Dirt: Just chatting
Selected ambient streams.
Nikhil Sethi on Twitch’s most mundane livefeeds.
As a nostalgia-obsessed twentysomething, I’ve made an art of wistfully gazing back at my childhood, bathing in the rose-tinted memories, and looking for ways to re-experience my youthful joy. Some of my best memories of that time were playing video games with my older brother Neil.
As a younger sibling, “playing” was more akin to watching my brother wander the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time, screaming unhelpful tips, and running to the family computer to look up the Gamefaqs walkthroughs whenever we got stuck. I rarely actually touched a controller for most single-player games, as I was totally content to simply enjoy my brother’s company as we explored new worlds.
When Neil went to college, I lost interest in single-player games completely, since they’d always been a bonding activity. However, I soon discovered that people would upload their playthroughs of video games (like this new game called Minecraft) to YouTube and talk over it. This was an imperfect replacement, lacking much of the intimacy and interactions that had made my gaming experience feel so precious and comforting. A decade later, in a time when everyone needed comfort and connection, I (and millions of other people) discovered Twitch.
In 2022, it isn’t playthroughs that dominate Twitch, rather, an amorphous category of content called Just Chatting, a catch-all for non-gaming content. These streams often involve the creator watching and reacting to other content, be it YouTube videos, TV shows, or other streams. Political streamer Hasan Piker is known for providing political commentary through major events, often watching CNN or other news streams during things like elections. However, since he streams nearly 12 hours a day, sometimes the political content is subbed out for reactions to videos from popular YouTube channels like Jubilee.
There are also co-working streams, live feeds of people working at their desks, perfect for filling the space of an apartment you’ve been stuck in for too long. These dutiful streamers will play lo-fi music as they work, essentially turning themselves into real-life versions of the Lofi Girl, representing a ubiquitous form of ambience for current students.
Many livestreamers will be live for several hours at a time, far beyond a single person’s attention span. Beginning in March of 2021, Ludwig Ahgren live streamed himself for 31 straight days, capturing hours of mundanity (including nights of slumber in his red racecar bed). Tens of thousands of viewers tuned in. But why would they want to?
I have some theories. Since anyone can drop in at any moment, the streams are perfect for putting on in the background and tuning in when you want to. Each streamer will bring a variety of content, yet the visual presentation is nearly always the same — a facecam of the streamer at their desk, with a rapidly moving chat display overlaid on the side of the screen.
For most creators, a clip of their stream is impossible to place in time — it could be from yesterday or years ago, but it’s hard to tell the difference due to the consistency of the presentation. In this way, Twitch streams about nothing in particular are reminiscent of the idea of ambient TV that Kyle Chayka presented in the New Yorker.
Yet what sets Twitch apart from ambient TV is the agency viewers have — the stream flows in both directions. You can let the stream fall into the background, or you can engage with the community features built into the platform.
Jasmine Sun, the founder of the techno-optimism community Reboot, suggests that “creating a shared sense of time” is core to building communities. A shared sense of time comes baked into Twitch every time someone goes live. Viewers are the source of income, able to receive special emotes and Discord access through paid subscriptions, or through direct donations as “bits.” But possibly the most important feature of the platform is the chat, where viewers are continuously writing messages and creators are constantly reading what’s being said. For many streamers, interactions with chat are core to their content, building a sense of inclusion and engagement that you could never get from the latest Netflix Original. Content ceases to be ambient once you start to actively engage with it.
Among the “Just Chatting” category, actually just chatting ends up being a common activity — with people sometimes speaking to their viewers directly or on Discord calls while doing relatively straightforward things, like deciding who to unban from their chat, or creating arbitrary lists or rankings of nothing at all. An avuncular Canadian streamer named NorthernLion has spent hours creating tier lists ranking things like drinks, careers, chores, breakfasts, and snacks on stream, and later uploading them to YouTube. At some point, the feed starts to feel like an extended video chat with a friend where you’ve run out of things to talk about, and the conversation starts to focus on the most mundane things.
At best, the chat can feel like an endless stream of younger siblings offering a mix of useful tips to beat a game, terrible and hilarious commentary, and an incomprehensible shared language of emotes and in-jokes—like those afternoons with Neil so long ago. — Nikhil Sethi