Technology

It’s a little hard to find community on Twitch

One of the weirdest things to me about Twitch is how it’s a social site that doesn’t incentivize much community-building. Part of this is obviously because it’s a place for broadcasting, which is a one-to-many application. The other half of it is that the social functions that do exist on the site feel mostly geared toward growing communities around broadcasters instead of between them, which is a little strange!

During this pandemic I’ve found myself wanting more sociality from Twitch. The platform currently offers an atrophied friend request feature, which feels like a relic from the days of Myspace, and the (very good!) “recommended smaller communities” tab on the homepage, but they’re not enough. This is probably because I’ve personally started streaming a whole lot more while also sticking to a regular broadcasting schedule — it feels like a really good way for me to be social! — and so it’s become a lot more important to me. I’ve also started actively trying to find smaller communities like my own to both hang out in and to introduce to my own community. I want to befriend other likeminded streamers! And I’ve been finding that hard.

Twitch does have some features that help with this. Outside of friend requests, there are raids and hosts, which are two of the most powerful features on the platform. Raids happen when a streamer who’s wrapping up their broadcast sends their viewers to another streamer; it’s a really good tool for discovery. Hosts, on the other hand, let a streamer play a live channel on their own channel while they’re offline, which is a good way to promote channels that you’re into. They help, for sure. Lately I’ve been making raids a part of my streams as a way to build community across channels, and it’s worked, sort of. My community has been introducing me to other streamers that I’ve really been enjoying. But it feels very piecemeal.

The other day, I messaged Curi, a streamer friend of mine, about the whole thing. (Incidentally, I think I met her through a raid.) She said I was thinking about it wrong — that Twitch is kind of a free market that maintains the illusion that if you hustle hard enough, you can be at the top. Community and coalition building, she said, is the opposite of that, which put things into perspective. As a viewer, you can’t really watch more than one channel at one time. (Though I personally do a lot of multi-stream drifting, i.e., tabbing back and forth between my friends’ channels.) That in turn means that if you do manage to form a community, you have to be very careful about when, exactly, you’re streaming. If you and another channel share a pool of viewers and you’re streaming at the same time, that same group of people has to choose one channel to support.

And that support — a view — means a lot on Twitch because if you gain enough of them, you earn a purple check mark and a partnership, which is one of the more visible metrics of success on the site. This isn’t to say that counter-streaming of the kind above limits an audience’s choices or their ability to do stuff. But concurrents are the metric that matters most on Twitch, and the more views you have, the higher the site’s algorithm will rank your channel in search. (Mostly.) One of the more important mechanisms of audience engagement on Twitch is actually off-platform, in the form of streamer Discords, which is where viewers find each other and start to build their own communities.

When I first started streaming on Twitch, I was lucky enough to have (and make!) a few friends who had been on the site and could guide me through the dos and don’ts. It was helpful and kind, and I started streaming after two of my friends — late at night and into the wee hours of the morning. It was heady, just like being new to anything is; it felt like I was discovering a whole new world, in the care of two fellow explorers. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’d like to recapture that feeling — the sense that there is so much more left to discover.