Technology

What is Twitch, even?

Twitch is difficult to describe, to understand, and to start using. It is also incredibly rewarding once you get the hang of it, which is the way these things tend to go: the harder it is to get into something, the more you’ll like your mastery of it. I’ve been writing about Twitch and its various ecosystems for a little while now, and lately more and more people have been reaching out to me to ask variations on the same two questions: What is Twitch, and why should I care about it? How do I start streaming?

The answers to those two questions, I think, capture the entirety of the Twitch experience; contained between them is a whole universe of streamers, emotes, games, communities, and gear. I figured I should take some time to explain, now that we’re living in a world of lockdowns and unlimited screentime — and now that Twitch has gotten a major popularity boost because it is a fun thing to do online. So let’s dive in!

OKAY, I’LL BITE: WHAT IS TWITCH? — RUSTY, PORTLAND, MAINE
That’s a great question. The obvious answer is: a website! The less obvious answer: a website that people use to broadcast themselves live to the entire planet! The even less obvious answer: Twitch is the community of streamers, the audiences who watch them, and the technology that makes it all possible. Twitch is Twitch. But it’s a place where you can go watch anybody do everything from knitting to cooking to live musical performances to, of course, video games.

WHY DO PEOPLE LIKE WATCHING OTHER PEOPLE PLAY VIDEO GAMES. WHO WOULD VOLUNTEER TO PLAY UNHAPPY COLLEGE GIRLFRIEND? DO YOU GET TO TALK TO THEM OR DO YOU JUST WATCH IN DISCONNECTED SILENCE? — CAT, SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
I’m sensing some resentment here, which I like. You can roleplay “unhappy college girlfriend” on Twitch for sure! But yes, you do talk to the people you’re watching. Twitch’s chat function is integral to the site because it’s one of the main things that differentiates live-streaming from prerecorded performance. Twitch chat is also a little hard to understand — at least for some of the bigger channels on the site — because it functions differently in different contexts.

If you’re watching a smaller streamer you probably won’t see as many KEKWs, PepeHands, and Kappas (emotes, in other words) as you will in a bigger channel. Generally, smaller streamers interact more with their audiences because it’s not overwhelming to keep up with while they’re streaming themselves doing whatever it is they’re good at. The corollary is that bigger streamers check their chats less because it’s harder to keep up with both the chat and the game.

People like watching Twitch streamers for a couple reasons. Namely because they’re entertaining (or “have good vibes”) or because they’re extremely good at the thing they’re doing, whether that’s speedrunning Mario or working on cars.

Speaking of Pepes:

HI BIJAN,
I’VE JUST STARTED WATCHING TWITCH STREAMERS AND I WAS WONDERING IF THERE WAS AN EASY WAY TO TELL UP FRONT IF SOMEONE IS A WRONG UN?
WHAT’S MAKING IT HARD IS THAT PEPE THE FROG ALSO SEEMS OMNIPRESENT… LIKE, IN CHANNELS THAT ARE OTHERWISE FINE OR FROM STREAMERS I KNOW NOT TO BE FASH, PEOPLE IN CHAT USE PEPE EMOTES ALL THE TIME, WHICH IS MAYBE THROWING OFF ALL MY USUAL JUDGEMENTS. — ALEX, LONDON, UK
Well, Alex, there’s a lot here. You aren’t seeing things; there are a ton of Pepes on Twitch. What you’re watching is the site’s emote culture in action. Emotes are very important to Twitch because they’re like the hole in the center of a bagel — it defines everything else about the site. Twitch emotes are created by its affiliates and partners, who unlock emote slots based how many people subscribe to them. You can create an emote out of anything you want, provided it fits into the predetermined dimensions, is a .png, and also passes the site’s approval process. (They don’t allow emotes that can potentially be abused to do hate speech.) Once you subscribe to a streamer, you get access to their emotes. So it’s kind of like a badge showing your allegiance / who you’re into watching.

Global emotes are another thing entirely. As the name suggests, they’re global, which means that anyone can use them across the site. They’re handpicked by Twitch. (Here’s a list, and here’s what they all mean.) But Pepe isn’t a global emote. What you’re actually seeing are two add-ons to Twitch: BetterTTV and FrankerFaceZ, which function a bit like Reddit Enhancement Suite does over on Reddit. Basically, BTTV and FFZ let you do a bunch of stuff that Twitch doesn’t let you change; you can mess with how chat looks, etc. The Pepes are enabled by these extensions, so if you type in “PepeHands” in someone’s chat, everyone with the BTTV / FFZ extensions installed will see the emote. Their use is so widespread across Twitch that everyone’s assumed to have one or the other.

But onto your question. The answer for Twitch is to look at the chat and then at the community. You can tell what a streamer is like — if they like to be ~ edgy ~, for example, or are terribly annoying — based on who likes to watch them, because streamers tend to attract people like them. It’s really hard to build an audience on Twitch, so most streamers focus on one game or aspect of their personality to highlight in the hopes of attracting more people to their channel. Streamers set the rules for chat, so if you see some unmoderated stuff you’d rather not fuck with, it’s time to bounce — whether from a streamer’s channel or in their Discord. That does make it a little harder to tell who you like and who you don’t, but it’s always worth checking someone out before you donate a sub or a view. Pepes are pretty neutral on Twitch — they mean what they look like, for the most part, e.g. “the global pandemic PepeHands PepeHands PepeHands.”

Hope that helps! Stay safe and healthy, but most of all, stay inside. And watch Twitch.

Love always,