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It can be easy to fall for people onscreen, but remember that the relationship between viewers and influencers is transactional. Graphic by Byanca Morales Cabrera.

Twitch star builds community during 250+ hour livestream

Ludwig Ahgren’s Twitch “subathon” livestream started on Mar. 14 — and it just kept going. Over 280 hours later, he was the second most subscribed person on Twitch of all time. He ate, slept and even showered (with swim trunks on) under the diligent watch of tens of thousands of viewers. 

The broadcast began as a classic “subathon,” a type of stream in which creators add a certain amount of time to a count-down clock every time someone donates or subscribes, and they have to keep streaming until the clock reaches 00:00. Ahgren expected to be live for 24 hours, maybe a bit more, figuring that viewership and donations would die down after a little while. Except they did not. Tens of thousands of viewers tuned in to watch Ahgren sleep on that first night, and he woke up to more hours on the clock than when he went to sleep. 

But why? Why have so many people spent actual, real world money to add seconds to a clock? Why does a livestream of a man sleeping get over 20,000 viewers? 

There is certainly an element of parasocial interaction at play. Oxford Reference describes parasocial interactions as interactions that “psychologically resemble those of face-to-face interaction but they are of course mediated and one-sided.” In recent years, there has been a lot of talk online about parasocial relationships, particularly in reference to influencers who share large chunks of their lives with their audiences. Parasocial interactions are not new; people have long been forming one-sided relationships with celebrities, fictional characters and even gods. These relationships are not necessarily unhealthy, either. They can be fulfilling and rewarding. But like all relationships, they have their drawbacks. Giving too much time and energy to a person who will not — cannot — reciprocate is dangerous, draining, and downright hurtful.

Ahgren has been an outspoken proponent of healthy online interactions and a critic of influencers who manipulate their audiences with I love yous and other sweet nothings. But then this raises the question: if Ahgren’s audience is not receiving the disingenuous affection that dominates so many online communities, what keeps them watching?

One of Ahgren’s moderators, who goes by Ari___ on Twitch, explained why so many viewers flock to Ahgren, even in his sleep. “Sometimes, people just keep the stream open in the background. If they are active, they are most likely here for the media share we play in the background and to talk to others about the absurdity that is watching someone sleep for days on end. We (the moderators) also hang out in a private call while he sleeps to moderate the chat as well as keep them company. Lately we have been incorporating ways to interact with chat while he sleeps.”

So the answer, then, is community. At least in Ahgren’s case, he has built an environment where he is the focus but not the core. People come to Ahgren’s stream to be a part of whatever fun event Ahgren is leading at a given time, not necessarily just to watch their idol. Ari___ described his experience in Ahgren’s community, “Through his community I was able to form long lasting friendships with other viewers. I have discord conversations with these people almost daily, and we all interact outside of his stream. I’m having a blast.”

Ahgren is not alone in his approach to content creation. As social media has become more expansive and overbearing, many creators have realized the dangerous power of being an influencer and reshaped their content in response. Many content creators have adopted the transactional approach through membership platforms like Patreon, in which viewers can donate money to their favorite creators and receive content in return. This approach takes away all semblance of “friendship,” as the interaction becomes an exchange of goods. As cold and distant as it may sound on the surface, the result is an honest relationship; the creator does not pretend to provide content because they love the individual viewer. Instead, they provide content because it is their job to do so. 

This new wave of community-oriented, transactional media deals with the issue of unhealthy parasocial interactions gracefully. It leaves viewers with a realistic view of their favorite content creators. Instead of giving off an image of formulated “authenticity,” creators like Ahgren can speak candidly about their relationship with their audience, and their audiences are not manipulated by false promises and professions.

Ahgren’s subathon stream is proof that community can be a strong driver of an entertainer’s success, even more so than desirable but manipulative parasocial relationships. Ahgren’s moderators and live chat have entertained each other while he has slept, zoned out, and done all of the other boring daily tasks that Ahgren has performed while streaming for over 12 days straight, and his audience is larger and more connected than ever as a result.