A confluence of events has me thinking a lot about how people connect to Virtual Youtubers. Just recently, we’ve had both the final concert from pioneer Kizuna AI—who coined the actual term “Virtual Youtuber”—and the termination of Hololive’s Uruha Rushia not long after a different incident involving controversy over a rumored real-world relationship. When I think about just those two examples, I realize that their respective stories have a lot to say about the very way people engage online through these highly detailed virtual avatars.
VTubers generally exist as a form of kayfabe. They want viewers to embrace the idea that these artificial selves are real, and even when all parties understand it’s an act, the willful suspension of disbelief is important. But there are a few key differences between AI’s approach back in the burgeoning days of VTubing and the style that Rushia, as a member of Hololive, engaged in. First, AI’s content for most of her career involved uploading clips to YouTube with streaming being secondary content, whereas Rushia is the opposite in that live streaming was the foundation. Second, one of the big AI controversies was when fans thought they were trying to make her into more of a brand than an individual performer, while Rushia ran into trouble because of the perceived blurring of lines between her virtual and real selves.
The fact that streaming is live (as opposed to pre-recorded) inherently changes how viewers interact with someone. It means being there in real time, more or less. Certainly, there are things like superchat readings, where messages sent with monetary donations aren’t responded to until a later stream, but you know that when the figure on screen reacts to something, you’re seeing it right then and there (or at least with a slight delay). It’s somewhat like the difference between video chatting with a friend versus receiving a video message from them, and I don’t think it’s surprising that many would find the former more engaging.
Having things live also means that things can go in unpredictable directions. That’s often seen as a plus, but that uncut nature is exactly what brought Rushia trouble. After all, the initial ruckus happened because she seemingly received a Discord message from a guy—a male YouTuber with his own massive and intensely devoted following—which for her more obsessed fans broke the immersion they had with her character personality as a yandere wife. The situation, in turn, is made all the more complicated by the fact that devotion to VTubers is often expressed through money via things like the aforementioned superchats. This exact series of events couldn’t happen to a VTuber who only uploaded clips, or at least not nearly as easily.
In contrast, one of the biggest controversies of Kizuna AI came not from the perception of peeling the curtain back too far, but from practically the opposite. Up until a couple years ago, it was not officially known who was the voice behind Kizuna AI, but fans knew there was a singular person bringing the character to life. When Activ8, the company behind AI, started the “Multiple AI Project” that would result in her being split into multiple versions, the fan backlash was the result of fear that they were going to replace the original, ater revealed to be voice actor Kasuga Nozomi. In other words, the concern was that making AI a vessel or suit that anyone could jump into and “become” her would be essentially stripping the character of her unique identity (brought forth by Kasuga) and providing cheap imitations. If we go by wrestling terms again (a natural extension of describing all this as kayfabe), then this was a Fake Diesel and Razor Ramon moment:
I’m also reminded of the Vtuber kson, who is a rarity in that she is willing to stream both as her flesh-and-blood self and as a Virtual Youtuber. In an interview on the Trash Taste Podcast, she mentioned that her fans in Japan enjoy her IRL stuff less. While kson says she’s not sure why that’s the case, she thinks it’s because they relate to her anime form more. Here again, immersion seems to be a big factor. This is not to single out Japanese fans or anything, but it speaks to the different wants and desires from VTuber fans, as well as the power of “chara moe.” Only, now these characters can be directly interacted with on a level not seen before.
I’m not someone who thinks that having strong feelings for online performers, virtual or otherwise, is inherently a doomed path. In my eyes, it’s not all that far removed from other forms of escapism and fandom, which I think are beneficial overall. However, what’s clear to me is that the varying degrees to which people want to engage with both the virtual and the real means that every strategy comes with inherent advantages and disadvantages—especially when you factor in the desire for success as a Vtuber, however one wants to define it. Perhaps what all this comes down to is a genuine human desire for safe emotional connection and authenticity, and Virtual Youtubers allow for a taste of that in times when we feel alone. It’s just not without risks to both performers and viewers alike, and I hope everyone can maintain their sanity because doing this can make anyone extremely vulnerable.