It’s been roughly a year since I dove deep into VTubers with this post. A lot (and I mean a lot) has happened since then: for the industry, for the fandom, and for myself. I would probably be pressed for time, space, and coherence if I were to narrate everything that had happened since then (I would probably get in trouble if I did that due to… reasons). Such a telling of history would probably be best reserved for another post, for another time. This post is somewhat more urgent, since I’ve recently observed a distressing trend in the current sphere.
If you’ve been following my Twitter, I made a short series of tweets regarding doxxing and what we call Holofans Rule 8, or the no-dox rule. As a summary, Rule 8 is essentially meant to separate the VTuber persona of a streamer from any alternate or old identity that they may hold. There are a myriad of reasons why this rule sounds sensible: to protect the streamer’s identity, to protect the kayfabe of VTubing, etc. There are also a ton of people who object to this rule for a variety of reasons as well. And since this “rule” really only exists in places that explicitly state it (such as the aforementioned Hololive Fan Server), the courtesy to follow it in some form outside of these spaces doesn’t seem to be a sentiment shared by a few people.
“Okay, so boo-hoo. Some people dig up info, others don’t. Welcome to the internet, Seele.”
Fair enough. There is a certain expectation that people are just curious about the entertainers they watch, with some going to the sad point of digging uncomfortably deep into their lives. So this post isn’t gonna go out of its way to tell you to stop wondering about the people behind VTubers or to delete information you already have regarding these people.
Instead, this post is gonna be about my theory on how VTubers present themselves, how this presentation works, and what widespread doxxing does to this system and the VTubers/streamers. Specifically, I will talk about the existence of two “veils” that are set whenever a VTuber establishes themselves: the veil of physicality, and the veil of personality. These veils are not on the same footing, but both are fundamental to the operation and distinction of a VTuber (as opposed to a regular streamer, although an argument can be made that these exist for any streamer, period). I will also argue here how doxxing (in the sense of tying and sharing incriminating information about a VTuber to the public sphere) takes away these veils and presents a danger to the entire scene.
Buckle up, chug some coffee, and grab a box of pizza. There will be no pictures; only text. It’s time for another round of Seele’s patently long and pedantic essays.
Virtual YouTubers are a subset of streamers whose main gimmick is their use of animated avatars to represent themselves to a viewing audience. Most historical accounts point to Kizuna Ai as the pioneer of current VTuber culture, where the avatar/character is treated as the streamer themselves. This concept opened a new and wide set of possibilities for streamers. I explore two of them here:
- A capacity to stream as a character detached from one’s physical, real-world form.
- An enhanced degree of privacy and anonymity provided by hiding your identity and personality behind a character.
These two possibilities endow VTubers with two veils to obscure their identity with. For our purposes, I call these the veil of physicality, and the veil of personality. The veil of physicality is a necessarily stronger condition than the veil of personality, although both are integral to how VTubers protect their privacy while streaming. I expound on these concepts in the sections below.
The veil of physicality
The whole way VTubers operate is predicated on the construction of an identity or likeness separate from what they may possibly look like in real life. There are multiple benefits to this sort of construction: not only does it obfuscate the identity behind the personality, but it allows the streamer to become a new personality, if they so wish. It also provides streamers a stronger theoretical divide between their online persona and their real life persona because their “physical” (virtual) presence can be treated as separate from their own person.
Of course, the veil of physicality works to varying degrees, and not every VTuber applies it in the same way. It’s generally agreed upon that the veil works to separate the image of the VTuber from the image of the streamer behind the VTuber in order to maintain privacy. VTubers back in the 2016 era also set themselves with the façade of being “virtual denizens”; while this may only be a tongue-in-cheek suggestion in the current era, being a “virtual” presence still helps in establishing a healthy distance between the streamer as a person, the streamer as a personality, and the viewers watching the personality. Naturally, there are some exceptions to this sort of application of the veil. One can easily cite VTuber/illustrators like Kagura Nana to be one end of the spectrum, where there is only a paper-thin act separating the two personas. On the stronger side of the same end is the case of Tsukudani Norio and Inuyama Tamaki, who are, for all intents and purposes, not the same person, no matter what anyone says.
Even with these so-called exceptions, however, the veil of physicality is a courtesy accepted by VTuber communities at large. The audience accepts the kayfabe established by the VTuber as necessary for their performance. In turn, the VTuber can comfortably perform for the audience at a safe distance. It allows everyone to experience a healthy streaming environment, without counting for multiple other factors.
The veil of personality
The veil of physicality mentioned above allows VTubers to establish an online presence that is distinct from their real life personas. One can then argue that the only “veil” that actually exists is that of physicality, as it provides the fundamental foundation necessary for a VTuber to prop up their online personality. I will not argue against that, to be honest. What I will argue for is that the personality projected by the streamer is not necessarily the character (“physical”/virtual presence) they established upon becoming a VTuber. Let me explain this distinction below.
In the early days of VTubing, streamers and performers would present themselves as a character and usually stuck to it: Kizuna AI is a highly advanced virtual AI, Natori Sana lives in a virtual sanatorium, Kaguya Luna is virtual Princess Kaguya, and Akatsuki Uni is a vampire with an office in Tokyo (she says she’s not virtual, but that still fits with the whole VTuber schtick). Over time though, character settings have become less of a vital aspect for the streaming personality and more of a means to project an impression to an audience seeing them for the first time. The streamer’s character may still provide a suggestion of what the content is and how it is framed (i.e. Yukoku Roberu hosting streams in his bar, Yashiro Kizuku ranting about wage slave life), but the personality they present it with may differ from the expectation set by the character.
This then brings me to the subtle concept of the veil of personality. This veil is not the disconnect between a character and personality outlined above. Rather, the veil of personality is the thin barrier between the on-stream persona being performed to us by the VTuber and what is possibly the streamer’s real self. There isn’t― and there really shouldn’t be― any expectation that a VTuber’s streaming personality is 100% how they are in real life. This is a natural axiom assumed in the sphere of online interactions: what you are online is not necessarily what you are in real life, after all. But the veil of personality, if paired with the veil of physicality, endows an interesting and occupationally necessary paradox to VTubers in particular.
Perhaps two of the best case studies on the positive effects of the veil of personality are Minato Aqua and Usada Pekora. We, as viewers, do not know what they are like in real life. We can’t know that. We can, however, infer what they can be like around others, based on how other people talk about them and how they describe themselves. From those accounts, we can guess that both of them express some sort of social awkwardness and anxiety when around other people in real life. But they’re not like that on stream. As VTubers, they don’t curl up in a corner and emptily mumble to themselves. They entertain their audience, playing games and interacting with them. They sing and occasionally dance in front of them, too. The veil of personality gives a brief moment of confidence; giving them space to put aside the social pressures they may experience in real life in order to express themselves the best they can.
Thus, the veil of personality is not an opaque façade created when a VTuber establishes themselves. Instead, it is a filter that lets a streamer showcase a part of themselves to the audience. It doesn’tー and isn’t meant toー reveal their inner selves completely. If tuned right, however, a streamer can bring out qualities they probably never knew they had in real life.
The VTuber paradox and the deleterious effects of doxxing
There is a paradox inherent in the VTuber performance art.
The veil of physicality is an opaque shield, meant to both create and bridge a gap between the streamer and the audience. On the other hand, the veil of personality is a translucent cloth, filtering but a portion of the streamer’s person for all to see. Taken together however, a VTuber may actually feel more genuine to an audience (and possibly themselves) despite of, or rather because of the two veils acting in unison. This combination completes the paradox of the VTuber ideal: who they are doesn’t matter, because we are seeing who they want to become. This is what I think to be the core thesis of VTubers as a concept. By creating a barrier from the physical form, a VTuber brings out more of themselves as they stream. The self that they put out resonates strongly with an audience, and that resonance allows both VTuber and audience to interact.
This wonderful and honestly amusing paradox is shattered once doxxing is entered into the picture. I don’t think I need to state here that doxxing someone on the internet is an often distasteful and sometimes malicious breach of privacy on the part of the person being doxxed. That should go without saying. (Note as well that doxxing in this case applies to information that the VTuber has not revealed in any way as part of their persona.) What I want to point out here is how the act of doxxing passes through the veils I mentioned above, and how it affects both the VTuber and their audience.
It’s probably obvious that the veil of physicality is lifted off when a VTuber is doxxed. The virtual avatar doesn’t disappear upon doxxing, of course, but this protective barrier is effectively bypassed by strangers knowing your real name, age, sex, and appearance. The obfuscation and privacy promised by the façade is lost because some truffle pig decided to dig up your personal information and throw it into the wild west of the internet.
Doxxing out personal information is, in itself, already a highly damaging act. But for the most part, this isn’t the only thing that they manage to dig up. In fact, what a lot of them end up mining out first is not personal information, but past history. This past history can be anything from a streamer’s activities prior to establishing themselves as a VTuber to even previous employment unrelated to streaming. This, I argue, is what can potentially tear off the veil of personality. What a VTuber is trying to be now may be different from what they presented as before. The veil of personality starts becoming see-through, showing parts of the self that may be seen as undesirable; if not for the audience, then maybe for themselves.
In the act of exposing incriminating information and tying it to the personage of a VTuber, doxxers break the paradox of the VTuber ideal. Once their personal information is out in the wild, we who come across it will attach another name, and another face to the VTuber we have come to already know. We didn’t need to know who they are, and but now we do. By attaching the VTuber to a piece of past history unrelated to the identity they have crafted, we end up seeing what they were, instead of what they wanted to be. This is a clear tragedy; not only because of how it affects the entire community, but because this will play out even if the information is possibly untrue. The truth value of the dox doesn’t actually matter. The mere act of digging for information, spreading it online, and claiming it to be the “real” identity of the VTuber is a deleterious action.
Everything I presented above regarding the effects of doxxing can, and does sound like pure abstraction at first glance, but there is grounded basis for all of it. Japanese doxxers often reference past NND history to disparage some VTubers, while western dox parties dig up all sorts of weirdly trivial stuff that doesn’t have any bearing on a VTuber’s current activities. I’ve also seen the effects of these dox attempts on unsuspecting viewers, particularly on Discord, where the affected can range from a random user stumbling upon some “forbidden knowledge” to a mod who’s fully aware of the “occupational hazard” this information can pose. Granted, viewer reactions to doxxed information can vary from person to person. Some may react indifferently, others negatively, while a handful may be happy that someone they’ve been following from way back has become a VTuber. But it’s nonetheless worrying that there has been a recent trend of certain groups in the western sphere trying to “expose” the people behind a VTuber. I find it not only harmful, but also completely unnecessary.
Let VTubers be VTubers, I say.