Press Start: Twitch as a Discourse Community

During the fall 2015 semester, I taught four composition courses at a local university. I decided to focus on discourse communities for one major writing assignment in my two sophomore-level courses. In particular, I discussed a popular livestreaming website, Twitch (www.twitch.tv), as my primary example for this assignment.Before diving too deeply into my example and its application in class, I would like to define/describe two things: discourse communities and Twitch.

Essentially a discourse community consists of a group of people who have distinct ways of communicating and who share common goals and beliefs. A discourse community is more than just communication–it is tied to social practice. Such communities are guided by hierarchies, use jargon, and make use of specific genres of communication.

Twitch, owned by Amazon, is a website where video games, talk shows, and creative content is streamed live to thousands of viewers. Anyone can create an account on Twitch to view the thousands of unique channels and/or to stream their own content. Some of the more popular channels attract 30,000+ viewers every stream. And yes, some streamers/broadcasters have made careers out of streaming on Twitch, making money from monthly subscribers and donations or tips. Viewers can subscribe to a channel for $4.99 a month to support the broadcaster and receive benefits.

The majority of the channels on Twitch broadcast video game content. Much like the “Let’s Play” videos made popular on YouTube, Twitch broadcasters often play video games, sometimes with a webcam and sometimes without, while giving commentary and reacting to the game being played. The more involved broadcasters regularly talk with their viewers who can type in the chat window with the broadcaster and with other viewers. The chat can get unruly and so most broadcasters have moderators who help to keep order.

I chose Twitch as an example of discourse communities because of its popularity, online nature, and connection to something that many youth and adults are familiar with and can relate to: video games.

In class, I began by introducing the concept of discourse communities (something that most people have knowledge of but do not necessarily have the terminology for) and going through several activities to help students reflect on the communities in which they held membership. We also discussed James Paul Gee’s idea of discourse communities as an “identity kit.”

After the initial introductory material and discussion, I had my students watch a livestream on Twitch for several minutes. I then asked my students to tell me what was happening with the broadcast. We ended up discussing Twitch’s interface, the broadcaster’s content, how information was being relayed to viewers, how viewers communicated with the broadcaster and each other, and whether or not they were apart or ever would be part of such an online community.

By the end of this discussion, my students had some interesting things to say. They identified Twitch viewers as belonging to communities where the broadcaster is at the top of the hierarchy followed by moderators and viewers. They also believed that viewers must form a strong sense of identity and loyalty through those online communities.

Twitch channels are especially useful examples of discourse communities because they primarily consist of an easy to observe visual medium with strong indicators of community and identity. Viewers must create user names to participate in Twitch’s chat features. Much like gamer tags, these user names are a part of each individual viewer’s identity. If a viewer decides to subscribe to a channel they also receive a badge representative of the channel next to their name which appears whenever that viewer types in chat. This badge is a visual indicator of the viewer’s status within the community and sets that person apart from the average viewer (sometimes referred to as a “pleb”).

Viewers who subscriber to a channel also receive benefits depending on what the broadcaster offers. A standard offering is a set of emotes similar to the emoticons used in texting. However, these emotes are typically designed to represent and reinforce the channel’s brand or identity. Emotes can be used across Twitch and not only in the channel from which they originated. Again, these emotes are a small but significant part of viewer identity.

The level of interaction that occurs on Twitch also makes individual channels worthy of study. As I have already mentioned, viewers can type in chat (the chat window) with each other and even with the broadcaster. Viewers often discuss whatever the broadcaster is playing and saying all the way to the mundane events of life and even trolling. Regular viewers often strike up conversations with other regular viewers and some even frequently greet new viewers and subscribers to the channel.

The less active viewers (frequently referred to as “lurkers”) watch the broadcaster without participating in chat. These viewers are sometimes playfully teased for being lurkers and for the few times when they come out of lurking to say something in chat.

All viewers, whether subscribers or not, can donate or tip the viewer. Most channels on Twitch allow viewers to donate money along with write a message to accompany the donation that will then appear on screen for everyone to see. These messages are sometimes silly troll attempts and even purposefully disgusting or disturbing. However, I have seen many positive messages from viewers thanking the broadcaster for their commitment in producing content and for being entertaining. I have seen some viewers go so far as to describe how the broadcaster and his/her content helped the viewer through tough or depressing times.

Usually the most engaging Twitch channels are the ones with the strongest sense of community. Members care about the broadcaster and about their fellow viewers. The way these community members communicate, their names, jargon, and expectations are rich for discourse analysis.

I believe this example worked well leading into my discourse analysis assignment which I would like to share briefly.

My assignment prompt began with the following statement:

For this assignment you will explore and analyze the ways in which members of a discourse community interact and communicate. Knowledge of discourse communities (how and why they communicate along with their expectations and norms of discourse) is important whether you are writing in a new class or on the job. Once you understand the community, its behavior, and its discourse, you will be better prepared to enter into conversation, persuade, and cooperate.

I then asked students to address the following items for analysis:

  • Community Membership (who belongs to the community, how they gain      membership, and community hierarchy)
  • Behavior (general behavior and purpose of the group)
  • Message and Mode (what is being said and how it is said)
  • Intent/Purpose (why is something being said)
  • Place/Time (where and when the message is delivered)
  • Audience (how does the audience influence the message and purpose?)
  • Reception (how is the message received and what is the outcome?)

Students were also encouraged to pose their own questions about their chosen community and were required to select 2-3 texts produced by the community as a reference point for their observations. These texts could take many forms including websites, articles, books, videos, and interviews.

Overall, I believe this assignment was a success as an introduction to discourse communities. Most students made insightful observations about their chosen communities. One thing I would change about my approach, and would encourage others to do, is spend a LOT of time analyzing sample texts and relating their qualities back to the values of the community that created them. In my experience, teaching analysis is typically one of the more challenging skills for educators. It seems you can never spend too much time on it.

Virtually any community can be used as an example of discourse communities from ER nurses to users of fitness apps. I would not suggest using Twitch, or any community for that matter, as an example if you are not familiar with it. Of course, it is never too late to familiarize yourself with a new community. The analysis of such communities is potentially invaluable as they can demonstrate for students not only their own membership in communities but also how meaning is made, monitored, and manipulated within all communities.

Author: Tabitha

I game. I teach. I write. Soon to be graduate student pursuing a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing. Interested in the use of video games in education, digital rhetoric, and literacy.

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