I’m calling it now: live-streaming won the pandemic. (Broadly speaking, so did billionaires.) At this point, the numbers are annihilating. In October, millions (including myself) spent 1.6 billion hours on Twitch, which represents a 99 percent jump in year-over-year growth, according to StreamElements and Arsenal.gg’s November report. And even that doesn’t account for just how many things were converted into streaming video — events, holidays, relationships, and more. In the early days of the pandemic, we tried to cram the offline world into the series of tubes we call online. Now, nine long months later, it’s hard for me to remember how novel Zoom socializing felt.
I think about the many small adjustments we made to work and socialize a lot these days. Enough people cared about their video appearances that there were shortages of ring lights and webcams; Zoom’s stock price even shot up. (It dropped with news of a vaccine.)
Back in the beginning, when I was staring down the barrel of indefinite quarantine — as though through the wrong end of a telescope — I made a joke that was more of a confession about spending more time on Twitch. I wanted to take the whole thing more seriously, and staying inside felt like permission. “im going to start my twitch partner push while everyone is locked inside,” I wrote on March 1st, 2020. It was early enough into lockdown that the whole thing felt a little novel; things would eventually go back to normal, I surmised, and it seemed like the people around me in my city were committed to doing the right things.
Eight months and more than a quarter of a million deaths in, that telescope has righted itself. It’s become clear that the federal government has deemed 2020’s chaos — widespread job losses and business closures, mass unemployment, unchecked viral spread — acceptable. I’ve been reporting on Twitch as a business and as a social space the entire time, and it occurs to me that while it’s felt a little useless talking to people about streaming, what I’ve noticed is that the work does seem to matter. I admire the streamers who have made it their whole business to bring people moments of joy, or at least a respite from how unrelentingly terrible this year has been. Streamers are important because they’re important to people, which feels obvious to write. But this crisis has underscored just how valuable those small, tenuous connections can be.
And it’s worked on me. These days I find myself tuning into West Coast streamers I like (or East Coasters who run late) just before bed, when I’m alone with my anxiety about the state of the world. I think there’s something noble in their broadcasts; I can’t imagine I’m the only one who needs to hear a soothing human voice sometimes, or one that’s only upset about the momentary ugliness of a fictional universe. As the writer Charlotte Shane eloquently put it in a recent piece on TikTok, “But humor and distraction are my love language. I understand the necessity of comfort, but I don’t like being consoled, not by another human being discernibly laboring toward that end.”
The virtual world is the actual one now, and it’s going to take a long while to tease out what that means. The thing I can’t stop thinking about is the lesson the Trump administration unintentionally provided: all we really have is each other. And it goes double in a socially distanced world, one where we can’t even hug our friends and family. So I watch streamers, some of whom are friends, and it’s almost like togetherness.
In my own life, on the other hand, I’ve found that streaming regularly on Twitch has helped structure my weeks. A schedule provides a measure of accountability and some feeling of responsibility to a group of people with whom I enjoy spending time. It’s also helped me find a community of people I never would have met before, either online or off. And these, I think, are the small things that matter.
I’ve been thinking of 2020 as the year of the Twitch streamer for a while now. As the internet has become the main place people socialize over these last nine months, it feels like we’ve all become a little more like streamers — we present our whole selves online behind a webcam and a microphone, and we expect people to see us.