There’s a new type of livestream building steam: It’s called VTubing, and for many people, it might only exist as thumbnails in YouTube’s recommended videos section. But VTubing is way more involved than just clips that feature kawaii anime avatars. It’s an important evolution of our social media landscape.
Until fairly recently, VTubing was a relatively niche social media trend confined to Japanese internet culture. For the unfamiliar, VTubing is essentially livestreaming, but instead of showing your own face you rely on a digital anime avatar. The origins of VTubing can be largely traced back to Kizuna Ai, an online persona voiced by Nozomi Kasuga. Kizuna Ai quickly gained nearly 1 million YouTube subscribers following her debut in late 2016, with videos ranging from Lets Plays to art sessions to “yoga” tutorials. Kizuna was producing the same kind of content you’d see on Twitch, just with a virtual avatar instead of actual face and body.
In 2019, VTubing’s popularity really started picking up steam due to the growth of VTuber agencies such as Nijisanji, .Live, and most notably Hololive, whose founder Motoaki Tanigo (better known as Yagoo) once described Hololive as a streamer group similar to Japanese female pop group AKB48. Well, at least that was the plan. In reality, Hololive produced streamers that were much more engaging and personal than the super polished pop idol groups from ye olden times. The effect is a livestream mixed with anime augmented by curated personas with deep backstories that are almost like what you’d get from a WWE wrestler, but way way cuter. Calli isn’t just a pink-haired binge drinker, she’s an ageless (semi-retired) Death God with hopes and dreams of making it big on Earth.
VTubing is both a twist on an existing medium and something completely new at the same time.
Outside of Japan, VTubing exploded last year when Hololive added its first generation of English-speaking streamers to its existing Japanese and Asian cast, exposing the trend to millions of people in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. So between a novel type of social content being ported over to a new language (with a much larger population) combined with people being stuck at home turning to the internet for entertainment, the popularity of Hololive’s new English roster skyrocketed. Member Gwar Gura not only became the first Hololive idol to hit 1 million subscribers on YouTube, but also the first member to hit 2 million subs—all in a little over six months. Gura isn’t just speed, she’s lighting in a bottle.
Now before anyone crowns Gura the best VTuber ever, it’s important to remember, it’s not a contest. Of the more than 50 Hololive members, idols from other agencies, and thousands of independent streamers, VTubing has become a movement in its own right, with something to offer almost anyone. Even just within Hololive, there’s a happy dog, a mischievous cat, a horny pirate (her words, not mine), a dragoness meme lord, an artistic octopus, and a whole bunch more. The trend has become so big, YouTube even mentioned VTubing as part of its 2020 summary, with VTubers now dominating the ranks of the highest-grossing Super Chat earners. And now, for better or worse, notable Western streamers like Pokimane and Scarra have tried their hands at VTubing.
On one hand, the idea of using anime avatars controlled by a variety of eye, face, and even body-tracking techniques might seem strange or even somewhat foreboding (like that one episode out of Black Mirror), but in a lot of ways VTubing is a natural reaction to today’s social media landscape.
More and more kids are turning toward content creation not only as a way to grab their 15 minutes of fame, but as a real career path. However, the rise of livestreaming also brings the pitfalls of internet stardom, including a loss of privacy. By putting an avatar between the creator and the viewer, VTubers have a much easier time of keeping personal things that don’t impact their stream truly private. And if they want to share details about past jobs, relationship status, or family connections with others, they can do so without risking public intrusion into the lives of people they care about. Avatars obscuring their identities still leaves plenty of room for genuinely wholesome moments like when Pekora revealed she’s a VTuber to her mom.
VTubing allows for a certain level of both privacy and personality, even if the latter is a somewhat over-produced and manufactured one. But I ask you, in a time when most famous gamers are better recognized by their in-game handle than their real name, is using an animated avatar all that different? I would even argue that VTubing feels more genuine than so-called “reality TV.” There’s way less editing, and while there are producers who help big VTubers out behind the scenes, there aren’t directors or publicists guiding every interaction.
VTubers are still normal people on the other side of the screen, their avatar is simply their makeup. And as an added bonus, the use of avatars allows VTubers to focus better on their talents, whether drawing, singing, rapping, or making absolutely foul ramen recipes (I’m warning you, this video is not for people with weak stomachs).
VTubing fans have desmonstrated that they understand their favorite creators’ need for privacy and desire to establish boundaries. Fans across forums often advise others not to doxx or reveal a VTuber’s real identity. So far it seems to be working, because while some serious internet sleuthing may turn up some sensitive info, the biggest leak so far resulted when an online news story revealed Subaru’s real face. Even when Kizuna Ai’s original actor was revealed, it took almost four years to happen and it was officially announced long after the role of Kizuna Ai had been handed off to new candidates.
The use of a digital avatar allows people who might be shy, anxious, or embarrassed to create videos more freely. There’s huge pressure on people to look or act the perfect way on video, to the point where many people on social media are plucked or airbrushed into oblivion. But for VTubers, you can simply roll out of bed, put your “face” on, and go about your day. It’s anonymous and accessible without forcing people to become an overly primped talking head.
While VTubing might seem awkward or even cringeworthy to the unfamiliar viewer, it’s also very much a product of our times and technology. It blends what people already love about livestreaming with increased accessibility and added protection to help respect a content creator’s privacy. And with avatars this responsive and animated, VTubing is only going to get bigger.