Here’s What Virtual YouTubers Teach Us About Community

“I feel like we need communities bound by enthusiasm more than ever to combat what Vonnegut called ‘the terrible disease of loneliness’” — John Green

So there’s this shark. Her name’s Gawr Gura, and she comes from the lost city of Atlantis. She’s a talented singer, great at rhythm games, and her favorite food is salmon. This apex predator has been around longer than she can remember, but she still exudes an uninhibited sense of curiosity and excitement. Recently, she left Atlantis for Japan so she could try out our food and learn more about the human world. Now she regularly streams her talents over YouTube for her fans on land to enjoy.

Okay, that might have been a little cheesy. Obviously, Gawr Gura is not actually a shark, but a character hosted by Hololive, a Virtual YouTuber talent agency. “VTubers”, as they are more often called, are actual people whose facial expressions are mapped onto a virtual avatar. This allows them to play an animated character live with real facial expressions and movements. Gawr Gura’s virtual YouTube character has sparked genuine enthusiasm and joy from hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. Fans from the USA, UK, China, Poland, Russia, and more try to one up each other with their donations during her gaming livestreams. People who donate to her self-identify as “shrimps”, whereas Gawr Gura dubs the community overall as her “chum-buddies”. Livestreams are free to watch, and Gawr Gura makes her income entirely from her viewers’ voluntary contributions. For the most part, it’s good wholesome fun and it gives people an opportunity to express their creativity and feel like they’re part of a community.

Community is something that’s hard to come by nowadays. I have already discussed in other articles the importance of people coming together, and how inclusion can be one of our most powerful weapons against extremism. Political discourse has become increasingly dehumanizing lately, and it often feels like the world has been split in two, especially in the United States.. Physical communities, already divided by political lines, have become mostly inaccessible with the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, the so called “loneliness epidemic” is a serious health risk across the globe. The Health Resources and Services Administration claims social isolation can be as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, and it is associated with about a 30% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. As technology continues to become a more prominent factor in our lives, we need to figure out new ways to build strong, supportive communities.

As a force in shaping our health, medical care pales in comparison with the circumstances of the communities in which we live. Few aspects of community are more powerful than is the degree of connectedness and social support for individuals.

This is not to say that VTubers are the perfect model for building these communities. Hololive in particular is a for-profit company, which means that performers can’t ever build a truly genuine relationship with their fans. Performers are under contract and have specific obligations to the company. Fans can watch livestreams without paying, but the performers have a clear incentive to maximize viewer donations and are always at risk of losing their livelihoods if they displease their fanbase. In some cases, performers have faced harassment and serious breaches of privacy. One Virtual YouTuber was forced to retire two weeks after her debut when she and an alleged boyfriend received a torrent of angry messages to their personal accounts and even calls to her home phone.

There appear to be some parallels to the toxic elements of Japanese “idol” culture. Japanese idols are expected to refrain from dating, often having to sign a so-called “no dating” clause in their contracts, to maintain the illusion of accessibility for a fanbase made up primarily of single males. In some cases, idols caught dating have been publicly humiliated and forced to apologize by the corporations they work for. Idols are pressured not to speak about difficult working conditions, harassment, or anything that may negatively impact the image of the company. These conditions may not be the same for VTubers, especially those not attached to a corporation, but there are still similar problems with fan entitlement, cyberbullying, and the potential for exploitation of both fans and performers.

I still feel that there is a lot of potential for communities built around Virtual YouTubers. Like fans of a sports team, followers of a VTuber can build a shared history, symbolism, traditions, and even culture. The livestream format makes it possible to build this collaboratively through interactions between the performer and the masses of fans. Like at a sporting event, fans will get together and experience critical moments simultaneously in real time. However, unlike an athlete, a VTuber can interact with their fans and involve them directly in the creation of these moments. Inugami Korone is an excellent example of this. Despite speaking only Japanese, Korone has become famous in the English speaking world due to the efforts of fans translating funny moments from her livestreams. Korone, who was already famous for remembering fans, interacting with her chat, and being involved in the community, would comment on these translated videos and encourage the practice. As Korone built a larger English fanbase, she started learning English with her fans and at the same time teaching them Japanese. At the end of one stream, while she was interacting with her fans and trying out her pronunciation of English phrases, she pronounced the name “Exposito” as “x potato”. Her fans started teasing her for it and she enjoyed the phrase so much she started calling her fans X Potatoes. This is now part of the common lore that new fans discover and absorb as they become involved in the community. People all over the world who would normally have very little in common can now bond over the fact that together they are X Potatoes.

International communities are not a replacement for local communities, and it is still essential that people learn new ways to bond with their neighbors. However, I do believe that building communities and networks of support online can be very beneficial, especially for certain people. As has been made clear by the pandemic, physical relationships are not always a guarantee and may not be accessible for certain people at certain times. In my personal experience and based on conversations I’ve had with people from different age groups, it is becoming more difficult for people to bond with their neighbors, especially in densely packed cities and apartment buildings. More and more people are working independently and even online with much shorter stints at multiple jobs, making long term relationships and communities difficult for many to build in the workplace. Individuals who are not particularly gregarious and have little reason to leave their home may slip under the radar and fall victim to severe isolation and alienation. People who have no investment in their communities can build up feelings of cynicism and resentment, which makes them vulnerable to predatory groups offering them a way out of their desperation.

As a long standing refuge for the socially isolated, the gaming community has been especially prone to exploitation from radical groups. The most prominent example of this is the #GamerGate controversy, when accusations of infidelity and unethical practices in gaming journalism were infected by a virulent strain of anti-feminism. Game designers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, along with feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, faced death and rape threats to the point they were forced to leave their homes. Zoe Quinn’s personal information, including naked photos, was hacked and posted online. Eventually, the FBI got involved. In many respects, GamerGate was the beginning of a political movement geared towards a vitriolic rejection of intersectionality and a desire to reclaim a world culture in which mostly white men dominate and reap the entitlements they believe are owed to them.

GamerGate was also a launchpad for the career of alt-right polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos, who used the controversy to foment antagonism towards feminism and social justice causes. Milo has associations with genuine white supremacists and Nazis, as well as a history of misogyny, racism, transphobia, and Islamophobia. He was eventually banned from Twitter after inciting a campaign of racist abuse towards actress Leslie Jones, in some ways a continuation of the reactionary harassment campaigns endemic to GamerGate. In a similar vein is the behavior of Felix Kjellberg, who runs the gaming channel PewDiePie, once the most-subscribed channel on YouTube. Felix has a record of using racial slurs, Nazi humor, misogyny, and even endorsing a channel run by a Neo-Nazi hosting unedited Hitler speeches. This channel gained an estimated 15,000 subscribers from this endorsement, whereas the Ku Klux Klan currently has only about 3,000 members according to the Anti-Defamation League. Far-right extremists have made a habit of recruiting from the gaming community, and these efforts in my view are far more dangerous than anything traditional hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan are currently capable of.

What makes VTubers so intriguing in my mind is the potential they hold to provide gamers, especially those vulnerable to extremism, with a positive, wholesome community. In my experience, VTubers encourage a culture based on self-actualization, imagination, fellowship, and empathy. In some ways, I see these values as an antithesis to some of the more toxic elements present within the gaming community. Earlier I mentioned how VTubers associated with Hololive have faced significant harassment. What I didn’t mention is how many within the community have made a concerted effort to support the victims facing setbacks due to this harassment. Fans send kind messages and make art for the performers throughout their hiatus to encourage them and make them feel welcome to return to the community when they feel safe.

It can be easy to attack people who feel like they exist in opposition to your social group. Extremists take advantage of people’s insecurities and try to pin an outside group as the ones responsible for their problems. Inclusive communities are a critical countermeasure against extremism for this reason. Virtual avatars give individuals who would normally feel uncomfortable having a public persona due to insecurity or fear of harassment a chance to express themselves fully in a way that feels true to who they are. Most VTubers are women, and many have marginalized sexual identities, disabilities, or are neurodivergent. As a result, heteronormativity is relatively absent from the discourse and people unite together under a framework of positivity and acceptance rather than opposition to an outside group.

It is possible that I am being too optimistic, and that my limited scope of the VTuber community prevents me from seeing certain broader trends or corners of the community that may be harmful or toxic. I still think that what I have experienced from this community is something admirable and worth thinking about when building and managing social groups, whether online or in person. When looking at major societal problems, it can feel like there’s nothing anyone can do to solve them, and that we’re stuck on a path headed toward an unavoidable catastrophe. While it’s true that no one person can solve all of our deeply entrenched issues, I believe that inclusive communities based on compassion and understanding can create the positive change we need in the world. People are smart, creative, capable, and beautiful. We can get through our struggles together, and come out on the other side stronger than ever. We might just need some help from a friendly shark or two along the way.

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