Wednesday morning, Twitch.tv announced a huge change to the way it would archive broadcasts. Less than six hours later, Twitch followed up with another announcement that set various corners of the internet ablaze. ContentID appeared like a thief in the night. Hilarious mistakes have already been made and mocked, such as the automated muting of Fallout 3’s in-game music (rendering the whole broadcast silent), Valve’s DOTA International video being muted, and game devs’ own songs being flagged and muted on their videos. Even Twitch’s official channel wasn’t immune to this long-anticipated — but perhaps clumsier than expected — menace.
The detection system implemented by Twitch yesterday, Audible Magic, has been analyzed and criticized on a lot of levels. At the moment, I only have sighs and nods and a bunch of “likes” or “favorites” to add to that conversation. The amusement and frustration of seeing this rogue AI silencing videos all willy-nilly is being shared and expressed across social media, joined by collective disgust at the inevitably disingenuous unveiling of said system. It’s cathartic, though few people seem to harbor the illusion that something more than minor changes will be implemented to address these criticisms.
As much interest as that aspect of Twitch’s renovation has garnered, and rightfully so, my own thoughts remain centered around this week’s first announcement; second if you include the surprise shuttering of Justin.tv. Livestreaming can be a rewarding process on both the broadcasting and audience end, affording a level of interaction which has demonstrated its appeal to audiences ranging from a handful of close friends to tens of thousands of spectators. It can also be a lucrative source of revenue to streaming platforms and their ad partners, which explains Google’s apparent interest in the service.
What seems less lucrative is the storage of massive treasure troves of past broadcasts, which is why Twitch will soon do away with all but the previous two weeks’ (for non-premium/partner accounts) or sixty days’ worth of archived video. It always felt like something so good yet so “inefficient” could never last, so the announcement is as unsurprising as it is depressing. Twitch isn’t forthcoming about specific budgetary considerations related to the decision, but they do state that videos, on average, get 84% of their views in the fourteen days following live broadcasts. This makes sense from both an interest and interface standpoint: People are drawn to what’s new and shiny, and it’s an incredible chore to browse through Twitch’s poorly-designed archive of past broadcasts.
Despite the poor usability and glaring absence of a search feature, I trawl the “past broadcasts” section on a frequent basis to revisit favorite videos or discover what that person I just found is usually like. I’ve been able to witness the growth of streamers as broadcasters and people as well as the growth of their communities. I’ve been exposed to a lot of games I’d never have played without seeing them in this format. I directly attribute my interest in what I now consider the best streaming group on Twitch or the internet at large to digging through their archives and learning about them.
The appeal of seamless, hours-long videos of people playing and commenting on video games (and social issues, and life itself) may not be wide enough to justify permanent storage of complete archives, but there are things unique to the format that separate it from “best-of” videos or edited Let’s Plays. Part of it is the same reason “slow tv" appeals to me as a welcome break from the frantic pacing of the vast majority of modern commercial media. It’s a fuller representation of the experience of sitting down and playing a game (or riding a train), and the broadcast breathes in a manner most unlike the vast majority of videos available elsewhere. The unbroken, sometimes calming videos remain punctuated by entertaining or insightful or uproariously funny moments, and the natural peaks and valleys surrounding them — as well as the element of surprise or suspense — makes for a payoff shorter videos can’t offer.
Some of this appeal must translate to a wider audience. The steady rise in 12- or 24- or 48-hour (or longer) marathons that individuals, groups such as Games Done Quick, press outlets, and developers have participated in and helped organize over the past few years seems to indicate this. While it isn’t quite the same experience as watching a months-old video of three smart, funny people playing Starbound for seven hours (which, incidentally, is what took me from zero interest to buying the game), there is enough value in extended-length broadcasts that significant amounts of charity donations have been garnered by these marathons.
The bulk of saved videos will be culled as a result of what Twitch refers to as a set of “improvements” to their video-on-demand system. The improvements include making their mobile app less horrible and “conceptualizing” new features for the future. They trumpet the retention of the streamers’ ability to save “highlights” indefinitely, but at best this is a messy answer to the site’s very real problems.
"Highlights" will be limited to 2 hour blocks, thus splitting up marathons, speedruns, and many normal streams.[Edit: OH HEY, THAT CHANGED WHILE I WROTE THIS. NEAT!] The change will invariably cause users’ highlight sections to become cluttered with standard broadcasts they don’t want to lose in addition to actual edited highlights. The site, far from becoming easier to use, could instead become even more overwhelming to navigate. Some streamers, either through lack of concern or inability to update (maybe they went hiking in the Himalayas, or went to jail, or died) won’t avail themselves of this imperfect workaround, and all of their old material will essentially be vaporized. And not in the fun way.
Compounding all of this is the damage done to the time capsule nature of Twitch’s archived broadcasts. Being able to look back at a genuine example of how a cultural conversation evolved and in turn shaped ensuing events provides an invaluable amount of context for the present. The evolution of the relatively young medium of video games and the downright larval medium of streaming are being extensively documented, and losing access to so many of these snapshots of time and place is a blow to our collective understanding.
This has been a gut punch to a lot of Twitch users, especially combined with their sudden and instantaneous capitulation to immensely flawed copyright detection methods. And yes, I’m aware that this is generally how business works. No matter how predictable each step may be, it still stings.
Remember, when you depend on a third party to safeguard your data you’re giving them the power to destroy it too. Always have a backup of anything that you deem important on a physical drive or something, because this sort of thing happens all the time. There is no company too big or too small to pull this.