Online communities surge as COVID keeps everyone inside

A young woman settles down at her computer. She takes the mouse and clicks the icon labeled “Open Broadcaster Software.” After adjusting the lighting and launching a video game, she takes a moment to pause. 

Even though she’s been doing this for a year, the nerves still arise sometimes. But she shakes them off, dons a smile and presses the “start livestream” button.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless large-scale organizations have had to move operations online: schools, churches, workplaces, etc. But how has the pandemic impacted platforms that were already solely online?

A variety of online content-sharing platforms existed prior to the pandemic. Some sites focus on the sharing of art, music or video. 

YouTube is the giant of this latter category, with thousands of YouTubers posting makeup tutorials, vlogs and video game walkthroughs daily. Their viewers can leave comments on the videos to show support. This creates a sense of community, but something’s missing. 

Enter Twitch.

Twitch, owned by Amazon, is an online live-streaming platform with a focus on video game content. Because of the live nature of the content, streamers and viewers can interact with each other in real time, which facilitates a feeling of connectedness that might not exist on video platforms like YouTube. 

Now, that feeling is needed more than ever.

Twitch has seen steady growth in viewership and broadcasters since its inception in 2007. According to TwitchTracker, the average of concurrent viewers went from 77,764 in

September 2012 to about 1.36 million in January 2020 (TwitchTracker only supplies data from 2012 and later). 

Twitch might be one of the only platforms that actually benefited from a worldwide pandemic.

March 2020 saw the highest concurrent viewer count on Twitch to date, at about 1.64 million viewers. At this point in the year, COVID-19’s presence had ramped up significantly, prompting many world leaders to issue nationwide quarantine orders. 

Twitch’s April numbers increased to almost 2.5 million. 

With a sudden increase in time spent at home, it only makes sense that thousands of people would turn to Twitch. Whether they’re watching, streaming or playing along with others in a multiplayer game, Twitch users have plenty of ways to foster community in this time.

For some users, it’s about knowing that some things will stay constant through the chaos.

“It’s reassuring to have some consistency in my life when it might otherwise feel like everything’s out of control,” said Cristina Jantz, a 2020 GC graduate. 

Jantz logged onto Twitch for the first time in 2019, but she didn’t use it much until the pandemic hit and she had more free time on her hands. 

She’s drawn to the “humorous chaos” of Smosh and the content they produce, which includes karaoke, gaming and even pumpkin carving during the Halloween season.

“I believe comedy is a fantastic tool to help us relax,” Jantz said. “Through Smosh’s YouTube and Twitch content, I’ve become a passionate supporter of theirs.”

Many Twitch streamers found the opportunity to increase their stream time in the face of lost jobs or reduced hours. But for college students who stream, the challenges of balancing school, Twitch and possible work schedules must be considered.

One such student is Josiah Phiri, a third year information technology major at Goshen College. 

He’s kept up streaming on Twitch somewhat regularly during the 2020-2021 school year. Phiri began streaming around August 2019. Today, he does it about 2-3 times a week so he can focus on building an audience centered around content, rather than just live-streaming.

Sometimes, he found himself tempted to launch a video game and press that “go live” button. But Phiri emphasizes the importance of prioritizing certain tasks as well as taking breaks. 

“Streaming is like a little refresher from the hectic life of being a full-time student,” he said. 

Throw in the uncertainty of the pandemic, and outlets like Twitch become even more of an escape from the stress.

It’s likely that Twitch will continue seeing user growth in 2021, especially because there’s seemingly no end in sight for the pandemic. 

Truly, the COVID-19 pandemic has made people all over reevaluate and explore ways to stay connected and live their lives. Even when things finally calm down outside, and people have less time online, the communities formed through Twitch are likely to come out stronger.

“We’ve been going through a crazy time with a lot of fear and loss,” Jantz said. “Having something to distract me from all that is more helpful than the streamers and my fellow viewers will ever know.”

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Written by Riley Borntreger, contributing writer

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