Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Let me count the ways
This was a long time coming. For years now, Mixer has struggled, lagging far behind the live-streaming platforms it was meant to compete with — Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch — and by the end of July it will be dead. Even the director of Xbox admitted that Mixer started “pretty far behind,” which is to say too far behind to ever catch up to its ostensible peers. But what happened, exactly?
It’s not that Mixer was technologically flawed, or one of those businesses that’s a bad idea on its face (see: Juicero). It had some good ideas, paid for some great streamers, and the whole enterprise failed anyway. In my opinion, Mixer was doomed from the start because what Microsoft never seemed to understand was that its live-streaming platform was first and foremost a community.
That’s not to disparage the streamers on Mixer or the fans who followed them there. Those relationships are real, solid, and will probably last even as streamers leave the platform for greener pastures — adversity binds, after all.
What I mean is that Microsoft never marketed Mixer as anything more than a more technologically advanced version of Twitch, and it couldn’t seem to figure out how to showcase the community it was building. In retrospect, the final nail in Mixer’s coffin was bringing Tyler “Ninja” Blevins onto the service by offering him tens of millions of dollars; that was the exact moment that Microsoft decided that organically growing streamers was too hard or too expensive. It tried to buy an audience, which is not how social sites operate. Social sites that don’t fail, that is.
The difference between Twitch and Mixer isn’t like the difference between HBO and Netflix, though they may on their face seem similar. By way of analogy, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and the like are all operating within a larger market that goes exactly one way: from producer to consumer. If you felt like being reductive, you could say that in this regard every television show is the same; they’re just content, and the delivery mechanism is incidental to the experience. You don’t feel different watching different networks because the network itself isn’t integral to the experience of enjoying television. (Yet.)
Streaming, on the other hand, upends that formula. To put it in television terms, every streamer is a channel. But the more important thing is that every streamer is also the nexus of their own social network — the community they’re working to cultivate. That secondary social network is powered by the larger, primary one: the site the streamer is using to broadcast. And then there are the other broadcasters that the streamer interacts with, which itself makes up a third, distributed network of potential community and audience members. Each platform, too, has its own language and culture, which are esoteric at first but eventually come to symbolize in-group belonging.
And all that makes moving from one streaming site to another a risky proposition. If you moved from Twitch to Mixer, you were giving up all but the diehards in your personal community, the tertiary community of fans and streamers you might add to your own group, and you set yourself the task of learning what amounts to a new language on unfamiliar territory. Imagine having to learn a new emote culture!
You’d be able to build up those relationships again, but for anyone who’s not a large broadcaster, that process would take a very long time — again exacerbated by the fact that Mixer didn’t itself have a large, dedicated audience. If you add to that the fact that Twitch, by virtue of its age and size, has dominated and changed the live-streaming market (both consumers and streamers) to fit its image, it’s easy to see why moving to Mixer was a tricky proposition at best.
But some people still did it. And I think that’s important to recognize because it means that despite everything, Mixer had something for which people were willing to pull up stakes. That might have been that old Western promise of a pristine land, with undisturbed audiences waiting to be cultivated; it could have been the allure of a fresh start; or perhaps even the draw of a place that maybe took allegations of assault and harassment seriously. Whatever the case was, Mixer was attracting streamers.
But Mixer was not attracting viewers. (And what’s a streamer without an audience but a podcaster? I kid, I kid.) And why should it? Because Twitch spent so long outside the mainstream — it’s still outside it now, though it’s closer than ever — watching streams on Twitch could feel like an identity. Mixer, which mostly seemed to be positioned as the Not Twitch, didn’t give viewers an identity around which they could rally. The other part of this, naturally, is that Mixer focused on drawing streamers to its platform but didn’t spend much time promoting organic talent and growing their viewership. Getting Ninja to stream on your platform is one thing. But what Mixer didn’t seem to realize is that Ninja’s audience was there to see him. They weren’t necessarily there to be a part of that primary community, to check out new streamers they might like. It just wasn’t a huge part of the site’s DNA. It rhymes with the strategy that a lot of digital news publishers employed in the early 2010s: prioritizing virality over building dedicated, devoted audiences.
What all of this means, obviously, is that streaming is primarily social. As a viewer, you watch a streamer, sure, but you also interact with and participate in a community. It’s not plug ‘n’ play; there’s a reason the vast majority of Ninja’s fans didn’t follow him to Mixer. I still think there’s a lot of opportunity in the live-streaming market for real competition to Twitch, and I’ll be looking carefully at what moves YouTube and Facebook make. The closer streaming gets to the mainstream, the bigger the potential audiences get. Any site that’s in a position to take advantage of that swing is going to win those people — any platform that has enough recognizable names, an accessible, distinct culture, and a low enough bar to entry for participation to make streaming worth doing.
I also think the rise of the live-streaming sites is evidence of a larger pivot in media, the one that finds creators beholden to their audiences. Instagram celebrities now are different from A-list celebrities of the ’90s and early aughts because the people who have built large communities on the platform are now accountable to their followings in a way that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were never accountable to the people who consumed their movies. And that’s because media in 2020 is about communities. Places where people gather, for whatever reason, to find each other.