I didn’t know what Twitch was until recently – and, even now, I can’t figure out why Twitch is. I know how it functions. It’s a platform where people watch other people do stuff. Not ‘kinky’ stuff. Just stuff: talk, play games, cook, dance, shop, and lick microphones. Yeah, there’s a whole section of Twitch dedicated to people licking microphones… which is maybe kinky? I’m not going to get into it. (I don’t want to get into it.) What I do want to get into is how multiple men in my life have started talking about their go-to female Twitch streamers like they’re in a relationship.
For example, I have a friend who is over seven feet tall. I prefer when he sits. When he stands, it makes me uncomfortable: aside from fighting the urge to make him offerings of fruit, I can’t escape the thought that if he suddenly lost it, I’d be fucked. The other day, he got in the elevator, the doors closed, and my brain uncontrollably thought, “RUN!” But I managed to tame my internal baby deer and ask him how his weekend was. He started telling me how he spent Saturday night hanging out with (let’s call her) Hannah. Hannah, he told me, had gotten a new BB gun and was playing with it, shooting it around the room, trying to knock down soda cans, all the while chatting away with him on Twitch as he told her to “be careful, don’t shoot your eye out, kid”.
He told me about her brother who popped in, her dad, and how she and he planned to meet in real life. This was a new development. I had been hearing about Hannah for months. She’d become a staple of our small talks the way a budding relationship might. He’d catch me up on their sessions, and I’d probe him for more information about how this whole Twitch thing works.
See, I’d had plenty of friends who were in exclusive online relationships and I’ve had friends who work as camgirls. Those were dynamics I understood. One was purely emotional; the other entirely transactional. Twitch is a bit of a hybrid. There are streamers with viewers all competing for their attention – to know the most, get the most interactions, be the most connected. It reminds me of dating in high school and those few girls in school that everyone wanted to be with. So, boys would compete: they’d vie for her attention, bully each other, one-up the other, and prance around, hoping to get her to choose them. That’s how Twitch works. Except with Twitch, the easiest way to get a streamer’s attention is simple: money.
Once I started to get curious about how this whole ecosystem works, I asked my friend to break it down – how one would go about getting closer to a streamer, to develop what at first looks like a shallow virtual pig pile of dudes throwing money at a woman on camera, into an actual relationship of sorts. Being cynical, my first thought was that Twitch would be like a virtual strip club. But it’s not, as my friend tells me. That’s not allowed. A Twitch streamer who shows nudity will get removed from the platform. So, what’s the draw? Well, what’s the draw of any relationship? Attention, engagement, affection, intimacy, validation.
So, what’s the draw? Well, what’s the draw of any relationship? Attention, engagement, affection, intimacy, validation.
I decided to have a beer with my friend. We sat down and, after thanking me for a grocery bag full of mangos, he let me interrogate him a bit. What I was probing for was a nefarious undertone, a personal touch, or something – anything – that would help me fit the streamer/viewer dynamic into my catalog of ‘relationships I understand’.
In some ways, it does: two consenting adults developing a connection that deepens over time. In other ways, it has the maturity level of a bunch of boys in high school trying to impress the popular girl with their mad hacky-sack skills. For example, when men give tips, it buys them things like the ability to comment more, comment bigger, be heard out loud by the streamer, and garner them a certain amount of bullied attention.
In other ways, smaller twitch streamers will share personal stories and connect with viewers, as my friend has done with Hannah. Like a secret boyfriend, he can watch while men throw money at her then make fun of them in personal one-on-one chat rooms. And while viewers can compete for dominance over each other, and streamers can turn selected high-paying viewers into ‘mods’ of their channel where they can control the flow of conversation, the streamer is always the one with their finger on the destruct button of their virtual reality.
While online relationships might be too intimate for some, and paid online chatting might be too awkward for others, Twitch has offered a relationship dynamic for (primarily) men that allows them to play that little competitive game boys play while at the same time dangling the chance at a deeper connection.
I am undecided on whether this is an evolution of men toward expressing themselves in a safer environment – or, at the very least, an acknowledgment by these men that they are not automatically entitled to a woman’s attention – or simply a new-age cave-man-like competition of men one-upping each other with money instead of clubs. I do know that being over seven-feet tall probably limits your dating pool significantly as not too many women are willing to come prepared with offerings of fruit.