Reading and Writing Following Twitch

One of the biggest media story of the year so far has got to be the rise of Twitch and its recent sale to Amazon for almost US$1 billion. This milestone follows years of speculation about the future of media, gaming, and other trends. I am paying close attention to these trends and milestones as a writer looking forward to what I hope is a long and successful writing career; if other forms of entertainment are proving more popular than writing, then this will have a serious impact on my prospects. I want to know what people are spending their leisure time doing. If Twitch is any indication, the number of people reading short stories and novels and the amount of time they spend doing so may have already sharply declined. Consider these factoids:

  • Twitch “viewers average 106 ­minutes per day, and 58 percent of the ­audience spends more than 20 hours on the site every week—almost a full day spent streaming play or watching other people play. According to one analysis, the site already accounts for almost 44 percent of all live content watched on the internet.” [Davis]
  • “The contestants were gunning for a big piece of the $11 million in total prize money [at the annual The International esport event].” [Wingfield]
  • “[G]lobal revenue for games is $20 billion higher than the music industry’s and is chasing that of the movie business.” [Wingfield]
  • “More than 70 million people worldwide watch e-sports over the Internet or on TVs, according to estimates by SuperData Research.” [Wingfield]

What might not be immediately clear from these numbers  is how much gaming and viewing other people  gaming has taken up the free time of young people. They don’t watch television as much or in the traditional way anymore; instead of watching network and cable TV during primetime hours, they are more likely to stream and binge-watch favorite TV shows whenever they want. They are also increasingly turning to YouTube for their video entertainment, with a significant number of hours per week devoted to vlogs and, no doubt, gaming-related videos. The biggest YouTuber in the world is Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, a Swedish gamer that goes by the name PewDiePie, and he has over 30 million subscribers to his irreverent channel, along with millions of views for each video. If young people are spending an average of 20 hours per week on Twitch, a significant amount of time streaming video from other sources like YouTube and Netflix, and they are also gaming, then they aren’t spending as much time reading short stories, let alone novels.

There are other age groups that have not been colonized so completely by video streaming or gaming. Generation X and older adults still struggle with understanding why anyone would want to spend so much time watching another person game, for example. Despite this, as the youngest generations grow older they are likely to keep their leisure-time habits. This will happen even as these habits spread more widely among older viewers. As an anecdote, I for a long time refused to watch vlogs on YouTube because I considered them to be like reality television, a genre I personally don’t enjoy. One day I decided I wanted to better understand the attraction of vlogs, so I watched a few daily vlogs posted by Will Shepherd and R.J. Aguiar on their shep689 channel [defunct channel]. They are a young couple who upload daily five to fifteen minute edits of all the video they capture day-to-day about their life. A year after I first started watching them, I now average about an hour per day of watching all my favorite YouTubers. Their daily lives are often as intriguing as any drama on television.

Individual tastes in entertainment are changing over time  while digital technologies improve, expand, and accelerate the change in media. Even while debate rages over the price of ebooks and who sets them, even as gaming becomes the biggest industry in entertainment, even as streaming video threatens traditional television, cable, and cinema, there are new technologies in the works that might be even more potent. Consider for example the return of virtual reality (VR) with the hype surrounding the Oculus Rift HUD and the cottage industry of interface devices that have sprung up around it thanks mostly to crowdfunding and the maker culture. With Facebook’s US$2 billion purchase of Oculus Rift earlier this year, virtual reality seems set for massive growth in 2015, when the device (and competing devices from companies like Sony) is expected to become widely available for consumers. VR has the potential to subsume previous forms of media even as it makes games and other experiences more immersive and interactive than currently possible.

The contemporary writer has much to be concerned about, then. Beyond the usual concerns about juggling writing with a day job and other responsibilities, getting published and paid a reasonable amount for our work, and the impact of digital forces on ebook prices and the pool of other writers who are also our competitors, we writers must also be concerned with how reading itself stacks up against other forms of entertainment, both exciting and emerging. What I notice most about the rise of streaming video and gaming is the amount of interaction viewers have with their favorite creatives and gamers. Something as simple as the chat interface in Twitch positioned next to the streaming video gives viewers much more to do, and it gives them a sense of participating, not only with the gamer but also with other viewers. This social aspect of modern gaming has parallels even in writing: see for example how authors are using digital platforms to reach out to their fans and how GoodReads has created a social network around our favorite books and authors. As these interactions improve and become more tactile, media that take advantage of these breakthroughs will enjoy growing popularity.

So should writers give up writing, especially if reading is on the decline as other forms entertainment become much more popular? I’m reluctant to advise anyone to give up their passions. Reading, even if the activity is in decline and even if the population of readers of shorts stories and novels is shrinking, will remain a popular activity for years to come. Patronage and crowdfunding activities may support some number of writers financially so they can focus on writing. There are also writing opportunities in other media, including writing for games and video entertainment. New media offer unique outlets for creative writing. For example, a young and personable poet on YouTube, Steven Boyle, has recently found a new and growing audience by filming himself reading his poetry in a captivating way. New media offers new possibilities for recovering the oral and communal traditions of storytelling. Perhaps oral and written storytelling will come together in new ways as new media pressure existing forms to evolve. In VR, perhaps ebooks will transform into books with (virtual) heft, weight, and texture again, becoming something that people want to collect and store in their personal virtual spaces.

There are also other technological and demographic trends at work that may have an impact on our choices and opportunities as writers. For example, the rise of robotics and automation is expected by some experts to lead to less need for human labor. One suggestion to deal with the resulting rise in unemployment has been to decrease the number of hours worked by individuals per week. The remaining full-time positions might then be divided among several individuals, as people begin to work fewer and fewer hours. In effect, we might soon have more time for leisure and creative pursuits. What is now relatively few hours a day devoted to entertainment might become our primary daily pursuit, divided between the various media as we seek to keep ourselves entertained.

I think it is very important as contemporary writers for us to continue to write (and read!) despite the temptation and success of alternative forms of entertainment and the uncertainty about the future. It is also important to pay attention to these technological and demographic trends. What people do with their leisure time should not force us to abandon our passions, but we must adapt as necessary, evolving our passion over time. We can still be writers, but we are writers in a time when obstacles and opportunities are changing, too.

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