The internet is a dynamic rollercoaster and YouTube is the launch track responsible for its rampant acceleration. Back in the early to mid 2000s, the video-sharing platform witnessed the boom of skit-based content creators like Smosh and NigaHiga. Then, in the 2010s came gaming content and viral YouTube Poops—followed by storytime animators and horror narrators like Corpse Husband and Cryaotic. Fast forward to 2020, YouTube backed the rise of silent vloggers, trash streamers, and perhaps the most notable of all, VTubers.
Using customised motion-tracked digital avatars, Virtual YouTubers (shortened VTubers) slowly but surely gripped internet and meme culture alike with their anime-inspired characters with large eyes and boisterous personalities. Voiced by the creators themselves, the cultural phenomenon caught its big break due to its roots in anonymity. It essentially allowed influencers to stay faceless on the internet while still allowing them to create content by doing what they love—be it singing, dancing, or livestreaming video games.
At the time, however, what the community didn’t anticipate was the parallel rise of another genre of virtual influencers. Meet PNGTubers, faceless creators obsessed with transparent backgrounds on a mission to combat the skill and financial barriers of VTubing. And it is this exact motive that has been misinterpreted by the broader internet, in turn, making them subjects of constant bullying, stereotyping, and even doxxing.
PNGTubers or PNG YouTubers are a type of VTubers who use two-dimensional (2D) PNGs—the frequently used uncompressed raster image format on the internet—as their virtual avatars in videos. While some creators draw their own characters, most of them commission external artists to illustrate different versions of a single avatar with a variety of emotions. For example, the avatar starter pack includes two images of the same PNG character: one with its mouth open and one with its mouth closed.
These two are then animated using online software like Discord Reactive Images, Veadotube Mini, or Honk to make it seem like the avatar is talking to audiences and are typically superimposed over Minecraft runs in the background.
Mostly found on YouTube Shorts, TikTok, and Twitch, PNGTubers can be seen introducing themselves and reacting to comments on previous videos. Here, the avatars sometimes bounce on the screen to express excitement or deep-fried tremble when reading out triggering comments. Coupled with mouse tracking and blinking, the creators also deploy the chibi crying, laughing, and uwu simping versions of the characters when necessary. Simply put, the possibilities are endless when it comes to PNGTubing and the cost of entry—both in terms of hard skills and monetary barriers—is relatively lower when compared to VTubing.
Although PNGTubers made their controversial mainstream debut in 2021, one of their earliest precursors is a YouTuber called Sub2Me4ASub, also known as TheStick, who began posting videos in 2008. The clips, which are now archived, featured a number of transparent 2D stick figures who talked via text-to-speech. Then came YouTuber Saberspark, who has reportedly been using a PNG avatar modelled after themselves since 31 March 2016. As of today, the virtual influencer has a whopping 1.68 million YouTube subscribers and curates video essays about animated TV shows.
PNGTubing has since taken off as a side hustle for many netizens, more specifically, underage enthusiasts who want to dip their toes in VTubing minus the monetary commitment. I mean, what better way to know if you want to pursue streaming as a hobby or career in the future than first making your inexpensive PNG model, growing your community, and saving funds for a better 3D avatar later?
For the broader internet, unfortunately, PNGTubing’s roots in responsible funding and undeterred fun is a deadly combo that will only result in cyberbullying and pathetic doxxing threats.
For starters, PNGTubers are equated to rantsonas, a genre of controversial rant videos starring furries and their anthropomorphic 2D animal avatars called fursonas. Originating on Twitter in 2018, rantsonas were quickly labelled “cringey” because the internet loves to hate on the furry fandom for absolutely no reason whatsoever. If you don’t believe me, type “I’m a furry lol” on a Discord server and witness how quickly you get blacklisted before legit paedophiles.
Although much of the internet has moved on from comparing PNGTubers and rantsonas, certain lingering comments have pushed the former to be routinely attacked by cringe culture across social media platforms. On these terms, viewers have also criticised the genre for being “lazy” and “annoying.”
Under several videos posted by PNGTubers, netizens can be seen commenting “I bet your father never returned with the milk.” This is because of the stereotype that PNGTubers are “fatherless YouTubers” who two-year-olds can beat in a roast battle because they have “not matured enough.” We’re talking about a creator base of majorly underage enthusiasts here, by the way. The boilerplate claims are further evident on Urban Dictionary, where one definition entry for the term ‘PNGTuber’ reads: “A most likely LGBTQ+ Minecraft ‘content’ creator that thrives off of their 96.2 per cent female fanbase. Most likely a byproduct of a severe, sudden loss of creativity. Found most commonly in the darkest depths of the hellhole that is known as YouTube Shorts.”
But it wasn’t until the start of 2022 that the internet hate train against PNGTubers left its rather unappetising station. Earlier this year, several YouTubers began calling out PNGTubers in viral videos—stating that their content ripped prominent Minecraft creators and was just “boring” and “low-effort” in general. The hate then slowly transformed into a full-blown cyberbullying campaign orchestrated on TikTok against a popular underage PNGTuber called JellyBean.
In February, TikTok users rallied a hate raid under #jellymid (with 365.6 million views on the platform), where they blatantly bullied the creator for their “band kid” humour. The hashtag eventually led to the rise of the Berserk Skeletons meme, as many netizens inserted the clip into JellyBean’s videos in order to “respond” to their jokes. What’s worse is that some users have doxxed and plastered their real face in some clips criticising their looks. Did I mention that JellyBean is still a minor? Nothing screams ‘massive insecurities’ more than bullying someone on the internet, if you ask me.
Nevertheless, the virtual influencer has not let the hate get to them and currently sports a whopping 3.4 million subscribers on YouTube—with an impressive all-round presence on Instagram, TikTok, Discord, and Twitch too.
Back to the technical aspects of PNGTubing, many have also criticised the genre’s placement of the 2D avatars—especially when they cover a big chunk of the screen, in turn, disabling audiences from viewing the Minecraft runs in the background. Given how the same images of the avatar are used in all videos, the content also harbours the potential of easily boring viewers.
“It works for VTubers because they are streaming their content live, and their avatar shows their immediate reaction and serves as a deeper interactive element for the audience,” said Benji, a self-proclaimed “PNGSimper” on Discord. “PNGTubers use their avatar in a pre-recorded and edited video, where the avatar simply serves as a filling for the screen without any other purpose (Saberspark, and 99.9 per cent of the others), and very often is a lazy substitute to the theme-relevant footage they’d have to edit in otherwise, and a way to cheapen the production this way.”
At the same time, the enthusiast highlighted the boundaries of creativity in the world of PNGTubing. “As for the images repeating, yeah, there’s only so much you can do with this technique. You can’t exactly expect dozens of different pre-drawn poses, these are YouTubers or streamers, they’re not making a professional TV show.”
At the end of the day, remember that every new YouTube phenomenon—be it horror narrations, parody skits, or VTubing—has been subjected to a ‘cringey’ and ‘childish’ phase before being accepted as an established member of the internet ecosystem. You could call it a rite of passage and I’m sure there will be more genres of virtual influencers popping up on our FYPs in the future, from JPGTubers to GIFTubers. But when that time comes, the most basic thing we can do now is pledge not to bully and discourage them off the internet. Let them have their fun and just click off the video if the content annoys you, capisce?