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What are VTubers? How virtual YouTubers found pandemic fame

Vtubers have exploded in popularity over the pandemic, and it's not without downsides. – Photo by Wikimedia.org

As we’re still technically living through it today, it probably won’t shock you to hear the pandemic drastically shook up how we as humans live our lives. Specifically, our entertainment-seeking habits drastically pivoted in the face of increasingly canceled and postponed events and stay-at-home quarantine orders.

Many dealt with the abundance of pandemic free time by taking up a new hobby such as woodworking (famously leading to a lumber shortage) or gaming (which prompted retail outlet GameStop to declare itself an essential business and, as such, continue operations despite demands from local municipalities to close).

But one industry that really saw a boom during the pandemic was the rise of communities based around a subsect of internet personalities, the VTubers. 

A portmanteau of “virtual” and “YouTuber,” these personalities differ from other people on the YouTube platform by not being people at all. Instead, they use special software allowing their webcams to track their movement and facial expressions and translate them into an animated avatar, with the avatar itself serving as the content creator.

Although they may technically be fictional, these characters are still tasked with the same responsibilities of real-life content creators, such as building a supportive community and maintaining a public image. 

Chief among these personalities are those partnered with the Japanese self-proclaimed VTuber agency, Hololive Productions. Although not the first, Hololive has undoubtedly become the leading force in the VTuber industry. Although Hololive technically found its start in 2016 as a subsidiary of Japanese augmented reality software company Cover Corporation, its expansion into the English market with the birth of its Hololive English branch has proved to be its most lucrative yet.

The first VTuber to “debut” (a term used by the community to refer to a character’s introductory broadcast) under the Hololive English banner was Gawr Gura — an anime, anthropomorphic shark girl, who remains Hololive’s most popular VTuber.

She gained more than 4 million subscribers in two years and accrued thousands of dollars a live stream through a mixture of monthly paid channel subscriptions (known as memberships), as well as one-off financial fan contributions called “super chats,” which allow audience members to highlight their messages in a live stream for a fee. 

The dizzying success of VTubers like Gura indicates a radical new shift in how people consume online content. As VTubing technology advances, there’s an ever-blurring line between fictional characters and social media influencers.

Plenty of Hololive’s streams are sponsored by game companies looking to shed a spotlight on a newly released project in exchange for some degree of payment to the one providing the exposure. It's hardly a new concept in the age of social media, but it's unique in the way that the people promoting these products aren’t technically people. They’re characters — characters being given life by real people — except that those people aren’t technically the ones promoting the product. They’re doing so through the character. 

This is where some of the more bizarre aspects of VTubers start to come to light. What does it mean to be a character?

Putting aside the whole “pretending you’re an anime girl on the internet” aspect, if you’re “playing a character” but that character’s personality is just your personality, with you wearing a digital costume, are you really even playing a character? And if you are, what differences set the character apart from you as a separate entity?

Given the reality that Youtubers have very much become the new celebrities of the internet age, I personally feel the emergence of VTubers is a troubling development. The distinction between an actor and the characters they play is a vital component of their career. It’s what allows their talents to shine through as they portray a character whose personality differs wildly from their own.

And that’s before one considers the issue of impersonators. Although the recent emergence of deepfake technology has progressed leaps and bounds over the last few years, resulting in much more convincing fake footage of public figures, it will always be easier to pose as a fictional character versus a real-life person just due to the latter’s fictitious nature.

From a corporate perspective, VTubers seem to be the perfect ambassadors: a pretty talking face who will champion your company without having to worry about a potentially problematic past or any real future transgressions. Had Jell-O been able to hire a celebrity endorser with absolutely no risk that that person may someday be outed as a serial date rapist, I’m certain they would have done so in a heartbeat.

But the thing is, these characters may still have problematic people behind them. It’s just that they get to reap the benefits of stardom without having to worry about being held accountable for any previous wrongdoing, which may have resulted in them losing their status as beloved figures.

All of this is to say is much like any number of other questionable technological innovations we’ve experienced in the previous two decades with the advent of the internet (specifically through the blistering adoption rate of different social media), regardless of whether I feel this is a good idea, it’s clear VTubers have become an established part of the online content creator/influencer ecosystem — and it seems as though their presence will only continue to grow as we become more digitized as a society.


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