Distraction Free Reading

Spatial Approaches to Livestreaming: A Methodological Exploration in Digital Ethnography

On AfreecaTV, faceless, wandering viewers appear and disappear in a livestream without notice. Many deceptively change their nickname (username) or use multiple nicknames to divide themselves and appear in different livestreams and other internet forums simultaneously. In crowded livestreams with hundreds to tens of thousands of viewers,[1] it is increasingly challenging to discern the individuality of each viewer’s comments as their presence becomes ephemeral, almost like noise, amidst the rapid speed of chats. Given the near impossibility, or perhaps the meaninglessness, of identifying individuals in these online fields, I may opt to leave the quantified scope (e.g., the size and population) of my research fields undefined and just go with the “flow” (hŭrŭm).

This is my reflection on the frustrations that I encountered during the initial phases of my fieldwork within AfreecaTV. Between late 2016 and early 2018, I conducted ‘online’ and ‘offline’ ethnographic fieldwork for my master’s thesis on the livestreaming culture. This journey led me to explore spatial approaches to digital ethnography, which I will discuss in this post.

AfreecaTV, whose name is short for “Anybody Freely Broadcast TV” but also implies the mythical stereotyping of Africa, is an internet livestreaming platform launched in 2006 in South Korea. Its pioneering growth in revenue and popularity has had a significant impact on both popular culture and the livestreaming platform industry within and beyond the domestic boundary. For instance, the global trend of the livestreaming genre known as “Mukbang,” where streamers[2] eat large quantities of food in one sitting, originated from shows by AfreecaTV streamers in the early 2010s. Its revenue model, mainly based on the audience’s donation of cybercurrency—namely, “starballoon (pyŏlp’ungsŏn)”—to the streamer, showcased its stability and has been widely adopted by numerous streaming platforms, including Twitch and YouTube Live.

On the flip side of its growth, violent and morally problematic activities prevail in AfreecaTV, such as hate speech, cyberbullying, and sexual harassment. Streamers sexualize or subject themselves to harassment in order to encourage more starballoon donations that constitute their livelihood. The starballoon donation system garnered attention in media outlets as a social ill, due to instances of bankruptcy, suicide, and criminal behaviors among donors as well. Consequently, in October 2017, Sookiel Seo, the CEO of AfreecaTV at the time, was summoned to a government audit concerning new media self-regulation. There has since been an increase in legal and institutional regulations on AfreecaTV and other new media platforms more broadly.

Around that period, I immersed myself in livestreaming as both a viewer and a researcher. My initial inquiry was why people are so enthusiastic about engaging in problematic activities within livestreaming. Upon entering the livestreaming, I was immediately confused by the fluid and unpredictable nature of livestreaming activities, including anonymity, mobility, and spontaneity of real-time interactions amplified by this internet platform. However, these digital affordances are not exclusive to the AfreecaTV platform. Moreover, how people interact with these affordances varies across different contexts and media platforms. In what Ilana Gershon conceptualizes as “media ideologies,” people cultivate nuanced understandings and practices surrounding “both the communicative possibilities and the material limitations of a specific channel” (Gershon 2010: 283) as well as their general conception of channels.

So what is particular about AfreecaTV livestreaming? My research shows the emergent political dynamics and cultural logics of the “flow” (hŭrŭm) of viewers. Hŭrŭm is a local term encapsulating a certain social force of the here-and-now livestreaming moment within AfreecaTV livestreaming.

Spatial approaches to livestreaming helped me focus on the relationality of livestreaming rather than on individual participants of AfreecaTV whose biographical identities and demographic characteristics are obscured. Viewers’ pseudonyms (i.e., nicknames) are non-fixed identifiers, as one can hold multiple nicknames at the same time and change them whenever they want.[3] Nicknames seldom reflect real names or biographical identities. Gender markers (only male and female) are displayed next to each nickname as seen in Figure 1. These markers are derived from the demographic information provided during account registration. However, their authenticity was easily distrusted or dismissed, as many participants maintain multiple impersonated accounts, known as their “sub-characters” (puk’ae). A streamer may appear to have many female viewers, for instance, but this is hard to confirm. Similarly, when the number indicates that a hundred viewers are attending the livestream, this may not be identical to the number of persons behind the screen.

Figure 1. Gender marker, nickname, and live comments (screen-captured and edited by the author). This image was screen-captured on the computer screen. However, on the AfreecaTV app, the gender marker did not appear on the chat window.

Additionally, I quickly learned that both streamers and viewers distance themselves from their performances on AfreecaTV. Drawing the binary distinction between “online” and “offline,” often conflated with “cyberspace” (saibŏ) and “real life” (hyŏnshil), a common sentiment expressed was that “I don’t behave in real life the same way I do online.” AfreecaTV participants were highly conscious of the regulations and criticisms surrounding livestreaming, frequently labeling themselves as a “loser” (rujŏ), and even concealing their enthusiastic involvement in livestreaming from their “real life” relationships. When I asked about such attitudes of self-distancing from livestreaming, they pointed out that livestreaming unfolds so rapidly and spontaneously that they just go with the “flow” (hŭrŭm) of the moment.

What they refer to as “flow” can be understood with the Durkheimian concept of “collective effervescence,” which William Mazzarella extends from its original context of face-to-face ritual settings to mass-mediated networks. Participating in the flow of livestreaming is to encounter “a universal power which they themselves are and over which they are powerless” (Mazzarella 2017: 109). Methodologically, I navigated the flow through the visualized mobility and traces of AfreecaTV participants within and across various livestreams and bulletin boards, whether explicit or inferred. In the following, I illustrate three distinct yet intersecting spatial boundaries of my digital ethnographic approach.

The Spatial Boundary of a “Room” in AfreecaTV

First, I begin by examining the designed boundaries and site architecture of AfreecaTV and how they intersect with social interactions and meanings. This approach reflects anthropological understandings of space and place as embodied, “where human experience and consciousness takes on material and spatial form” (Low 2009: 28).

“Room” (pang) in AfreecaTV is a bounded livestreaming space of each streamer presented on the screen. It comprises a streamer’s video and real-time chatting window, as seen in the left image of Figure 2. The communication structure is designed to be asymmetrical between one streamer (“broadcasting jockey” or “BJ” in local terms) who monopolizes the video screen and microphone (labeled 2 in the left image), and multiple viewers engaging in real-time comments (label 1 designates the chat window of the BJ’s screen shared with the audience; label 3 designates the chat window on the viewer’s AfreecaTV app where they can see and type comments).

Figure 2. Broadcasting jockey’s livestreaming room (left) and AfreecaTV website (right) (screen-captured and edited by the author).

Along with live comments, viewers actively engage with livestreaming by giving starballoon cybercurrency in the form of a donation (huwŏn) or gift (sŏnmul) to the BJ. Starballoon donation is the most effective way to stand out in a room, as the donor’s nickname and their first chat after the donation appear within a graphic image on the screen. The asymmetric communication structure and starballoon gifts intersect with the power dynamics of livestreaming. I have analyzed a constant competitive attention-seeking among participants which serves to prevent anyone from monopolizing attention, thereby generating egalitarian social forces (S. Kim 2020).

AfreecaTV participants create space by moving across different rooms and other related websites (e.g., DC Inside). Like “discursive walking” (Wunderlich 2008: 132) in urban space, the viewer’s fluid strolling is “a participatory mode of walking” that may be aimless. However, this mobility initiates or reinforces the relationship between different BJs. It extends to fandom politics, for instance, wherein AfreecaTV participants consistently strive to differentiate the in-group (“us”) and the out-group (“others”) despite the fluid and obscure identities of each viewer.

Crisscrossing Different Websites: AfreecaTV and DC Inside

Different websites or platforms may vary in the making of spacetime. As for my fieldwork, I explored DC Inside’s Internet Broadcasting Gallery (or “DC Inbanggael”) in addition to AfreecaTV. DC Inside is an anonymous forum known for its prevailing conservatism, hate speech, and misogyny (S. Kim 2015; H. Kim 2022; J. Kim et al. 2023). As observed in Gil Ho Lee’s (2012) thorough ethnographic work on DC Inside, AfreecaTV has developed an intimate relationship with DC Inside from its beginning. In DC Inbanggael, people distribute gossip, rumors, and evaluations of the streamers and events, co-evolving with the dynamics of livestreaming. Including DC Inside as one of my field sites helped to historicize and contextualize AfreecaTV within the broader “vernacular cultures of digital media” (Coleman 2010) in South Korea. At the same time, due to the distinct attributes of the bulletin board and livestreaming, DC Inbanggael served as a memory-making site of and about livestreaming, through which “ephemerality is made to endure” (Chun 2008: 171).

Further Explorations

Another spatial boundary, whether physical, metaphorical, or embodied, pertains to the distinction between “online” and “offline,” often conflated with “cyber” and “real life” in vernacular expressions. Tom Boellstorff (2016: 395) suggests that virtual worlds, as places, “must be understood in their own terms, but these ‘own terms’ include influences from beyond the virtual world context.” They argue that virtual worlds are not merely potentially real, but “additional realities.” The boundaries of the virtual and the real are not fixed nor always mutually exclusive; instead, I believe they are rather porous. As Lisa Messeri (2021: 343-344) pointed out about “virtual reality,” the unreal does not oppose the real, but  “signals an opportunity to engage with a reality that is otherwise.”

I previously mentioned that AfreecaTV participants distance themselves from their livestreaming engagement. Upon analyzing livestreaming on its own terms, particularly through spatial approaches to livestreaming rooms and relevant websites, I question why AfreecaTV participants emphasize a certain discrepancy between “online activities” and “offline reality.” When and why do they actively introduce such a distinction? What underlies or persists in drawing this gap? What do these explorations tell us about contemporary Korean society? For instance, further exploration may begin with the seemingly unchallenged gender politics and masculine homosociality within and beyond livestreaming.


[1] In livestreaming, “viewers” (shich’ŏngja) do not merely watch but actively participate through their real-time chat and donation to streamers.

[2] On AfreecaTV, streamers are called “BJs” (pijei), short for “broadcasting jockeys.” While I use both “streamer” and “BJ” interchangeably here, it is crucial to note that in South Korea, they are differentiated primarily by the main platform they use for livestreaming.

[3] Since June 2017, AfreecaTV Corporation has restricted the frequency with which users can change their nickname from unlimited to once per day. However, throughout the remainder of my fieldwork period, I did not observe any significant consequences resulting from this adjustment.


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