More is Not Necessarily Merrier: The Moderating Role of Loneliness in the Streaming Experience
Broadcast media has long been studied for its ability to foster parasocial relationships, one-sided relations where audiences feel like they have a close relationship with actors, singers, sports professionals and other media personalities. These relationships have also been studied on social media, which presents users with tools to move beyond the one-sidedness.
One type of social media, live-streaming platforms, has grown in popularity in recent years. Twitch is the largest live-streaming platform, with tens of millions of daily users and over a trillion accumulated hours of watched content in 2021 alone. Twitch is an example of “masspersonal” media, a platform that combines the wide reach of traditional broadcast media with the ability to communicate with audience members in a more personalized, direct fashion.
This “masspersonal” mix moves beyond our typical understanding of parasocial relationships, giving the unique potential for relationship reciprocity. Indeed, many viewers of Twitch content liken it to a virtual “third place,” akin to a café or community center, where the chance to socialize and interact is as important as the content offered, if not more so.
Since live-streaming has the potential to provide socialization and support. How will one’s sense of loneliness affect how they interact with live-streamers and the community? Especially how one responds to social cues on a platform like Twitch?
Yu-Hao Lee, associate professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, along with his coauthors Nanyi Bi and Chien-Wen Yuan from National Taiwan University, wanted to explore how loneliness moderated audience behaviors and perceptions on Twitch. They conducted an online experiment where participants were exposed to simulated Twitch streams. Participants watched streams featuring two distinct kinds of content — a musical performance where the streamer played the piano and didn’t interact with the audience, and one with the same streamer, who interacted with the audience by chatting and responding to audience comments. These simulated streams displayed different levels of two common social cues for the platform: bandwagon cues, which displayed high or low numbers of audience for the stream, and engagement cues, which altered the speed of comments in the stream.
The researchers examined how these social cues influenced different aspects of participants’ perceptions of the Twitch streamer, including their levels of trust in the streamer, their intention to watch the streamer in the future, and how socially present they felt both the streamer and their co-viewers were. Participants were also asked to self-report their feelings of general loneliness, to see if loneliness changed the way that social cues influenced their perceptions.
The study found that bandwagon and engagement cues influenced perceptions and intentions quite differently depending on whether or not the participant reported feeling lonely.
Non-lonely participants were more likely to view the streamer as less trustworthy and had lower intentions to watch them when there were higher numbers of co-viewers. This was the reverse for people who reported being lonely. Non-lonely participants were also less likely to feel that either the streamer or their other co-viewers were present when there was a large number of people in the stream.
Loneliness also had an impact on the way that participants responded to engagement cues, at least when the streamer was engaged in performative content rather than chatting. For less lonely participants, a high rate of audience engagement led to an increased intention to watch the streamer, while it led to a decreased sense of social presence for those that were lonely.
Taken as a whole, this research provides insight into an important part of audience dynamics for “masspersonal” platforms like Twitch: participants responded to the same social cues from streaming content very differently depending on their sense of loneliness. Understanding what influences audience reactions and drives their content selection is always on the top of content creators’ and media platforms’ minds. Incorporating personal psychological aspects like loneliness into the equation can help Twitch and its many streamers create content that is both appealing and emotionally gratifying for audiences.
The original research paper, “More is Not Necessarily Merrier: The Moderating Role of Loneliness in the Effects of Bandwagon Cues on Audience’s Perception of the Streaming Experience,” was presented at the 2023 International Communication Association conference.
Authors: Nanyi Bi, Chien-Wen Yuan, Yu-Hao Lee
This summary was written by Vaughan James, CJC Ph.D. 2023.