Professionalism/Vtubers and the Ethics of Synthetic Media
A Virtual YouTuber or VTuber, a term first coined by Kizuna AI, is a virtual content creator and entertainer. VTubers entertain fans in live broadcasts and usually present themselves as stylized, motion-tracked 2D or 3D characters. These performers hold the same entertainment value as streamers or Japanese pop idols, gathering large amounts of fan support for their work. As a consequence, the VTubing industry suffers from similar issues that plague the Japanese entertainment scene, such as parasocial engagement and ill-defined labor rights.
VTuber characters are anime-inspired and have exaggerated personalities. The VTuber trend first started in Japan and increased in worldwide popularity in 2016. The trend grew greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic. YouTube reported that "VTuber channels grew to over 1.5 billion per month in 2020." VTubers profit by showcasing fan comments, Super Chats, during live broadcasts in exchange for money or by producing other forms of paid content. For example, Kiryu Coco made $1,455,084 in revenue in 2020 from Super Chats alone. VTubers often keep their real identities a secret for privacy, but also to uphold the illusion of their established character lore or personality. By creating a fictional narrative, VTubers benefit from keeping their real identity anonymous while establishing a strong relationship with fans. VTubers provide a form of emotional escapism by giving fans attention during livestreams.
As an extension of Japanese idol culture, agencies produce the most popular VTubers. Agencies give VTubers resources such as recording studios and collaboration opportunities with other VTubers. Agencies like Hololive Production, owned by Cover Corporation, make enough revenue to operate branches all over the world. However, many agencies have not disclosed contractual information such as salaries, VTuber earnings, and responsibility over talent.
Hololive contracts VTubers such as Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco. Akai Haato is described in her Hololive biography as "a sassy kouhai... often prickly." Fan wikis describe Haato's personality as "a classic tsundere who teases her fans" and "infamous for her ear-splitting scream." Another Hololive VTuber, Kiryu Coco describes herself as a "child dragon... fond of human culture" and an "honorable and heroic dragon who is filled with justice." Fans of Coco acknowledge that she "often employs crude humor, foul speech... and swearing." An example of her eccentric personality, Coco runs a parody morning news show called Asacoco with both English and Japanese where "she opens with 'Goooood MORNING MOTHERF@$#ERS!' for English viewers, followed by 'OKITE, OKITE! OKITE KU-DA-SA-I!' (Wake up, Wake up! WAKE UP PL-EA-SE!) in Japanese."
Cover and the Taiwan ControversyEdit
In September 2020, Hololive EN’s Vtubers, Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato, displayed confidential Youtube analytics on their streaming platforms. Cover placed a suspension on Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato in response to the display of confidential analytics and breach of contract.
Many fans, however, say that other VTubers have previously shown their analytics without facing corporate or fan backlash or suspension. Others add that Cover suspended Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato because the analytics listed Taiwan and its flag, separate from China. The display of Taiwan’s flag could implicate Coco and Haato with the contentious One China Policy. Fans who joined the stream that day recall Coco saying “Taiwan” aloud. Some believe Cover suspended the VTubers to protect them from fan backlash.
Suspension and ApologiesEdit
Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato both apologized on Twitter after the incident. Cover received criticism for posting two different apology statements. In the English statement on Twitter, Cover says Coco and Haato were suspended for divulging “confidential Youtube channel analytics information.” In a statement on Bilibili, a Chinese streaming and video-sharing website, however, Cover says it “respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity...and firmly supports the One-China principle.” Cover later apologized for the discrepancies in its public statements. The company further pledged to “strengthen the education and management” of its artists: to improve its system to prevent “such problems” from reoccurring.
Cover lifted the suspension on Kiryu Coco and Akai Haato three weeks after the stream in October 2020. On their return streams, viewers recalled that Haato seemed a bit emotional and happy to be back. Coco acted unaffected by the incident, and posted an explicit message on her stream's end screen: “Don’t forget to subscribe if you loved it. If you hated…. F*CK U and never come back.” Some fans questioned the professionalism of showing this statement on her first stream after the incident and suspension. Others saw the behavior as a natural part of Coco’s eccentric personality.
After the incident, some fans campaigned against Hololive. Fans posted hate messages and spammed stream chats on VTuber channels. Many VTubers, as a result, increased their content moderation and privatization; some limited their interaction with fans for a period of time.
One fan translation group boycotted Hololive and posted a list of demands on Reddit. The demands included a request for more severe punishment of Coco, the biggest target of the anti-Hololive campaign.
The Western audience, which comprises a large portion of Hololive's fanbase, either downplayed or ignored the incident. Some fans made memes about Hololive and China, and many see the incident as just something that provided further clout and fame for Coco and Haato.
Fans and media personalities can form parasocial relationships, where fans often devote significant time and energy to the media personality. These relationships can be detrimental to both the fan and celebrity, especially when fans cross personal boundaries or become emotionally dependent on stars. Fans of all entertainment mediums can fall victim to these relationships, but the Japanese idol and VTubing industries exacerbate these ties through their rigid structure and business model.
Ethics of Japanese Idol CultureEdit
Japanese media companies capitalize on parasocial relationships, marketing idols as products and packaging them to "maximize consumption." Fans become consumers of these products by investing time, emotional energy, and money in the idols' personal lives, albums, photos, fashion, and other merchandise. Companies intentionally release content that exposes idols' personal struggles and vulnerabilities, making fans feel a sense of understanding and relatability towards their object of desire. This bond can develop into an "intense attachment built upon the emotional dependency of the fan towards the idol."
VTubers embody the idolatry engrained into Japanese pop culture. As internet stars, they foster personal connections with their fans through livestreams and chats. This format supposedly creates the authentic social connection that fans wish to have with their virtual idols, despite the anonymity and secrecy surrounding the industry. Due to this culture of secrecy, the VTubing industry does not set clear company responsibilities and expectations when dealing with its talent, which can easily hide many labor issues. Strict contracts and regulations bar VTubers from sharing details about their personal lives and working conditions with the press.
Applications to the Taiwan ControversyEdit
Intense parasocial relationships enable fans to cross boundaries and lead to a feeling of betrayal when idols display a negative aspect of their lives or beliefs. In the case of Coco and Haato, the recognition of Taiwan angered Chinese fans and compromised their close relationships with the idols. The harassment of both VTubers can be attributed to Cover's exploitation of parasocial relationships and fans' susceptibility to idol culture. Agencies mold fans into customers, giving them idols, products, and merchandise to feed their desires. Fans buy into this model, which is evident in the amount of money and time they give to their favorite VTubers.
Cover's conflicting apology statements reiterated its position as a money-making entity that only wished to preserve a brand. If its business is to create marketable characters, then the statements are an attempt to mend shaky relations with a large customer base rather than a genuine effort to protect its talent. Only when its performers' marketable images were threatened by fans' anger did it feel the need to implement measures to protect talent from harassment. These include taking legal action against harassers and creating a reporting system. Media critics argue that Cover was unprepared to take responsibility in this scenario, despite running a business where "parasocial relationships from fans can turn into targeted campaigns." This brings into question what responsibilities Cover has over its talent. Since VTubers are Cover's main source of income, what will the agency do to manage and protect these global personas moving forward?
Future work may investigate other idol agencies such as the NIJISANJI project or 774 Inc., and the relationships to their contracted talents. Professional ethics related to VTubers may also apply to traditional live streamers on Twitch and YouTube. Twitch is known to mishandle and neglect sexual harassment claims against other streamers or Twitch employees, such as the situation with Samantha Wong. How much responsibility do agencies and companies have when protecting their talent? Since streaming is a job that carries "long hours and little pay," "requires oversight," and incurs "tons of risks," what power do companies have in the face of controversy?
One risk is the development of parasocial relationships, which can be harmful to media consumers. Content creators and agencies have an unhealthy amount of influence over their fans, selling them a product that induces addictive habits and causes them to spend large amounts of money. VTubers, like other forms of media and entertainment, have the ability to influence thoughts, feelings, and actions towards the world and others. Should agencies acknowledge their social power and ensure that entertainment is a positive experience for consumers and not solely for monetary gain?
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