impact the streamer’s choice of what to talk about, their mood, or their own enjoyment or level of self-consciousness about what they are currently saying and doing on camera…
Not to say that these conditions and interactive elements of the experience are always a good thing — certainly live streaming chat interaction can become toxic. But I reckon this unique aspect of participation is a large part of what makes the medium popular.
Nowadays, how often do our friends come from shared interests, from shared picks in entertainment? Twitch and YouTube chats quickly become communities of people that share a fanaticism of their favorite channel or streamer. Maybe they watch them and their content for different reasons, but they all share in their viewership. Even if you don’t know it or seek it out, when you watch a live stream, you are sharing a space with many potential friends.
Through interaction in the community forming itself around a channel or individual streamer, one gets the opportunity to experience the growth of *your* community and *your* streamer’s career. From my experience viewing live streaming fanaticism online, this kind of proud language of tacit ownership over a streamer and their content, along with the pop-up of streamer-dedicated subreddit forums and meme creations, reflect a community-minded streak within the medium’s core base. The audiences share these digital grounds and inhabit part of the overall experience upon these platforms by conversing amongst themselves. Altogether, a new social phenomenon is formed.
With increasing concerns over social alienation and the modern epidemic of loneliness, this level of connection and the kickstarting of community-gathering makes live streaming a differentiator in our modern mediascape.
Not to be discounted in the rise of live streaming popularity is the low cost. Many millennials and zoomers no longer have any interest in paying for cable TV, and are continuously paring down their streaming subscriptions or sharing their passwords.
Unlike Netflix and Hulu, Twitch and YouTube are free to make accounts for and to watch content on. And though advertisements are still a part of such app and browser-based content like they offer, there are certainly less commercials on these platforms versus traditional TV.
Though the base experience is free, viewers can choose to pay for messages to be read by streamers or give monthly patronage to subscribe to a channel to dodge the periodic ads. This tiered approach with a stream enables stronger personal investment to the stream’s community, as well as more control over the viewing experience.
These aspects of affordability, with time and money, can make live streaming more attractive to the average consumer. When it can be helped, whoever likes to pay much for their fun?
For many, I think live streaming may be an escape from their reality. For the same reasons that we play video games, watch TV shows or movies, or read books, we seek out a state of *being entertained* in order to get away from our life for a spell. Live streams do the same thing, but differently. Whereas we sit for an hour or two for a show or film to see a narrative, live streams hatch chaos. The unknown. Entirely outside of your control, unlike a video game. Even with a schedule and a plan, for any given live stream, you never know what is going to happen next or who is going to say what. Because neither do the streamers! It’s live.
Whether in a video game speedrun or a live talk show, or a hot tub stream — or any of these — the chaotic motion of live and uncurated, undefined content offers something brand new. Every time. As long as a channel is live, there is a constant flow of content from live streamers, the slow bits or dead air, or awkward moments of realism also being part of the production. I think this is an attractive notion to viewers. Every channel has its own brand of chaos, just like old guard television channels but always happening now and with many more to browse. The universe of live streaming is more like the window out of your house, except more exciting, all its best action localized to your view, available on demand.
Well, the format is not entirely new. It was only a little under 100 years ago that the TV was invented and less than that for it to eventually permeate every home. Before then? Live stage shows ruled our entertainment space. Plays and comedy, operas and concerts. Maybe, in a cyberpunk-ian sense, live streamers are the next generation of such acts. And yet their production is still distinct, more chaotic, less demarcated, and much more accessible to wider audiences. The chaos of a live stream may simply allow a place for some of our generation’s great on-screen personalities to shine.
With this sense of chaos as one of its greatest assets, live streaming as a medium will likely continue to evolve to capitalize on it.
The last reason I don’t really have a name for. It has to do with something that is within the former reason but is also its own thing. It is the feeling you get when you are watching something live. That is, happening in real-time somewhere out there in the world, just like you. Not just that it is chaotic and unknown, but that it is happening right now.
Similarly powerful experiences can be had at concerts, or sporting events, or live, in-person spectacles of all forms. Or even from watching live news reports from journalists. With Twitch and Youtube and other Internet live-streaming content, the difference comes with the online format, often mobile, accessible at the touch of a button on a small screen. And the difference comes with the intention.
Unlike concerts or plays, I think people are watching live streams for the sake of companionship. A small but definite slice of it. Many viewers wish to be a part of someone else’s life, the streamer individually and the chat collectively, even if only in some small way. The chat allows for one to try to make their voice heard on the stream. Cynically speaking, they want attention. Aspirationally, viewers want to be part of the streamer’s or channel’s community, as I said before.
To me, there is a distinct psychological and emotional experience in the consistent viewing of live events, and live people, upon your computer or TV screen. If you work or live alone for long stretches, live streams can provide you with a little interconnectivity with the outside world, even if only on in the background of your day. People talking to you through a screen, especially when you know it is live and you can respond even if only in text, mimics social experience. In fact, there is a defined sociological term for this phenomenon: parasocial relationships.
The material reasons why parasocial relations are on the rise — and how they may be detrimental to our mental health — are separate questions. Ones definitely worth exploring! Here with this writing, I don’t necessarily want to judge or express a normative position on the nature of parasocial interaction. But I do think this general phenomenon of the desire to experience live interactivity will be a huge, perhaps only unconscious, driver of live streaming popularity for years to come. For good or ill.
All people want participation, they desire connection, they look for something new, and often for as cheap and easy as they can find it. All the better if it is going down LIVE and right in front of their hungry eyes and typing fingers.
For better or worse, I think these are five reasons why live streaming may be the entertainment of the future.