IRL Streaming: Fad or Forever?

At the end of 2016, popular video game streaming platform Twitch introduced an “IRL” (in real life) streaming channel that has caught on like wildfire. IRL streaming is one of the fastest-growing genres of live content on platforms like YouTube and, now, Twitch.

Popular “streamers” document their daily lives, and hundreds of thousands of followers tune in to watch these everyday adventures unfold—live. While it may not seem all that exciting to watch the unedited trials of another person’s life (after all, we all need to run our own pesky errands; do we really want to watch someone else tackle the annoyances and minutiae of daily life, too?), IRL has nonetheless become a sensation, with the most popular streamer racking up over 1.2 million followers. Think of it as reality TV minus the producers, scripts, and behind-the scenes maneuvering. In other words, actually real.

It’s exciting because viewers (and in many cases the streamers themselves) have no idea what will happen next. Of course, the most popular streamers are entertaining in ways that go well beyond inviting followers to watch them sort the laundry or pick lint from the dryer. A streamer may have a penchant for trouble, and followers tune in to watch the latest hijinks and find out if today is the day that they’ll finally get arrested. Others often set up challenges for themselves. A “what if” scenario. What if I ask every person I see out on a date? Or dress up like Donkey Kong and run through an office building? Or stage an amateur boxing match?

Some of it is absurd, some silly, some dangerous. But not all streamers go to such lengths to entertain followers, nor do all followers seek out the bizarre or extreme. Much of IRLs success can be attributed to viewers hoping to temporarily tune out from the stresses of their own lives and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s reminiscent of reality TV in the early days, before each storyline was overproduced and endlessly manipulated.

Twitch’s IRL section was originally launched to give creators the ability to share their everyday lives, thoughts, and opinions with their communities. Live streaming keeps things spontaneous. Viewers know that they’re not going to be presented with a properly edited and manicured video. The streamer has nowhere to hide. All interactions, reactions, and expressions are uncensored, giving followers a closer, more intimate look at the personality they’re watching. For viewers, that intimacy of experience makes them feel like they’ve established a relationship with the streamer. Many streamers maximize this feeling of intimacy by making their programs more interactive. Some hold Q&A sessions with fans, or reveal very personal information about themselves, making the relationship feel more authentic and less one-sided.

The platform hasn’t been without its challenges. Bad actors from around the world provoked contentious debates over how to handle certain unwanted behaviors. Taking pictures and videos of people without consent. Misogynistic rants, sexual harassment, spectacle, and arrests. Governance was needed to ensure the survival of Twitch’s IRL section. And while Twitch has done much to address these issues, more work needs to be done to clarify its terms of service. But rather than being a dealbreaker, these types of issues seem to go hand-in-hand with the territory of emerging technologies, especially those that have grown rapidly. Even established tech giants like Facebook have been experiencing issues trying to figure out questions of governance (not to mention privacy) in an ocean of content.

Such are the growing pains of social media platforms that make the shift from passing fad to long-term staple. Once terms of service are clearly and consistently communicated with transparency, Twitch will be on stronger footing for continued success. In fact, major YouTube creators are now switching over to stream content on Twitch, as well, which seems like as big an endorsement as any. And with Amazon as Twitch’s parent company, there’s every reason to believe that Twitch will transcend its current hurdles and evolve into a dynamic social platform that will compete well with YouTube. After all, what better way to explore the world than to watch someone else navigate the streets of a foreign country, the social mores of a different culture, or the diverse customs of unfamiliar communities?