VTubers and famous anonymity

The term "celebrity" usually brings to mind famous faces, usually actors, musicians, comedians, people whose work necessarily means exposing some aspect of their likeness to the world. This often means egregious invasions of privacy are not uncommon in this crowd, through paparazzi, leaked private photos and conversations, and so on. This isn’t always bad, particularly when it reveals real harmful acts toward others that otherwise would not have come to light. But in general, for people who gain visible fame (in the US anyway), it just takes the form of putting on disguises to go to the gym and watching for cameras/mics around every turn; a daily reminder of people’s obsessive need to understand the person behind the mask.

Internet celebrity presents somewhat of a new paradigm, with content creators that, while still commercializing their likeness and giving up privacy for a living, through regular fan interactions they reduce the perception of perfection, paving the way for parasociality. The spectrum ranges from Instagram influencers at perhaps the most distant and traditional in their approach to fame, to YouTubers interacting with commenters to influence the direction of their next video, and finally streamers chatting with viewers in near real-time. Add in the expectation of regular Twitter updates and off the cuff quips, and you’ve got a powerful engine for thousands of fans not just considering you an idol, but a friend (and all the risks that come with that).

Gaining enough followers to be a full-time streamer takes work, though, and it’s not something most people can afford to drop everything and do, not to mention the risk of having your real name and future career tarnished if you mess up bad online. It sure would be nice to be able to try out being an online entertainer while retaining a certain amount of privacy. You could just stream or write videos under a pseudonym and not show your face, but then a certain degree of nuance is lost without the audience seeing your candid reactions. It also would be nice to have some tried-and-true formulas for content, and a built-in audience when starting out. Enter VTubing.

History time

For those not in the know, here’s a quick rundown of the history of virtual YouTubing, or vlogging/streaming with a motion capture avatar. As early as 2011, a YouTuber named Ami Yamato was publishing animated vlogs; while some consider her to be the first VTuber, that title is generally given to the first one to be mocapped and first to coin the actual term, Kizuna AI, in November 2016. For the next couple years, more regularly appeared, though largely confined to the Japanese internet, followed by the rest of East/SE Asia. At some point, there was a definite shift in the format of content, from short (<10 min) edited vlogs and occasional gameplay clips, to almost entirely livestreams as talent agencies like Nijisanji and Hololive formed and flooded the market with new characters every few months.

2020 was the real turning point. When a pandemic delays dozens of new anime & games (for completely understandable reasons), and leaves people stuck at home with fewer connections and lots of free time, what are otaku to do? Get into these anime girls pushing out content like there’s no tomorrow, language barrier be damned. Subtitled clip channels (often with translations that were shoddy to say the least) started to make a killing. People started looking into the tech, getting their own models, and hopping in, even on Twitch where more English streamers are. And the rest is recent history.

I admit there was a time when I got so into it (or at least the idea of finding a few that I liked best) that I subbed to 50+ VTubers across Holo, Niji, and various indies in an effort to tailor my recommendations. I had a spreadsheet. A goddamn spreadsheet. After a month or so I realized I was only maybe watching 5 or 6 of them, and staying subbed to the rest would lower their mystical YT algorithm rankings if I didn’t watch them, so I dropped off, as with so many of my other fixations. But they’ve been around long enough now that I’ve noticed some…quirks about the whole thing that seem unique in the broader landscape of internet sociology. If there is research about social media, why can’t there be research about this, beyond mildly exoticizing articles about the latest quirky Japanese fad? This post, is not that research paper. I don’t think I’m the person to do that. I just want to talk about a few things. So here we go.

What’s the deal with ‘graduation’, anyway?

No doubt a major theme in the next year or so, and a reality that fans have to face, is the concept of their favorite talent retiring from streaming/uploading, or "graduation". The term originates in the J-pop idol industry , where it effectively signifies a performer moving on to bigger and better things by leaving a group, at least in theory, and allows their agency to put on one big farewell show (and clean house with merch in the process). The idea of marketing a concert as the "last ever" surely isn’t new to fans of many classic bands. But when it comes to VTubers and the handling of this process by their corporate managers, things get a little…interesting.

See, there are many reasons a traditional idol might graduate, sometimes on good terms, and other times not. Usually this is just personal factors like wanting a career change or to start a family, but it also unfortunately could include abuse by managers or stalking by fans. But one of the most common is simply leaving a group to start a solo music career, where fans clearly are given a path to follow. But at least for Hololive, the top dog in the market on YouTube, here’s what happens: Their entire channel gets deleted the moment their final stream concludes. Every video, every comment, every memory. Their parent company Cover doesn’t take particularly kindly to full stream reuploads, either.

With all due respect, what is the reasoning for this? I’m only left to guess. Unlike "real" pop stars, they don’t exactly visibly age, so they could stick around a lot longer if they wanted to. Is it to reduce embarassment for the talent if years later they look back on their old channel with regret? Probably not that, although as a creator I would certainly understand. No, it has to be something the company does to cover (heh) its own behind. Regardless of the reason, it certainly creates a chilling effect because fans often get a week or less notice (although this is probably just to avoid an early announcement stifling subscriber growth and donations). It’s not easy for anyone.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the graduations that occurred under not so benevolent circumstances. The most high profile sendoffs for one of the biggest VTubers on the planet occurred on July 1, 2021, when Holo member Kiryu Coco performed to nearly 500,000 live viewers and raised thousands in Super Chat donations (although her channel does remain as of this writing). Back in September 2020, in a co-stream with fellow member Akai Haato, a list of subscribers by country was displayed, among them being a flag for Taiwan (the data, it’s worth noting, was taken directly from YouTube’s stats page). Almost immediately the outcry from some Chinese viewers was immense across Coco and various other members’ Bilibili pages and YouTube live chat, and in the subsequent weeks Cover put out an apologetic press release, both streamers were "suspended" for three weeks, and it eventually cascaded in the company’s entire fledgling Chinese division being retired, for no fault of their own. Despite valiant efforts to increase moderation, regular incursions of irate chat spam never fully died down for Coco after this, so the announcement of her departure was not entirely unexpected, even though she denied this as a primary reason. Sifting through wiki pages of graduated VTubers shows everything from benign personal reasons, to doxxing and harassment, to the ever-ominous "breach of contract".

Even if your favorite actor stops making new movies, you’ll still have the DVDs. Even if your favorite band breaks up, you’ll always have the records, the T-shirts, and the memories. All you can do is be ready for the inevitable, and enjoy while you can.

Don’t forget the good times…

Ownership of identity

One of the hairier aspects of performing under a constructed character, in our IP-driven society, is who exactly owns it. In VTuber parlance it’s not uncommon to refer to one’s illustrator and model rigger affectionately as "mama/papa", but for others it’s clearly just a business relationship. It’s possible to get screwed by copyright law, as Project Melody did last year when her commissioned modeler used DMCA strikes to take down her Twitch channel for a day. This was shortly before the debut of Vshojo, a production company for Twitch VTubers that claims to operate more as an affiliation of semi-independent streamers than a talent agency that ultimately has final say on public appearances, and owns all the IP outright.

I realize a lot of this is cultural differences, and I’m not trying to make value judgements about either management style. With the numbers even the smallest Holo members rake in, they’re probably getting a sweet deal no matter what the revenue split is. Just as a creator, I’d rather take my chances to own my own platform and brand. But pushing half a million subs before your first stream, maybe that’s worth it for some.

Okay, so why anime girls?

It’s just real-time motion capture, it could be anything. The fact that the scene is almost universally traditional bishoujo is usually explained away by the aforementioned idol roots, or the male dominance of the core fanbase. Doesn’t help that the idol paradigm is so ingrained that Hololive separates all their male talent off into Holostars, and Vshojo has, well, shōjo (girl) in the name, though it’s unclear how much they’ll stick to that. Since some of the biggest VTubers on the Japanese side (particularly in Nijisanji) are male, and English streamers (some more jokingly than others) make their virtual debuts, it’s possible the gender gap in this subculture will narrow; on the other hand, maybe it hasn’t really happened because having a space where female streamers are welcomed for reasons other than looks or sex appeal is a good thing.

In general since reach grows through fanart, virality, and first impressions, a design that’s cute/cool to look at while being relatively easy to render is a safe bet over really going photorealistic or abstract with the models. But there is a rarely-explored frontier for experimentation: voice. Considering the constraints that voice range puts on the characters that most VTubers can inhabit, it’s surprising I haven’t seen more stock put into alternative voices. I know of a few VTubers that use voice changers, and at least one other (Zentreya) that uses a regular old text-to-speech engine. And OK, I considered going the latter route myself last year, before getting wrapped up in the legalese of decent TTS voices that won’t risk being sued for commercial use (hard to find, as it turns out, and who wants to be Microsoft Sam?). Considering the proportion of trans VTubers I know, voice modulation seems like a really cool frontier for trying on a new identity. On the other hand, part of the appeal of VTubers is it’s a mask, in some cases a character, that converses like a real person, so modulating to a point of unrecognizability might have an effect on viewer engagement.

Streamers with a disability also could benefit wonderfully from VTuber tech, since a virtual face can be pre-programmed with expressions triggered with a keypress, and combined with a text-to-speech voice or just posting in chat there’s almost no disadvantage from other streamers!

"Lore" as fiction development

When I was in the peak of the fixation, I noticed that the "lore" if you will of many VTubers tends to shift from what characterization there was at their debut. I developed the idea of a VTuber that was some kind of interdimensional traveler, allowing for as much or as little backstory as possibly by just saying they lost some memories in the transfer. Their origin story could be expanded as much as a whole fictional universe, exciting for the avid SF/F reader and casual worldbuilding fan that I am. It even allows for other characters from that universe to be added later on as their own VTubers. Pretty neat, eh? Unfortunately, I’m just too shy and have too little privacy in my living situation to be a streamer that could pull something like this off, but it does get me thinking. What’s to stop existing, actual fictional characters from streaming?

There is some precendent for it, as it turns out. Because this gold rush could only come out of the strangest timeline, the actual voice actor for Yugiri from certified trans-rights anime series Zombieland Saga did it. I suppose the reason this kind of thing hasn’t been done much is the limitations it places on a performer to just be themselves, at a certain point it stops being VTubing and starts just being acting. It was a neat idea, at least.

Financial barriers and ‘pre-debut’

Lord help me, I’m wading into Drama Twitter for this one.

With VTubers being more popular than ever, more people naturally want to imitate their favorite personality…and then they realize the upfront cost. Countless online artists now accept commissions for models, with costs ranging from the low hundreds to a few thousand dollars depending on detail. For 3D, double the rigging cost, and add on essentially a barebones VR setup with motion trackers, on top of the reasonably beefy streaming PC needed to render your face and the game (or whatever you stream). Easy to put "pre-debut" in your Twitter bio, especially when half the job is being on bird site already. Isn’t that enough, if you’re working hard to either scrounge up the cash or draw and rig something up yourself?

A model is an investment with massive potential for returns through donations, brand deals and merch, not to mention a time-consuming work of art, so the upfront cost isn’t exactly unjustified. As with most things tweet, a few provocative voices can spoil the whole bunch. A lot of the hate "pre-debuts" get looks like gatekeeping based on some characteristics of supposedly "real VTubers", but the real reason is probably simpler than that (if a little entrepreneurial). Streaming is a cutthroat game, a saturated market. The legacy fanbase only has so much time to watch streams, so your output has to stand out every day, and not everyone realizes what that takes. That doesn’t mean don’t try, just block the haters and set your expectations properly: it doesn’t matter if you have 5 viewers or 500, have fun and don’t count on making a living on it until you are.

Conclusion

Like many things the pandemic propelled (for better or worse), this is no ‘fad’ that’s going away any time soon, because for all the dystopian shudders the VR "metaverse" inspires, it may very well end up playing into the future of all this. I didn’t even bring up the VRChat streaming scene, which has a history all its own that just recently collided with the VTubing tsunami. The doors it opens up for gender exploration and disability access seem limitless, and I can only hope they will remain driving forces over the more transparently capitalistic ones. Because who knows, one day actual AI streamers may arrive, and they might not be created just to entertain.

Bonus: Valiant VTuber goes on local Fox affiliate

Hey, it’s been a while…again. I continue to be busy with figuring shit out at uni and well, that doesn’t exactly leave my brain in a good place to write. This piece was inspired by an inkling that I’ve had that VTuber circles have so many unspoken rules that they really ought to be researched almost from a sociological or ethnographic perspective, and explained to the wider world from a perspective that takes it more seriously than "look at the latest wacky trend from Japan". Didn’t exactly turn out like I expected, it’s a jumbled mess, but that’s fine, I think of anything I write for this site as an ongoing draft that I might circle back to. It’s the magic of hypertext!

In other news, at long last I have opened a Ko-fi donation page! If you enjoy what I make now or in the future, consider tossing me even just a dollar or two, one time or monthly. I have no current plans for a Patreon because, well, I’m still not consistent enough with posts to feel comfortable asking that of you wonderful readers.

Till next time,

Lia