"When you cover media, you get used to meta activities, but staring at my computer watching an audience watch others play streaming video games was a new level of remove."
Carr was struggling with the same question many others were in the wake of Amazon's $970 million dollar acquisition of Twitch. Do people actually watch other people play video games? The answer was and is yes. Millions do.
Twitch is the fourth largest stream of data on the entire Internet. Millions of people and dollars breathe life into its ecosystem every day. Back during the acquisition, Twitch boasted 55 million monthly active users, with more peak traffic than Facebook and Amazon. Fifty-eight percent of its viewers spent 20 hours a week or more watching streams, beating some cable television numbers. Last year, Market Watch reported that more than 100 million unique views were logged per month. As Robinson Meyer argued in The Atlantic, Twitch was just monetizing what many have experienced for decades now: watching video games with our family and friends.
So almost two years since the acquisition it's time to stop asking if people watch each other play video games. Let's level up the inquiry: How are communities being built on Twitch? For answers we talked to Drew Harry, the director of science at Twitch. His team uses data science to help inform decision making when developing their product. "We think of ourselves as explorers in a certain way," he says.
Harry distinguishes Twitch from other streaming platforms like Periscope or Facebook Live, because it caters to broadcasters who are deliberately focused on hosting a channel that creates a community around what they do. On the gaming side, Carr described these broadcasters as a combination of "funny, eccentric grown-ups" and "teenage boys talking profane smack."
That was our experience, too. We watched a Swedish guy named Robbaz make jokes about toilet paper while playing "Dark Souls 3." We listened to KingGothalion discuss his decision to take money for beer product placement, arguing he wasn't a sellout because he wanted to take care of his wife and kids. Both broadcasters were engaged with their audience, like drive-time radio DJs hyped up on energy drinks.
Here's a screenshot of broadcaster Mentally playing "Minecraft."
But the self-proclaimed "leading video platform and community for gamers" is aiming for more than just games. Last year featured an epic session of Bob Ross' program "The Joy of Painting." And in March, Twitch viewers tuned in for a marathon showing of Julia Child's show "The French Chef," commenting as fast as Child's knives chopped.
"The Julia Child marathon was a response to seeing people in the community being interested in cooking on stream," says Harry, "So we tried to shine a light on something that people might not expect to find on Twitch."
These creative communities are interested in content that's adjacent to video games, whether it's creating fan art or playing tabletop role-playing games. But Twitch sees the wider creative world as important to its future growth as well. Just while writing this piece, 2,000 people watched a guy remix music. Others watched the tailoring of made-to-order men's clothing, foil and stained glass stamping, pencil portrait drawing and a young woman in the Netherlands playing acoustic guitar. And yes, there were a thousand-plus viewers watching old cooking show broadcasts.
While Twitch's gaming broadcasters offer their communities benefits like buying advice, gaming expertise or just the cult of personality, the creative channels provide the kind of relaxing entertainment you might find watching reality television. But in this medium you can interact with the stars in real time through chat.
Even if broadcasters are offline, there's a "host mode" discovery process that lets them direct your attention to other channels. In fact, Harry's science team has found that broadcasters will use host mode to share their audience with channels that have similar or smaller audience sizes. This kind of peer spreading drives nearly 20 percent of host mode traffic and helps grow new communities on the platform.
This is the real value for Twitch. "The recurring theme for us is that every community is different," says Harry. "And when you try to aggregate across the whole world you kind of get a blur."
While it's easy to find popular content on Twitch, it can take some effort to discover smaller channels. The science team found that one of the best ways to do this is through repeated, unplanned interactions in chat. All that chatting builds close friendships that lead to recommendations of other channels. Additionally, many viewers base their consumption on what recently aired, leading them to find new broadcasts regardless of their popularity.
That's good for Twitch. The company wants positive viewing sessions that last at least five minutes, and 91 percent of Twitch's minutes fall into this category. Harry has observed an interesting phenomenon contributing to this success, particularly in eSports communities, which garner billions of dollars in value. He compares it to public sporting event rituals, like when fans sing "Sweet Caroline" together at Fenway Park. But on Twitch they "sing" with emoticons and spamming. Some emotes are adopted by different communities for different use, but Harry sees the social contest between these spammers and the people complaining about them as constructing the channel's community identity.
So it seems that Twitch isn't just a video game fad. It's building communities that start friendships over gaming, creativity, and yes, even cooking. In the future, maybe you'll even watch articles like this be written in real time.