One of the biggest transformations that occurred from the internet of my younger days to that we have now is the integration of the web into our flesh-and-blood lives. Whereas once you could reasonably maintain some kind of distinction between “online” and “IRL,” the latter term isn’t even really used anymore because it’s kind of pointless. Every major platform wants you to integrate because it helps them make money.
I’m under no false assumptions that Virtual Youtubers are some defiant rebellion against the greed that makes companies share information, but what they do represent is a purposeful separation of selves between who you are among close friends and who you are to an audience—while also making it obvious that there is a distinction in the first place. Of course, there are plenty of famous cases of performers being very different in public and private (see Freddie Mercury for one famous example), but the use of stylized moving avatars reduces the chances of the two sides being conflated.
The way VTubers have reintroduced and even kind of re-normalized an element of pseudonymous presentation makes me wish that they arrived sooner. Perhaps the internet would look different if VTubers were more quickly embraced before Facebook, et al could make everyone think that putting photos of yourself everywhere for all to see should be the default.
Very broadly speaking, that’s what online icons and avatars were for. And when it comes to hiding your face but wanting to communicate, things like chat rooms and voice chat have and still fulfill that function. But where VTubing is able to go a step further is in its ability to convey facial expressions that add an additional layer of interpersonal connection while also keeping that active and outright facade in place. How much more comfortable might people be talking “face to face” if the faces are virtual?
In the video above, Apex Legends player discusses his favorite Virtual Youtubers, but also brings up all the points I’ve made above. Namely, he likes the fact that it gives viewers something to look at while still maintaining some semblance of privacy for the streamer, even if it’s for someone who shows their face normally.
I understand the programs used by VTubers can be expensive and time-intensive, especially if you want something professional-looking like your favorites. Still, I imagine a world where this sort of thing becomes accessible to a great many more people, and they can maybe engage with their online communities more comfortably.
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.
“What do the virtual youtuber Akai Haato and the late pro wrestler Brian Pillman have in common?”
As I’ve continued to fall down the VTuber rabbit hole, I constantly find similarities to pro wrestling. When VTubers stream, they get immediate feedback from their live chats. They’re not static performers, having to respond to and reciprocate with a chat that’s eager to make their opinions known. “That applies to all livestreamers!” you might be thinking, but the added virtual layer changes the streamer’s relationship with their audience.
While stream viewers might seek authenticity, the VTubers themselves are not expected to be “real,” and there are no illusions about it. In my eyes, there’s a real resemblance to the concept of wrestler gimmicks—especially in how varied they can be, and how they can be embraced to such different degrees. Some VTubers are like the Undertaker, leaning fully into their outlandish characters. Others are like Kobashi Kenta, a more down-to-Earth approach meant to convey a more personal connection to the audience.
And over time, these gimmicks can undergo changes both great and small as the performers, both VTuber and wrestler, adjust to the audience reactions and refine their craft. One common theme in stories about wrestlers, especially in the old territory days, is the need to figure out what keeps the audience coming back to pay good money while avoiding overstaying your welcome. Similarly, it is fascinating to look back at how VTubers behaved in their introductory videos compared to how they present themselves in more recent material. Rarely is there a VTuber who manages to stay perfectly within the original boundaries set for themselves.
That brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning, and the answer is this: Both Akai Haato and Brian Pillman began as more conventional performers who found themselves in difficult times, and ended up reinventing their personas into larger-than-life yet authentic-feeling identities that pushed the envelope of what is possible and accepted in their respective fields.
Brian Pillman was once most famously known as Flyin’ Brian Pillman—an astoundingly athletic wrestler who could dazzle audiences with his acrobatic moves. However, after a car crash, Pillman had to drastically alter his style. Instead of emphasizing his now-compromised high-flying moves, he decided to blur the boundaries between the real and the fictional as a “Loose Cannon,” culminating in an infamous moment where he seemingly tries to shoot “Stone Cold” Steven Austin.
Hololive’s Akai Haato, in turn, first introduced herself to the world as a traditional tsundere character, and was even used as a model of how a conventional idol-esque virtual youtuber should behave. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the person behind Haato was stuck in Australia for months. Unable to stream the way she normally would have, her conventional tsundere self gave way to the more chaotic and creative “Haachama” persona. From talking about smelling her own feet to cooking a tarantula to split personalities and time-distortion, Haachama has developed an even wider fanbase. She’s currently on hiatus, but fans await her return.
Given the commonalities between pro wrestling and virtual youtubers, an important question comes to mind: what if there was a virtual youtuber tournament of some kind? Plenty of them will compete with each other in video games, but what if there were promos and smacktalk and the like? What if the PekoMiko War was more than a song and a Minecraft video, and lines were drawn in the sand, with tickets sold for the event?
In conclusion, VTuber pay-per-views are the future.
As the days go by, I increasingly find myself looking into the world of Virtual Youtubers. I watch the clips and highlights that go around, and I sometimes tune into the live streams of my favorites. I wouldn’t consider myself a devotee of the whole concept, but I’m entertained. I know I’m not alone, as the increasing success of VTubers is a sight to behold—Gawr Gura, one of the first members of the Hololive agency’s push into English-language streaming, hit one million subscribers in just a little over a month and has since surpassed two million.
The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the success of Virtual Youtubers shouldn’t come as a surprise. They’re in many ways a perfect storm of things that appeal to people on the internet, bringing together different groups who tend towards obsession and converging them onto this amalgam of elements.
The first group is weebs. I generally avoid the term, preferring things like “anime and manga fans,” but I feel that its usage is accurate here—it’s not just about being into the media but being into that strain of Japanese pop culture. With few exceptions, Virtual Youtubers go for that anime aesthetic, recruiting famous artists and character designers to create these avatars. In a sense, they’re anime characters come to life, and that gives them a certain charm and universality that comes with being less realistic in terms of appearance. And while VTubers now exist across the world, they’re firmly rooted in that anime/manga/light novel realm, and expectations derive from the tropes found there.
The second group is gamers. While streaming has had some presence on the internet for decades now, gaming has become one of its absolute pillars. Between the transformation of Justin.tv into Twitch, the prevalence of esports, the enduring popularity of Youtube channels like Game Grumps, and the rise of speedrunning as a spectator activity, there’s no denying the draw. Live streaming your play session is just an easy and reliable way to connect with potential fans, and while streamers usually need some kind of physical or personal charisma to get things going, the sleek designs of VTubers help bridge that gap.
The third group is idol fans. While it’s like every one of them eventually gets their own original songs, what attracts people to idols is that they feel somehow distant yet accessible, and Virtual Youtubers greatly exaggerate both sides of the fantasy by their very nature. The use of character avatars means there’s no mistaking their visual appearances for being the “real” individuals, but that also means being able to project onto them an idealized version. At the same time, unlike Hatsune Miku, they’re real people interacting from behind the curtain. Depending on what level of performativity vs. seeming authenticity a viewer wants, or popularity vs. obscurity (what’s more exciting than seeing your favorite personality grow from small-time to wild success?) there’s probably a VTuber for them. What’s more, the concept of superchats on YouTube allows fans to get instant gratification by giving money to have their messages read and acknowledged.
The fourth group, and there’s plenty of overlap with the other three, is those who are into celebrities. This is a more vague and generalized group, but it’s the same energy that fuels people to follow the goings-on of their favorite movie stars and singers.
A weeb might love all things anime-adjacent but dismiss Western-style game aesthetics. A fan of first-person shooters might love watching anything and everything related to their favorite games but think anime stuff looks weird as hell. But then a Virtual Youtuber who looks like an anime character come-to-life might play Apex Legends, and so now the weebs get their real-life anime girl and the Western-focused gamers get to connect to her through their favorite game. At the same time, even if she isn’t particularly good at what she’s playing, that gives her a kind of element of relatability that an idol fan might be drawn to. And even if someone isn’t an idol fan, seeing someone suffer through a game has an established history of bringing in eyeballs. The crossover appeal is hard to deny.
Thus, when the VTubers branch into areas other than gaming, they can bring all those different groups together. It’s why they can karaoke Japanese, English, and even German songs, all to praise and fanfare. When they do something completely out of the realm of entertainment, like cook, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary even if the results can range from bizarre to horrifying. The fact that their fans don’t just come from one place also gives the VTubers the flexibility to try new things and see what sticks. Non-virtual streamers who get popular because of one game can sometimes have a hard time playing others because they might not get the viewer counts they normally would, but what makes people want to see Virtual Youtubers goes beyond specific games or titles.
I think the concept of the VTuber allows it a certain degree of freedom that flesh-and-blood streamers do not. By virtue of their virtual natures (pun intended), they invite viewers into a kind of alternate reality. From there, the ability to take that anime character identity and apply it to various domains or interests means that even activities that normally might not appeal to a person can suddenly seem interesting. It’s a lot like how manga can make certain topics more appealing to those who are unfamiliar, but with Virtual Youtubers you get both the slice-of-life hobbyism and the gutsy competition at the same time. And unlike in manga, the wins and losses are real—even if everything is ultimately made up and the points don’t matter.
Augmented reality is a funny thing to me because its appeal feels somehow both obvious and yet elusive. Whether it was participating in Pokémon Goat the height of the craze or seeing people on Twitter post videos of their iDOLM@STER characters occupying “real” spaces, I end up thinking “that’s really cool” and “but do I really want to blur that line?” simultaneously.
I was asked this month, by Patreon request, to discuss HoloModels, which is an AR figures app by the company Gugenka. Essentially, rather than having physical PVC or resin kit models, you collect virtual ones that you can pose and “place” wherever you want. I had actually seen images of it without realizing what exactly I was looking at, thanks to retweets of the Lina Inverse HoloModel that have been filling my Twitter timeline. “Was it some video game? Maybe a fan project?” I thought.
Before trying out the app itself, my understanding of HoloModels led me to think that the advantage was basically like that of ebooks: the ability to keep a bunch of models without any of them taking up physical space. They can be placed and posed any way you want, so there’s also a certain degree of freedom for creativity. However, when I saw that HoloModels can be resized to pretty much any scale, I realized that the potential I had pictured was too limited.
The versatility of HoloModels means you can have life-size models, as if they’re less figures and more characters who have entered our world. Perhaps you can even pretend that they’re a friend or a lover. And even if you’re not into that sort of thing, you can still use them in a variety of different ways. You can use them in virtual dioramas or even as action figures after a fashion. What’s more, you can’t really “damage” them by accident. And of course, even this view is still probably a drop in the ocean of possibilities.
Because of the proximity of HoloModels to Virtual Youtubers—they’re essentially two ways of blurring fiction and reality together through anime aesthetics—I also had to see if there was any stronger connection between the two. It turns out that the default model you get when you first install HoloModels, Shinonome Megu, has since become a Virtual Youtuber with 40,000+ subscribers as of December 2020. I believe the HoloModels figure came first, based on comparing news articles announcing HoloModels with the oldest video on her channel, but if anyone has more information, feel free to share.
Am I interested in sticking with them? Not really. HoloModel figures are awfully pricey in my view, as less expensive characters run around 3,500 yen, and the Lina Inverse mentioned above is 5,000 yen. I might just be the wrong person to understand the true value of these AR characters—I’d still rather have a physical one, even if I can’t make it Godzilla-sized. That all said, if we compare HoloModels to another form of “virtual character collection,” i.e. mobile game gacha, the luck element is completely removed. That does make me wonder if that gambling high is part of why mobile game character lotteries work in the first place, but that’s another conversation for another day.
This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can personally request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.
Horror games are a staple of the Youtuber. Between the sense of anticipation and the payoff of screams of terror, it’s been a classic stepping stone for many of the most popular online celebrities such as Markiplier. So, it comes as no surprise that the horror genre would find a home among Virtual Youtubers as well. Why mess with a reliable formula? But I do notice a difference when a VTuber goes this route: their inherently limited and artificially generated facial expressions transform the experience to a subtle yet noticeable degree.
When it comes to flesh-and-blood streamers, horror games are an opportunity for wild and exaggerated reactions. In some cases, they’re authentic, in others they’re choreographed, and there are surely plenty that fall somewhere in the middle. In essence, it doesn’t really matter too much whether they’re real freak-outs or not, provided they’re convincing enough to make it difficult to distinguish. Either you’re being genuine or you’re a skilled enough performer to seem genuine—or the viewers just want to see someone bouncing off the walls regardless of intent. The line blurs further when it comes to Virtual Youtubers. Which ones use their VTuber image as a disguise to protect their identity? Who embraces their character to be someone they’re not? These mysteries are rife with potential for speculation.
But whether or not the VTubers are being “real,” there is still an additional layer between them and us in the form of their CG avatars. Even if the shouts and shudders are authentic, they’re still being filtered through and limited by software that (as of 2020) does not capture the full range of human emotions that are communicated through our faces. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The relative simplicity of these avatars begins to take on an element of iconography by acting in the abstract and symbolic, which in turn makes it easy to read into VTubers’ expressions what we desire.
Though this doesn’t count as horror (unless you have a fear of 1990s boy bands), I’m reminded of that video featuring three different Kizuna AI models “singing” “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys. It’s based on a video of three real-life guys lip-syncing the song, but despite the obvious and intentional similarities, it still feels different. The fact that AI-chan’s “wide-eyed smirk” is more or less the same as her “angry screaming” in other videos is part of the amusement of the character.
Other VTubers often have fewer facial expressions than AI-chan, and often barely any at all when it comes to VTubers who are just starting out. Still, that’s fine. While having a static image as an avatar is far from ideal, I would argue that the opposite might be even more off-putting. In other words, if a Virtual Youtubers’ facial expressions were too human, it would start to approach the uncanny valley, and I think the whole enterprise would lose some of its appeal.
Or maybe that would be perfect for Halloween and the horror game spirit…
This post is sponsored by Ogiue Maniax patron Johnny Trovato. You can request topics through the Patreon or by tipping $30 via ko-fi.
If you haven’t heard of virtual youtubers, they’re a recent phenomenon that might be the ultimate intersection between anime fandom’s love of cute girls and the ever-rising prominence and allure of youtuber as identity/occupation in Japan. Virtual youtubers are quite similar to regular old youtubers in that they’re online video hosts who use charismatic and often energetic performances to entertain fans, but their difference is most easily understood by watching:
While a number of the virtual youtubers out there play up the idea that they’re robots, AI, or some kind of existence outside of normal reality, one thing I find noteworthy is that they don’t have quite the same sense of appeal through artificiality as a Vocaloid. Hatsune Miku and Megurine Luka don’t sound like anything like a normal human being, but that is precisely what makes them memorable.
With virtual youtubers, there’s still a very human component behind the voice and video filters that you can feel come through to varying degrees; at the very least, there’s a sense of human-esque imperfection conveyed, as opposed to the uncanny valley of Vocaloids. Kizuna AI has a very smug, almost Yazawa Nico-like attitude that can come back to bite her in the ass. Kaguya Luna sounds like she’s always on edge, and the fact that she sounds like she’s being recorded in a garage hints at the reality behind her. Ojisan’s youtuber persona is a cute, small fox girl, but he doesn’t even try to hide his identity as an older man.
The conveying of “humanity” even comes across in small, subtle elements. You’ll see Kizuna AI videos featuring lots of clear cuts—a common style for youtubers, especially for the more bombastic types. At the same time, she constantly has this windswept appearance that doesn’t make sense (see her ribbon fluttering constantly!), but it makes her appear more active and lively.
Perhaps the biggest thing about the virtual youtuber concept is that it’s simply not meant to cater to the same audience as idols, virtual or otherwise. They can be good singers, but they don’t have to be. They convey a sense of closeness, but they inevitably keep a greater distance because the performative aspect of the virtual youtuber is more obvious. Toeing the line between natural and unnatural is part of why anime characters in general capture so much attention, and virtual youtubers also take advantage of this.
This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.