Since I last wrote about Virtual Youtubers close to two years ago, the scene has grown far beyond any one individual’s ability to keep track. One consequence of this, as I’ve come to learn, is that individual acts have started to form collectives that increase visibility for all. Two of the big ones are Nijisanji and Hololive, both of which utilize a less expensive approach called Live2D that is clearly less robust than whatever it is Kizuna A.I. has. I find the presence of groups like Nijisanji and Hololive to be curious intersections of how people interact with the internet in current times.
Virtual Youtubers (VTubers) are essentially one part Hatsune Miku, one part livestreamer, and one part idol–the result is a kind of weird unspoken contract between viewers and creators where the notion of “authenticity” is relative rather than being some kind of absolute. One of the complaints that streamers often receive, especially if they’re extremely over the top, is that it’s all an act, and that they’re just playing to the audience in order to get more eyeballs on them. People like streamers with whom they can feel some kind of genuine connection, and a layer of “fakeness” can be a turn-off in that respect. But with characters like Tsukino Mito (Nijisanji) or Haato Akai (Hololive), there’s an obvious understanding that what you’re seeing and getting just isn’t a “real person.” At the same time, there’s still a desire that these characters aren’t fully constructed, and that some of the actual individual behind the anime mask will peek through just a bit sometimes. Fujima Sakura (who isn’t in Nijisanji or Hololive) is a prime example of this, though in that case, the person behind the character (Sally Amaki) is already well known, as is the fact that Sakura as a VTuber is part of a greater project: 22/7.
I mentioned Hatsune Miku here (and in the previous post about VTubers) not just because she’s a cute anime girl mascot who people collectively imbue with a personality and history, but because part of her charm is that her voice doesn’t sound entirely realistic. There’s an artificial quality to her that adds to her appeal, and to some extent, I can see this being the case with Nijisanji and Hololive’s VTubers because Live2D isn’t super-smooth. There’s a kind of choppiness that can drag you out of the illusion pretty easily, so you have to kind of let it work its magic on you. Perhaps it’s closer to pro wrestling in that respect. In a way, the flaws even lend themselves to a greater sense of authenticity, in that these VTubers are not presenting a supremely polished (and arguably overproduced) product.
However, just the fact that Nijisanji and Hololive are these collectives adds another wrinkle. There’s this kind of understanding that cooperation is of mutual benefit to all those involved, but the fact that prospective VTubers basically earn the opportunity to enter these groups calls to mind the very nature of Youtube as a platform dependent on click-throughs and crossovers as a means to garner more attention. It’s not that different from something like Game Grumps, but the veneer of anime avatars makes VTubers a little more mysterious but also makes me wonder just where they’re all coming from. To what extent are they professionally honed products and to what extent are they amateur endeavors–and for that matter, does Youtube explode that difference?
It might not be such a bad thing that people can so easily become Virtual Youtubers these days. I myself have considered doing more Youtube in the past, but I’m just not a fan of putting my face out there for all to see. The way the members of Nijisanji and Hololive do it, on the other hand, provides an alternative for those who want to be out there without exposing too much of their identities. In a time when the difference between the online self and the offline self is all but disintegrated, doing this Virtual Youtuber thing can be an oasis of anonymity, albeit within a profit and attention-seeking environment.
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