Why the Face? The Role of the Face Cam in Constructing Parasocial Relationships.

We operate in a time where attention is a commodity, dispensed by live streamers and ravenously sought after by audiences. Livestreaming culture has been struggling with obsessive audiences for years now –  this video from 2020 is an excellent description of how these cultures came into being. While there has been extensive writing on parasociality from podcasting and live streaming before, few discuss how these bonds are constructed.


Content warning: misogyny

"Even a little attention can make a viewer's day", according to Twitch's Creator Camp website. We operate in a time where attention is a commodity, dispensed by live streamers and ravenously sought after by audiences. Livestreaming culture has been struggling with obsessive audiences for years now –  this video from 2020 is an excellent description of how these cultures came into being. While there has been extensive writing on parasociality from podcasting and live streaming before, few discuss how these bonds are constructed. Parasocial relationships, defined by one-sided obsession and the illusion of mutual friendship, have been made possible since the advent of mass media. The internet, being the unrelenting connective force it is, has dramatically increased the likelihood of these parasocial relationships occurring.

It is important to preface this discussion with the current cultural climate of live streaming before digging into its design and visual components. It is no secret that the live streaming website, Twitch, has been dealing with some major cultural changes within the platform. For femme streamers especially, the streamer experience can be portrayed through scholar Laura Mulvey's concept of "scopophilia." The rise of "hot tub streamers" is certainly catering to the male gaze of the predominantly male platform. For these streamers, as well as those outside of the sexual interests of male heterosexual voyeurs, general societal loneliness due to COVID-19 has converted Twitch into a marketplace for social interaction.

Of course, friendships can be made between audience members naturally without any problems. The relationship between streamer and audience member is much more complicated. Twitch has features that allow viewers to financially support creators, most notably monthly subscriptions and one-off "bits" donations. Both of these donation methods have portions taken by Twitch, while donations through third-party websites such as Streamlabs allow streamers to keep it entirely. If there are ways to support streamers that give them a higher portion of donations, why doesn't everyone donate this way? Here, it can be seen that most donations on Twitch do not constitute altruistic patronage. By opting for a third-party option, the contribution will not be declared on stream and acknowledged by everyone else. Viewers who give gifted subscriptions and donations through the Twitch infrastructure are ranked each month to gamify the act of donating. By turning donations into a competition, the victor naturally expects a prize. In this instance, the prize is appreciation from your favourite entertainers.

Multiple avenues can be explored at this point: entitlement to attention as a characteristic of the male gaze, Twitch gamification being only accessible to the wealthy, repeat donors resembling "love bombing", and emotional manipulation. All of these are worthy of more detail, however the area I am more interested in is the visual layout of a livestream and how it makes us crave streamers' attention. More specifically, the streamer facecam and its role in perpetuating the commodification of attention.

The facecam is a small subset of screen space dedicated to capturing the facial cues of whoever is causing action in the larger part of the screen. It acts as an emotional indicator to those who are too technologically or culturally illiterate to understand the on-screen action. The human is the 'cause' while the game on-screen is the 'effect.' We appreciate the content more by seeing the linkage between these two. One will react more strongly and appropriately to a visually busy and confusing League of Legends clip if there is an overly excited face in the corner. Of course, the facecam is often meticulously constructed to present streamers as positively as possible. The audience's unrealistic expectations of streamers can often be constructed here, as the facecam is assumed to be an untouched glimpse into their personal worlds. In actuality, the facecam is subjected to the same set of design rules as pre-recorded media. Streamers are entertainers first and foremost, however the audience believes the streamer is acting as they would without an audience due to the intimate closeness implied by the facecam.

The camera is positioned differently to how we interact with people in the real world, or even how we interact over video calls. Streamers are seated close enough to capture any notable facial changes, lending to the feeling of intimacy. The subject is very rarely positioned directly in front of the camera, they are typically sitting at an angle. Direct eye contact is hardly ever made with the camera. Instead, they are focused on their own screens in order to game. Upon occasion, they will peel themselves away from the game to read and respond to chat members. Eye contact is no longer an indicator that we are being paid attention to, so we determine our visibility (or a representation of ourselves through our text) based on the streamer looking as if they were reading. If a donator sees a streamer reading the notification of their donation but without a verbal acknowledgement, it can be assumed their donation would not be worth appreciating and would be worth nothing. Without the camera confirming that the streamer can see it, this emotional pain could have been entirely avoided. As the facecam stays on throughout the entire stream, there is always a constant reminder of any transgression. The toxic cycle continues, as some viewers may channel their anger into hateful chat messages that streamers will ignore to avoid drama (which can ruin the calming feeling of livestream intimacy).

Upon occasion a chat member will type something insightful or funny that will make the streamer react in some way. Due to our vision of their vision of us, chat members have visual confirmation that their actions can cause a discernible effect. From this, audience members can document topics that cause visible reactions, and therefore the assumption of an identity. Conversely, the effects of the streamer on the audience cannot be confirmed through visual cues. Even if audience members had their own cameras à la Zoom calls, every minute reaction would be too much to keep track of. A general audience "vibe" is instead assumed through text activity. This is why many streamers simplify the speeding chat messages by anthropomorphising them as "Chat." A one-sidedness is produced in these instances, the audience knows much more about the streamer than the streamer knows about each individual member. Therefore, these conditions are much more prone to the creation of parasocial relationships and interaction.

Of course, audience members can inflate the amount of times they are visually acknowledged (and that acknowledgement being confirmed by themselves) by frequently donating. Multiple donations through the Twitch system trigger alerts, pulling streamers away from the action. Through repeating exposure to your username, streamers will recognise the pattern and know your username better. However, as mentioned before, a username cannot be compared to the entirety of a human being. Seeing a being utter our username gives us power, but our chosen username has little to no basis on our real selves. Similarly streamers would see us as a donor and not as an actual friend, as we have not developed friendship naturally. The streamer is using a persona for entertainment, and the viewer is trying to appeal to them based on this false personality. Any kind of relationship would be fundamentally flawed.

The facecam is a way of commodifying an otherwise free livestream. In the same way that advertisers pay for space in newspapers, users pay streamers to advertise themselves. Similar to TV hosts mentioning "and now a message from our sponsor," seeing a streamer detach from their regularly scheduled programming to address your donation directly feels like a direct endorsement of you. Being pedestalled above the rest of the audience, even just for a fleeting moment, is empowering.

Live streaming flips the attention economy around, resulting in the public working to gain the attention of one person. The ability to see if we have been seen can either affirm or deny us, and circumventing this anxiety through financial donations inadvertently inflates our self worth by perceiving streamer acknowledgement as endorsement. This cycle repeats as the assumed relationship with the streamer develops, potentially to the extent of delusion and parasociality. Despite the interpersonal complications that may arise with utilising a facecam on stream, Twitch has normalised and encouraged their creators to show all. As a result, we may not have seen the peak of these obsessive cultures just yet.

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