RSS Feeds


Stream Theory

As a livestreamer, you ignore the entire world to focus your attention on a subset of people who are genuinely interested in you. Entrance into the practice of livestreaming immediately leads you to ask yourself questions such as: Why should I pay any attention, or have any interactions physical or virtual, with people who are only vaguely interested in me, who expect me to modulate my organic intensity levels to a normal range, and who only hang-out with me for incidental reasons of geography and sociology? Since I've started livestreaming, it's become very difficult to find answers to this question.

My very modest livestreaming audience does not pay attention to me for incidental reasons such as living nearby or because the relationship benefits their career path. I am exactly as I want to be, and every time a small number of regulars are always there, watching and listening for no reason external to the transmission itself, for the simple reason that they have nothing to win or lose by watching me or not watching me. This absence of an external reason for watching is the definition of sincere attention: they are watching me to learn why they are watching me, a radical and pure form of openness to the other. If they are drawn to my world, they'll stay and/or return. If they are not attracted to my world, they might leave and never come back — but even still, for the short time they were watching me, they were not doing it for any reason other than some strangely unadulterated interest in what I was saying or doing. There's just no other reason, good or bad, because I'm not famous, or obviously representative of anything in particular. I'm not especially entertaining, I'm not even especially smart, but they'll watch and listen for hours while I be as I wish to be.

If attention is, in the words of Simone Weil, the "rarest and purest form of generosity,” to livestream is to immediately incur a profound debt. Your first viewer is a gift of which you are not yet worthy; they are gambling a precious resource on you. The same could be said of the book shopper who reads the first line of your book, but the key difference — and there are many — is that the book author does not experience this gift. The relationship is so institutionally mediated and temporally chopped-up, that the communicative investment runs only from book author to reader, with so much skimmed off the top by various brokers. In a strange way, the livestreamer is bootstrapped into motion by the investment of attention coming from the audience, and only from there does the livestreamer take up the reins. One learns this most clearly when you initiate a stream and nobody enters; it feels wrong even trying to begin, and if you do, it feels uniquely stupid and motivation dwindles rapidly, even though it's no more lonely than writing an essay.

As for physical humans, I have my wife and my family — by far the most important human beings in most individuals' lives, ultimately — with whom I have dedicated and sincere relationships. Other than these few deep bonds, do I really still need a typical network of normal friends?

In contemporary Western society, any given person's network of normal friends — characterized by periodic face-to-face interaction in geographically localized milieus — seems increasingly evacuated of authentic emotional investment: a convenient web of polite dissimulation, hidden disappointments, lowered expectations, spinelessly lax ethical relativism. Who today could say with a straight face that maintaining all of these weak ties is still of any ethical or practical importance? By all means, build local relationships, especially in case "shit hits the fan," but if shit really hits the fan, the overwhelming majority of one's social "friends" — especially in young adult urban milieus — will be as good as strangers, and they'll line up however self-interest dictates. Getting drunk together ~4-9 times a year will not substantially alter the cleavage structures into which you and your "friend" will be sorted in the event of a severe crisis. And as for the common idea that this type of half-assed face-to-face interaction with semi-strangers makes life a fuller and more joyous experience, to be celebrated and preserved for its own sake — well, maybe a little bit, but if it's so intrinsically valuable then why will people only do it on condition that they can also spend the whole time sating their basest appetites in the most decadent way possible, such as drinking alcohol or eating prepared foods. "Having friends in real life" strikes me as an increasingly hollow proposition. This sorry excuse for "community" is merely the dead skin of a bygone social form.

To the degree any of "my friends" read this and speak to me personally about it, that could be considered falsification of this particular thesis. If none of "my friends" read or care about this, that would be evidence consistent with the thesis. Typically, none of "my friends" know or care much about what I think/write/speak online. You might say that's normal, and you'd be right, but stupidity and evil are also normal, so you're not helping your case.

If there are people online who care about what I think/write/speak, while "my friends" do not, then why should I not simply fire "my friends" and redirect the time and energy I once gave them to those who are actually interested in that which is most me? That is what this comes down to: most of your normal friends do not really like you, and they never have. They generally don't want to know what you think or feel, except in very short and infrequent doses, which they are merely willing to tolerate. If even one person is watching your livestream, even for one second, that one person in that one second is more genuinely interested in you than probably all of your normal friends put together throughout your entire life.

Stream theory mercilessly disenchants meatspace, diverting enchantment to the livestream relation and endowing it with correspondingly redemptive potential.

To normal people who still take it for granted that "real life" is the base and cyberspace a superstructure, livestreams just seem dull, but for those who have gone all-in on the livestream relation — for whom it can be said that the stream is the base and "real life" but a superstructure — the stream is the very possibility of life amidst a dead world. If you think it's "boring" it's because you incorrectly compare it to bourgeois entertainment media. Bourgeois entertainment media serve a consolation and restoration function for the modern person whose everyday life is absorbed by alienating IRL labor. The livestream experience serves the function of life itself for those whose life is no longer absorbed by alienating IRL labor, either because of unemployment, underemployment, or socio-emotional flatlining. If the IRL political economy deals you a bad hand, there is now a fairly transparent and reproducible mechanism for defaulting on God-forsaken meatspace and reversing your fortune. Go all in.

I came across some profound corroboration of this thesis, in the testimony of a doctoral student, Dino Zhang. Zhang's work focuses on livestreaming culture in China:

...seen from the outside (often through only a few distracted glimpses), zhibo [livestreaming] is mostly boring and meaningless, and is regularly disregarded as the lowest tier of Chinese cultural consumption; yet, many people who enter a zhibo channel with this prejudice still get hooked and go back to it regularly. Is it boring? If you look at zhibo generically, of course it seems absurd that anyone would be watching this sort of stuff regularly. But if you start engaging with individual users, the situation becomes way more nuanced. For example, I was talking to a livestreamer called Yuwen who is a disabled young man living in rural Sichuan. His life, according to most standards, is quite tragic. Despite the often abusive comments he receives in chat, Yuwen still carries on streaming because zhibo is an important opportunity for him to speak to a broader audience and receive some money through donations. Yuwen’s zhibo is extremely slow due [to] the long pauses and interruptions resulting from his precarious Internet connection, the resolution of his webcam is very low and even his voice is barely heard over the microphone, yet he speaks in his own capacity and patiently responds to his viewers’ questions. The banality of zhibo contents can be a difficulty because genuine reflexive moments are buried by the duration itself – a six hour-long livestream may contain five minutes of extremely revealing and inspiring conversation about contemporary working life in the Chinese countryside, but only few people would be there to witness, record and publish them. How can we accuse livestreamers of producing “endless banal entertainment” if we have not yet tried to sit there and watch a six hour livestream in its entirety?

"Is it boring?" Or is it camouflaged, sneaking moments of life into the nether-regions of a social fabric where life is supposed to be on lockdown, by sandwiching it in between pauses and interruptions too long for forces of suppression to even get through? When one realizes that the livestream is a mechanism for converting IRL misfortunes into spiritual/interpersonal and even monetary fortunes, suddenly you are watching something very different. A disabled Chinese peasant with bad WiFi might not sound very fun to watch, but a disabled Chinese peasant who has discovered a mysterious technology for making himself a charismatic national figure earning good money — who would not want to watch such an extraordinary magic trick?

The livestreamer, although accountable to the audience, is radically unaccountable to all competing reality-programmers, ranging from other entertainers to legislators and law-enforcement. The streamer is an audience-bootstrapped sovereign who inaugurates a new plane of immanence. There are no rules outside of those set by the streamer within the bounds accepted by the audience. Facts, norms, laws, and incentive structures from institutional society are easily ignored, altered, and even regularly manipulated or overthrown by streamer-audience feedback loops that overflow their container in ungovernable ways. Entire conspiracy-theory universes are now old news, spectacular crimes are regularly committed by livestreamers on air, and the biggest streamers are frequently "swatted," which means receiving a home invasion by a SWAT team after an audience member reports a bomb threat. Media consumers order real-life SWAT teams to perform live-action role-plays in their favorite livestream and the livestreamer gets paid for the SWAT team's slave labor, by corporate advertisers who are running out of options.

My work is funded by my audience. Consider a one-time contribution or become a member and get cool perks. If you're broke, don't give me money! A great way to support my work is to recommend it to a friend who might be interested.

Stay up to date on all my projects around the web. No spam, don't worry.

This site participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. The Privacy Policy can be found here. The content of this website is licensed under a CREATIVE COMMONS ATTRIBUTION 4.0 INTERNATIONAL LICENSE.

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram