Continuing on from Pt. 1 of this article series exploring how digital media has rewired our brain’s understanding of modern relationships, let’s look at the rise of Twitch and Youtube.
Twitch is a video live streaming platform where you can watch people broadcasting themselves playing video games. Twitch has 15 million daily active users who watched 660 billion minutes of Twitch content in 2019, with the average user spending 95 mins per day on the platform. Youtube is an online video-sharing platform with 2 billion logged in monthly users, 500 hours of video content uploaded every minute and 5 billion videos watched per day, with the average user spending 11 minutes per day on the platform.
The two platforms have one thing in common. Their usage fuels an entirely new type of parasocial interaction, a sort of voyeuristic behaviour that allows user to build ‘relationships’ with people they have never met online.
On Twitch, the most popular streamers aren’t actually the most competitive gamers, but the most entertaining people. They excel at parasocial skills, making viewers feel connected to them. The most popular video types on Youtube are everyday life commentary, product reviews, unboxing videos, and reaction videos. All of these video types exploit creating a personal connection between the viewer and the content creator. You could say that the best Twitch streamers and Youtubers are the best at ‘making friends’ with their fans online.
There’s something super meta in the delight you feel watching someone playing a horror video game game on Twitch or watching someone react to a dramatic TV episode on Youtube. You can also see this same voyeuristic, parasocial interaction as a trend in some of the the most popular TV series (Reality TV) and some of the most popular video games (The Sims).
In the article “The science behind the insane popularity of “react” videos on Youtube,” Valentina Palladino from Ars Technica cites USC neuroscientist Lisa Aziz-Zadeh in describing the concept of Mirror Neurons. This is the idea that you naturally mirror the emotions of someone you are watching. If you see someone get nervous, that could trigger a neuro-chemical reaction in your brain to get nervous. Someone else’s mood has a direct impact on yours. So watching a reaction video on Youtube can lead to you mirror the emotions of happiness, fear or suspense from the person you are watching. As they say, laughter is contagious.
Parasocial interactions are the relationships that psychologically develop between you and someone you have never met, like an actor on TV or an influencer on Youtube. Mirror neurons are chemicals in our brains that can make you mimic and feel the same emotions as people you have observed online. Technology has literally driven fans to feel even more psychologically connected to their favourite influencers, celebrities, actors, athletes, musicians, and entertainers.
This shift in consumer culture affects the business of the world’s media and entertainment brands. When fans can create more meaningful and deeper connections through digital media, they crave more of those connections and subsequently, their expectations of connection rise.
The first video game in the iconic Sonic the Hedgehog franchise debuted in 1991. While growing a devoted fanbase over the last 28 years, Sonic has grossed over $7 billion through video games, tv shows, comics, merchandise and more.
And in April 2019, the latest product from the Sonic franchise was released. A trailer of the upcoming Sonic film was launched and met with widespread anger across the internet. People thought the design was horrible, the premise tacky, and the soundtrack choice of Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise ridiculous.
The fan reaction to the trailer was so negative that people flooded social media with criticisms and the original trailer was taken down from Youtube.
It was a social media massacre so violent that the directors literally had to publicly respond and commit to changing the character. The character design was completely revamped and a brand new trailer came out. The film’s release date was also pushed back.
This couldn’t have happened in the past because the court of public opinion is now Twitter, and your biggest source of market research is social media.
These days, brands can innocently build things and then receive an onslaught of instant negative feedback from fans.
Whether you are a well-intentioned brand or not, most people don’t realise the internet is filled with snarky, pugnacious and often hilarious trolls. If you don’t understand online culture, you’ll miss the fact that anything perceived as cheesy and inauthentic to the fanbase. And like the original Sonic trailer, fans will be more than happy to take up arms and push public opinion to wreck you on social media.
Jeremy Renner is best known for portraying Hawkeye in the Avengers films and winning the Best Actor Academy Award for The Hurt Locker. Last year, he partnered with the company Escape X to create his own mobile app for fans.
The strategy “let’s make an app for that” usually seems like a great idea, right?
While the first two years of the app’s existence were not-controversial, the discourse on the app descended into chaos in early 2019. People started making fake accounts pretending to be Jeffrey Epstein and Casey Anthony, sending death threats to Renner and fellow users, trolling him relentlessly.
Eventually, Jeremy Renner shutdown the app and posted a farewell message.
When you see such a viral uptick in negative feedback, you’ve got to ask yourself, why..?
There were a lot of think pieces and hot takes that analyzed the app’s descent into madness. Some claimed that fans were angered by perceived censorship and false advertising. Others described fans breaking into splinter groups that started cyber bulling each other. One Deadspin journalist specifically took credit for breaking the app by posting a troll comment.
The overarching reason across the different feedback is that fans saw this as a shameless way to exploit and monetise Jeremy Renner’s fanbase. Again, there was a social media massacre in response to what people thought was a crude and tasteless way to cash in on fandom.
Let’s take a step back. Why do we even need a Jeremy Renner app? Was there product-market fit Jeremy Renner’s underserved fanbase? Sadly, we may never know. If you are interested in following Jeremy Renner on Instagram, find him at @Renner4real. He’s actually a pretty good singer.
The ability for global fanbases to mobilise digitally (often ferociously) creates a whole new type of challenge for entertainment brands — whether you are Sonic the Hedgehog, Jeremy Renner, or…the ultimate example from the 2010s, Game of Thrones.
Speaking personally, I feel closer to the cast of Game of Thrones, my favourite TV show of the 2010s, than the cast of Lost, my favourite show of the 2000s. No, I’ve never gotten a drink with Emilia Clarke or Kit Harrington in real life, but the point is I feel closer to them because of digital media. While I used to love the show Lost, Instagram wasn’t even invented when the show came out. And that made all the difference.
I never had a chance to follow the main actors from Lost on Instagram like Josh Holloway, Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lily. While this seems like a minor point, having fewer digital media touch points of interaction really made me feel less close to the Lost actors.
“They don’t even really know what it is to be a fan, you know? To love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” — Almost Famous (2000)
Answering the question, “Why are you a fan?” comes with a set of tangibles and intangibles.
To many fans, Game of Thrones was more than just the show. It’s about all of the fan culture in real life that took place outside of the show. So many times in the workplace, I found myself with colleagues saying “Winter is Coming,” “Khaleesi” or “Dracarys.” In serious business meetings, I found myself forming a new emotional connection with clients by bringing up Game of Thrones, and then immediately ostracising our foolish colleagues who had never seen the show.
It’s the inside jokes you share with your friends or family. It’s the meme accounts you follow on Instagram and Twitter. It’s the insanely detailed Game of Thrones fan analysis videos you watch on Youtube. In the world of internet popular culture, Game of Thrones ruled the Iron Throne.
So for many Game of Thrones fans, being let down by the finale wasn’t just a shallow entertainment experience, it cut them to the bone because they were being let down by their ‘friends,’ so much so that 1.8 million people actually signed a change.org petition and the western media lost their collective shit after the finale.
Game of Thrones captured the zeitgeist of popular TV in the 2010s because the reactions of the Game of Thrones fanbase captured the zeitgeist of modern fans in the age of the internet, a super intense time for passion in pop culture.
Moving forward, any person working in entertainment needs to be conscious of their potential impact on their fanbase — which is disproportionately more powerful vs twenty years ago.
Whenever Arsenal loses a match, they can expect cutting commentary from the Arsenal Fan TV Youtube channel, the hundreds of millions of fans around the world discussing on Reddit, Discord, or Facebook groups, or the new trending hashtag on Twitter devoted to firing one of the players.
The importance and the power of fans will increase, not decrease. The wisdom of the crowds matters more in entertainment now than ever before.
For an example of how someone monetised fans the RIGHT WAY, check out my article on Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, still the most successful entertainment case study from 2019.