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The return of Dr Disrespect and the struggle for 'authenticity'

Depending on whose numbers you believe, Dr Disrespect’s return to Twitch after a two month absence was the most-viewed stream by a single streamer in Twitch history, narrowly beating out League of Legends ne’er-do-well Tyler1’s own return a few weeks before. Yet whereas Tyler1 was returning from a Riot-imposed ban for his comically terrible behavior, Dr Disrespect’s exile was self-imposed. 

The story goes something like this: Dr Disrespect's profile grew in parallel with Playerunknown's Battlegrounds last year, making him one of the most famous streamers on Twitch. His act—FPS talent paired with a tongue-in-cheek, hypermasculine caricature—earned him industry awards, sponsors, and, at his peak, over $30,000 in donations each month. Then, in December, in a rare out-of-character stream, he told his fans that he had been “unfaithful” to his wife, and would be taking some time off from streaming to “focus on his family.” The Doc’s return to Twitch, then, wasn't simply a chance for Doc’s fans to watch his stream again, but the latest chapter in a broader narrative of redemption.

Boundaries we once thought were stable—between work and play, audience and performer, labor and life—have become increasingly frayed.

The saga sheds light on a particularly extreme example of something that all streamers, whether aspiring or professional, grapple with: how to manage the relationship between their on-air persona and the rest of their “actual” life. Though it’s comforting to think that streamers will take steps to separate their job from their day-to-day existence, the reality of streaming is more complicated. In fact, in many ways, streamers are incentivized to let what happens in their offline lives bleed into what they broadcast to the world. Infamous (to say the least) lifestreamer Paul “Ice Poseidon” Denino’s stream is, for better or worse, a tell-almost-all chronicle of his conspicuously eventful life. Practically speaking, the choice many streamers face isn’t whether to keep their on and offline lives separate, but how best to tie them together. 

We tend to think of streaming as a kind of luxury, dream-job work. But these pleasures can conceal a darker side.

When Dr Disrespect announced his return to Twitch, for example, he integrated the reason for his absence into his return, as if to make what happened in his off-air life part of his on-air character. In an in-character video posted to his Twitter, he names the date and time of his return while a female arm (presumably belonging to his wife) holds a kitchen knife against his throat. At the same time, it’s hard to square parts of his character with what we now know about his life. As many have noted, one of the Doc’s signature signature phrases, “two-time,” now takes on an additional, unflattering layer of symbolism. How should viewers reconcile the overcooked machismo that’s central to the Dr Disrespect character with the infidelity that briefly derailed its creator’s career?

Blurred lines

Appearing "authentic" is a central concern for anyone whose career depends on social media, whether Instagram bloggers, YouTubers, or Twitter personalities, but it’s particularly important to seem authentic on Twitch, where most of a streamer’s income is generated by soliciting donations. In practice, that means performing quite a bit of emotional labor, and responding to donations, acknowledging the vulnerabilities that viewers share, and offering advice is a standard part of Dr Disrespect’s job.

We tend to think of streaming as a kind of luxury, dream-job work, and, in many ways it is. Part of what drives streamers like Dr Disrespect to do what they do is the much-cherished ideal of getting paid to do what they love, and professional streamers (unsurprisingly) tend to find their careers meaningful. But these pleasures can conceal a darker side as Twitch comes to dominate all aspects of a streamer’s life. 

In the week of his return, Dr Disrespect defended himself against accusations of racism as a collection of clips of him using a jibberish, imitation Asian language to mock Chinese players circulated from an actor and YouTuber named Jimmy Wong. Committed to his character, Dr Disrespect has yet to deviate from his macho, over-the-top persona to issue an apology. Some fans seemed to feel it was totally OK for a character to behave this way—in the tweets and comments sections that followed, a common fan defense of the Dr's behavior was, "What do you expect? His name is Dr Disrespect." 

And while most of us probably think of Twitch streaming as sedentary work, it can nevertheless have detrimental effects on the body.  In an interview with The New Yorker, popular World of Warcraft streamer Roberto “Towilee” Garcia said that when he was starting out on Twitch, he streamed for upwards of 18 hours a day. “That’s what I had to do to grow viewership,” he recalls. Towilee also notes that when he was streaming the most, his ankles swelled from sitting in a chair all day and his weight ballooned to over 400 pounds.

“My doctor told me I was going to die if I kept doing it like this,” mentioned streamer Bria Leigh in the same New Yorker feature. “You spend ten hours a day in the chair. And you don’t even want to get up to use the bathroom, because you’re afraid you’ll lose viewers.”

If you want to do it well, in other words, streaming is a more-than-full-time job, and it comes with attendant stress and negative effects. Even with the assistance of an influencer agency like Dr Disrespect’s, managing multiple social media platforms, navigating controversies, negotiating sponsorships, and concocting content for future streams is a lot of off-air work. Insofar as Dr Disrespect’s Grecian physique is part of his larger-than-life persona, a serious workout routine is also an uncompensated part of his “job.”

No one, of course, is forcing streamers to work as hard as they do. But Twitch streaming captures in microcosm many of the dark sides with the digital economy as a whole, where taking a “break” is a last-ditch option. Because they are self-employed, Twitch streamers don’t get paid leave, medical insurance, or any of the other protections full-time employment traditionally offered. Take too many breaks, and you’ll get derided as fake, lazy, or a fraud (such accusations are a part and parcel for erratic streamers like Ice Poseidon, whose relationship with his audience flip-flops between adoring and abusive on a semi-weekly basis). 

Technologies like Twitch offer audiences an unparalleled sense of intimacy with their favorite personalities, more than television or memoirs ever could. No wonder they’re so compelling. But like all media, it is, in the end, an illusion. Twitch doesn’t actually eliminate the distance between the viewer and the viewed. It just hides it better. But at what cost? 

Like so much of the digital economy, boundaries we once thought were stable—between work and play, audience and performer, labor and life—have become increasingly frayed. With all that in mind, as Dr Disrespect settles back into a routine and viewers flock back to his stream, we might take a moment to reflect on the fact that what we’ll see on-air is only one part of the story.