"Wait, you WATCH people play COMPUTER GAMES!?"
I've become badly obsessed with Twitch. It is replacing the vast bulk of my TV viewing right now and I've been thinking about it almost constantly - partly with an objective analytical head, attempting to place it in context with the rest of our cultural output and partly just, well, trying to figure out how it's captured me...
Almost nobody I've spoken to, of my own age or background - even culturally hip folks - knows or cares much about Twitch. And certainly nobody yet seems to appreciate its power, structural importance, or potential to inspire. When I try to explain it, people either switch fast into a cynical, mocking mode, or get their minds a little bit blown. For virtually everyone I've talked to about it (aside from one or two honourable gamer exceptions), Twitch is a fundamental brain-melt at concept level; particularly when its sheer scale becomes clear.
One friend who is senior at a TV company asked around his office and told me not a single person there knew it. He gained a pile of brownie points the next week explaining the mechanisms to his colleagues.
Here's what Twitch is - so skip five paragraphs if you already know this. Twitch.tv is a free video live-streaming platform for people who play computer games to broadcast themselves gaming - and for communities to watch and interact live with them. Onscreen you see the actual game as they play. Often you also see the player (streamer) in the corner of the screen, via a webcam. The streamer narrates and explains the action live. The third element is chat: anyone watching can text live chat, which runs up the screen. Streamers spend a lot of time reacting verbally to that chat, in real time.
Then (as is the way with Internet stuff) any possible variant and iteration of that basic set-up probably exists. And streaming is huge. Twitch launched in 2011 as a spinoff from a not-so-successful live streaming channel. By 2013 it had 40 million views a month, by 2014 it was the fourth largest source of USA peak web traffic and last September Amazon paid $970 million for it.
So right now as you read this, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are not just watching Twitch but living inside that world as their primary online space. People in chat continually talk about it as their web home, the place they return to, more 'real' to them than either conventional social media like Facebook, or their daily lives.
I should add, Twitch also broadcasts professional e-sports (as in competitive gaming with live crowds, commentators and all the trappings of normal sports TV) but, although there is a load to unpack there too, I'll ignore the e-sports aspect for now.
Streaming is often a real career: Twitch streamers earn money via subscriptions ($4.99/month). So if a streamer gets enough viewers and followers, Twitch makes them a partner, gives them a 'subscriber' button, people pay and from then on the streamer makes money. Crucially, I don't mean people pay to view - it's always free to watch - instead subs pay for the added status of being subbed, with increased access, emojis and the chance to join the streamer on private servers sometimes (if the sub is a gamer) and play with them.
There are thousands of professional and semi-professional streamers around the world. The bigger names are global rockstars in that scene and proper famous. American streamer Lirik has 10k subs, generating close to $600k per year and every day he's watched for hours by 30-40 thousand people. A stadium's worth. Add sponsorship, ad revenue share and merchandise to that. That parses into a relatively modest 123k Twitter followers - except this is a dude who barely gives a shit for Twitter, just tweets occasional promo and certainly isn't wasting time chasing followers.
The most interesting element isn't the top end, it's the arts world golden egg: a potentially sustainable, professionalised 'working middle' - the exact area that's been wrecked in the rest of the cultural services world. A large number of more modest 'up-and-coming' streamers have several hundred subs, equating to a viable monthly income (especially considering that most are young, living in shared rental or still at home with parents; equivalent to any artist's developing post-study early period).
Another revelation is identifying who does the funding.
This is the extraordinary equation to get one's head around: the very same kid who doesn't think twice about illegally filesharing a film or TV show is happily paying individual streamers the equivalent to the price of a month's Netflix, not even to access the content but simply for the status of being defined as a subscriber. And the kid isn't just subbing to one favoured streamer, the kid is subbing to a bunch of them.
There is so much to think about here for the entire rest of the arts. We need to find routes to replicate such effective direct-to-fan contact and moment-by-moment authenticity. It makes the growing fanbase very loyal and also more realistic about what the "artist" is actually like. It's a deeper, more forgiving (while at the same time more contributory, outspoken) kind of fandom. I think people building platforms that share the other art-forms ought to (urgently and immediately) build in this kind of infrastructure - whether blogs, video sites, audio streaming, or artist HQs. I'd go so far as to argue cultural survival may lie in figuring out new processes to personalise interaction, place it in real-time and offer subscriptions based on status symbols (such as emotes), extra content and interaction. Where is subbing or monetisation for Periscope and Meerkat? For music makers, Bandcamp's move to enable subscription is a good start - but needs a pile more work to make it anything like as immediate and connected.
I keep imagining a revolutionary next step for YouTube or Bandcamp or someone (This Is My Jam?) - a paradigm for video DJing modelled on this system (ha - what MTV used to call VJs in the 1990s) - where the DJ curates videos (pulled from an archive of everything ever) while at the same time sits visible in the corner of the stream like the gamer and responds live, verbally, to text chat in exactly the same way. So they could field requests (and maybe the queue of upcoming vids is also visible, so it can be messed about with - a vid inserted or deleted if chat has a strong opinion.
Perhaps this is (or resembles) what Apple is planning with Zane Lowe. I hope so, because it'd be a kick-arse way to take the online video viewing habits of music fans to a new level.
But for now: anybody building a career anywhere in the arts or communications should have at least a topline look at Twitch with an uncynical eye because nobody - absolutely nobody - is communicating with their fanbase on the same level as these streamers.