March 25, 2022

Streaming as the new (celeb)reality TV, Zoomers as neo-X-ers, 2020s as neo-'90s

As I observe more of the streamer phenomenon, the clearer it is that it's a distinctly Zoomer thing. I looked into the voice actresses behind the Hololive English Vtubers (I only watch Gura, but out of curiosity I checked all), and except for one who was born in 1993, all were born between '95 and '99. So are the couple of Twitch streamers I check in on (Pokimane and Wolfabelle, and Talia Mar back in the Among Us heyday), not to mention the most popular regular streamer on Twitch, xQc.

Millennials dominate the podcasting format, and the Twitter platform, while Zoomers dominate streaming and Twitch. When the rare Zoomer on Twitter deactivates, like @shamshi_adad just did, I can't help but think they're decamping to Twitch or TikTok to host a good-vibes virtual dance party in the streaming format, more suitable to their generation's sensibilities, and on platforms less thoroughly colonized by other generations. It's hard for me to even imagine Zoomers speaking in a podcaster voice.

Zoomers also seem to dominate the "follow my life" vlogging format, mainly on YouTube. I only watch one (Megan and Ciera), and they're late '90s births. So was that camping lifestyle vlogger who was murdered by her bf, Gabby Petito. I don't remember Millennials making content in this format when they were around 20 years old. The only thing that came close was lonelygirl15, and of course that was a scripted dramatic production.

What does the typical streaming format and the "day / week in our life" vlogging format have in common? It's more of an episodic reality narrative format, only online instead of a TV / cable broadcast. Podcasting, on the other hand, does not focus primarily on the narratives, relationships, or personal-life thoughts and feelings of characters, let alone in a reality / documentary tone rather than a dramatic / theatrical tone.

Podcasting is a more theatrical kind of entertainment, the descendant of the talk radio format. Boomers have always dominated talk radio, notwithstanding X-ers like Joe Rogan and Alex Jones taking over once the Boomers aged out. Its heyday was the '90s and 2000s, with Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh being the largest figures. They're take-meisters, stand-up comics, and monologue deliverers, all in one. Their real personal lives only serve as occasional inspiration for a riff, a bit, a monologue, or a hot take -- not the central focus of the material. To succeed, you need to be someone who likes the spotlight on you, as you perform on a stage before an audience.

For those who have never watched a popular streamer, or are unfamiliar with Gen Z's tendency to exist entirely online and not IRL, it may sound puzzling to say that watching them sit in a chair, react to their chat, and play video games, is like a documentary reality TV show. When does the camera follow them outside the house? Why don't we see them doing mundane daily activities? Or talking to other characters in their lives?

Well, if Zoomers never leave the home (something they all make self-deprecating jokes about), then you *are* watching their daily lives as they sit in a chair in front of a computer set-up. Their whole lives are online and virtual, not IRL. Their daily activities are not going to the store and running into neighbors who they share funny stories with, it's scrolling their timeline and engaging with its content. So you are watching them go through all sorts of daily activities -- checking their subreddit, uploading pictures to Instagram, clapping back to haters on Twitter, reacting to other streamers' video clips, sending text messages, and so on and so forth. And the other characters in their online lives are also entirely online -- other accounts who they interact with, although every once in awhile they make an IRL guest appearance.

Call it "virtuality streaming" instead of reality TV, to reflect the fact that more and more, virtual is primary over IRL in people's lives. Otherwise, it's the same thing.

In fact, it's almost like the celebreality format of the 2000s, since these big streamers are not only letting you in to their daily personal lives, they're also doing whatever made them a high-follower account in the first place -- e.g., playing video games. They could never interact with their audience, never show themselves doing other daily (online) activities, and never refer to their private lives, and they would still be popular celebs for the entertainment value of their video game playing.

But in addition to their purely performer role as video game players (or RV camping hobbyists, or whatever their main draw is), they also let the audience in to follow the narrative of their personal lives, and often interact with their audience in real time. It dampens the pure theatricality of their main performance, as though the actors for a stage play took 30-60 minutes chit-chatting with the audience beforehand, got dressed and made-up and the like on stage rather than backstage, and took breaks during the performance to go to the bathroom, get a bite to eat, etc.

And unlike podcasting, where all the technical production is done off-camera or in post-production if it's pre-recorded, the technical work is all done on-camera for streaming, often by the streamer themselves. And usually the streamer is shown wearing their huge, wired over-the-head headphones to monitor their audio channels, the big-ass studio mic jutting into their personal space, and parts of their computer set-up visible in frame (keyboard, mouse, cables, beverage containers, etc.).

If the intent of the format were purely theatrical, like podcasting, these would all serve as Brechtian alienation techniques that would jar the audience out of the suspension of disbelief. But since the intent is documentary / reality, it only adds to the sense that you're sharing their personal daily life with them, as it's happening, where it's happening.

As with the original reality TV, virtuality streaming is not entirely spontaneous, unscripted, or unaware of the camera and mic. Still, on the spectrum from verite to theatrical, both fall squarely on the former side, while talk radio and podcasting fall on the latter side.

Having established the nature of this new format, and its generational make-up, we immediately see another connection -- that Gen X has always dominated the reality TV format, as first detailed in this old post. Gen X have been the stars of the format since way back in the early '90s, when MTV's The Real World debuted, right through their parental / middle-aged stage during the 2010s iteration, e.g. the Real Housewives series.

It seems safe to say, then, that Zoomers will always dominate the virtuality streaming format. They're pioneering it right now, as X-ers did in the early '90s, but even 20 years from now we'll still see this generation doing day-in-my-life vlogs of parenting life (echo-ing the mommy-blogger trend among Gen X-ers, which Millennial moms have scarcely been interested in). Or maybe they won't be married or have kids, given generational shifts away from those milestones, but Zoomers will still be streaming their daily virtual lives well into their 30s and 40s, however their virtual lives may change by that time. (And Millennials will continue to be podcasting take-meisters into their 50s and 60s.)

I attribute the difference in format preference to how attention-seeking vs. blending-in the generations are. There seems to be an oscillation between each successive generation: Zoomers, X-ers, Silents, and the Lost Generation, were all in the "blending into the background" direction, whereas Millennials, Boomers, and the Greatest Gen, were all in the "hogging the spotlight" direction. See some earlier posts here and here, mainly about the Zoomers' place in this generational rhythm.

If you're a real spotlight-seeker, the low-key, naturalistic, quotidian, warts-and-all nature of the reality-based format is just not going to satisfy your thirst. You're going to go to a more performative format. If the theatrical production involved in stage work is pulling you too far out of your comfort zone, then you'll withdraw to a more cozy format where you can just be your ordinary self. Also, the attention-seeking generations are assured of their own epic awesomeness, while the low-key generations question whether they're the greatest group of people around. The overly confident attitude suits the former to bold performers, while the uncertain and introspective attitude suits the latter to relatable pals.

One final note on the 15-year excitement cycle, each full cycle seems to oscillate between a high-energy setting and a low-energy setting. The high-energy cycles were 2005-'19, 1975-'89, 1945-'59, and 1915-'29, while the low-energy cycles were 1990-2004, 1960-'74, and 1930-'44. We're clearly in the start of a new low-energy cycle, beginning in 2020, which is drawing more from the '90s and early 2000s than from the late 2000s or 2010s, let alone the late '70s and '80s (whose revival matched the high-energy contempo zeitgeist of the late 2000s and 2010s). I could also see it drawing from the '60s and early '70s, although it's farther back for most people and doesn't have such instant nostalgia recognition.

The '90s and early 2000s era of reality TV was pretty unglamorous -- not to say downright grungy, just unglamorous. That changed during the mid-2000s and lasted through the 2010s, when reality TV focused on more high-energy, glamorous, and exciting lifestyles. Since we're in a low-energy cycle now, virtuality streaming is -- and will likely remain for the near-term -- an unglamorous format, like all other formats. But I could see when the next full cycle begins, in 2035, the Zoomers taking their live-streaming production to high-energy, glamorous, and exciting locations like fashionable nightclubs and restaurants. Or if they still prefer the virtual over IRL, recreating the see-and-be-seen nightclub vibe in an online platform, rather than doing word puzzles and playing video games.

This is yet another entry in the ongoing series of humanizing the Zoomers, BTW, since Millennials -- who make up most of the take-meister class -- are dead-set on portraying them as weird goblins and subhuman demons. Zoomers play into that stereotype in a self-deprecating joking way (e.g., Gura's previous alter ego, Senzawa, being a "blue-haired gremlin" or Em Beihold's new song about feeling like a "Numb Little Bug"). But Millennials are not just making humorous observations about how strange the Zoomers are to them, they're making them into caricatures that are beyond rational explanation or understanding, to dehumanize them and thereby raise their own gen's status (LOL).

Millennials are acting like 6 year-olds who got suddenly jealous that there's a toddler in the home now, and are trying to kill off their weaker sibling rival. It used to be that Gen X's identity was based on having to pick up the pieces from things that their Boomer elders had wrecked -- now we have to pick up the pieces of what our Millennial inferiors are trying to brattishly break. I don't care if your Zoomer baby sister has a center part or baggy clothes -- so did we back in the '90s, and it doesn't signal weird / demonic / goblin status, anymore than your own weird-ass look from 2008 did -- emo Bieber bangs, thinned-out eyebrows, and ballet flats. Lighten up -- it's just fashion!

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