What Twitch Tells Us About the Future of Social Media

Image of a League of Legends Tournament by Campus Part Mexico via flickr


By Matt Foulger | 7 months ago | News | No Comments

Last month the tech media was buzzing with news that Google is looking to acquire Twitch, a live streaming video platform for video gamers, for $1 billion. Considered the ESPN of video games, Twitch’s “ratings” put it firmly in the big leagues of media platforms. Every month, 45 million viewers use Twitch to watch other people play games such as League of Legends and Starcraft 2. It now accounts for a greater share of peak global internet traffic than Facebook, Hulu, or Amazon.

These numbers are even more impressive when you consider Twitch is only three years old. It was created in June 2011 as a spinoff of Justin.tv, one of the web’s first live streaming video sites. Twitch set out to become the #1 broadcast media platform for professional e-Sports, and it appears to have succeeded. Over 32 million fans watched the finals of The League of Legends Season 3 World Championship on Twitch. That’s more than double the viewership of the average game in the 2013 Major League Baseball World Series.

So what is driving Twitch’s success? The explosive popularity of e-Sports is a major factor, but there’s more to the story. Like YouTube before it, Twitch has become one of the world’s largest and most engaged social media platforms without the mainstream even noticing.

Twitch is not a social network in the mold of Facebook or LinkedIn, but social characteristics are woven deeply into its platform and experience. Recently, Slate technology writer Will Oremus made a helpful distinction between “social networks” and “social media platforms”. “Twitter,” he wrote, “is not a social network. Not primarily, anyway. It’s better described as a social media platform, with the emphasis on ‘media platform.’” The same can be said about Twitch.

Social networks help people make reciprocal connections with one another, while media platforms connect content producers with their audiences. The purest example of a social network is Facebook, which requires users to connect through mutual, two-way friendships. Media platforms, on the other hand, allow users to be followed by numerous other people without following them back. Think Twitter, Tumblr, and Twitch.

The critical difference between these social media platforms and the broadcast media platforms they are displacing is that they allow audiences to engage with each other around content and influence its creation. They not only democratize content production, but facilitate community and collaboration.

In addition to watching major e-Sports broadcasts, regular gamers have embraced Twitch as a way to share their passions and make connections with others. More than a million users broadcast gameplay on Twitch each month, and the content they share is often far removed from the site’s origins in e-Sports. For example, some users live stream 24-hour gaming marathons to raise funds for charity, while others try their hand at speedrunning vintage games.

Community-building is hardwired into the system. Users can follow each other, join groups, send each other direct messages, and chat with fellow viewers during a live stream. They can’t leave permanent replies or @mention each other in comment threads, two capabilities that we’ve come to expect from social media platforms. However, Twitch enables a more fluid form of collaborative content creation.

Twitch’s viewers can actually influence the live media they’re consuming by communicating with streamers in real time. Streamers share jokes, take game requests, and adjust their play styles to entertain viewers. Twitch users have even created a whole new social phenomenon called “crowdplaying”, in which tens of thousands of people collaboratively play a video game by typing text commands into the Twitch chat window.

So how did so many of us miss it? Probably because we’ve been looking for “the next Facebook”, “the next Twitter”, or “the next Instagram.” No one expected the next huge social media platform to also be the next ESPN. Instead of looking for a network or platform that mimics what we already know, we should be searching for the next social media service that provides a unique and compelling balance between content and connectivity. If the reports are true, then Google has found that in Twitch.

At Hoosuite, we know that the term “social business” is going to fade away as social media becomes an integral component of everyday work life. There will only be business. Similarly, Twitch shows us that the line between media companies and social media companies is already blurring. If a business wants to succeed as a media platform, it must also incorporate social networking at a fundamental level.

No matter what new platforms or players emerge in the world of social, our always growing platform will enable you to keep up. Take a look at Hootsuite’s App Directory, full of over 100 apps. 

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