Justin Kan, Twitch’s cofounder, just wants his favorite chess streamers to notice him. “I’m in the chat, like, giving them donations, hoping they say my name and shit,” he tells WIRED. He’s terrible at chess, but he can’t stop watching Andrea and Alexandra Botez play it on Twitch. They haven’t acknowledged him yet. He hopes they will soon.
Twitch pioneered this—the digital parasocial thing. More specifically, monetizing it on a massive scale. Exactly 10 years ago, on June 6, 2011, Twitch launched out of Justin.tv, a sort of general-purpose video livestreaming site Kan had founded four years before. Kan, who is no longer with the company, says he and his cofounders spent years ruminating on how to make people interact online and give each other money. Should they have a sidebar chatroom? (Yes.) Emotes? (Definitely.) Career potential? (Yes.) The end goal wasn’t live video; it was the creator economy. Subscribing to people doing things.
Twitch has many legacies, from the Kappa emote to the rapper Drake’s Fortnite stream with Twitch celebrity Tyler “Ninja” Blevins. Its greatest legacy, though, is trailblazing this all-enveloping world of patronized content and of gamifying online entertainment, both for the viewer and the streamer.
In late 2010, Sean “Days9” Plott, a fearsome and charismatic Starcraft II player, confided to his Justin.tv viewership that he was super stressed about loans for his graduate school tuition. Fans flooded his PayPal account with thousands of dollars in days. Even after the donation drive, viewers asked him how they could offer more support. When Justin.tv spun out Twitch as its gaming-focused arm months later, early employees asked users what sort of features they’d be into. Plott, who had migrated over, suggested subscriptions. “This made a lot of sense to me,” he later said to InvenGlobal. “Instead of the traditional media model of ‘pay first, consume second,’ an opt-in-support model allowed everyone to view for free and support if they wished.” He would become the first Twitch partner, and a subscription button would appear on his channel.
Supporting a Twitch streamer wasn’t like buying a Belle and Sebastian CD or even donating to an indie board game’s Kickstarter. The streamer was right there, and you were giving them money, and then they were responding to you giving them money, all in real time. A model emerged: Give $5 and get a shout-out. The sure acknowledgement tickled something in our lizard brains. Early streamers adopted text-to-speech software that, in computer-monotone, read out the messages fans attached to donations. It wasn’t long before “Please say my name out loud!” evolved into “drink bleach, asshole.” Viewers wanted recognition, but also reaction. Some streamers with strong stomachs monetized the abuse, like dunk-tank professionals.
“Text to speech was a huge turning point,” says Kacey “Kaceytron” Caviness, a top streamer who has been on the platform since 2013. “It gave the viewer this feeling that they were a part of it, like their thoughts would be heard out loud on stream.” Once, in 2015, Caviness received multiple donations repeating the lyrics to “Woo Woo Swag” by Lil B. The troll lasted for two hours and added up to $2,000. Caviness donated it all to charity.
When Twitch launched, the digital patronage model was just entering the mainstream. It preceded Patreon and OnlyFans by two and five years, respectively. Cam sites like LiveJasmin were already attracting 32 million visitors a month back then. The major difference with Twitch was its patron-to-beneficiary ratio. In 2012, Twitch hosted 2,200 average concurrent livestreams to 102,000 average concurrent viewers—or, to put it another way, that’s 46 times as many concurrent viewers as channels. Since then, that ratio has shrunk to 25 times as many viewers as live channels in 2021. (Recently, Twitch watchdog Zach Bussey pointed out that, in the spring of 2021, if a streamer attracted more than six viewers they were in the top 6.7 percent of Twitch streamers.)