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Alex has been streaming for an average of six viewers for nearly three years. Alex, who goes by cobaltgear on Twitch, has been streaming mostly pre-2010 games from his California home since 2017. The numbers tend to vary. There are “high highs and low lows” as he puts it, and while Alex loves what he does, the “low lows” can be difficult; it isn’t always easy to stream into the void.
“It can get lonely at times,” Alex told Waypoint. “Just last night I had a stream that was basically radio silence from chat for the main duration of the stream. That was pretty isolating, but I just tried to focus on enjoying myself.” Browse the live channels of any popular game on Twitch sorted by number of viewers and you’ll find hundreds of streams with five viewers or less. Many of these channels have only streamed a handful of times, and some will probably quit after a few more. But others, like Alex, continue to consistently stream for small numbers of viewers. In order to find out more, Waypoint reached out to small streamers to learn about the funny and sometimes lonely experience of streaming for single digit and double digit audiences. For some streamers, the intimacy that comes with streaming for a small audience is something they find enjoyable, therapeutic even. Most streamers Waypoint spoke to estimated that around two thirds of their viewers are made up of regulars and another third of people who join and then are never seen again. “Even just having one or two viewers changes the experience completely,” lightupwrists, a streamer based in Canada who averages five viewers per stream, said. “I really don't mind not having a ton of viewers so long as at least one person is keeping me company. I love chatting with my audience and getting to know them, and building those relationships as they keep showing up. That’s what keeps me going.”
But it can also be difficult. There are times where nobody shows up, lightupwrists says, and that’s when it’s the loneliest and most discouraging. lightupwrists also recounted how once, when she had just been streaming for a few months, a user had entered her empty chat and progressively began to harass to the point that she shut off the stream. Wanting to vent, she later posted a meme on a subreddit about the experience. “It ended up getting a ton of upvotes and comments, people wanting to support me and my channel,” she said. “The next time I streamed was my first stream where people showed up, were chatting, and everyone was just having a great time and I ended up having something like 8 average viewers for it, which just blew me away.” While some streamers compared talking into the void as being like pulling teeth, others like Brandon Aull, a New York-based hip hop artist who started streaming Dead By Daylight on his aullthat Twitch channel during the pandemic, doesn't find it to be an issue. Aull, who averages 3 viewers a stream, says he has no problem “chatting up a storm” even during completely silent moments, which he treats as if he’s recording a video. He uses his smaller audience to his advantage, and organizes wine nights with his viewers which he says are a blast. “Let’s say the deeper into the bottle we go, the antics, requests, and chat get pretty ridiculous,” he said.
Much like larger streamers, small streamers can also find themselves preoccupied with viewer counts. As cobaltgear said: “It can be hard not to get caught up in the numbers [...],” but I know if I focus on them too much it can negatively affect how I view streaming as a whole, and of course, I don’t want to ruin this thing that actually brings me a lot of joy.” Most of the streamers Waypoint spoke to said the last thing they wanted was the dreaded silence of a zero viewer stream. But some also wondered whether an increased audience size would inevitably take away some of the intimacy, and personal interaction, that comes with streaming for just a few people. “Ultimately I want to continue to grow,” lightupwrists said, “but I don’t want to lose that familiarity with my community as it grows. I don’t like watching a huge streamer with thousands of viewers where they can’t interact with chat, but I would like to continue welcoming people in and seeing if I can strike a better balance than that.” Both because and at times in spite of their low number of viewers, the small streamers who spoke to Waypoint all highlighted that streaming, even if just for a few eyes, is an important part of their lives. It can be an outlet for creativity, a way to blow off steam, a place to feel a sense of community. “Some people like to paint, some people like to take a walk in the forest, I like to stream,” said KarlssonMax, a small Swedish streamer who regularly joins with his viewers to watch, among many other things, programs like the Great Moose Trek—a 24/7 broadcast on Swedish television that follows the country’s moose. “You know how after you go swimming your body is tired but you feel refreshed? That’s how I feel.” “Sure, people will ask why are you doing this?” he continued. “For me, streaming, even if for a small audience, gives me a sense of collective identity, like I’m part of something.”
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