Dianna Cowern is the host of the Physics Girl Youtube channel. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

I don’t think I’ll ever be ready emotionally for my children, the oldest in middle school, to be active on video-streaming platforms or social media. But I always thought I would at least know what was out there.

I am part of the generation with one life before the internet and one life after it. In the early ‘90s, before my parents even knew to worry, I was the first of my friends to have an email address. Prodigy, then AOL. I used our family computer, drumming my fingertips along with the soon-familiar rhythm of the modem coughing to life, and looked things up on encyclopedias, emailed, lurked in chat rooms and instant messaged boys in other states I’d met at church conferences (sorry parents) (sorry God).

I felt “extremely online” even then, decades before the term became cute, but it turns out, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Everything we know about TV and the internet is changing, and even here in San Diego, below the surface where reality transitions to online reality, stars with more fame and money than any local TV anchor or disk jockey could have ever dreamed of are thriving and engaging with fans around the globe.

I Crashed a Twitch Party

Twitch sprouted from the “shoutcasting” culture: People playing video games would record audio. Their friends would tune in to that channel, and also the separate video feed to watch the viewer mode of the game. In 2007, Justin Kan launched the now-notorious justin.tv by setting up a single channel to broadcast his life, which quickly opened up to allowing other users to do the same. Justin.tv was wildly popular – especially when he played video games. That led Kan and his partners to start Twitch in 2011.

A friend who works in the gamer streaming industry invited me to tag along with her to go to Live Wire, a dimly lit dive-ish bar near University Heights, because there was supposed to be a San Diego Twitch meetup there. Meeting the streamers themselves, IRL, seemed like the best way to learn about Twitch and online streaming. It took me a few minutes to find the group (fortunately, at least two of them were wearing purple Twitch logo shirts or hoodies).

I learned from the group that a relatively small group of the millions of Twitch broadcasters are actually making a living, and that not many of those live in San Diego.

Skyla Grimes, known as the Twitch user Skylatron, seemed happy to talk, so I asked why it’s so hard to find popular, partnered streamers here. “I don’t think San Diego has historically been a good home for gaming,” she said. It all comes down to what a game company pays — either as an influencer or other employee of the company — against the cost of living in the city. She said a lot of gamers like Vegas. Grimes has a unique perspective because in addition to being a streamer herself, she’s worked for both an agency representing influencers and streamers, and also a company that helps gaming companies with their “community marketing strategies,” i.e., how they use those influencers. She knows the business from both sides, and also finds time to stream herself building IKEA furniture. (We are now best friends).

A long-time blogger, gaming and social media junkie, she doesn’t know how to code, so as streaming started taking off several years ago, Grimes asked herself, “What is it that I can do here?” Working in the gaming industry felt important to her. “Something like this that shaped you so much as a child … it feels natural.”

At any given moment, an average of 1 million viewers are tuning in to watch Twitch streams, and hundreds of thousands of individuals are broadcasting their own streams each month.

I tried to find out who these people were, particularly in San Diego, and I stumbled upon a gaming website’s list of “hottest twitch streamers,” and naively, I thought “hot” meant popular or trendy, the news definition of hot. No, it’s all girls – nay, babes. But it led me to LegendaryLea.

The Twitch and Famous

LegendaryLea lives in San Diego, and has nearly 650,000 followers. It’s unclear how many of those are subscribers, but for $4.99 a month you can get perks like exclusive chats, streams and movie nights.

I watched one of her recent videos, which is over six hours long. Screen names with icons periodically displayed at the edge of the screen, and eventually I realized these were people making payments or subscribing. Viewers can “Cheers” or tip their favorite streamers. She’s had some history with controversy in the past, inadvertently flashing the stream (not allowed!), but in this stream she was recovering from a cold and very affable.

I caught myself thinking, “She could be rich and famous!” which is ridiculous because she’s already both. She played nine “chapters” of a video game, prepared food, ate it and eventually, she had to decide whether to keep playing or go walk her dog before yoga. She even said out loud, not a shred of shame, “Well, I passed the six-hour mark, so … ”

Twitch is a network, bigger than most television networks, and is driven by the members that view the streams and participate in chats, subscribe to streams and more, and of course, by the individual content creator, affiliate or partner. Alix Sharp, my Twitch insider, said some partners “make 10 grand a week when it’s slow.” Which led me, mostly, to reflect: What am I even doing with my life?

I texted Sharp to let her know how much time I just spent watching LegendaryLea. The reply came instantly: “Oh god.” But also a new recommendation: Towelliee. He has 661,000 followers and legend has it he holds some sort of record for playing World of Warcraft, but I was unable to corroborate the claims. You’d think he’d be the real news story here but his partner, Lulaboo (29,600 followers), caught my eye. What really drew me in was her cooking. She’s dynamic. Perhaps because my main experience with cooking shows is “The Splendid Table” on NPR, and “The Great British Baking Show,” I was transfixed. I was surprised but also charmed by her relatively crappy pots and pans and lackluster sense of perfection. It felt so much like hanging out.

I wrote down “she has three camera angles” in my reporter’s notebook.

Twitch GTG V2.0

It was two days after the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, when I crashed another Twitch gathering at a pub crawl in the Gaslamp District, and I wanted to talk about extremism. The Twitch users, however, wanted to talk about what they love about their community.

“I joined Twitch because I was depressed. It’s a coping mechanism,” said Tyler Shultz, TheBananaaMan. He spoke to the benefit of finding friends, interacting with others and eventually finding local community with the group. He was dressed in a banana suit, presumably because that’s his avatar, and he’d said, “Come find the guy in the banana suit,” when organizing this pub crawl. I also think he just loves being a guy in a banana suit.

Tyler Shultz, aka TheBananaaMan, leads a local Twitch pub crawl in downtown San Diego. / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

Shultz and the friendly crowd of about 20 or so other San Diego Twitch users who popped in and out at various points of the pub crawl spoke of both the difficulties and importance of keeping their local IRL community strong. It’s hard to plan official Twitch events due to meet-up requirements and even specific parameters of when and how the trademarked Twitch purple (for the curious: HEX #6441A4) can be used (“It’s self-preservation,” Shultz said). The result is that the efforts to connect feel grassroots: local, friendly and don’t-miss. Twitch has a strong corporate presence in San Diego, too. Its annual TwitchCon was held here in 2016, and is set to return to the Convention Center in September.

“There are quite toxic people on Twitch,” said Twitch user Josh Brahms. “Yes, there are extremists. There’s going to be extremists everywhere. We try not to focus on them. They don’t deserve the spotlight.”

What warrants the spotlight, said Brahms, are the positives: Twitch users routinely raise a lot of money for charity, with projects like Games Done Quick, which raises money for Doctors Without Borders and the Prevent Cancer Foundation.

Brahms, who plays “Grand Theft Auto,” also told me that he thinks Twitch’s algorithm (“better than YouTube’s”) is to thank for keeping extremism or problematic elements tucked away on Twitch. “YouTube is about keeping you watching. Twitch is about keeping you engaged,” he said.

“Yes, there are extremists. There’s going to be extremists everywhere. We try not to focus on them. They don’t deserve the spotlight.”

The group also stressed that Twitch’s reporting system for community conduct violations — like nudity, excessive inebriation, threatening behavior, hate and harassment, doxing, plagiarism, law-breaking and more — is stronger, and that banned Twitch users often end up on YouTube, which they described as more lenient.

I asked them if they spend money on people — on one another — on Twitch and their responses were quick and in unison: “Yeah!”

When I watched Lulaboo’s cooking stream, she kept mentioning Bob’s Red Mill, pointing to products and flours made by the company in her kitchen, not necessarily endorsing its stuff, but I don’t think it matters for exposure. It’s not clear whether Lulaboo makes money from Bob’s Red Mill but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did. Once past a certain point, streaming culture is built around monetization, and the money-making elements like advertising, subscriptions and requests to subscribe are no more background noise than TV commercials or banner ads. Lulaboo’s partner Towelliee is represented by one of the biggest talent management companies in the Twitch world, Online Performers Group.

It happens to be local.

To-Do List: ‘Figure Out Twitch’

Online Performers Group’s founder and owner Omeed Dariani walked me up to the second-floor La Jolla office space that serves as the group’s headquarters. It recently expanded into this location, and the spot felt somewhere between recently moved-in and bachelor pad. Cardboard boxes were partially unpacked, and much of the expansive office space is empty, like a business on the verge, moved into the place it’s going to one day fill with employees.

“We have water, probably some Red Bull,” Dariani said, which is truly what I expected.

Dariani said there are two main groups of content creators on Twitch. First, there are the people who are like athletes. They play the games, and people watch. Similar to sports, audiences are loyal to individuals but also games.

“If the Lakers aren’t on, you’re going to watch a different basketball team, not necessarily a different sport,” he said.

The second group is “variety hosts,” who are more like talk show hosts, or game critics. “People watch them because they’re interesting,” Dariani said. “These are the people OPG mostly represents.”

Dariani has been in the game industry for 20 years, and the last seven years of that have been spent increasingly devoted to Twitch. On his first day working in a senior marketing role at Sony in 2012, he wrote down in his brand new notebook: “Figure out Twitch.”

And while working for Sony, he started to see the downsides for both game companies and the Twitch streamers, specifically the ways the individuals were inadequately interacting with the very brands — like Sony — that were actively trying to court them or give them money and contracts in exchange for playing their games online. In reaching out to these streamers, he found that they either felt out of their element or afraid or untrusting of the whole system, worrying that they’d be ripped off.

Dariani is more like a high school guidance counselor than any sort of agent. “I like streamers,” he said, though he admits that some of his clients have acted like jerks while streaming or otherwise made mistakes. “The people that I’ve met, they’re good people.”

The range of OPG’s clientele includes people like Towelliee, known for marathon broadcasts of “World of Warcraft,” but also T-PAIN (yes, that T-PAIN) (he has 119,000 followers) who Dariani described as speculative. “We don’t know exactly what he’s gonna look like as a streamer.” But one streamer he kept coming back to goes by the handle Kitboga. His identity is entirely secret, despite getting mainstream media attention for his hallmark routine. “He mostly just calls Indian scammers and messes with them,” said Dariani.

Dariani said that as a management company, they don’t do a lot of pitching. In this robust market with very little competition, “For us, all the business comes in.”

Making Money

What are those mechanisms? The first level is the audience, like LegendaryLea’s steady influx of subscriptions (known colloquially as “subs”) and donations.

“People literally send you money,” Dariani explained, “saying, ‘Hey, I’m enjoying your work; here’s $5.’”

Beyond audience contributions, serious and successful streamers are funded by Twitch. The company sometimes bestows affiliate status as a way for streamers to start taking the steps to become a partner, which grants you revenue shares from Twitch. The perks are social, too. While each rung of the level means more ad portions and more attractive subscription sign-ups to lure more fans, it also means more to offer those subscribers, such as special emotes. Emotes are sort of a membership badge — unique emoji-style icons or stickers to share in the channel chat — to show that they have paid that streamer.

Still, Dariani stressed that these types of streamers are the exception: “Most people that stream are super casual.”

Omeed Dariani
Online Performers Group founder Omeed Dariani in the company’s live stream room / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans
Online Performers Group founder Omeed Dariani in the company’s live stream room / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

By the numbers: Twitch’s corporate marketing boasts 27,000 to 30,000 partnered streamers, but Dariani said that a significant segment of those are inactive. He estimated there are 15,000 active partners on Twitch. And of that, “About 20 percent are making a good living. That’s 3,000-ish that are paying their bills on this,” he said.

Dariani’s numbers are much higher than those of the streamers hanging out at Live Wire the first night I met them, or perhaps they have different perceptions of what “making it” means.

And who is watching these streamers? Twitch publishes stats that are “bigger than CNN,” said Dariani.

When Electronic Arts released its game “Apex Legends” in February, it performed no advance marketing. It did pay controversial streamer Ninja $1 million to play it for a day, the day it was released.

“That’s probably the biggest individual deal that’s ever happened,” Dariani said. A beat later, he added: “Five years ago this industry didn’t exist.”

The Darker Corners of Gaming

“There was this prevailing notion — and it still exists — that women have it really easy on Twitch,” Dariani said.

I wanted to laugh. Maybe it’s the circles I run in, but I can’t imagine anyone thinking a woman would have it really easy on the internet, particularly in gaming. Apparently, many men do think that.

“Like, you’re a pretty girl, you can get your boobs out and all the desperate guys send you money and they love you and it’s so easy. But the reality of the situation which any woman on Twitch will tell you, and anyone who’s paying attention will tell you, is that they also deal with an unbelievable level of harassment,” says Dariani. He cites sexual harassment, stalking and even home invasions for women who stream on Twitch. “So the burnout rate for female streamers is much higher than it is for male streamers,” he said.

I asked Dariani about extremism, particularly the ways YouTube’s “Up Next” feature, and the rabbit hole of similar and recommended videos can inch a viewer deeper into a particular fringe mentality. “Twitch’s discovery tools are not fantastic. In that they don’t work very well,” Dariani said. He said extremism doesn’t have the same impact on Twitch as it does on YouTube, because Twitch requires a degree of savviness to even find like-minded streamers. It felt somewhere between a confession and a relief.

I didn’t expect to like anything about Twitch, but I did. I expected to fear my own middle-schooler’s inevitable fall into gamer streaming culture, but instead it all seemed no less manageable and navigable than any other social landscape. With this profound experience under my belt, I decided to pit my new best friend Twitch against its more well-known counterpart: YouTube.

YouTube vs. Twitch

Much like Twitch, the sudden blossoming of monetization — ranging from securing sponsorships from brands and products, receiving partnership payments directly from the platform or gathering donations and subscription fees from fans — and with it, the young millionaires it has produced has made YouTube feel like a changed — and ever-changing — venue.

And also similarly to Twitch, San Diego YouTubers are hard to find. Not broadcasting a city makes streamers more universal and relatable, but I also wonder if maybe the young stars don’t want to broadcast their location in a less-than-cool city.

Even I had heard of 18-year-old prankster Tanner Fox, aka TFOX, known for his irreverent stunts and pranks. His “2018 rewind” video illustrated how he started the year in his mom’s house in Mission Hills, then, in order, he: got even more rich, broke up with his girlfriend, took a month off from YouTube, bought a house in Temecula, bought his mom a house, bought additional cars and his dog died. According to one commenter, Fox made better content when he lived with his mom and walked his dog to Starbucks every day. His YouTube channel still has 8.6 million subscribers, a TFOX brand line of apparel and accessories now in its third year, and many exorbitant cars. I related to none of this and would rather talk to his mom.

Parasocial Interactions

Brittany Vasseur (vasseurbeauty) was a welcome departure from teen boy prank videos. A young mother, a model and a new business owner (big surprise: it’s essential oils), Vasseur has over a million subscribers on YouTube. On camera, she is genuine and sweet and incredibly well put-together.

I watched a video called “Day in the Life with a Newborn.” Of the seven-minute video, at least two minutes are spent fully advertising Blue Apron, the meal delivery service. Another not insignificant chunk of time was spent on makeup and an outfit before her 6-week-old baby even woke up. But in a recent video, Vasseur took her kid to the San Diego Zoo and I felt a little buzz of pride! Wow, a famous person is at my zoo! I hate this assignment.

Omeed Dariani had a term for this — the way viewers feel connected to their streamers or vloggers, whether it be through actually having a relationship with them through chats or comments, or the perceived relationship just from knowing about their lives: “parasocial interaction.” Coined with the rise of home television sets in the 1950s, the one-sided nature of a viewer’s connection with a celebrity is heightened by doses of personal information, things like where they live, where they go out to dinner or grocery shop (think: the gossip mags’ paparazzi spreads, the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us”). It’s a social form (or even consequence) of capitalism and strengthens brand allegiances, purchase conversions and — of course — channel subscriptions.

YouTube has historically been better at recognizing and cashing in on this relationship (as have reality shows and blogs), but Twitch is catching up. Management companies (like OPG), publicists and FAQ explainers are not only teaching their broadcasters to not make PR messes, they’re also teaching them to best interact with fans to increase this parasocial devotion. I wondered how something more substantive or brainy might thrive in this medium, so it was time to turn to science.

‘You Feel Like if You Stop, Something Bad Is Gonna Happen’

Dianna Cowern, aka PhysicsGirl, began her rise to fame at UCSD’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences and as an educator at the Fleet Science Center, and, though she now dedicates her time to her PBS Digital Studios physics explainer channel, she still lives in San Diego. Cowern landed a spot on the Forbes 30 under 30 list for 2019. She has 1.2 million subscribers and creates well-produced videos in partnership with PBS. I tried to get in touch with her as soon as I watched a clip of her exclaiming “There’s so much physics in this!” and realized it was like trying to get an email address for Beyoncé. Eventually, a PR person replied and we set up a phone call.

“For me it’s been different than other YouTubers because my channel is supported by PBS, and I’ve been with them for about three and a half years,” Cowern said of her rise to fame. She considers her work a form of outreach that contributes to education. As a woman in science, and as a woman who talks about science publicly, she’s up against a lot.

Dianna Cowern is the host of the Physics Girl Youtube channel. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When Cowern first started out, she’d track her comments, followers and share statistics (“I thought I would get some useful information out of tracking that”) but she soon realized it wasn’t a gauge of the kind of success she was interested in. She’s motivated more by finding out a grade-schooler was inspired to hold a science sleepover with her friends.

Cowern recently took a break from YouTube, however, for over four months by my count. “I felt like I had just been on this treadmill of producing content, and I wasn’t enjoying the process of making videos that used to be my favorite hobby,” Cowern said. The sentiment is familiar and understandable, but I found her situation to be somewhat ominous for the culture. Her YouTube fame seemed to be the most wholesome, the most exemplary of a skilled profession or trade.

“There’s always this push to make the next video. Appease your audience,” she said. “If you step off the treadmill, you feel like you lose something. It feels like that immediate feedback is going to go away if you stop posting content.” She pauses for a brief moment and adds, “You feel like if you stop, something bad is gonna happen.”

After being so immersed in Twitch’s livestream urgency for so long, I felt an instant exhale-style feeling with YouTube. I could tune in at any time and not have missed the excitement of being there as something was happening. Which, admittedly, is also true on Twitch; archived videos are just as watchable as YouTube, just as YouTube live-streaming (and gaming) is growing a similar market as Twitch. But I did feel a difference in community. Maybe due to the psychological element that Twitch is fringe or is perceived as being under the radar, or maybe it’s because I’ve now hung out with Twitch streamers at bars twice. But overall, both platforms are on the rise, and also facing not insignificant competition from third-party platforms, such as Microsoft’s Mixer and even Instagram’s IGTV.

“There’s always this push to make the next video. Appease your audience. If you step off the treadmill, you feel like you lose something. It feels like that immediate feedback is going to go away if you stop posting content.”

While San Diego’s community of streaming video creators surpassed what I ever imagined in terms of fame, prosperity and social significance, the global culture also feels — and not just to me — that the world of streaming success is on the brink of some sort of drastic reckoning. It’s impossible to research “san diego youtubers” without paging through dozens of results about San Diegan “McSkillet’s” August 2018 purported suicide in a fiery crash that killed two others.

“I think it’s hard for people to suddenly have fame,” Twitch streamer and erstwhile influencer agency employee Skyla Grimes said. Maybe this brink will herald another phase in which these platforms and the audiences take better care of their celebrities, or maybe it’s going to implode.

Digging in to this culture didn’t make me any less terrified for my kids to grow up and be part of it, but honestly that’s more a function of how a parent will always be terrified of the future their children will face. Because even if streaming culture does implode, there’ll always be the next thing.

Corrections: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized Online Performers Group; it is a talent management company. This post has also been updated to reflect that the group’s founder, Omeed Dariani, estimated there are 15,000 active partners on Twitch, not active broadcasters.

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