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Who should you be while you’re streaming?

Here’s some advice: be the person you want to hang out with

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

If there’s anything I’ve learned from working on the internet, peddling writing for a number of years, it’s that the content must flow. Or maybe it’s better to say that content will flow because its creation is a foregone conclusion. No matter what your feelings on the issue are, there will always be more of it. And while the word used to be deployed as a synonym for low-quality art, the kind that’s relatable and snackable and draws in huge undiscerning audiences, in recent years, it’s come to encompass all creation. Content is a unit of measure, not necessarily a work itself.

That shift, I think, is one of the more quietly radical changes in how we conceptualize creative production because it already implies that the creation — the content — is worth money. It also implies that production itself is work, not something snatched or dreamed from the vapors of the collective unconscious. Art is content now, but it’s not all bad. The downside is that “content” is meant to be consumed and not engaged with, but at least now you can get paid for your work?

Anyway. I think about this stuff a lot, specifically in relation to online video. It’s only in the last five or so years that YouTube has professionalized. During the same time, live-streaming has become its own culture, most notably on Twitch. It changed what people thought video should be: high-quality news broadcasts, maybe, or hands-and-pans videos engineered to go massively viral.

Right now, we’re living through another pivot, this one engineered by social distancing and not cooked up by the eggheads in Menlo Park, California. These days, live-streaming has become a much more appealing choice for people who don’t normally create video content online. On the other hand, TikTok has lowered the barrier of entry for those same people as regards recorded video with its lo-fi, Vine-like aesthetics. It is something of a golden age because now we are all inside, and that’s mostly where the internet lives (for now).

This is a long, roundabout way to set up a question sent in by Melissa in Brooklyn:

I never really used Twitch before quarantine started, but now I’ve gotten really into the idea. I want to start streaming, but I’m not sure what kind of content I want to make. Are there any easy mistakes to avoid? Any clichés you notice a lot of first-timers doing that audiences don’t really respond to?

Like, I used to cam a couple years ago, and a common thing I saw and tried unsuccessfully myself was to be “the camgirl who reads academic theory” on camera, which I think spoke more to my own discomfort than to the kind of videos and persona I wanted to create. When it comes to your first stream, what’s a good way to start? — Melissa, Brooklyn, NY

This is something that a lot of people are now asking themselves. If you’re stuck inside, and you’ve fallen into a somewhat unsatisfying routine, trying out something new online — like streaming or making TikToks — is a way to break yourself out of your day-to-day. It is, in other words, developing a new hobby. The problem with a hobby like live-streaming is the metrics: on Twitch, the little red number shows just how many people you’re reaching. And if you feel it’s low, it can feel hard to continue.

What I’d say to you, Melissa, is that you should figure out what kind of things you enjoy doing, and then figure out how to stream them. If that’s knitting, great! That community exists on Twitch. If it’s gaming, even better! Gamers are on every live-streaming platform. When you’re starting out, it’s less important to think about your audience and more important to figure out a way to make streaming sustainable. There are easy mistakes to avoid — like making sure you have decent lighting and clear audio — but I think audiences respond to mysterious inputs. It’s a complex alchemy. But the main thing they like is seeing you do the thing you enjoy doing and maybe happen to be good at.

Camming is a great experience for live-streaming. Every Monday, I stream Civ VI with my pal Stoya, who also streams on her own channel and on ManyVids other days of the week and has done a lot of camming herself. I assumed it’s made her more comfortable on stream, but I figured I’d ask her. “It’s literally the same,” she says. “And it’s always easier when you have a task like Civ or baking.” (She also adds that performing on camera had made her better at both camming and live-streaming.)

Being “the camgirl who reads academic theory” is certainly a persona you can cultivate, but if the persona doesn’t feel personally authentic, it’ll become impossible to maintain. That’s why most streamers play a heightened version of themselves while they’re live; it’s less putting on a persona — unless you’re Dr Disrespect — than being the sparkly, party-hopping version of yourself. Although you don’t have to do that, either. Anything can work as long as it’s honest. People come to Twitch and YouTube and Mixer to hang out with you, the streamer. All you have to do is be the person that you’d like to hang out with.

So when it comes to your first stream, Melissa, you should pick something you like doing. Set up your camera and microphone. And then, after you press the “Start Streaming” button, get ready to be yourself.