The Sociology of ‘Streaming’

by Mark Johnson and Jamie Woodcock

The popularity of “streaming” – the practice of broadcasting live gameplay across the internet to an audience – is a rapidly growing social and cultural phenomenon. If any readers are in doubt about the contemporary popularity – and indeed the need for sociological investigation – of streaming, David Pearson’s recent piece is quite an illustration. Discussing his children’s engagement with media through platforms like YouTube, he argues that it “follows them everywhere”. He explains that his two children have “developed a habit of living out their lives as if there’s an imaginary camera trained on them, just like their favorite YouTubers”. For context, the fastest growing audience for digital video is children aged 11 and younger, and many of this new generation are growing up as streaming natives. There has been limited research so far on the phenomenon of internet streaming, whether the more general vlogging, the live unboxing of commodities, or gameplay streaming on platforms like Twitch (which has now recently added social eating as a category), or engaged with more theoretical questions about the implications of this culture form. As Pearson’s daughter often interjects in her imaginary streaming: “Don’t forget to subscribe”, a timely reminder that with growing audiences there are increasingly large sums of advertising money involved.

Our research focuses predominantly upon streaming games and the Twitch.tv platform. In five years Twitch has grown to become a world leading platform for streaming content, becoming the fourth-highest website in peak Internet traffic in the USA. The Alexa traffic rank for the website is the 60th most popular in the UK (and 103rd globally). Last year there were an average of 1.7 million broadcasters streaming each month, creating a total of 459,366 years of content. The highest number of concurrent viewers was over 2 million with an estimated 27 million unique viewers for the ESL One Counter-Strike “eSports” (professional gaming competition) tournament that was live-streamed. The Twitch platform has facilitated the creation of new online celebrities, offers the possibility of new careers paths, has popularised previously-obscure video games like Rocket League, and has the potential to transform the entertainment and advertising industry. This potential was clearly recognised by Amazon, resulting in the purchase of the Twitch platform for almost $1 billion. A rival bid from Google, which owns YouTube, fell through; for comparison, the average Twitch viewer watches 421.6 minutes per month, whereas YouTube viewers watch to 291.0 minutes. These figures demonstrate how important and integral to the online lives of many users Twitch has quickly become, and this makes it an essential object for digital sociology research.

The astronomic growth of Twitch, now supported as a subsidiary of Amazon, is set to continue. The individual streams attract viewership through the performative labour of the broadcasters, which involves creating a live dialogue with the viewers while playing a game. Communication is two way as the game footage is streamed along with webcam footage, while viewers respond by text chat. This has resulted in new ways to engage users and players by encouraging a form of co-production in which players and spectators of the game form new communities around their game activities. These new communities, numbering in the millions, are comprised of gamer-spectators, including gamers, game broadcasters, and viewers. An individual may be in all three of those categories or a combination. Those that engage in broadcasting can turn a profit from the activity or even make a living through donations and monthly subscriptions. This interaction between players and viewers through money, commentary, and community is highly distinctive, yet speaks to a range of established sociological questions over the role of the internet in contemporary life, play and sociality, online interaction, and the social impact of interactive broadcast media. This current research project therefore aims to investigate Twitch and the phenomenon of streaming for three key reasons: it is an organisation of exemplary success in the digital economy; the process of co-creating digital content is forging new relationships between content producers, consumers, and companies which requires research attention; and the popularity of streaming has new social and cultural implications which are not understood.

We’re both currently postdoctoral researchers based in the United Kingdom. Mark’s research background is in science & technology studies, and he is especially interested in the relationship between the material aspects of streaming and the communities that emerge around it, and the affordances of systems (such as donating, chatting, webcams, etc) that structure the experience. He is also a former professional gamer and a multiple game world record holder, and consequently has a particular interest in the broadcast of competitive gaming on Twitch, and how Twitch and eSports have become mutually co-constitutive social elements in an emerging and gradually formalizing ecosystem. Jamie’s background is in the sociology of work, with interests in the labour process, digital labour, and workplace resistance. His research interest in Twitch began as a case study that combines forms of paid and unpaid labour, blurring the lines between work and play. He intends to examine the relationships of co-creation (for example, between the platform, streamers, viewers, and other actors including advertisers) and analyse the political economy of streaming.

Streaming has not just affected how existing games are played: there is even now a game about streaming, entitled Youtubers Life, which allows players to simulate the career of a professional streamer. The game allows players to “become the world’s greatest video blogger in history”, in which it is promised you can “broadcast yourself, edit and publish videos, expand the amount of fans and turn yourself into a wealthy fellow!”. So, in an unusual turn of events, it is now possible as a researcher to watch someone watching another person streaming themselves playing a game about people streaming their gameplay to other people. As represented by this rather labyrinthine Borges-esque example, there is an important phenomenon unravelling, and one that we seek to understand: how is streaming changing the ways content and play is produced, distributed, consumed, and monetised in the digital economy? We aim to produce a number of papers and conference presentations in the coming months and hopefully years on this topic, and for more information, you can visit our homepages at www.ultimaratioregum.co.uk/about-me and http://www.jamiewoodcock.net/. We welcome any and all comments on the work and potential future research directions, and look forward to developing this rich emerging area of social research.


Categories: Digital Sociology, Research Profiles

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