Oakland, CA — 2018 has been an absolutely monumental year for the livestreaming community online, thanks to the rise in popularity of platforms like Twitch, Mixer, Instagram Live and so many more.
And while these platforms and more have been expanding rapidly in order to compete for a new generation of livestream viewers, the personalities and communities at the center of the genre are the ones being affected by an unprecedented and daunting shift in internet culture.
From competitive gamers like Michael “shroud” Grzesiek and Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, to the outdoorsy IRL (“in real life”) channels like EXBC, the most successful broadcasters of every stripe know that the unpredictability of a live, unscripted performance is a large part of what differentiates their work from more mainstream content on YouTube and social media.
In many cases, the anticipation associated with watching a game unfold on stream can be vital in the creator’s effort to establish the expectation that “every moment could be the moment,” as Marcus Graham, Director of Twitch Studios, puts it.
At the same time, what really sets the livestream world apart from every other corner of the internet is an exaggerated version of what every social media platform has been promising its users for decades: human connection, on demand.
As a viewer, watching a livestream might feel similar to chatting with a friend via Discord or Facetime. The user’s ability to virtually socialize and bond in real time with interesting people doing interesting things is an undeniably appealing selling point for every livestreaming platform.
But for the streamer, the experience is actually much more akin to that of an actor performing a routine in front of a live audience. Because livestreams often feel more intimate to the viewer than they are, streamers are regularly expected to entertain and genuinely connect with many viewers at a time, while also maintaining their personal health, safety and sanity.
Much of the drama that emerged from the livestream world this year stemmed from this dilemma, when prominent streamers said or did something that broke the illusion of intimacy and transparency with their audience members.
One particularly memorable incident erupted back in October, when Fortnite player Imane “Pokimane” Anys went live on Twitch without makeup on, and a series of screenshots comparing her “normal” look to the natural one became an instant meme on Twitter and Reddit.
In the days that followed, the meme and many viewers insinuated that Pokimane had been deceiving them about her appearance by wearing makeup on stream, and expressed feeling “betrayed” by her “deception.”
But Pokimane said she hadn't intended to deceive anyone by simply wearing makeup. In fact, she said she decided to go bare-faced on stream to bring attention to the unrealistic standards of beauty that are often thrust upon women streamers. But because she had broken the illusion of constant transparency with her viewers by revealing a less-than-glamorous aspect of her off-camera life, she was ridiculed and publicly mocked.
On the other hand, many supporters and others streamers came out in support of Pokimane, and she didn’t seem too bothered by all the criticism.
Throughout 2018, several streamers ran into controversy.
Most memorably, streaming megastar Ninja — whose team-up with rapper Drake helped make Fortnite streaming a mainstream phenomenon — revealed in an interview that he refuses to play video games with women on Twitch because he’s worried his fans would start rumors about whether he’s romantically involved with them. “The only way to avoid that is to not play with them at all,” he told Polygon reporters back in August.
Ninja’s controversial policy inspired widespread blowback across social media in the days that followed, much of which resulted in heated debates about the inclusion of women in gaming.
In a similarly shocking incident at Twitchcon in October, one streamer told a room full of people that he had no interest in connecting with his viewers, because he sees himself as “better” and “bigger” than them. After realizing what he had said, Michael “mmDust” Duarte (who has under 12,000 followers as of this writing) justified his indifference to his fans by saying he has a “God complex.”
Both Ninja and mmDust clearly offended lots of people with their comments, but both incidents — along with the Pokimane drama — point to one of the worst problems facing the livestreaming community today:
The bigger your audience gets, the harder it might be to please them – and audiences can be incredibly demanding. And not all livestreamers are ready for the limelight. So it’s not hard to imagine there will be more controversies to come in 2019.