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Interview

WORLD EXCLUSIVE First Interview With “Stream Big” Author Nathan Grayson

"In short: It's a book. Please clap"

Atria / Simon & Schuster

Noted Aftermath co-owner Nathan Grayson, who may or may not have also written this introduction, has written a book. It contains words, pages, a table of contents – the works. It’s called Stream Big: The Triumphs and Turmoils of Twitch and the Stars Behind the Screen, and you can preorder it now. In a show of graceful magnanimity, Grayson has granted Aftermath a world-exclusive first interview about the book.  

Riley: Hello, Nathan! Rumor has it you've written a book! First off: what is a book? Aren't we just here to talk about a longer, more expensive blog?

Nathan: You ask what a book is, but I want to pose a different question: What isn't a book? What can't a book do? It can travel with you, keep you company in times good and bad, spirit you away to realms previously unimagined. Everyone should buy more books -- and mine, specifically.

In seriousness, though, I thought a lot about this while writing my book – Stream Big: The Triumphs and Turmoils of Twitch and the Stars Behind the Screen, which you can preorder NOW -- as I didn't want it to just be a series of glorified articles. My goal was to tell the story of Twitch as a platform, community, and culture through the lens of the people who use it, to take a series of semi-disparate tales and use them to paint a holistic picture. So while each chapter focuses on a specific streamer, major players weave in and out of each others' stories, which are all pivotal moments in their careers (as opposed to the sort of profile piece you often see online about a specific creator, where the main thrust is basically "Person Exists"). In short: It's a book. Please clap. 

Riley: Without giving us so many details that we then don't read the book, which we can do after we pre-order it TODAY, what is the story of Twitch that you found through writing? What did you learn or come to understand about Twitch through this process?

Nathan: First and foremost, the story of Twitch is the story of its community. The service started out deeply intertwined with its user base -- many of the company's first hires came straight out of livestreaming's primordial soup -- and that's always been its main selling point. The reason livestreaming took off in the first place is because even janky, pre-Twitch attempts could create this instant connection between an individual and their viewers. Chat was a game changer (and in many ways remains one; just look at how Twitch continues to transform coverage of major global and political issues).

Twitch is by no means perfect, but it’s one of the few places online where people go to have actual conversations. That’s the essential spark that makes the whole machine work. This led to many early innovations in what eventually became the creator economy: the idea of spending money to subscribe to a creator you appreciate, the notion that playing video games on camera can be a real job with a schedule, obligations, and even the risk of burnout.

Twitch’s story is also very much a tale of what’s happened to the internet at large. It couldn’t just stay a cool little place for passionate people to gather.

But Twitch’s story is also very much a tale of what’s happened to the internet at large. It couldn’t just stay a cool little place for passionate people to gather. The community became a commodity, one which Amazon ended up purchasing in 2014. The Amazonification of Twitch was relatively slow, but over time, it transformed the site and its priorities. Twitch needed to make money. It took all sorts of stabs at this, many of which did not gel with its users desires and demands. This led to numerous conflicts between Twitch and the community, which – as you saw while, uh, editing my writing – dominated headlines for a handful of years.

This is not to say Twitch’s early days were perfect. But there was a palpable sense of belief in the platform itself back then. A community member turned (now-former) Twitch employee coined the slogan “bleed purple” around a decade ago. Twitch users and employees used to say it all the time, almost like they were in a cult. Nobody feels that way anymore. Twitch is a corporate vehicle. It, like so much of the rest of the internet, will never be the thing it started out as again.

Riley: That sort of raises the question to me of: is Twitch, for lack of a better word, "over"? The early narrative around Twitch of "you could make a living as a streamer" no longer feels as viable as it once was, if it ever was. And through its various transformations over the years, it feels like it's become an institution, with the problems of any institution, plus a whole bunch of unique problems. Maybe this is a perception just shaped by the drama-heavy coverage things on Twitch often get these days, but does Twitch still... matter? Why should I care about the story of how it got where it is?

Nathan: I think it definitely still matters! Despite viewership ebbs and flows -- it definitely peaked in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic -- Twitch’s overall numbers remain astronomical. More than that, though, Twitch culture continues to drive the internet at large. Twitch creators say things that reverberate onto YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc and shape their cultures as well. On top of that, creators are no longer bound by a single platform. Pretty much everyone is everywhere these days, and many consider Twitch to be an essential tool in their tool belts. It’s possible to stream on the aforementioned other platforms, but nowhere is as optimized for it in terms of features and community as Twitch is. I think the days of Twitch aspiring to reach the same heights as YouTube or what have you have long since passed, but it has carved out a potent niche. Unless Amazon screws things up catastrophically in pursuit of profits over all else – something it could still very much do – that will probably remain the case for some time to come.

Riley: Should I read this book if I don't know anything about streaming, or the Twitch stars you write about? Or, if I am, say, my 15-year-old nephew and know everything about these Twitch stars, will this book teach me anything new?

Nathan: So I tried to walk an incredibly fine line and write a book for both of the audiences you just described. When I first pitched it to publishers, I positioned it as a book that’d be perfect for Twitch-obsessed young people and parents who desperately wanted to know what the heck a Twitch was. Some time has passed since then, and I think pop culture at large has a better grip on Twitch’s basic mechanics now, but my book always sought to answer a slightly different question: Why do people like Twitch? Why do people care so much about it?

In pursuit of that, I chose to focus on the people who use Twitch – streamers and viewers – first and foremost, to tell stories that even uninitiated audiences would find relatable. Technology transforms people to a point, but more than that, I think it gives us new lenses through which to view ourselves. Twitch is a place where universal themes – labor, solidarity, celebrity, gossip, drama, achievement, responsibility (or lack thereof) – play out on a daily basis. People are still people whether they’re doing a normal job like working in a grocery store or streaming on Twitch. They have similar wants, needs, motivations, and even dreams. I tried to write something that conveys that.

That said, I also went super deep into specific streamers’ lives and histories! If you are a big fan of any of the streamers I chose to focus on, you will probably learn something about them that you didn’t already know. I traveled to their homes and places of work, I interviewed their friends, families, fans, critics, and employees, I dug into public records and police documents. There’s a reason why “Behind The Screen” is part of the title: I’m not just recounting what people already saw. There’d be no point in writing a book if that’s all I aimed to accomplish. Twitch is a place where it’s easy to think you see everything – that you truly know your favorite creators. My book aims to authoritatively dispel that notion.

 I traveled to their homes and places of work, I interviewed their friends, families, fans, critics, and employees, I dug into public records and police documents. There’s a reason why 'Behind The Screen' is part of the title: I’m not just recounting what people already saw. There’d be no point in writing a book if that’s all I aimed to accomplish.

Riley: Speaking of all that work, I'm sure every new day brought some new twist that meant you had to revise the book a lot. Was it hard to write a book about this constantly-changing scene, instead of a bunch of articles that can move faster and be updated? How did you decide when to stop?

Nathan: It was VERY HARD. I had to revise certain chapters a ton. If you follow Twitch closely, you can probably guess which ones! Figuring out when to stop was really tough. After a certain point, I kind of had to draw a line in the sand and say, “That’s it. This is where this chapter ends,” because otherwise I could’ve kept revising some of them forever. In most cases, though, I tried to bring things to a close at natural points where the pivotal moments I chose to focus on were tapering off – where both streamers and audiences had either learned a hard lesson or chosen to move on. As I note in the book’s opening, streamers’ lives are messy and complicated; they’ll have likely lived multiple additional chapters by the time my book comes out. But I hope I can at least provide the most complete possible telling of the moments I chose to focus on.

Riley: Was it hard to get the people you write about to agree to talk to you for the book? Did your previous work into this space as a journalist help or hinder that at all?

Nathan: It helped a lot! To be honest, it was the only reason I was able to write this book at all. Content creation is not a space that has a good relationship with journalism. Some of this is structural: If you’re a content creator, you get to tell your own story on a daily basis. Why bring in a middleman? But also, journalism around the space – shaped by the SEO content mill era of websites – tends to be sensationalistic at best, ridden with errors and falsehoods at worst. (This is not to discount work done by other very, very good journalists in the field. It's just to say that there are far too few, and they do not get the resources they deserve from their respective publications.)

I’m fortunate in that I was given time and space at both Kotaku and The Washington Post to develop Twitch into a beat that I took seriously, one with demonstrable utility to streamers: I could translate their experience to mainstream audiences. I was able to help legitimize a field that many so-called Adults refused to take seriously. And it’s one that I think deserves to be taken seriously. Streamers shape the thoughts and viewpoints of millions of people. They build spaces that make some feel, for the first time, like they belong. Some streamers are better at this than others, but regardless, it’s hard work – work that is presided over and, to an extent, exploited by Amazon. Not to get all lefty about it, but the best thing we can do for each other as workers is recognize that we’re all part of the same struggle, that we’re all squeezing blood from the same few stones. I hope people come away from my book with a greater understanding of that.

Riley: Is there a story or anecdote in the book we might never have heard before? A world premiere, if you will?

Nathan: I go pretty deep into the early days of what would eventually become streaming – when people were homebrewing ramshackle esports casting setups using broadcasting equipment they bought at Best Buy – in a way that’s pretty interesting. I certainly didn’t know about any of that stuff before I started writing the book.

There are also some pretty gnarly untold stories about both swattings and burnout in there, about the short and long-term impacts those things have on people. Streamers try to keep a lot of that out of the public eye, but they’re still human beings. They are still impacted just like anybody else would be, sometimes on a daily basis.

Preorder now!

I was also in touch with creators through some of their most difficult moments: Amouranth getting out of an abusive relationship, Dream’s community rebelling after he was accused of grooming minors, Code Miko fighting to keep her company from going under, Keffals getting stalked across the world by Kiwi Farms (and later going into rehab for drug addiction). There’s a lot I ended up seeing that others didn’t. Most of it is… rough. I tried to convey it all as sensitively as possible.

Riley: Lastly, we beat the drum a lot about not pre-ordering video games, but it's a pretty different situation in publishing. Why should we pre-order the book?

Nathan: I’m a first-time author, but as I understand it, books live and die by preorders. Preorders teach the Amazon algorithm to prioritize specific books, and even though my book is very critical of Amazon, I, as an author, am to a degree reliant on it. Preorders also signal to the publisher that the book could be a Big Deal, which means they’ll devote more resources to selling and promoting it. Resulting buzz can then lead to larger orders from retailers, which is obviously a good thing. Also, more broadly, preorders are often counted as sales, meaning that if you get a bunch of preorders ahead of release, your book then looks like it’s selling incredibly well – and potentially charting – during its first week. Ideally, that leads to continued sales, hopefully forever. Basically, the whole thing is a chain reaction that starts now.

If we’re drawing a specific comparison to video games, what you see before a game comes out is not always what you get. Games change dramatically during development, and publishers don’t do a great job of cluing prospective buyers into that process. My book is done! Unless something absolutely bonkers happens to one of the streamers featured in it, there will be no need for additional revisions prior to release. It is what it is! It’s good, I promise! Preorder now! (Or wait a little bit for some excerpts to drop and then see what you think.)

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