GAME OVER: How Twitch Transformed the Internet

How the incredibly popular live streaming service changed the way we do things.

Twitch logo by Alex Castro, all rights reserved.

Twitch.tv or simply Twitch, is the most popular online game live streaming service providing user generated content. As defined by the company, Twitch is a place where “…millions of people come together live every day to chat, interact, and make their own entertainment together”, in that it allows anyone to broadcast video via the internet (Pires & Simon, 2015); it can further be defined as a social platform where it hosts and distributes, rather than creates, online content for users whilst collecting data for company gain (Gillespie, 2018).

Situated within the sharing economy (John, 2017), in its eleven years of user activity, Twitch has fundamentally transformed the internet in a multitude of ways as a result of its unique platform affordances. Where affordances can be understood as social constructs formed in relation to technical constructs (Postigo, 2016), Twitch’s gaming stream capabilities have allowed for a uniquely successful business model emboldening streamers, and whilst currently faces large problems in terms of moderating online harassment, and the regulation of copyrighted materials, has ultimately facilitated a cultural evolution in participatory culture and the nature of sharing through user-generated content.

Tutorial Mode –  The history of Twitch.tv

In 2007, Justin Kan and Emmett Shear launched Justin.tv, a “big brother-style”  site live-streaming the lives of Kan and 60 other streamers in an attempt to create a new generation of reality stars – spring-boarding the career of early internet star iJustine, before shifting to user-based content. The format of the site used to feature a live video alongside a live chatbox, with a top bar full of live channels to browse.

“Justin.tv — new look”, by Phillip Jeffrey, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2011, after the gaming portion of the site had become immensely popular, Justin.tv launched Twitch.tv, a spin-off live broadcasting site designed solely for video game streaming (Gerber, 2017). At the beginning of 2014, three years after inception, Twitch accounted for almost 2% of all US peak internet traffic behind only Netflix, Google, and Apple, however Justin.tv was no longer experiencing similar success, and was consequently shut down for the founders to focus solely on Twitch. In August that year, Amazon acquired the platform for $970 million USD.

Since this ownership change Twitch has continued to grow exponentially, with greater than 100 million visitors per month, and over 1.5 million active streamers (Gerber, 2017). Notably in 2016 they introduced new premium content features – cheering with ‘bits’ and Twitch Prime(now renamed Prime Gaming). In Q3 of 2020, users watched 4.74 billion hours of content compared to 2.7 billion in 2019, and the platform increased its market dominance, accounting for 91.1% of market share in terms of hours streamed. It is important to note however, that COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on Twitch data where lockdowns resulted in increased user activity.

Twitch’s origins allowed the platform to immediately and effectively differentiate itself from other video sharing and online gaming services at the time where its Justin.tv livestreaming features were easily transferrable and unique. Whilst competitors such as Youtubecould be considered in the same field as Twitch, at the time of its creation they only offered Video on Demand (VOD) services (Pires & Simon, 2015) rather than endlessly active content.

 

Levelling up – The Innovative Business Model of Twitch.tv and its Internet Ecology

The business model

Like many social platforms, Twitch engages in the mining, or “sharing” (John, 2017) of user data to “improve users’ experience”– a statement left deliberately vague to individuals, thus creating the common economic power imbalance between user and company seen within the sharing economy (Martin, 2019). The result of this data collection? Integrated ads on the sidebars of the website. After another co-founder recently left, Twitch now has only one CEO – Emmett Shear, and has been a subsidiary of Amazon since 2014. As previously mentioned, in 2016 they introduced a “freemium” basic business model whereby subscribing to Prime Gaming, users gained access to perks such as downloadable content (DLC) for games, and less ads.

What sets Twitch apart within their business model however, is their system of direct monetary support to players. Twitch offers streamers a cut of advertising revenue and subscription amounts generated by them (Sjöblom, Törhönen, Hamari, & Macey, 2019). Further, through the introduction concept of Cheering Bits – which generated $6 million USD in the year they were launched alone – they facilitated an “ecosystem of monetary support” (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019, p.2) directly from viewers to streamers.

A single bit, costs roughly 1.4 (USD) cents, of which the revenue is divided between Twitch and the streamer, and can be bought starting from clumps of 100 for $1.40. Viewers cheer streamers on – donating bits – by typing “Cheer__” in which __ represents the number of bits provided. The shape of the bit emote depends on how many bits are sent to the streamer.

Twitch.tv, all rights reserved.

This direct stream from viewer to streamer is unique, where platforms like Youtubemainly allow creators to profit through pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll advertisements, and sponsor revenue (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019). Where the majority of income for Twitch streamers comes directly, the platform both effectively filters out and acquires the best content which consumers enjoy the most, and also incentivises streamers to keep creating through tangible reward (Sjöblom et al., 2019). By immediately commodifying the streamer, this model also keeps hold of viewers simultaneously, where users actively become both financially and emotionally invested in the stakes of streamers (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019), drawing on the notion of sharing as presented by John (2017) where it reinforces social ties. Ultimately, this innovative business model rooted in the notion of the sharing economy has transformed the ways to consider monetary benefits for creators on social platforms, where others have not tried such a direct approach.

Twitch’s internet ecology

The internet ecology of a platform can be understood as the differing relationships and dynamics between the participants within an environment where information is distributed via many different mediums (Looi, 2001). Such ecosystems are often designed in order to reinforce the power of giant media companies (Martin, 2019), as is the case with Twitch.

With backing from mega-corporation Amazon and their remarkably successful business model, the majority of Twitch’s major competition such as Mixer, have been squeezed out of the market, and Twitch has absorbed their audience. Google-backed YouTube gaming was similarly forced to close app service, instead relaunching in a smaller way under the broader umbrella of YouTube, where they no longer compete directly as a video on demand combined with live-streaming platform (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019).

As seen in this video, Twitch has notably partnered with companies such as Microsoft and Sony to deliver immediate broadcasting where users can select to livestream or watch from within systems.

Despite these partnerships however, when it comes to suppliers, functions remain in house, where Twitch does not engage with third-party hosting servers unlike Google and Netflix (Deng, Tyson, Cuadrado, & Uhlig, 2017), and as a function of social platforms, users provide the vast majority of content.

A diagram of Twitch’s internet ecology allows us to effectively understand the complex webs of communication and interaction between many different invested parties.

Figure created by Laura Ganley via Canva.

 

Final Boss – Regulatory Issues on Twitch

Moderation

Although it is a given notion that all platforms must moderate content – in order to protect users, and the company itself (Gillespie, 2018), to what extent they engage often differs. Whilst humans are needed in order to enforce “community guidelines” on a case-by-case matter (Gillespie, 2018) where it is too difficult for AI to encapsulate all human interaction, this matter varies too. Twitch moderators are chosen individually by streamers as promoted from regular viewers where they are often identified as exceptional members of a streamer’s community (Seering, Wang, Yoon, & Kaufman, 2019). Notably, female moderators often find greater value in having friends moderate for them (Kaufman et al., 2019). Moderation on Twitch is significantly difficult to manage and operate, where it must keep up with synchronous conversation during live broadcasts (Kaufman et al., 2019). Therefore, whilst featuressuch as AutoMod, Chat Rules, and Chat Modes can be enabled to help streamers, human moderators are heavily relied on (Kaufman et al., 2019) to maintain live chats during streams where streamers cannot perform these functions effectively themselves during play. Twitch struggles with endemic toxic technocultures as outlined by Massanari (2017), where women, LGBT+ people, and people of colour are often targeted. In response, Twitch launched the Twitch Safety Advisory Council in order to help keep their online community safe, to limited success.

Copyright

Where copyright owners have had the power to shape the foundations of social platforms in accordance with industry specifications such as the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), and automated detection algorithms scanning uploaded content (Suzor, 2019) this has caused huge discord amongst Twitch streamers. A constant and ongoing problem is the issue of copyrighted music being played in the background of streams. On November 11 2020, thousands of streamers were sent messages from Twitch about DMCA takedowns, giving users a three day grace period to remove copyrighted content before strikes and account bans were to be rolled through.

Streamers were shocked where they felt they had been given no aid in regulating their own content.

Twitch later apologised for their poor response to the situation, and developed new tools for creators to edit VOD uploaded content.

 

Achievement Unlocked – Unique Online Cultural Change Facilitated by Twitch

Within the sharing economy and the participatory nature of the internet, Twitch as a social platform has redeveloped what it means to partake and communicate online.

Context collapse

Twitch streaming is no easy feat where game streaming becomes a real-time performance bounded in space and time, for viewers (Lin, Bowman, Lin, & Chen, 2019). In order to create a successful performance, streamers must be able to negotiate many forms of communication and expression at once in order to satisfy audience – balancing music, real-time critique, playing games, and reading live chat – as emphasised by Gerber, Twitch streamers are a “paragon of a modern digitally literate individual” (2017, p.343). Further down the line, contexts between what constitutes as work as a streamer, and the leisure activity of gaming have begun to collapse (boyd & Marwick, 2010), between work and play. However, this change is not necessarily negative, where the culture of Twitch does not conceal the labour of the individual (Johnson & Woodcock, 2019), instead celebrating it (Sjöblom et al., 2019).

Synchronicity

Where Twitch enacts completely live as a broadcasting platform, differentiating from the VOD uploads of other social platforms, this comes with a completely unique culture. The synchronicity of live broadcasting games essentially allows for the creation of an imagined community, through immense “ephemeral experiences” (Hamilton, Garretson, & Kerne, 2014), alongside encouraged participation of audiences in a casual manner. Where Twitch experiences less fluctuation in content distribution due to its live nature (Pires & Simon, 2015) – given that broadcasters could be active at any moment – the platform is able to remain active at all times, making it simple for viewers to connect to their community. This experience can be understood as unique, where it has pushed online communities from more stagnant forms, to an immersive community through synchronicity.

DrLuopo hosts a livestream engaging with Twitch community, from NYT, all rights reserved.

 

End Game Credits – Final Thoughts

Through its unique monetisation strategies and the commodification of individuals, Twitch’s business model as presented by Amazon has been remarkably successful. Similarly, Twitch has had a huge impact on the culture of digital work and audience participation whereby context collapse and synchronicity have fostered change. Indeed, Twitch has a long road ahead of itself, however it is certain that without the platform, the structure, our understandings, and usage of the internet would be remarkably different.

 

 

 

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Laura Ganley
About Laura Ganley 2 Articles
Second-Year USYD student majoring in Digital Cultures and Marketing. Avid TikTok scroller. Interested in understanding the cultural impacts of social media on our daily lives. Find me making conversation @laurascybers on Twitter!