In the Truman show, Jim Carry played Truman Burbank, the star of a reality TV show who was adopted by a corporation as a child. His entire life was on broadcast without his knowledge. He lived in a fake world, with hidden cameras and actors for friends, and the whole time he didn’t know he was a reality TV show star. When he learned that his whole life was just a hyperreal simulation for others' entertainment, it crushed him.
When I look at Ludwig’s month-long subathon that wrapped up this week, I can’t help but be reminded of the psychological damage depicted in the Truman show. The difference, of course, is Ludwig chose that life himself, willingly giving up his privacy and boundaries for the viewers’ entertainment.
And I am not convinced whether knowing you’re being watched for 31 days — with no breaks and no solitude even as he slept — is better than the bliss of inveracity.
Ludwig’s subathon made Twitch history. It will forever be remembered as a precedent in streaming culture, a feat that demanded exceptional mental and physical endurance. But the clout of fame and fortune comes with its negative asterisks too. Ludwig’s massive success with his subathon could lead to more streamers, small and large, attempting to replicate his achievement, or “beat the subathon record” — a prospect that, in my opinion, is a dangerous game that gambles with the health and safety of the streamers involved.
Influencers across the internet are already expected to give up so much of their privacy for their audience’s entertainment. Ludwig’s unprecedented month-in-the-life-of experiment, however, takes that invasiveness to a whole new level.
The story behind Ludwig’s month-long subathon
Ludwig Ahgren has been a growing name on Twitch for over a year now. Playing mostly Nintendo games, he built a substantial following and even gained enough notoriety to compete alongside superstar streamers like Imane “Pokimane” Anys and Felix “xQc” Lengyel at the Pogchamps chess championships.
While he was big before, Ludwig’s subathon has spawned unprecedented success, rocketing him to the very top of the online world. Throughout his stream, Ludwig broke 282,000 subscribers, surpassing xQc to become the most popular streamer on the platform and beating Ninja’s record for all-time most subscribers.
The rules of Ludwig’s stream were pretty simple. Every Tier 1 sub added 10 seconds, every Tier 2 sub added 20 seconds, and every Tier 3 sub added 30 seconds. Every 500 bit donation added another 10 seconds. Little did he know that these seemingly innocent rules would soon activate a Black Mirror-esque timeline, with the streamer held hostage by his own inexplicably committed audience, who watched him even while he slept.
While there was some backlash to the stream, none of it was really related to whether it was appropriate to stream your entire life for a month straight. Most of it came from those who felt it was inappropriate for a streamer with over a million followers to use the “subathon” method to grow. Ludwig responded to that criticism during his stream, arguing that there is no “obvious pattern” for streamers to follow, and he is right. This is uncharted territory.
Ludwig didn’t set out to break the internet, but he did, and now we have to pick up the pieces and ask if this is something we should encourage at all.
“Am I excited to have my life back? Yeah, absolutely,” Ludwig said on the last day of his subathon. “I am excited to take a bath for an hour and not give a shit that there are people waiting for me. I am excited to sleep and not be worried about waking up with a boner. I am excited to hang out with my girlfriend who I haven’t hung out with for a month... but I’ll also miss the subathon. It was fun.”
He continued: "A lot of people the entire time said ‘he’s gonna lose his goddamn mind' but I’m fine. It was fun.”
It is good that Ludwig feels fine after such an ordeal, but it doesn’t change the fact that the month-long subathons are dangerous and encourage an unbalanced lifestyle for streamers.
Subathons have existed before, but no one has taken this idea to its extreme before. The only thing that stopped Ludwig from continuing, in fact, is his self-imposed 31-day limit. Had it not been there, his Truman Show Twitch spin-off would’ve likely continued for days, weeks, months. And it’s only a matter of time before someone tries to break that record, with no ceiling to control them, especially given the massive amount of money and attention Ludwig has garnered with his dystopian performance.
These invasive streams at best will burn out creators, at worst they could do serious harm to the health of those who attempt them. While Ludwig maintained a healthy eating and sleeping schedule and said he was “fine” at the end, there have been instances in the past where 24-hour live streams have been fatal to some.
Even outside the health concerns, Ludwig’s subathon is another step toward dismantling the expectations of privacy for streamers. First creators were expected to just post videos on YouTube, then that turned into streaming live with streamer faces showing, then they were expected to be active on social media sharing updates from their everyday lives, and now we are quickly moving toward a situation where to be a successful streamer you are expected to record and broadcast essentially everything.
"From a clinical perspective, without a lot of jargon, the biggest red flag in my mind is the lack of boundaries," Licensed Professional Counselor Stacey Smith told me in an interview. "Boundaries are already diminishing due to social media. And with that comes a lot of comparisons and very high expectations of self, which decreases self-esteem. Poor boundaries can also be a sign of (or perhaps even lead the way to) some disorders. I worry that the streamer and the viewers will be engaging in poor-boundary exercises."
How did we get here and where are we going?
When Twitch was originally founded as Justin.TV, the content was almost exclusively focused on Starcraft ll and was all gaming. Even as it started to expand to other games and eventually rebranded, the platform's commitment to gaming over gimmick remained steadfast.
For the longest time you couldn’t do In-real-life (IRL) streaming at all, with some creators like Woodysgamertag even receiving bans for doing a “day in the life of” type content on Twitch at one point. Before 2016, Twitch was very explicit that they weren’t interested in creating reality TV show content.
In 2016 the rules changed to allow IRL content, which opened the floodgates to a new type of social influencer creator. Today, just chatting is the most popular category on Twitch and there have been numerous attempts on the platform at creating engaging reality show-like content. The latest Twitch category is sleeping. So that's where we are at, apparently.
While the focus on non-gaming content is overall a positive one, Twitch’s lack of precedent and policy regarding stream length and other rules about streamer practices allow for unhealthy behaviors, that are often encouraged by the stream audiences. Like Ludwig pointed out during his subathon, there really isn’t a playbook to streaming.
So right now, it’s the wild west in terms of content and we should be asking how we decide the content that should be elevated.
Is stream length really how we want to decide who the most celebrated streamers should be?
The fact that the largest creator in the world got there by doing a mentally and physically unhealthy gimmick is wrong. I am not saying that Ludwig isn’t talented. He is obviously incredibly talented and entertaining to keep people interested for 31 days straight. But I do think that this subathon got out of hand and it should not become a normal practice for streamers to share every moment of everyday of their lives with their audience.
Ludwig even agrees with me here. On the last day of his stream, he said he will never do a subathon like this again.
Ludwig’s subathon was straight out of an episode of Black Mirror. In fact, if I wrote an episode about streaming for Black Mirror, it would probably be about how streaming became an unregulated reality show competition where whoever can keep people entertained and subscribing for the longest contiguous stretch becomes the most famous person in the world.
Ludwig accidentally beat me to my dystopian movie script.
Twitch culture is lurching headlong toward usualizing these no boundary streams where creators make entertainment out of all aspects of their lives, with no concern for their own privacy, safety, or time — a concept that’s been examined and condemned by sci-fi writers for years. Ludwig is not the first or only instance of this culture, but his success over the past month could see a rise in this type of content.
Twitch started as a place for gameplay, and while I don’t castigate its real-life escapism, there has to be a sensible stopping point before it devolves to a hyperreal digital human zoo.
Aaron is an esports reporter with a background in media, technology, and communication education.