“Hi! I see you, but I’m focused on the reading right now. I can chat during the next break!” This message popped up on the stream from Ryan Blake Hall, better known as Storyteller Mars on Twitch.
He was busy reading from Henry Wysham Lanier’s A Book of Giants: Tales of Very Tall Men of Myth, Legend, History, and Science (published in 1922). Sitting in front of decoratively open books and teacups, he even did character voices—gruff, booming voices for the giants, a calm voice for narration. A few viewers chatted amongst themselves during Hall’s broadcast. Hall loves talking with his small, but growing community (his 242 followers, with about 20 tuning in on each stream), but he won’t interact with them until a break, when the chapter is over.
“There was this lovely couple when I was reading Treasure Island back in November,” Hall told Gizmodo. “They would do their nightly ritual of climbing into bed, turning off all the lights, and put me on [the TV] and listen to me read until they fall asleep. It makes me feel like what I’m doing is 157 percent worth my time and effort. Knowing that even if it’s one person who I’m helping deal with life better, just get through whatever difficulties they’re having, feels like I’m giving back to the world all the kindness and generosity I’ve been given in my life so far.”
Twitch is known primarily as a video game live-streaming site, where users broadcast a number of different video game streams: “Let’s Play”–style broadcasts that see a game through to completion, esports players streaming their practice, and later, tournaments and leagues showcasing official, competitive play. Most often, the streams with the most viewers are fast-paced, exciting, and, often, over-the-top. League of Legends, Fortnite, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are typically leading in viewership numbers for that reason. (Twitch users watched “tens of millions of hours of Fortnite on Twitch” in 2018, Kotaku reported last year. This month, the game brought in an average of 140,740 viewers, with more than 10,000 live channels broadcasting at any given time, according to Twitch Metrics.)
But there’s a quieter side of Twitch, with much less stimulation and shouting. There is joy and amusement to be found in the shrieks of loud, gregarious streamers, but an emerging sector of the platform—“Twitch for introverts,” as Hall called it—is offering up a different, more relaxed experience. These quieter places on Twitch are more evocative of a slower form of entertainment, not unlike Norway’s slow TV, which broadcasts long train rides or a 12-hour knitting marathon, and the holiday tradition of watching a yule log burn.
Now owned by Amazon, Twitch launched in 2011 as an off-shoot of broader live-streaming platform Justin.tv. These days, Twitch has a reported three million streamers broadcasting from the platform each month, the company announced in December 2018. On average, that’s nearly half a million users live-streaming on Twitch each day, reaching more than 15 million viewers every day—according to Twitch, each of those users spends around 95 minutes, on average, watching streams each day.
Most streams are focused primarily on video games, but there are also streams from musicians, knitters, storytellers, makeup artists, scientists, and photographers. There are streamers sewing costumes, snapping together LEGO bricks, and creating digital paintings of their favorite characters. Streamers like these have been on Twitch since the beginning, but the platform officially recognized these broadcasts under the “Creative” banner when it launched the new vertical in October 2015. It was kicked off with a week-long marathon of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting, setting a standard for what the Creative channels could be.
When 58-year-old Jennifer Chambers speaks about her channel, she isn’t talking about herself. Chambers, known on Twitch as JennyKnits, talks in we’s. We’re going into our fourth year of streaming. We applied to the partnership program. We earned partner status months after creating the channel, she told Gizmodo. (Partners on Twitch are an elite-level status, available to prollific streamers, that gives them benefits and community creation tools, like the ability to run ads and access to more custom emote slots.)
Chambers began streaming on Twitch in 2016, but had been watching others stream Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft for years prior. A lifelong knitter, she taught knitting classes at local craft stores. When the creative section of Twitch opened up in 2015, she realized that teaching knitting on Twitch was an option, too. “Honestly, I didn’t think 10 people would be interested,” Chambers said. Now, she’s got a modest, but steady group of viewers—around 100—who watch, knit, and chat with her every day. “It’s gotten so much bigger than just teaching knitting,” she added.
Not long after she began streaming, Chambers was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I got the email from Twitch saying, ‘Your hard work has been rewarded, and you’re going to become a partner,’” she said. “The very next day, I had surgery to have my port installed to start chemotherapy. [The next day] I had chemotherapy for the first time. I was pretty much sick from the moment I got my Twitch button.”
Chambers streamed all through the physical and psychological hardships of treatment, and now she’s cancer free. “It was an amazing process and journey,” she said. “I feel like by being open about what was happening in my real life, they’ve become like my family.”
It’s for that reason that streaming on Twitch, for Chambers, is less like a musician performing to a stadium-full of fans and more like a knitting club, naturally.
A streamer like Tyler Blevins—better known as Ninja, the rainbow-haired Fortnite streamer championed for his loud, goofy streams and rowdy gameplay—is attractive to viewers for a number of reasons, one of which is his ability to make fans feel connected to him. This is a phenomena digital anthropologist Dr. Crystal Abidin calls “perceived interconnectedness,” something close to parasocial relationships, but updated for the digital age. With a hundred thousand viewers tuned into each of Ninja’s streams, it’s impossible (and, likely, unsafe) for him to consider a personal relationship with his viewers. Consider the chaos of a typical stream, too—Fortnite is a fast-paced, loud, and colorful game to begin with. Often, Ninja is playing with other personality-heavy streamers, each putting on a show for their respective channels, creating an environment that’s both visually and aurally stimulating.
Instead of making personal connections with each of his viewers, which would be near impossible, he can practice perceived intimacy by opening up his life to viewers in calculated ways. Between matches, Ninja speaks directly to viewers, answering questions, sometimes personal, and individually thanking viewers that subscribe during the broadcast. He can’t speak directly to each of his estimated 23,000 subscribers (even more so at the height of his popularity, when he had around 200,000 subscribers), but the act of pulling out some viewers, of which he has thousands each stream, makes viewers feel like they could be one of them.
Creative channels are generally less visually overwhelming than the frantic, flashing gaming streams, taking away one distracting element to make way for more personal community-building. Relationships built in Chambers’ channel aren’t perceived. Chambers considers many in her community her friends, just folks she hangs out and knits with daily. (Chambers’ channel is much less crowded than Ninja’s, 3,760 followers to Ninja’s 14 million. Ninja typically streams to around 40,000 viewers, whereas Chambers has an average of 60 to 80 viewers. But Chambers doesn’t necessarily want to grow to Ninja levels of fame; a community that large can feel impersonal.)
“A bunch of [my viewers] decided to do this cool little project, which had me in tears when they sent it to me,” Chambers said. “A bunch of them all knitted and crocheted little pink ribbons. They did this without telling me, and they sent them all to one person who assembled all these ribbons hanging from strings. They all attached notes of encouragement to me. I was bawling.”
Among the millions of streamers that broadcast on Twitch, there certainly is a variance in video game streamers. There are Twitch stars, like Ninja, but there’s plenty of video game streamers nurturing smaller, quieter communities. Mainstream perception of Twitch, though, puts the Ninjas at the forefront. A glimpse into these larger streams’ chat—literally a chat room to the right of a broadcast—oftentimes documents the worst of the streaming community. Chat moves fast—often too fast to actually read—and is filled with inside jokes and memes. Depending on a streamer’s chat moderation, racist and sexist toxicity can, and does, get through.
Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin told GamesIndustry.biz in 2017 that smaller channels on Twitch are creating foundational communities that self-police toxic behavior, something that has the potential to spread outward into Twitch’s larger channels and chats. “If you go to smaller channels with hundreds of concurrents rather than tens of thousands, you’ll see a lot less [toxic behavior,]” Lin continued. Streamers with smaller communities are able to interact more directly with viewers, allowing them to manage the environment of a stream more effectively.
“At times the slower pace and ability of the broadcaster to turn their attention more readily to the chat window can produce a more conversational quality,” T.L. Taylor, professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and author of Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Living Streaming, said. “Unlike watching a large esports match alongside tens of thousands of people where the crowd experience dominates, creative channels often boast smaller communities with rich histories and more attention to the maintenance of the group around the broadcaster.”
Dr. Pamela L. Gay is an astronomer, podcast host, and Planetary Scientist Institute scientist who reads books and paints planets on Twitch. Dr. Gay uses a super fluid paint technique that mimics how different atmospheres mix “due to differences in [paint] density,” she explained. As paint is poured and layered over circular boards, the colors spread into each other to create patterns and textures. Dr. Gay uses fire to apply different effects on the paint’s surface, depending on the look she’s going for with a specific project, like if she’s painting gaseous giant planets or dark, cratered moons. Each of her planets is designed to look relatively realistic—i.e, planets that are scientifically possible—but she takes some liberties with color, she said.
When she’s not painting planets or reading science stories, Dr. Gay’s broadcasting a daily space news show, aptly named Daily Space, through her day job with CosmoQuest and the Planetary Science Institute.
When the program, which helps citizen scientists work on NASA projects, lost funding. Dr. Gay and her team set up a 40-hour marathon fundraiser on Twitch. “Suddenly my entire staff was unemployed just in time for Christmas,” Dr. Gay said. “But we were able to raise enough money to keep my team at least part-time employed, and we’re continuing to bring in funding so that people can do science.”
“We’re leveraging the Twitch platform to communicate what we’re doing to say, ‘We’re here to do science with you, to explain what we’re doing and make you part of it. Can you support us?’”
The camaraderie of a shared activity brings people back together on Twitch regularly. “The reason I keep doing it is because it’s just become such a fun part of my life,” Chambers said. “I can’t wait to spend time with everybody.” Conversation flows depending on the day; sometimes, Chambers tells her viewers about her current World of Warcraft game. Other times, she answers questions about her knitting technique. On a recent stream, she explained to her viewers how to do a thing called planned pooling, which uses variegated yarn to create patterns.
An interest in knitting and learning brings viewers in, but they stay for the community. After all, knitting isn’t all that exciting to watch, Chambers said. Knitting is a series of small, repetitive movements. A garment is knit together with thousands of stitches. Projects take hours. “Knitting is like fishing,” Chambers said. “It’s fun for the person who’s doing it, but it’s not always that much entertainment to sit and watch somebody do it.” The interactive element of it all, like you’re knitting with a group of friends, changes the dynamic.
Sometimes, Chambers looks up at her computer, where the chat is displayed, and though there’s a hundred or so folks in the channel, the chat’s dead. “I’ll say, ‘Hello? Is anybody still there?’ and they’re like, ‘Yes, we’re still here. We’re knitting!’ A few of them will usually start typing again [after those moments,] but I know they’re just doing their craft while they hang out with me.”
“There can be something not only compelling, but comforting, in watching creative streams,” MIT sociologist Taylor said. “Sometimes it’s the slow unfolding of seeing an imaginative work emerge. The sound of a channel can also draw you in, with the alternation between quiet moments and then hearing the broadcaster describe their process as they work with their hands. These channels offer a kind of aesthetic pleasure that is slightly different from traditional gaming channels.”
Creating an environment on Twitch like this isn’t a conscious effort by all streamers, but Chambers, Hall, and Gay all expressed a desire to create safe, calm spaces where viewers can step out of an otherwise overly-stimulating world.
Hall creates this environment by reading free e-books available by Project Gutenberg, an online initiative designed as a reservoir for books in the public domain. Hall starts and ends his streams with at least 15 minutes delegated to talking with his community. He’s creating a calm space, but is also making a more explicit effort to talk about mental health—a topic he’s found not discussed enough, on Twitch or elsewhere.
“I had this idea to [start this channel] for over a year, but my depression and anxiety made me too afraid,” Hall said. “It made me feel like it was a pointless effort. I defeated myself before I even started.”
Once he got help, including medication and therapy, the anxiety of starting a Twitch channel was no longer an obstacle. “I just did the darn thing and found success almost immediately,” he added. “I want so desperately to help other people not fall into the darkness as I once did.”
For many, that kind of support resonates deeply.
“I love that aspect of Twitch where there are Twitch streamers that tag themselves as being all about positivity,” Dr. Gay said. “They provide a safe place to be an introvert, to be someone struggling who just wants to consume content and know they’re not alone, even if they’re just lurking in the chat. The people on Twitch really take care of each other.”
Nicole Carpenter is a writer and reporter based in Massachusetts.