Welcome back to VTubing with Quinley, a column about a relatively recent and very online phenomenon, Virtual Youtubers. Today’s column will attempt to answer a question that I imagine lingers in the subconscious of anyone who has happened across VTubers, whether they be an avid fan, befuddled but amused onlooker, or someone like me who has a hyper-fixation that just so happens to manifest as semi-academic interest: What exactly are Virtual Youtubers?
“VTubers”, short for Virtual Youtubers, are a kind of online content creator whose persona resides entirely behind a character in the virtual world. The actual content VTubers create is roughly like any other content creator on Youtube, but the main difference is in how the creator (and by extension their content) is presented. A VTuber exists purely as a fictional online (usually anime) 2D or 3D modeled character, which the creator performs with the aid of apps that utilize face-rigging, motion capture, or augmented reality. The real-life identity behind the character is generally kept secret, and any reference to real-life (family, pets, daily life activities, etc.) is assumed to be in-character, so there’s an element of kayfabe to how viewers interact with VTubers. Generally-speaking, content varies from streams of games live chats, to releasing original music or covers, to videoblogs, skits and even live performances 1.
While a majority of VTuber videos follow similar formats and thus have similar content, whether the VTuber is affiliated with a corporate entity or functions entirely independently is a factor that has a considerable impact on how the channel operates. As the name implies, independent VTubers operate their channels either largely or entirely independent of corporate entities, enjoying a creative freedom and flexibility that agency-affiliated VTubers don’t have: they make their own schedules, chose what content they want to focus on, and are ultimately beholden to no one but themselves and their viewers. The most visible VTubers however are affiliated with media companies or talent agencies (Hololive, Nijisanji, Upd8, etc.) under a contract. The contracts dictate their streaming schedule, content-restrictions, and how much the VTuber makes from their streaming activities. I made a kinda-joke in the previous article about how this aspect of the VTuber landscape is an arm of Japan’s Idol Industrial Complex, but… honestly, after watching more videos and doing more research into the companies themselves, I would say the VTuber Industry and the Idol industries—at least as it stands right now—have more differences than similarities, probably because the platform and content is fundamentally different.
The Idol industry in Japan has a…less than favorable reputation with those familiar with it; the industry has been legitimately criticized for their myriad of abusive labor practices, which could be its own (depressing, infuriating) column, but thankfully, this is a VTuber column. I’m not terribly familiar or privy to the labor practices of corporate VTubers–as I said, the industry is still in its infancy, so it could be that it just hasn’t been around long enough for the uglier parts of the industry to become more apparent. But based on what I’ve seen and read from the VTubers themselves and staff at the various agencies, the VTuber industry doesn’t appear to be as cutthroat or concerned with controlling their VTuber’s images, the latter of which I find is the biggest difference between the two industries. Idol agencies exert a tremendous amount of control over their idols’ personal lives to maintain a manufactured image of escapism as cute, pure, and accessible to their fanbase, the most notorious example being the dating ban. This extends to their public behavior, which is curated so that they only ever behave in a way that is sufficiently adoring and adorable, with all the cultural caveats that entails; any behavior that cracks that façade is basically forbidden.
Anyone who has seen even just a handful of clips from popular VTubers knows that this…isn’t really the case for them. In a way, VTubers do function as a manufactured image of cuteness, escape, and accessibility, but they have far more latitude in terms of “acceptable” behavior. On the whole, VTubers–even agency-affiliated ones–get away with things that would be a potential career-ender were they regular idols: they curse, are LOUD, and have senses of humor that range from innocent to bawdy, raunchy, or just plain weird. They’ll also talk about pretty much anything, whether the viewers want to hear about it or not: body hair removal, looking at pictures of failed hair transplants 2, bathroom habits…they talk about them openly and free of shame. They’re also allowed (if so inclined) to talk about their personal lives–about being single at weddings, encounters with weird strangers, and other more mundane aspects of daily living. There are limits to how gross, crude, or lewd they can be of course, but it appears to be more in line with the general content-restrictions on streaming platforms than any contractual obligations on their agency’s part.
All that said, one subject that appears to have an unspoken hard limit is politics. I haven’t seen any agency-affiliated VTuber, Japanese or otherwise, discuss politics in any way shape or form. It’s in line with the idea of VTubers intended as escapism sure, but there’s other reasons for this too: in September of 2020, there was an incident where two Hololive members, Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato, were given a three week suspension from VTuber-related activities following streams where they discussed their YouTube analytics. From Anime News Network3: “[…]the pair announced the countries where they had received the most followers from. At which point in the stream, they highlighted that 7% of their viewers were based in Taiwan and displayed the nation’s flag.” The reasons given by Cover Corp., the company behind Hololive, were “inappropriate remarks” and “unauthorized disclosure of YouTube channel analytics.”4. As with anything where someone publicly acknowledges Taiwan within earshot of China, it was a huge mess, with Hololive running damage control by issuing statements assuring offended viewers of their commitment to the “One-China Principle,” all while trying to ensure the safety of their VTubers from online harassment and death threats. But the damage was already done, and it appears the experience was traumatic enough that Hololive decided to cut their losses in their Chinese market: in November, all six HololiveCN members announced their intentions to retire, with graduation ceremonies held for each member throughout the rest of the year. At the time of this writing, there are no apparent plans for a new HololiveCN generation currently.
So now that we have an idea of what VTubers are, the next question is probably something like, “Okay, but how did we get here? Whose idea was this? And why can’t I stop watching these damn clips of this dog girl playing Doom Eternal?” I can’t answer the last two, but I hope to get into the answer to the first question in the next article. In the meantime, tell me about the first VTuber VTuber clip you saw in the comments! Mine is that compilation of Ai Kizuna saying “Fakkyuu” at Resident Evil 7, but it’s age restricted so instead have the first one my husband saw where he laughed so hard he choked on a pretzel: