Two corners of the internet

Transcript: The thing to understand about the plastic crazy straw design world is that there are two main camps: The professonals--designing for established brands--and the hobbyists. The hobbyist mailing lists are full of drama, with friction between the regulars and a splinter group focused on loops... Caption: Human subcultures are nested fractally. There's no bottom.

Source: XKCD

I like to talk about what it’s like to blog, and I’ve contrasted it with other platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter. However, it should be emphasized that Tumblr and Twitter are really not that far off from blogging; I complain about them because they sit in my own personal uncanny valley of social media. We risk overgeneralizing if we only look at blogs and blog-adjacent platforms. Even XKCD’s observation about fractal subcultures seems a bit biased towards blogging, and I’m not sure it’s really accurate as a generalization.

So the purpose of this post is to explore two other forms of internet interaction, which to me seem exotic. Each of these forms of interaction is used by a member of my immediate family, and I’ve been watching how they engage with it.

Twitch Streaming

My brother started streaming video games on Twitch early in the pandemic. He is a “variety” streamer, which is to say he streams many different games without focusing on any particular one. He is also a pet streamer, meaning that he uses his (very cute!) pet hamsters and dog as a gimmick to draw audiences. He typically has 0-2 viewers when he streams.

In the world of leftist YouTube, there’s a lot of talk about “parasocial relationships”, which describe the asymmetrical relationship between big youtubers and adoring fans. Youtubers put on a show as if viewers are their friends, and fans love it, even if they understand that it’s not real. Parasocial relationships get a pretty bad rap although I think that’s unfair because mutter mutter……….. But the point I’m getting at, is that if you want a real relationship with a creator, befriend a small-time Twitch streamer! Chat with them while they’re live, and they will actually respond to you, and may even remember you.

That’s kind of what small-time livestreaming is about. It’s like hosting a small house party where anyone can join and chat at their leisure, and also there’s a video game system set up to draw attention and fill the pauses.

Oh, and I guess all conversations are theoretically public, which takes a bit of getting used to. But you know, it’s not like that many people are listening so how public is it really.

I occasionally go on my brother’s channel, sometimes as a viewer, and sometimes as a player. I now recognize the names of several regulars. They’re from all over the world, with one guy being from the UK, and another person from Australia. The regulars are predominantly other twitch streamers, and my brother has been known to give tips on streaming software. Sometimes another streamer “raids” my brother’s channel, meaning that viewers are sent from one channel to another. I don’t get all the social subtleties, but it seems like a decent way to make friends–weird internet friends for sure, but definitely not parasocial ones.

When my brother started out, he was initially focused on growth. Soon he hit 50 followers, which is the threshold to become a Twitch Affiliate. That means that Twitch gives him a cut of the profits–50%, I believe. However, the total amount of money he makes is in the dollars range, and he knows it would be really tough to make any significant amount of money. Twitch tries very hard to turn the money-making process into a sort of game, but my brother just shrugs it off; he’s satisfied with his channel’s size, and takes it easy.

Zumba Instruction

Zumba is a form of exercise dancing that combines styles from all over the world–although it seems to have a preponderance of Latin styles in particular. The philosophy all about having fun and getting exercise, not authenticity or precision. I quite like that, since I’ve learned that the main barrier to exercise is motivation, and Zumba helps with that.  Zumba is actually an international corporation that provides resources to dance instructors all over the world, but generally the corporation likes to hide in the background and let instructors do their own thing.

My mother has been doing Zumba for several years, and was interested in becoming a Zumba instructor. There wasn’t space for her at the local YMCA, but she got her break when the pandemic hit and everyone started remote Zumba classes. No longer limited by venue, she invited all her Zumba friends and family to join her free virtual Zumba classes. She holds three regular classes a week, plus one “chair” Zumba class, targeted at much older people. Her classes typically have 5-10 attendees.

My mother has had a variety of hobby obsessions over the course of my lifetime, but Zumba is still some kind of outlier in how much it dominates her life. Not only is she constantly curating her playlist and practicing choreography for her own classes, she’s also always attending other people’s Zumba classes to further perfect her art.

Many of these classes are taught by Zumba superstars, who thanks to the switch to remote classes, have gained larger audiences than ever. Others are taught not by superstars, but people who used to teach at the YMCA, and who have bigger audiences than her. Perhaps due to this social context, she has many times expressed inadequacy about the number of students in her class. She tends to dismiss the number of students she already has because she says they’re all relatives and Zumba friends.

What I’ve said about this, is quite similar to what I’ve said about blogging:

When you read blogs, you disproportionately read the kind of blogs that have readers, and when you write a blog, you disproportionately write the kind of blog that doesn’t.

In other words, our expectations about audience sizes are skewed because we follow so many creators with bigger than typical audiences. By the way, in mathematics, this is known as the Friendship Paradox. But my mother isn’t mathematically inclined, and has had difficulty internalizing this. I worry that she will give up when the pandemic ends and in-person venues return.


What are the commonalities between these disparate forms of internet engagement? Perhaps we should ask, are there commonalities at all? I have to say, I don’t think the overt political clashes of blogging and Twitter are universal constants.

Something that I think is fairly general, is the hierarchy of popularity. Although much attention goes to the most popular creators, this is not very representative of the typical creator experience. Where popular creators tend to form lots of parasocial relationships, small creators tend to cultivate more personal relationships, often with other small creators like themselves. Some creators are satisfied with this situation, while other creators dream of having more.

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