Last weekend, a TwitchCon panel dedicated to helping new streamers refine their channels minted a new villain in the eyes of the Twitch community, thanks to a short viral clip on Twitter. In the footage, an audience member tells a panel that she wants to feel like she has a relationship with Twitch streamers. A streamer responds by saying he never wants that with his viewers and, more damningly, that he doesn’t think viewers should relate to him because he’s “better” and “bigger” than the average person. The video has been viewed over 6 million times on social media, drawing such ire from flabbergasted onlookers that the Twitch streamer has since received harassment and death threats.
????? Imma be real, even fucking NINJA wouldn’t have said this lmfaoooo pic.twitter.com/RL6zOoLPWG— Classy (@Classify) October 27, 2018
The intense reaction is no surprise: the streamer, who admits he has a “god complex,” comes off as arrogant and self-aggrandizing, which points out a potential hypocrisy for viewers: we expect celebrities to be bigger than life when entertaining us, but when speaking as individuals, they must always be humble. This is especially the case for Twitch streamers and YouTubers, whose entire identity and business model revolves around accessibility.
The appeal of such internet celebrities isn’t that they’re charming, good-looking, or funny (though they often are), it’s that they’re friendly enough that you could imagine them being your actual friend. Twitch streamers, in particular, are expected to have constant, immediate interactions with their fans, something that has made Twitch chat one of the platform’s defining features.
But the streamer in the panel is far from a big-time broadcaster. Known as Michael “mmDust” Duarte, he is a Twitch affiliate known for speed running Resident Evil 7 who currently holds world records for beating the game as quickly as possible. Since the panel, mmDust initially doubled down on his comments, only to joke about them and eventually apologize in a Twitlonger.
“I wanna start with what I said was stupid and not an accurate representation of who I am,” mmDust wrote. “I completely understand why people feel the way they do about me since what I said was trash. This was my first time speaking publicly in front of a live audience and I was not prepared.”
mmDust also explained that, in the past, he has told himself he is “better” than other people to help motivate him to stick to things like diets and workouts, but that it doesn’t reflect how he actually thinks about other people in his life.
“Let me be clear: I DO NOT believe that my life is any more valuable or important than the life of another,” he continued. “I DO NOT expect or feel entitled to anything from life to be given to me over another person.”
While mmDust did not respond to a request for comment from The Verge, if you watch the entirety of the Twitch panel, it paints a much more nuanced picture. Out of context, the clip sounds like an influencer lording his status over his audience. In actuality, mmDust had been invited to talk about his experiences precisely because he is an unusual streamer.
“Dust runs his stream differently,” dmbrandon, the moderator for the panel, said while introducing the session. dmbrandon, who streams the video game Smite, explained that mmDust’s perspective was simply that he didn’t set out to be friends with his viewers, wanted to be upfront about it, and nonetheless managed to maintain a modestly successful feed. While this isn’t the typical attitude for Twitch streamers, the idea was that there was something valid or potentially valuable about this less ingratiating approach.
On Twitch, the relationship between streamer and viewer is often a murky one. Some of the most common perks of being a viewer include giveaways, playing games with fans, exclusive content, gated chats, and a generally personal tone. Small streamers, in particular, make an effort to really get to know their viewers, often chatting with them about their day-to-day lives in an effort to convert them into diehards. mmDust does none of that. His Twitch page, which has since been softened in its language, says that he doesn’t want people to call him by his first name, and he explains why viewers can’t expect extras from his stream.
The panel was constructed to encapsulate a variety of different approaches to streaming, including more personality-based ones, and ones revolving around talents like voice acting. The whole thing is structured so that viewers can come up, pitch their own channels, and get feedback from the streamers. Everyone was tasked with answering four simple questions, which the panelists use to judge and say if they’d watch the viewer’s channel.
On the whole, the panel had tough talk for aspiring influencers: the reality is that while many people want to make it as a streamer, it’s rare to offer something unique enough to gain a following. Regardless, it’s clear that mmDust’s entire ethos rubbed the room the wrong way. When people pitched streams revolving around lighthearted hijinks, schemes, or personality-based work, he kept reiterating that he was mainly interested in streams because of their gameplay and skill, not the personality controlling the experience. As a speedrunner, mmDust explained, his primary interest in games was mechanical. That makes sense, given that his area of expertise centers on exploiting the way games work.
“It’s very hard to be a breakout star in [speed running] without competing for a world record that viewers respect at some point in your career,” says GrandPOOBear, a speed runner known for playing Super Mario. GrandPooBear says that, in speed running, it’s entirely possible to be successful without being personable or “nice,” though many streamers still try to combine the two.
“The skill gets the eyeballs first, but the personality is what keeps them for the next game,” GrandPooBear said.
But the rest of mmDust’s comments reveal that he is responding to more than just the culture of speed running: for him, the demands of an overly familiar audience are too much.
“Earlier, when dmbrandon was saying that I kinda ignore my chat and don’t try to make any personal connections, it’s because it gets to a point where you get so deep into everyone else’s business that it gets to you, too,” mmDust says during the panel. “And I don’t want people to recognize me or think of me as a friend because it’s not a real friendship. It’s just not something that I want.”
mmDust said that he doesn’t always provide the personal attention that some viewers expect, specifically because he wants to be exceptional at what he does.
“Because I do that, I can also do the whole ignoring my chat [thing],” mmDust said. “Like when people sub, I don’t say their names at all. I just say, ‘Thanks for the sub, you turkey.’ And I call everyone turkeys. I enjoy it because the people who stick around know that I don’t care to that point, and they’re okay with that. And I don’t have anyone that wants to be my friend because I don’t want to be any of my viewers’ friends. It’s just not for me.”
This sort of relationships is often known as a “parasocial” relationship, a concept that refers to how audiences feel close to media figures. As Verge reporter Megan Farokhmanesh wrote earlier this year, “It boils down to one-sided affection: a person invests emotional energy and attachment in a media figure, and they develop a sense of kinship and intimacy that makes them feel as though they know the celebrity — even though the celebrity has no idea they even exist.”
In a world where fans often cross the line with internet celebrities, it’s a wonder more people don’t erect hardline walls between themselves and viewers. Instead, it’s expected that fans will eventually show up at your house, find out your personal information, and stalk your loved ones. At the very least, the line between entertainer and friend is often blurred, especially as viewers often go to broadcasts to get advice on their day-to-day lives.
Speaking to The Verge recently, Twitch superstar Tyler “Ninja” Blevins described a situation in which a college kid in his Fortnite game opened up about his home life and mental health issues, at one point reportedly urging viewers to seek help and take care of themselves.
“I thought it was so powerful that this stranger, knowing how many people were listening, had no problem being brave and honest and I bet that helped someone out there. Really stoked I could be part of that,” Blevins said. Even so, Blevins — who sometimes gets borderline abusive comments where viewers threaten suicide — makes it clear that he is no replacement for an actual friend or mental health professional.
“All I can do is continue to preach positivity, but I’m by no means a life counselor,” Blevins said.
Despite the potential boundary blurring that can come with being a Twitch personality, viewers still expect streamers to perform affability. So when mmDust cordially rejected that approach during his panel, viewers got heated. Hecklers yelled at him, and people who came up to the mic seemed to discount his viewpoint, to the degree that the panelists had to repeatedly defend why mmDust was there.
“That’s also one of the reasons he’s on the panel,” dmBrandon said. “Dust doesn’t watch a lot of streamers. He makes his own content, and tends to watch someone for a day and then go, ‘I’m bored’ and leave. That’s most viewers on Twitch.” dmBrandon also pointed out that most people pitching their streams at the panel repeatedly touted that they held welcoming spaces where people could go to chill and make friends, an approach that, while noble, was “the same thing over and over.”
That, he said, was the whole point of bringing mmDust into the fold: he may not be huge, and you may not like him, but the fact he exists and can do decently on the platform shows that Twitch can be approached in a multitude of ways.
Viewers didn’t buy it. Instead, they kept coming up to the microphone to argue about the validity of mmDust’s approach, if not outright challenging him to do things like naming community members of his stream. One viewer asked him if he even did anything to give back to his community, almost as if a streamer always owes something to their viewership. Throughout most of this, mmDust keeps his cool. At one point, he said navigating the wants of an audience was so tricky, that he instead chose to not engage with that part of Twitch customs at all.
“I found it, personally, hard to balance all of that, so my best way to do it is to cut all the extra out,” mmDust said. “And it’s what made streaming enjoyable for me, and it’s what’s allowed me to be consistent.”
His fellow streamers backed him up. “You have to keep a wall because otherwise everyone wants to be your friend, and it’s awkward,” said Twitch streamer Bikeman. “It’s very awkward. You have to keep that wall. You can’t just invite strangers into your life. They like you, they think you’re funny, they want to be your friend. You can’t have thousands of people be your friend. It just doesn’t work.”
But the audience was not satisfied. Near the end, when the moderator said they’re at the last question, a woman yelled out, “I wouldn’t watch you in a million years.” This disruption ended up extending the panel and prompting the response in the viral clip, though that footage doesn’t include the entirety of her statement.
“I can’t build a relationship with you,” the woman said to mmDust. “I like people that make me fuckin’ laugh… when I look for streamers, I want to relate to them. I want them to be witty. I want them to be cool. I want them to have that unique aspect that all of us strive to have. But I need there to be a little bit of a relationship because I don’t want to talk to a fuckin’ wall.”
Again, if you watch the entire video, the viral clip takes on a new context. Yes, mmDust is arguably being standoffish and impersonal, but he was also responding to an antagonistic environment that spent a good chunk of an hour wearing him down and telling him that he was wrong for not wanting to be friendlier with his viewers.
“What makes so many of the social media celebrities, well, celebrities, is the idea that they are relatable somehow,” says Leslie Rasmussen, an assistant professor of communications at Xavier University. “Connectedness is key.”
“This Twitch user is essentially shunning the thing that is so important to audiences,” she continued. “He’s telling them he doesn’t want the relationship, and to add insult to injury, he goes on to say he’s better than most people. When most influencers or social media celebs are trying hard to build audiences by creating relationships, even if they are pseudo, this person is rejecting it.”
People don’t want to feel like the celebrities of the world, even ones they don’t care about, could dare to put some distance between themselves and their audience. And all internet celebrities are grassroots efforts: they shouldn’t just feel grateful to be here; they should feel indebted to the people who made them famous in the first place. But what makes mmDust interesting is that he doesn’t even seem to want that — he isn’t trying to be the next big thing on Twitch.
“I recognize that a lot of what I choose to do now as a streamer is not what most (or anyone) would consider a ‘successful path,’” mmDust said in his apology that was posted earlier today. “But I do not stream with the intent of making money or for becoming famous. I do it to be better. I stream because I enjoy it.”
Update November 1st 11:46 AM ET:
The Verge managed to speak to mmDust, who said that the overall panel was indeed a struggle — though he anticipated that. Beyond the audience’s unwillingness to hear his points about an alternate approach to building an audience on Twitch, he says that he was very nervous and misspoke. Here’s mmDust:
I did a poor job at explaining when I talked about not wanting to build friendships with my viewers. I felt that many thought when I said that, that I meant I treated my viewers poorly or that I didn’t care them. I am friendly to my chat and I do appreciate the time they spend choosing to watch me. I just want to be clear with my viewers that even though I appreciate what they do, to not allow themselves to believe that they are becoming closer to me personally or anything like that. It’s more of a precaution because I’ve seen the results that can occur from not setting boundaries and how it can birth unhealthy relationships and expectations.
I was very nervous for the panel. I lack public speaking experience and I was doing it in a setting where I didn’t feel like people would accept me. I recognize that my numbers on Twitch aren’t like the others who were on the panel with me and I knew going in that I was here because of my viewpoints and opinions. I knew from the start that I would be the least liked among the panelists and expected to have some unhappy audience members
mmDust also noted that much of the backlash came from misinformed viewers who believed that he should be more thankful for his viewers who help him make a living, when in fact he just streams as a hobby, not a job.