Leave Lurkers Alone

When I was in university I was walking home late one night with my headphones in. The only other person around was a man walking down the sidewalk the other way and he said something like “nice night” or other some pleasantry. I wear headphones to avoid this sort of thing, and I was not in the mood to strike up a conversation with a stranger in the middle of the night, and so I continued on my way in hopes that order would be restored and we could go back to ignoring each other like adults. Moments later I heard “NICE NIGHT” fired at the back of my head, presumably to penetrate my headphones, but with a level of aggression that tranquilized any of my lingering guilt I had about not engaging in the first place. I continued on my way only to hear a profanity laden tirade about how he’s just trying to be friendly and some invective about my hair which I didn’t quite catch. Naturally I am haunted to this day about the wonderful friendship that could have been.

I am confident enough in how people will view the stranger in that story to conclude with sarcasm on the internet. Despite this shared understanding as to why shouting at someone for not responding to a salutation is not a solid basis for a friendship, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend of streamers harassing their viewers for chat engagement. This article will try to answer why.

The catalyst seems to have been an adjustment in Twitch’s discovery algorithms since a general decline in concurrent views seems to be a common (if unspoken) observation among both professional and amateur streamers in my network. Disappointment is a part of life and, between extended isolation and the fact that social media platforms put considerable effort into linking our sense of self worth to engagement metrics, we might be forgiven for being a bit more high strung than normal. Unfortunately I’ve also seen this frustration directed to a class of viewers known as ‘lurkers’, viewers who watch the channel but do not interact in chat. This kind of outburst is both absurd and completely understandable, depending on what you think is going on when a broadcaster hits the “Start Streaming” button in their program of choice.

One way of thinking about broadcasting is on a spectrum between viewing it through a business and hobbyist lens. Both of them can lead towards an undesirable treatment of lurkers, and both will be dealt with in turn.

The business view is transactional, but this is not inherently bad since it gives specific measures of why a given broadcaster is doing things and whether or not they are hitting their goals. Twitch’s model isn’t all that different than TV or radio, entertainment is provided in exchange for the ability to show the audience ads. The transaction between Twitch and the viewer is very simple in those terms and the only real difference is the platform’s greater ability to discriminate making it easier to sell viewers an opportunity to opt out of the advertising. The business view is more complicated from the perspective of the broadcaster.

There’s a lot that could be written on Twitch’s success at clawing back the revenue from broadcasters through things like bits and affiliate subscriptions, but two simple points will suffice: broadcasting on Twitch is a lot like working for commission, and the majority of viewers on Twitch will not support the broadcast monetarily. If the transaction of the old TV model is a good description for Twitch, what is the transaction between the broadcaster and the viewer? Part of this will be idiosyncratic since people have their own reasons for streaming, but what kind of exchange might explain outbursts against lurkers?

The simplest answer is still going to be money even this is not strictly true. Other factors that will likely drive a broadcaster are highly correlated with financial success on the platform (recognition of talent through high viewership or chat interaction for instance). It is unseemly to harass viewers for money and, in the end, even if a consistent viewership that would be eligible for Twitch partnership (75 or more) were to subscribe, the monthly revenue would maybe be enough to cover groceries. A more likely transaction is that the broadcaster provides entertainment, while the viewer provides metrics that could translate to future success on the platform (plus the probability that they are one of the few who do convert into financial support). Success on Twitch is something of a game of momentum. Higher concurrent viewership translates to better placement on Twitch’s browsing features which in turn brings in more viewers. Higher concurrent viewership also brings the possibility of access to press keys, especially pre-release ones, which further enhance profile and viewership. Past a further threshold and sponsorship becomes a possibility.

Twitch has gotten rather specific in what they consider to be viewership. As best as I can tell it will consider an active and unmuted (in the Twitch player) browser to be a view. It is common to have multiple streams open, but it is far from certain all of them are credited as being viewed. From a transactional point of view, this type of viewership can be seen as taking the entertainment (as background noise, or casual engagement while your main stream is doing something not to your taste) without delivering the metric. Chat participation is also going to create a momentum of its own, since an active chat is easier to participate in than initiating in a dead one, and so these appeals may be simply to encourage a deeper level of commitment that will correlate with metrics.

While I am trying to be sympathetic with this point of view, it is not intended to be a justification for harassing lurkers or diminishing their role as somehow ‘lesser.’ First, it is counterfactual. Provided a lurker is counted as an active viewer (for instance, they haven’t muted the stream), their view is counted just the same as someone who dropped $1,000 worth of bits in chat. All that is added by chat participation is the increased likelihood that one of the other views that stops by stays by, and so the addition of chat interaction is marginal. Second, and more importantly, it lacks the kind of business sense that would be applied in any other comparable situation. If I show up outside a McDonald’s with a BBQ and start shoving burgers into people’s hands saying “They’re only 50 cents!” the result is not going to be the dawn of a new fast food franchise. Lowering the price to $0 and screaming “IT’S FREE YOU SHOULD TAKE IT!” will change my potential customers behaviour only in so far as they run from my BBQ rather than walk. It may be unfair that smaller streams need to work harder to build the momentum that established streams have (at least far as people not engaging with someone else’s leisure activity can be considered unfair), but making that the focus of discussion does not communicate any reason why someone should participate in a chat. For streamers who may lean more towards a business view, harassing lurkers over their viewing preferences should be seen for the counterproductive measure that it is and stopped.

Any broadcaster who is going to stress out enough about chat engagement is going to share some part of the business view, and yet I think by the conclusion of the previous account most people will not recognize themselves. The fact is that there is also a human dimension to this problem which is more aligned with what I’m calling the hobbyist view.

The business view has more explanatory power than it might first seem. While it is true that people may not expect significant financial rewards from broadcasting, I think if we were honest with ourselves a lot of our behaviour is driven by a desire for recognition, or showing those people who doubted us that they were wrong all along, or similar factors that are correlated with financial success (so the business view may still be a good fit for a broadcaster with the single minded goal of being recognized as the funniest streamer on Twitch with 1 million concurrent viewers, even if their reward is non-pecuniary). However, the fact remains that there is more to life than these drives and not everything can be boiled down to a transaction. We often associate these with more pure motives, and yet I think these factors are equally responsible for outbursts against lurkers.

When certain broadcasters say they do it purely for their own enjoyment, I believe them. This is not enjoyment derived from the attention that people bring but rather the ability to broadcast their play irrespective of how many people may be watching or participating. This is the hobbyist view. Do people make model trains for a living? Sure. Does every model train builder have secret plans to become the next head of the Miniatur Wunderland? Certainly not. In this view Twitch is like watching a show together, talking over the episode, throwing popcorn at the screen, and just generally enjoying being around each other (all things I hate by the way). No broadcaster completely fits either view, as I think most have a realistic assessment as to whether or not they’ll make living doing this thing, but I also think very few have banished “if it happens…” from their minds. People are likely more sympathetic with the hobbyist view because it doesn’t reduce viewers into number, but this is also where the problem emerges.

Friendships on the internet are a little odd to begin with. There are some e-mails I get from people I have never met in person where I am always happier having read them, while on the other hand I’m perfectly aware that being a regular or even a moderator in a chat does not necessarily extend to any particularly close social ties with an individual. The problem of viewers growing inappropriately attached to broadcasters has been widely covered, but from a hobbyist perspective there’s no reason to think that broadcasters are immune from feeling a closer connection to particular viewers than others (certainly so far as whatever I get that counts for hate mail goes these viewers seem to think that I will be rending my garments over their departure). This doesn’t have to mean an extreme case like stalking, only that a broadcaster has developed a particular attachment to certain viewers through a general rapport and shared experience.

The line between this kind of attachment being healthy or unhealthy is a particularly fine one, and it is likely at this point that expressing frustration over a lack of chat activity seems justified. Going back to the story at the start of this article, most of us know that berating a stranger for not striking up a friendship is weird and counterproductive. Most of us also don’t like to think of ourselves as privately measuring other people’s worth through what they can give us. All of us though will feel a certain level of justification in saying something like “Why do I only hear from you when you want something?” to a friend. These broadcasters behave differently than they would otherwise because they see it as a different situation in which there are reasonable expectations for interaction. Sadly, as with dating, friendship, and job hunting, interests can be imperfectly aligned and this can be a source of friction and disappointment.

We may prefer to think of ourselves in the hobbyist category because it seems nicer, but it is precisely because it seems like it comes from a good place (or at least a justifiable one) that these kinds of broadcasters can behave in such an appalling way. There isn’t as simple of a fix for this case. The business view has a clear appeal to self interest, but how do you tell someone that their viewers aren’t as invested as they think they should be and that it’s not a big deal?

One problem with the account from the hobbyist view is that it doesn’t explain why is this happening now? A drop off in viewership will likely correlate with less (or no) chat activity, but blaming the algorithm doesn’t really seem to fit. The simpler explanation is that people are lonely. For most parts of the world we’ve been going through a period of extended isolation. It’s not just that tensions are high, I think some of the expressed frustration over lack of chat activity really is a cry for some kind of human contact. This is purely speculative as there seems to be something of a stigma about admitting a feeling of loneliness, either through it seeming like self-pity, or for more stereotypical macho reasons. But hopefully identifying the problem lets people understand enough to correct their behaviour.

Harassing lurkers over their lack of chat behaviour is dumb and counterproductive. Broadcasters get to set the tone for their channel and are perfectly within their rights to express a preference for chat activity, just as their viewers are within their rights to decline to participate in a negative conversation. There’s no real impediment to viewers participating in a chat, and so if someone isn’t participating it’s because they don’t want to. Compelling a viewer to do something they don’t want to do seems like a high cost for ‘free’ entertainment. While I’m critical of the practice, I also think I understand it. Life is not easy right now, and we might be finding expression for certain feelings in ways that aren’t consistent with how we’d normally like to behave. With luck we recognize those tendencies before we do any permanent harm, or at least extend the same kind of understanding towards others that we hope to receive when we are in error.

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