Image: Twitch / Kotaku
Of all of Twitch’s non-gaming categories, “Just Chatting” seems to have the most clearly defined purpose. It’s for chatting. That’s it. And yet, after the platform dissolved its ill-defined “IRL” section into 13 different non-gaming categories in 2018, Just Chatting became its catch-all successor. Now it’s a juggernaut—Twitch’s top category. But it’s also clear evidence that Twitch’s category system is busted.
Twitch is organized via a system of categories, most of them dedicated to specific games, that viewers can browse at their leisure. Categories are displayed on a single page that’s populated by more and more categories as you scroll down. These are organized according to either viewer numbers or a relatively new and extremely simple recommendation system, depending on which option users pick. When Just Chatting overtook all other Twitch categories in terms of viewership numbers last year—including big games like Fortnite, League of Legends, and Grand Theft Auto V—it heralded a sea change. Where once Twitch’s rules forbade long periods of game-free dead air and some users jealously gate-kept their precious streaming playground, it had since evolved into a place where creators of all types and stripes could thrive. Mainstream acceptance, many figured, was just around the corner.
Or at least, things were moving in that direction. In truth, there are still plenty of people who believe (and act on the idea) that women who just hang out with viewers and other non-gamers are Twitch’s biggest problem, a scourge that somehow blots out all others. In addition, Just Chatting houses all sorts of content that would fit more neatly into other categories: art, music, politics, fitness, travel, and especially, video games. It’s not uncommon, for example, to check the Just Chatting page and see Félix “xQc” Lengyel at the top playing a video game, flanked by three or four other streamers playing games in the top 15 or 20. At other times, you might see political streamers like Hasan Piker near the top, despite the existence of a Politics section (that hardly anyone actually uses), or the reality TV-lite stylings of the Austin Show, even though there’s a Talk Shows & Podcasts category.
In recent times, this has led to controversy. During a stream earlier this week, chess grandmaster and burgeoning Twitch megastar Hikaru Nakamura discussed the fact that two of his chess compatriots, the Botez sisters, Alexandra and Andrea, stream chess games into Just Chatting. The Botez sisters regularly pull over 10,000 concurrent viewers on their shared channel, which is a pretty big boost to any Twitch category. Their decision to go with Just Chatting, Nakamura suggested, could be taking a toll on Twitch’s Chess section and events born out of it.
“When you have advertisers or sponsors looking to the Chess directory and thinking about, say, sponsoring [Twitch chess tournament] Pogchamps 2 or other possible events, what it does is, the numbers aren’t actually truly reflective of the number of people watching chess,” Nakamura said during his stream. “I do think that when you look at the viewership and you see 7-10k people probably every day who are not showing up in the Chess category when she is streaming chess, it does affect chess as a whole, and it does affect the directory.” (Kotaku reached out to Nakamura and the Botez sisters for more information, but neither replied.)
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There are many reasons streamers pick Just Chatting over other, more fitting categories. In some cases, a streamer might start a broadcast by chatting with viewers for 30 minutes or an hour or so, begin playing a game, and forget to change categories, or not see any real point in doing it. But there’s also a clear benefit to streaming into Just Chatting: At any given moment, it’s likely to have the most viewers on Twitch, putting it at the top of the platform’s “Browse” page and making users more likely to click it. As I discussed in my piece about Fall Guys earlier this week, Twitch lacks the discovery algorithms of other platforms, leaving it nakedly numbers-driven. As a result, the big tend to get bigger and the small tend to wallow in obscurity. This goes for both categories and streamers.
There’s more to it than just that, though. During a recent stream, news-focused streamer Zach Bussey examined Just Chatting’s paradoxical place atop the Twitch hierarchy. Not only does it often have the most viewers, but it also, according to statistics scraped from Twitch by unofficial stat-tracking site Sullygnome, has significantly fewer channels streaming at any given moment than top game categories like Fortnite, Call of Duty, and League of Legends, and streamers broadcasting into the category do so for less time. There are other clear and very important differences as well. In the past 30 days, Just Chatting has gained 240 million viewers and 13.6 million followers. This dedicated growth makes even other top categories look positively glacial by comparison. GTA V’s viewer/follower numbers in the same time period, for example, were 87.5 million and 4.2 million, respectively. League of Legends’ were 159.6 million and 3.5 million. Even Fortnite, Just Chatting’s closest competitor in followers gained, still trailed behind Just Chatting with 114.4 million new viewers and 12.1 million new followers.
What we have is a situation where Twitch’s top category is growing much faster than any other but is also, on average, putting streamers up against a shallower pool of competition.
What we have is a situation where Twitch’s top category is growing much faster than any other but is also, on average, putting streamers up against a shallower pool of competition. Finding an audience on Twitch can be nearly impossible if you’re starting with nothing but a Yeti mic and a dream, and despite Twitch’s growth this year, even relatively large streamers still plateau in categories dedicated to their games of choice, which frequently get pushed down by other, larger categories. Conventional wisdom says that you gain more viewers in Just Chatting, and numbers seem to back that up. Many streamers look at the numbers and find themselves liking those odds.
Even on an individual channel basis, the numbers bear out—albeit with some asterisks. If we look at the Botez sisters, their channel enjoyed a month of decidedly upward trends in viewership after they made the switch from Chess to Just Chatting at the end of May. However, some of this could also be attributed to the general chess boom all across Twitch at the time, and in the past couple weeks, their channel has seen a slight dropoff in peak viewership. Lengyel’s numbers, too, tend to fare better when he’s in Just Chatting. If he switches to a specific game’s category, they sometimes dip.
Why does Just Chatting operate differently from other top Twitch categories? Bussey thinks there are a couple factors at play. For one, many streamers can only just chat for so long.
“It’s not as saturated because most of the content in the category is not something that people can maintain for long periods of time,” Bussey told Kotaku in a DM. “A lot of the content in Just Chatting is either opportunities to chat with their community as people arrive, before swapping to a game, or it’s [‘react’-style content, like watching YouTube videos] that even the most reactive person can’t keep going for more than a couple hours. As the platform continues to pull in the mainstream, Just Chatting is the most accessible category, so new people who may not be interested in games are also going to find their way there first.”
The top of Just Chatting, circa yesterday evening.Image: Twitch
There’s also the way Twitch users have been primed to discover new streamers: They go to big categories, and they scroll down. This, however, presents would-be Just Chatting streamers with a dilemma: If each channel in the category has, on average, a larger number of viewers than in other categories, then you also need to come in with more viewers in order to appear closer to the top. Even for streamers who aren’t that big, though, Bussey still believes that Just Chatting represents an attractive proposition.
“Accessing audiences is always a nightmare on Twitch because it’s built with viewer count in mind,” Bussey said. “Bigger streamers are always going to have the benefit of the top of directory placement, the same way that games do. But because the platform has been high-to-low for so long, existing users are used to scrolling multiple times down the page to find new content. And because Just Chatting appeals to all on a content level and on a direct communication level (one of the core reasons why live streaming is so interesting), more people are willing to make those long scrolls.”
Twitch does technically require streamers to use the category system for its intended purpose. The platform’s rules state: “You are expected to accurately label your content to the best of your ability. When choosing a category or tag, please choose whichever best describes your content. Deliberate or extensive misuse of titles, tags, games/categories, or other metadata are prohibited.” In addition, a Twitch spokesperson replied to Kotaku’s inquiries about Just Chatting by saying that “Streamers are expected to accurately label content to the best of their ability.”
After a certain point, it no longer makes sense to organize an entire platform along rigid category lines originally intended mostly for individual video games, especially when it means that fresh faces have a prohibitively difficult time rising to the top as a result.
Streamers, however, continue to broadcast games and other content for which there are specific directories into Just Chatting, and while Twitch issues warnings and enforces these sorts of rules through methods that don’t necessarily involve suspending streamers outright, there doesn’t seem to be much pressure on streamers to stay in their respective lanes.
Those lanes are also, in many ways, increasingly arbitrary. Steven “Destiny” Bonnell, who frequently uses Just Chatting for react-style broadcasts and political discussions, but who also sometimes plays games like Minecraft in Just Chatting, said that he uses games as background imagery for discussions.
“If the ‘focus’ on my stream is chatting about stuff, rather than the actual Minecraft game, I’ll put myself in the Just Chatting section,” he told Kotaku in an email. “Honestly a lot of people just throw themselves there for the additional viewers, but I’ll do it if the conversation is the focus of the stream rather than the game itself.”
It’s far from unprecedented. On YouTube, there’s an entire genre of video that’s just people talking about various topics while wholly unrelated video game footage plays in the background. As entertainment mediums evolve, creators blur lines. Just Chatting looks nothing like it did when it first launched, with countless new genres and subgenres of channel emerging since then. How different is talking over a YouTube video from talking over a game, really? Is that even just chatting? Or should it also have its own category? After a certain point, it no longer makes sense to organize an entire platform—one that continues to flirt with the mainstream outside of video games, no less—along rigid category lines originally intended mostly for individual video games, especially when it means that fresh faces have a prohibitively difficult time rising to the top as a result.
Image: Twitch / Kotaku
But Twitch is also not YouTube, nor is it Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or any number of other platforms that have embraced algorithmic recommendation systems. Discovery on an almost-fully live platform is tricky, a puzzle that even Twitch, the streaming platform that casts an unmistakable purple shadow on all others, has yet to crack. Bussey suggested that perhaps it’s time for Twitch to lean harder into a feature that’s already there.
“Clips are so deeply underused as a feature of the platform,” he said. “It’s individual highlights from channels, yet the main driver of clip consumption is usually [notorious subreddit] r/LivestreamFail or the streamer posting a link on Twitter. Meanwhile, people go to YouTube to watch compilations of clips! There’s a clear demand for this highlight content, but it’s a matter of getting the right clips in front of the eyes that will want to see it. I can’t be in a stream every minute of the day. Show me what I missed from the channels I follow, and throw in a few clips from streamers I may be interested in.”
Until Twitch evolves in a substantially new direction, though, Bussey does not see Just Chatting’s chaotic reign—or streamers’ tendency to use it for much more than just chatting—coming to an end.
“There are clear benefits of building a community around a category. If everyone streaming art was in the Art category, more people might watch art, but they watch in Just Chatting, taking away potential eyes from the Art category,” he said. “However, that’s a bigger-picture ‘community’ thing. Most bigger streamers, I imagine, aren’t concerned with the 200-viewer streamer, or 75-viewer streamer or first-time streamer. Big streamers stay big streamers due to the lack of discoverability, so there are few small but fast-growing channels catching up to them, and as such, no real reason to feed downward. Better to move to where more viewers are.”