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Digital Dystopia: The live stream machine

The digital world of consumers has embraced a new age of live streaming for money. Have we gone too far into the void of social media?


A new age of “digital panhandling” has emerged on platforms like TikTok where people can livestream for money.  

By: Gigi Gradillas

Asking for money on the internet is not a new phenomenon. Websites like GoFundMe empower people to arrange donations for expenses like dog surgeries or funeral costs. Mutual aid networks are popular in cities like Los Angeles and Portland. And content creator sites like OnlyFans allow for subscription-based content to be exchanged for money. 


Enter the new frontier: Livestreaming on TikTok. 


As most people, I spend most of my time on social media scrolling through dozens of videos. My For You page, which knows me very well by this point, occasionally puts me face-to-screen with something totally off putting: Non playable characters, or NPCs. These “uncanny valley” creators have become the latest trend to take off on TikTok. 


At its core definition, an NPC is a character in a video game that can’t be played and can range from having a variety of importance to a game’s plot. They may help with clues or give context to the story, but they typically repeat a few short phrases.


NPC livestreamers like Pinkydoll and Kelsey Rae have grown in popularity. During their livestreams, viewers can send money via icons that will appear on the screen for the viewers and creator. According to the TikTok creator portal, viewers can purchase coins which translates to the purchase of different icons like a rose, which is one coin, or a “TikTok Universe,” which amounts to 44,999 coins. The purchasing power of coins is dependent on the viewer. There can be different offers like 34 coins for 29 cents or 110 coins for 99 cents. 


For each virtual gift these creators receive from a viewer, the creator will repeat the same phrase or movement. If you send Pinkydoll virtual popcorn, she’ll reply by singing, “yes popcorn.” 


And that’s all there is to it. Sending these creators money so they can say the same six or so lines.


Making money off of some simple virtual icons may not seem like the right business to be in, but the numbers beg to differ. According to an interview with The New York Times, Pinkydoll reported making $2,000 to $3,000 per livestream. 


“Even though people have dubbed some of these livestreamers ‘digital panhandlers,’ we still consider them and talk about them as creators,” Ariella Horwitz, a lecturer on American studies at Cal State Fullerton, said in an email. “Therefore, even if the person on TikTok is getting paid to act like a character in a video game, they are still generative—doing something.”


I’m all for creative ways to earn extra cash flow, but the reality of this is that viewers are quick to reload their virtual coins to gift them to these creators. 


However, when faced with people in real life asking for money there is hesitation. Could it be that giving money to people we see in front of us just isn’t as gratifying? If I give a person on the street a few bucks there’s not going to be a shiny little icon appearing out of thin air. 


“​​The internet, particularly social media, can be a positive and powerful tool to fundraise or facilitate any type of campaign with an ask. This power comes from social media’s far reach and its ability to bring like minded people together,” Michelle Martin, a CSUF associate professor of social work, said in an email. 


Another popular form of going live on TikTok is participating in a “Live Match,” which is a type of livestream where two or more creators compete against each other in hopes of accruing the most money from their viewers. And while younger creators are taking advantage of these money making streams, one creator in particular has met a lot of criticism for partaking in these matches.


Jason Nash, who was once notable for being friends with David Dobrik and dating Trisha Paytas, has been questioned by his viewers for participating in these livestream matches. The main reason for the concern is his age. He’s 50. 


While my TikTok algorithm can sometimes get weird, one thing that’s uniform is coming across Nash’s livestreams. Not because I watch them, it’s just that he’s almost always livestreaming. In a recent livestream, Nash was dancing to ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” in his kitchen while donning a turquoise button-up shirt with a banana print. Things got particularly weird when he started screaming “Frenchy” with a crazed look in his eyes. 


“This is Frenchy, guys. He comes in, he drops and then he’s a ghost,” Nash said to his viewers. 


A viewer, evidently named Frenchy, joined the livestream and gifted Nash some coins that appeared as a fleet of planes with sparkly pink and yellow jet streams. 


That was my cue to keep scrolling. 


In his podcast “All Good Things,” Nash addressed the comments of people asking why he doesn’t just quit social media and get a real job. 


“I don’t have any skills,” Nash bluntly said. 


Horwitz attributes this new age of livestreaming for money to a new version of achieving the American Dream. 


I think many Millennials and members of Gen Z see the economic promise of the American Dream as increasingly out of reach through traditional career paths,” Horwitz said. “For these groups in particular, livestreaming or influencer culture have become viable and appealing paths for achieving their own version of the American Dream.”


While this new frontier of making money on the internet appears to be lucrative, Martin reminds us that having a “buyer beware” approach to online experiences is important.


We should take a little time to ensure that the people and creators we give our views and money to aren’t taking advantage of their audience. Only then should you virtually make it rain.