Blog post

The grey market of Twitch streams

Twitch Bits are money-ish, and they are far more than the sum of their worth.

Rachel O'Dwyer 3 October 2023

The grey market of Twitch streams

Twitch is an Amazon-owned streaming platform where viewers can purchase Bits with dollars and donate them (or ‘cheer’ them, in the vernacular of the platform) to streamers on the site. A hundred Bits can be purchased for roughly $1.40. Streamers can redeem these Bits for 70 per cent of their purchase price, while Amazon takes a 30 per cent cut.

For Twitch, Bits are a way of capturing value from content on the platform, but they are also a regulatory sleight of hand, a way of employing workers without a contract and processing payments without a financial licence. For streamers and users on the platform, though, these tokens can also be a way to express themselves and bond with others. Even more importantly, they are a loophole into the grey market, a way for workers to get paid for marginal and/or extra-legal work.

In the manner of in-game currencies, these tokens allow the viewer to interact in the channel using messages or animated ‘emotes’; to show support for streamers; to send messages; to influence or shape content; to participate in live games; or to earn and unlock badges or virtual loot during special events. Twitch urges viewers to ‘keep some on hand so you can join the conversation anytime you want’.

Bits say more than the sum of their worth. They are put to work to ‘cheer’, but they are also used to roll your eyes, convey boredom, sarcasm, or surprise, and to nudge onscreen behaviour. A streamer will commonly specify targets that are denominated in Bits or subs: a spin-the- wheel game, a dance, a change of costume. For Amouranth, the site’s most popular ‘hot-tub streamer’, 2,000 Bits will see her don a horse’s head mask and trot around the set, astride a sweeping brush. For CodeMiko, one of the site’s most popular virtual streamers, the viewers’ Bits can alter her appearance, adding or removing hair or altering breast size. The token is a logic gate; a set figure triggers a reaction on the screen or in the body of the performer.

Bits are money-ish, but they are also a fast-paced language, full of jokes and burns and barbs. A cheer is not money or a transaction, Amazon is quick to confirm, but a particular kind of chat message, one with more clout, one with cooler emotes. Bits are ‘communicated’ rather than ‘spent’ or ‘donated’.

I’m reminded of The Hunger Games, the book that single-handedly launched the young-adult dystopian genre, in which teenage ‘tributes’ fight to the death in a live-streamed competition. Survival depends not only on their ability to fight and think on their feet, but on gifts from wealthy viewers in the form of food, water, medicine, and weapons. Growing up, tribute Katniss Everdeen has had to resort to hunting in the forests around her district (and selling her kills on the grey market) to feed her family. In the arena, her survival hinges not only on things like shooting down other tributes with a bow and arrow, but producing and eventually manifesting real emotions for the audience watching at home. Like the authenticity work of streamers and influencers, the task involves more than surface acting, and Katniss ends up with something approaching real romantic feelings for another tribute. 

Meanwhile, Katniss’s mentor Haymitch watches the stream from outside the arena. He uses the flow of gifts to send her messages from a distance, reinforcing certain behaviours and punishing others. Over time, she comes to understand the signals conveyed through the gift – that one staged kiss, for example, equals one vial of medicine, or one pot of broth. This is a hunger game. But it’s also a power game.

Amouranth’s content spans hot-tub performances, ASMR, and a range of ‘just chatting’ streams. When I log in today, she is doing squats in a hot tub. Her skin is branded with names, scrawled there with a black permanent marker. The interface on the screen suggests that these are the remnants of an interactive game. Five subs spins the wheel; ten gets your name on the streamer’s body; twenty subs gets squats; two hundred gets your name on her forehead. Someone called Caedus has already made a donation worth $1,370, and their name is printed on her face in block capitals, and more legibly in neon font on the left side of the screen.

The spinning wheel is a homemade version of the classic gameshow kind, with segments of rainbow-coloured card labelled ‘more squats’, ‘dare’, and ‘Q&A’. At the centre of the wheel is a giant cut-out of a surprised-looking Shiba Inu, the meme associated with Dogecoin. From ten squats, Amouranth moves on to a quick Q&A session, climbing, dripping water, out of the paddling pool and reading the messages in the chat: ‘How – do – your – toes – not get – pruny – being – in – the water for so long? … They do. They get totally pruny. I don’t know why people think they wouldn’t …’

Amouranth has a real body that sweats in the Texas heat and prunes in soft water, that probably grows tired from excessive twerking. More recently, virtual streamers such as Projekt Melody and CodeMiko have entered the space. Virtual streamers take the form of 3D avatars, but they are animated by a real person wearing motion capture sensors fed to a 3D gaming engine. In the opening credits of her live stream, the avatar twerks robotically in front of a menu that lists various ‘body morphs’. Changes to ‘butt size’ require from 60 to 600 Bits, depending on whether you want a subtle or more obvious modification, while various others control head size, neck length, musculature, weight, and breast size.

The token is a communication designed to express itself not only within the channel, but immediately and directly on the body of the performer. Nothing drives this home more than the work of tokens in the sex-camming platform, Chaturbate. Like Twitch, Chaturbate enacts a tipping or donation system using in-platform tokens that are split between the platform and the cam model. Unlike Twitch, though, which flirts with the fuzzy boundaries of sexualised content, Chaturbate features full nudity and real sex acts. Tokens are solicited through interactive games, where donations are often tied to teledildonic vibrators that act directly on the cam  model’s body. For example, 15 to 99 tokens might equal ten seconds of vibration at a medium speed, while 100 to 499 might deliver fifteen seconds of high-speed vibration: ‘Tease me with your tips,’ a streamer’s caption reads, ‘make me cum with ur love’. Here, the token is a communication designed to register on the streamer’s body, a voltage difference that makes a difference. It’s money that can reach across space and literally touch the performer, stroke her, get inside her.

Like the names written across Amouranth’s forehead, Bits register instantly on the channel. But as something more than a two-way market transaction (which is designed to settle instantly), they also forge a connection between the streamer and her public – they stick around, they linger. I picture Amouranth after the cameras have been turned off and the pool toys deflated, scrubbing patiently at the permanent marker on her cheek with a wet facecloth.

The next time I check in, Amouranth is dancing in the same bikini. The chat comes quick and fast, Kappa Demons and Miss Piggies cheering, and Kermit the Frogs staring agape, cmonBruhs, Gachigasms, streams of purple hearts, and other memes I don’t really understand. Moderators – usually enthusiastic fans who have shown their loyalty to the streamer – are monitoring the chat feed, encouraging tips and deleting trolling or inappropriate comments before they have a chance to register. The atmosphere feels … festive. One user redeems 1,000 Bits to make their chat message stand out in bright purple; another gifts five subscriptions to other members in the channel.

Different emotes carry different meanings, used to communicate sarcasm, celebrate, show gratitude, troll or call out trolling, be ironic – or, like the DoritosChip emoji, to celebrate or virtually share food. Much as in the world of online memes and emojis, Bit emotes have specific values, both on Twitch as a whole and within specific channels. The right token at the right time says you belong. It buys access in more ways than one. The meanings are hard to decipher, but that’s the point. They’re supposed to be.

In antiquity, possession of a token often regulated access to a privileged space, more key than currency. Coming to them centuries on, their meanings are locked up; they look like coined nonsense. Clearly, as professor Clare Rowan, a historian of token use in the Ancient Mediterranean, tells me, some tokens were ‘designed not to facilitate wider communication’. They traded on insider language. Your possession of the token and your grasp of its meaning marked you as an insider.

As meme and money, the Bit contains competing messages that are at once symbolic, cultural, and economic. In other words, the Bit functions as a price and as a communication designed to signal to the streamer (‘well done’, ‘keep going’, or ‘that was awkward’), but also as a broader cultural meme. A meme is a ‘unit of culture’ that moves from mind to mind. Not unlike money, its survival depends on its being sticky enough to circulate, but rare enough to signal specialist knowledge. Just as money weighs supply and scarcity, memes flirt with the space between common and insider knowledge. As tokens, this is what Bits do so well, balancing inside jokes with a sense of belonging.

— An edited excerpt from Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform by Rachel O'Dwyer


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