What are VTubers?
Streamers and content creators with animated avatars have taken the Internet by storm.
Virtual idols and social media influencers recently made news headlines for their growing popularity in China.
Ling, a virtual social media influencer with over 130,000 followers on Weibo, has netted huge advertising deals and opened up conversations about unrealistic beauty standards. Virtual idol Luo Tianyi has lines circling stadiums to her concerts and even made it to an annual state-wide television event earlier this year.
Virtual superstars are certainly not a new phenomenon. Over in Japan, Hatsune Miku has been a bonafide superstar since 2007 and remains immensely popular today. These ride on the long-established popularity of idol culture in Asia, such as with the Japanese supergroup AKB48 or with Korean megastars BLACKPINK.
Both virtual and real-life incarnations are often sold on the idea of perfection, be it through their talents or their looks, but a new middle-ground has emerged in recent years that has taken YouTube and Twitch by storm amongst youths.
Enter VTubers, or virtual YouTubers, essentially content creators with online avatars that emulate their movement through motion capture. While the technology isn’t new, they have been far cheaper and easier to access. Today, anybody can be their own virtual idols with some design skills, a webcam, and affordable programmes such as FaceRig.
So, are VTubers all Hatsune Mikus and Luo Tianyis, blending their musical talents with their animated personalities?
Well, not exactly.
The current wave of popularity could be traced to the VTuber Kizuna AI, who exploded on the Japanese Internet in 2016. Her channel, once the most subscribed VTuber on YouTube, features just about a swath of content, from her playing video games to casual chats with viewers about everything under the sun.
Since then, thousands have jumped onto the VTubing scene, each with their own looks, personalities and content niche. Full-on agencies have even emerged with their crew of talents, with the largest today being Hololive.
It’s tempting to look at the appeal of VTubers and dismiss them as a niche trend or fad. After all, the idea of anime fans obsessing over 2D girls from their favourite shows isn’t exactly a foreign concept. Yet, evidenced by the immense view counts of VTubers’ content, there seems to be a wide appeal beyond anime fans.
The appeal of VTubers could stem from another popular trend amongst youths on the Internet: shitposting, or as Wikipedia puts it, “aggressively, ironically, and of trollishly poor quality”. Think memes, but with a little more edge, angst and irony. Facebook group “a group we all pretend to be KIASU boomers” is one popular example in Singapore.
One reason for the virtual celebrities’ crossover appeal could definitely be attributed to subversion. Japanese VTubers trying their best to pronounce English profanities, cutesy voices being overly aggressive while being frustrated with a video game, innocuous discussions hormonal teenagers have — these are not expected out of virtual idols who are typically seen as unrealistically perfect.
However, given the breadth of VTubers out there, the appeal amongst crowds will definitely vary. The personalities and reactions of VTubers feel just about as genuine as many real-life YouTuber or social media influencers but are emphasised even further by their animated avatars.
Similar to all streaming content, there are huge variations. They are not all animated girls either. Twitch streamer MarkyEvan is one example, providing both gameplay streams and art streams, where he sits down with his audience for a casual chat while doing live sketching.
VTubers occupy a strange middle-ground between the virtual perfection of animated idols and anime characters (in terms of looks and personalities), and the casual parasocial interactions found with online personalities and streamers.
If anything, it seems that Vtubing has given more opportunities for creatives to express and be themselves. Only time will tell if they are an online fad but the sky seems to be the limit — especially with streaming content truly taking off amidst the pandemic.