Streaming 201

So you wanna stream? I take issue with some common well-meaning advice that rankles my jimmies.

Some years ago I followed a group of what would now be called 'content' creators pretty closely. They made silly videos weekly and posted them for free on their website. This was (barely) pre-YouTube, and fun videos were the Coin of the Realm™ so finding a source for consistently-updated funny videos was like stumbling across a gold-mine full of unicorns1. But things change2 and I stopped checking in after a few years. Partly because of things going on in my personal life around that time, and partly because most of the 'core group' moved on to other things and the types of things that they were putting out changed to something that I was less interested in.

I still check in on them occasionally, since it's sometimes fun to walk down Memory Lane and see where it takes me. Unsurprisingly, since a lot of their content seemed to revolve around video games, several of the 'core members' are now Twitch streamers. Makes sense to me. One of them posted a tweet on Twitter3, that he called 'So you wanna stream 101'. He had some good advice: set a schedule, get your moderation under control right away, stream games you like, not necessarily what's popular, and so on. But the very first bit of 'advice' stood out to me. Probably because I hear it all the time when I see people giving advice about how to be a streamer (or a YouTuber or any other 'content creator')

Do it because you wanna have fun. Don't expect a career, but hustle like you want one.

I'm not going to link to the tweet or call out this person by name, because the person making the statement isn't the problem. This same advice (or variations of it) is available everywhere if you look for things like 'how to be successful on twitch', so it's not unique. But it always rubs me the wrong way when I hear it, though, and it took a while to finally figure out why.

First, it presupposes that you want to turn a hobby into a career. Now, granted, if you are actively searching things like 'how to be successful on twitch', odds are that you're interested in making streaming on twitch or YouTube or whatever either a side business or potentially as a main source of income. There's nothing wrong with that, except that the statement on its face is seemingly contradictory: "Don't expect that you will ever make money by streaming, but also treat streaming as if it's a thing that makes you money (even though it doesn't and probably never will)". Applying this to any other hobby doesn't make sense, and that's the problem.

Streaming can be a hobby, just like painting or writing or gardening or sculpting and so on. And, for a lot of people, that's exactly what streaming is. It's something they do in their free time for fun. And, just like streaming, it's possible to make any of these hobbies a career if you wanted to. And if you wanted to do that, you would indeed want to 'hustle like you wanted <your hobby to be a career>' because at that point you're no longer just doing a hobby, you're starting a business, and businesses typically want to make money.

There is nothing wrong with starting a business that has the intention of making money. And there's nothing wrong with starting a business that provides a service (i.e. streaming as entertainment) in exchange for compensation, no matter what the common advice is.

I think that this advice is a result of an old misconception that refuses to die. That is that if you just stream what you love and just do it for a long enough period that an audience or a following will just sort of 'happen' and if you keep going along that path, you will just somehow, eventually, you'll start getting sponsorships and Patreons and before you know it you'll be on the content creation/streaming treadmill making phat lewt4. And, yes, that did happen for the first few streamers who really hit it big, but that hasn't really been true for a long time. There are just too many streamers and content creators out there all trying to hit the 'make money playing video games' lottery that it's just no longer a viable plan to just show up every day, work real hard, and hope that virtue of outlasting everyone else that you'll somehow be The Next One that gets annointed with success.

I think that on some level, the people giving this advice know this, though I expect that several of them may be suffering from Survivorship Bias5. I think that most of the people that have 'made it' (for whatever definition of 'made it' you want to use realize that the Twitch audience is, essentially, a zero-sum game6 where you have to convince people to watch you instead of the other 9 million or so7 other people doing the same thing.

I think that the platforms know this, but they like to dangle the carrot in front of you and imply that you could be the next one to hit it big! You could be the next Shroud or PewDiePie or other names I don't know. All you to do is give the platforms as much content as possible, because the more content they have, the better the odds are that the Next Big Thing will be hidden among the detritus, they just have to find it (or, more accurately, rely on their algorithms to surface the content to maximize engagement or whatever).

That's why the advice-givers will always say to stream because you love it, to stream for fun, and so on. They say that it's because people watching can tell if you're not having fun or if you aren't being genuine or whatever, and on some level that's true. But what they're really saying (i.e. what I'm really hearing) is that "your channel will likely never make a dime, so if you can convince yourself that you're having fun, then you can't be disappointed when you don't make any money/grow a community/get any followers".

But I want to be crystal clear here. There is nothing wrong with expecting to make a career out of streaming your YouTubering or any other creative endeavor, as long as you realize that you're essentially starting a business and will treat it as such (stick to a regular schedule, promote your 'brand' (whatever that is), personal networking, and so on. Hustle away!). Saying otherwise is potentially harmful. Implying that if you don't persue a hobby a certain way is somehow wrong is ludicrous. There's nothing wrong with treating a hobby as a hobby, not expecting it to generate anything and treating it as such. Working on your hobby during whatever leisure time you can scrounge up, whether it's on a schedule or not, and essentially doing the hobby for its own sake.

But I'm tired of the messaging that you have to either throw yourself completely headfirst into streaming or YouTubering, giving it your all, potentially sacrificing sleep and compromising your health and relationships (especially if you have things like a job that you rely on to pay the bills and actual human responsibilities that comes with supporting yourself) for the slimmest possible chance at some ill-defined 'success', otherwise you're a failure. Actually, you still might be a failure because it's totally possible to do everything right and still not 'make it'. I'm tired of pretending that 'middle ground' doesn't exist. It does exist, and there's a lot of it between the very largest and most successful 1% and the bottom-of-the-barrel 1%. It's not a competition unless you really want it to be, and if you really want to be the top 1% or higher of streamers, hey, you go for it. I wish you all the success in the world. But living by the credo that 'unless you're the best, you've failed' is a hard road to go down.

To be truly successful at a creative endeavor, you have to define what 'success' actually means to you. If streaming once a year to a dozen of my friends while we raise money for charity is the bar I've set for myself, then I'm a success, and I refuse to believe otherwise.


  1. Or insert another tortured analogy here
  2. As they do
  3. Obviously
  4. Or something like that. The advice gets really vague after the first part
  5. Survivorship bias, link
  6. I mean, it probably isn't literally a zero-sum game since I'm sure twitch adds new users sometimes, but, for our purposes, it's close enough
  7. Twitch monthly users, link

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