Twitch, Big Tech and the surveillance economy: mapping the livestream assemblage

Digital platforms continue to create new spatial networks for capital accumulation and surveillance. Creators and users alike are deeply embedded within these networks.

Livestreaming has transformed the landscape of broadcast media production and consumption. Between April 2019 and April 2020 the total hours viewed on the top four livestreaming platforms doubled as the pandemic forced so many aspects of our lives onto virtual realms. Thanks to the meteoric rise of the eSports industry (reaching a total audience of 474 million in 2021) and the decline of traditional television consumption, livestreaming is increasingly part of everyday entertainment for internet users and a form of employment for streamers.

Twitch has emerged as the dominant live streaming platform with 140 million unique monthly visitors totalling as many as 2.3 billion hours of monthly video views. As of April 2022, the platform averages over 2.6 million concurrent live viewers. While Twitch has received less attention from scholars than the more popular digital platforms Facebook and Twitter, digital sociologists and cultural economists are increasingly interested in the production, distribution and consumption of livestreamed content.

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Twitch streams usually take the following format: a display of the videogame that the streamer is playing, a chat box where users can comment and interact with what the streamer and each other and a window displaying a webcam feed of the streamer responding both to the game they are playing and commentary from viewers in the chat box. It is not only videogame streaming that brings in numbers for the platform – the “Just Chatting” category, where streamers interact with viewers in the chat box instead of focusing on gameplay, increasingly tops monthly and annual category charts by hours viewed, ahead of popular games such as Fortnite, Grand Theft Auto V and Call of Duty: Warzone.

Donations and subscriptions account for the bulk of a Twitch streamer’s income. Viewers can attach donation to messages in the chat box, triggering an automated audio or visual sequence on-screen to draw the attention of the streamer and their viewers. Soliciting donations and attracting potential subscribers relies on affective and relational labour practices. Woodcock & Johnson (2019) summarise the streaming labour process as “being compelling to watch and friendly to viewers…building parasocial intimacy with spectators, and engaging audiences through humor.” Creating a personality and constantly performing it, eroding the distinction between work and play, is therefore central in the labour of livestreaming.

The encroachment of labour time into leisure time is not unique to the world of livestreaming. Increasingly precarious and informal forms of labour and consumption rely on readily available workers prepared to take on jobs at a moment’s notice, central to the emerging “gig economy”. The universality of the smartphone and personal computer for work and play has created a situation in which the same devices that we use for entertainment are the ones that we use to respond to work emails, increasingly after work hours have finished. “Hustle culture” and the motivational “grindset” dominate the social media landscape, celebrating a lifestyle of constantly working, of always “being on” in the hope of future financial independence, The Protestant Ethic redux.

Livestreaming also contributes to the increasing cultural economy of surveillance, both in the sense of capital accumulation through data collection and an anthropological conception of contemporary identity-formation as relying on watching and being watched. In her 2018 study of Twitch Watch Me Play, sociologist T.L. Taylor conceptualises Twitch streaming in Deleuzoguattarian terms as an “assemblage”, a multimodal site of social complexity incorporating content creators, viewers, live stream platforms and the ever-growing eSports industry.

The incorporation of platforms into Big Tech monopolies embeds streamers and viewers within this cultural economy of surveillance. Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for US $970 million, and Amazon Prime subscribers receive discounts on Twitch “Bits” (Twitch’s virtual currency) and a free subscription to a streamer of their choice. Key to this decision by Amazon was the potential for high advertising revenues, centred around the cost-per-thousand (CPM) model, publicly listed at US $20 for every 1000 advertisement impressions on a stream with streamers receiving US $10, although ad blockers significantly reduce effective CPM. This relies on distinct physical geographies for profit extraction, as satellite and terrestrial systems are involved in generating location- or language-specific advertisements to audiences. Even casual Twitch viewers are therefore directly involved in this surveillance economy, their location and browsing data mined by Big Tech companies for high profits.

The most profitable element of the livestream assemblage is the eSports industry, an industry with revenues exceeding US $1.1 billion annually. The relationship that the eSports industry has with livestreaming platforms is central to its business model and growth. Livestreaming platforms also benefit from this relationship as profits are generated for platforms through hosting special services and providing exclusive content.

Twitch, for example, paid videogame company Blizzard Entertainment US $90 million for the streaming rights to team shooter Overwatch, and BAMTech Media (now Disney Streaming Services) paid US $300 million for the rights to stream competitive matches of popular battle arena game League of Legends. Players of these games are bombarded with emails and notifications about upcoming tournaments and package offers, further embedding their participation in the livestream assemblage. While spectating has long been a feature of videogame culture (for example watching or co-operating with players in physical arcades or on consoles in living rooms), livestreaming transforms the spectator from passive viewer to an active source of data for advertising revenue and consumer of eSports content. 

Conceptualising livestreaming as an assemblage allows us to identify a distinct political economy of digital production and accumulation within livestreaming, from the nodes of Big Tech down to the everyday Twitch viewer. As with many areas of the post-crisis economy, livestreaming relies on precarious labour, the erosion of the distinction between work and play and a growing culture of digital surveillance for value generation through data extraction.

This blog is the third in the series ‘The political economy of everyday life’ by SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network. You can access the full series here.