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In defence of PNGTubers, the next generation of virtual influencers

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.

What are PNGTubers?

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.

@ge3t3e

IM A STREAMING GAME ARTIST! New emote! #GE3T3E #Fairybread #FairybreadArmy #Minecraft #MCYT #fyp #fypシ #streamer#funny #joke #twitch #youtuber #pngtuber #smallcc #smallmcyt #mcyts #twitchstreamer #Australia

♬ Friday Theme - Uglyburger0

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.

A genre rife with “fatherlessness” and “unoriginality”

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.

@beannothere

I HAVE RETURNED TO TIKTOK #jellybean #minecraft #minecraftmemes #jellybeanhate #pngtuber

♬ original sound - JellyBean

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?

@frostarcticfox

THIS IS THE WORST MINECRAFT UPDATE OF ALL TIME! 😡 #minecraft #mcyt #minecraftmemes #minecraftparkour

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Two VTubers explain the rise of an internet phenomenon, will VTubing be the next big thing?

We undoubtedly live in a space-age of internet phenomenons. On one hand, there are internet aesthetics and subcultures continuously churning out as we speak. On the other, we spot the rise of anonymous influencers, charming the internet with their hands, voice and gameplays. Among the latter are Virtual YouTubers, the online entertainers disguising their appearance by using customised digital avatars. While secondary research glorifies a third-party perspective to these creators, we spoke to two VTubers to dive behind the scenes of the coveted phenomenonbreaking down their struggles and learnings to guide other creators on the rise.

“When I first heard about VTubers, I didn’t really understand them,” started Monty Seelana, a VTuber with a ‘fairy scholar’ avatar streaming on YouTube for the past three months. Having come across the term in October 2020, the now-converted creator admitted to wondering if there were real people behind the avatar or computer-generated ones like Vocaloid. “How authentic were the people’s personalities, or was it all an act? What was the difference between VTubers and regular Twitch streamers?” were both questions that Monty was curious about until the creator stumbled across two specific clips by Minato Aqua and Usada Pekora.

“They discussed how bad their social anxiety was—in stark contrast to how energetic and bombastic they were while streaming to thousands of people,” Monty said. “That was when I realised that having a virtual avatar as a mask can empower you to be your true self without judgement.” Monty admitted to having fallen down the rabbit hole over time, currently streaming a wide variety of games, hosting interviews with fellow VTubers and curating dedicated tutorials with the intention of helping other creators overcome the large skill and financial barriers to becoming successful VTubers.

For Murazrai, however, the decision to try out VTubing was not influenced by actual VTubers. “It was because I wanted an escape from my current workplace,” the creator admitted. “While I’m unhappy with how my current workplace is, I realise that changing jobs is not the solution and that I would face the same problems in a new workplace.” Seeking to work outside of traditional careers, the three month old VTuber initially tried becoming a YouTuber with a mask and hat on. “But my sister called my streaming getup weird so I abandoned that,” Murazrai said. “A few months later, after a bad day at work, I chose to become a VTuber.”

Murazrai is an autistic VTuber based in Malaysia whose VTubing activities revolve around streaming Japanese freeware games and composing recorder music with the occasional first-person shooter games. The creator lists VTubers like Mori Calliope and Oda Ricoru influencing personal recorder compositions along with Oshaberi Daisy and Niwarin rekindling Murazrai’s interest in Japanese freeware games. “Niwarin is most supportive of me. He gave me advice on being a Japanese freeware VTuber and sometimes comes to watch my livestreams. In turn, I also watch his livestreams even if he’s drawing instead of streaming.”

The curated world of two-dimensional frontiers

What better way to start breaking down these motion-tracked personalities than with their digital avatars? When asked about Monty’s inspiration behind the ‘fairy scholar’ avatar, the creator reminisced, “Before I was Monty, I was a huge nerd—a big reader that enjoyed writing and I loved fantasy themes and Dungeons and Dragons.” Monty admitted to always wanting a scholar or librarian character to represent that core interest. “Me being a fairy came from my personality—I swing wildly between being a wholesome and helpful person and being a chaotic prankster.”

The VTuber further admits that the family name ‘Seelana’ comes from the historical Scottish fairy lore which splits fairies into two classifications—the nice-but-still-dangerous fairies in the Seelie Court, and the more malicious ones in the Unseelie Court. “My given name, Monty, I think I just picked it because it sounded good and I respected Monty Oum. Once I had the name in my head, it just clicked and that was that.”

For Murazrai, the current avatar is literally the Live2D version of the creator. “I did this to avoid autism masking issues that come with playing a character,” Murazrai admitted. “I have commissioned Reem for my L2D model which went smoothly. However, I have only a half-body model rather than a full-body model that most—if not all—VTubers are using.”

Behind the scenes of seamless streaming

When asked about the technical and thought process that goes behind Murazrai’s livestreams, the creator differentiated FPS livestreams from that of Japanese freeware games. “For FPS, since I currently stream only CS:GO (with Apex Legends and Eximius: Seize The Frontline being considered in the future) I chose to seek out community hostage maps and stream them since I don’t see any online personalities do it, VTubers or otherwise.”

When it comes to Japanese freeware games, however, “things are a bit more complicated.” “First, I check for games to stream in Japanese freeware repositories. I check on three websites: Freem, Freeware-Mugen and Vector. But I end up choosing Freem since it has a lot of games with openly stated permissions for streamingsomething that Freeware-Mugen and Vector lack.”

If the permission statement is missing, however, the VTuber will try to obtain the same before streaming by tracking down the developer on Twitter. “Once I have obtained permission, I will include them in an Excel sheet to manage them,” Murazrai continued. “For both the FPS and freeware games, once I have the schedule down, I will set up the stream a day before and announce the stream content on my Twitter. On the streaming day, I will have my streaming software ready 5 minutes before the scheduled stream while setting up Twitter and Discord posts. Once the stream starts, I submit the posts.”

Most comfortable with gaming, Monty admitted that streaming isn’t too difficult for the creator from a technical standpoint. “I’ve quickly gotten into a good swing where I can stream most games without much setup, but before I started publically streaming, I did do private practice streams for a month just to be comfortable.”

In terms of thought processes before streaming, Monty streams what interests the creator at the moment. “My own taste in games is all over the place and I know I’m not good enough at games for anyone to watch me for a display of skill, so I figured the reason people watch me will be because I’m enjoying myselfand I prioritise that when picking what games to play.” This process has essentially helped the VTuber during massive Steam backlogs.

When asked about the factors Monty took into consideration when choosing the content niche in which to specialise in, the VTuber enlightened, “I settled on games just because that was what I did anyways, but I picked interviews and tutorials because they weren’t something that I saw too much of, and I wanted to give back to the community.” For Monty, the interviews series started off as a dream, “I wanted to be a guest of big VTuber interviewers like Domoarigathanks and Laprio Arcaena but I figured I barely stood a chance because of how small I was.” This thought, however, didn’t deter the creator.

“If all of us small VTubers couldn’t make it to the interviews, then I’d bring the interviews to us. I made my own interview format to try to knit the VTuber scene togethergroup interviews where the questions were determined ahead of time, hoping to hit a good balance between being interesting and conversation-provoking, while making sure everyone is comfortable.” Monty currently hopes that the VTuber’s interview series will be something that people want to join—a series that self-advertises and spreads through word of mouth.

The realm of boundless collaborations

Various multi-disciplinary artists we spoke to here at Screen Shot were huge advocates of collaborations in the present world of hyper-connectedness. It essentially fosters “a space for artistic growth, inspiration and playfulness” while sharing the workload. So how do collaborations work for VTubers? And if so, are there any inhibitions these online personalities face?

“So far my only collaboration was with Laz, a virtual flutist from Japan,” said Murazrai. “I composed Breeze Over Sunset, a flute solo for him and as part of the collaboration I released its recorder arrangement on my channel.” The VTuber admitted to having chatted with Laz in English over DMs hence not experiencing much of a language barrier except for the fact that Murazrai was “unable to proofread his Japanese video description.” The creator also doesn’t perceive his autism as a deterrent from collaborations. “No one cares if I am autistic or not. When it comes to collaborations, my gender and the content of collaboration matters more,” Murazrai added.

Over to Monty, the VTuber admitted to collaborating more frequently for weekly interviews compared to gaming streams. “I haven’t experienced a language barrier yet, but this is an effect of how large the VTuber scene is and how different language scenes can be rather insulated from one another.”

An ode to the rise of anonymous influencers

VTubers have undoubtedly redefined the scene for anonymous influencers. Introduced to the motion-tracked world of VTubing with videos of creators discussing their social anxiety, Monty admitted to using the ‘fairy scholar’ avatar to push through the creator’s own social anxiety.

“I often say that the VTuber scene is a huge boon to anyone looking to redefine themselves and take control of what parts of themselves they want to portray, and I can definitely see these aspects being used in the realm of anonymous influencers,” Monty stated. The creator highlighted the fact that both VTubers and their fans “respect the difference between a VTuber’s identity and the person behind the voice acting and face-capture.” Monty further outlined the potential the VTuber scene has in helping keep up your brand while staying anonymous.

“I know many VTubers who have taken on identities specifically for anonymity. Some others use it as they wrestle with gender identity or body dysphoria. Of course, others might just want to be cute anime characters.”

A diary of struggles, learnings and achievements

The VTuber scene, like Monty mentioned, is not free of barriers. Many of these creators experience skill and financial hurdles in hopes of paving their way to a favourable future. When asked about the struggles, learnings and consequent achievements, Murazrai listed five major ones starting with ‘streams running late’ due to juggling a day job, household responsibilities and everyday life. The VTuber has hence, understandably, made the decision to delay night streaming during work days.

“For almost 3 months, I also had to stream using a 4G LTE router as a compromise when my sister was unable to sign up for a fibre broadband internet plan due to infrastructure issues,” Murazrai continued. “The upload speeds sucked to the point that I could only stream Japanese freeware games at questionable video qualities.” The creator further lists ‘lack of correspondence’ as a frequent hindrance to the content plan. “There are moments when I tried to reach out to developers and ask for permission to stream their games but there’s no reply,” Murazrai added.

Language barrier is yet another one on the list. “My Japanese sucks so my applications to appear in a few talk streams by other VTubers were denied. This has become a paradox for me because the main reason why I like a lot of Japanese things is because of not having the knowledge of the language. This allows me to focus on the actual content rather than getting distracted by trying to understand the language.” The VTuber wishes for the invention of virtual translators which can appear alongside streams to overcome this particular issue.

A struggle both Murazrai and Monty seem to share is that of ‘lack of viewers and audience’. “Most of the time when I will be streaming, no one would be watching,” Murazrai admitted. Monty equated the struggle of getting an audience to that faced by “just about every small entertainer.” “I do what I can to stand out and give people a reason to watch me over others, but I’m still just a drop of water in an ocean of VTubers—with that ocean constantly growing.”

Despite these issues, however, Murazrai notes a recent spike in the VTuber’s stream archives, getting “a small but consistent number of viewers.” Monty, on the other hand, hinges growth on the interview and tutorial series “because they’re relatively unique amongst VTubers.”

“The interviews are always fun and they’re a sneaky bit of marketing,” Monty said. “By doing group interviews, the combined fanbases of all the VTubers come together and find reasons to support other VTuber guests. It’s a good bit of growth while being something that people genuinely look forward to.” This has essentially led Monty towards one of the greatest achievements in the VTuber scene.

“When I first started VTubing, I looked up to an indie VTuber named Fuwako Yuni, and I reached out to her early on for advice. Several months later, she DMed me saying she’d been watching my interviews, and was interested in appearing in one of them!” Monty has also witnessed a surge of interest from other VTubers to the creator’s interview callouts. Interests have in fact spiked to the point where Monty can’t “reasonably interview everyone who’s interested.”

In comparison, however, Monty’s tutorial videos are tough to create. “I didn’t know a lot about making concise learning material or video editing at first, so they started off quite rough. I’m getting better at making them now – I can record and edit more efficiently and I’m happier with the quality – but they still aren’t getting the traction I was hoping for, and they’re still quite an ordeal to make.”

Monty’s latest tutorial, focusing on debunking the lofty expectations of what was required to be a VTuber, took the creator almost five days to make. “I have a lot to learn in this regard, to streamline my process and just overall be better at managing my time. I want my tutorial series to be something I’m really proud of, but that doesn’t happen if I struggle to put out a short video every other week,” Monty added.

VTubing 101

Monty didn’t have a lot of technical knowledge before entering the two-dimensional realm of VTubing. “I had no prior streaming knowledge, no video/audio editing knowledge, just other people to compare myself to,” Monty stated. Every time the VTuber tripped, lessons learned were noted down and compiled to “teach others so they didn’t have to go through the same.”

“Every time I make a tutorial, I learn a bit more about audio/video editing, and it makes me cringe at some of my older work where some of the editing wasn’t too great.” When it comes to VTubing, Monty admitted to being a bit of a perfectionist. “I’ll often record and re-record lines for hours until I get it right, and even then I’ll feel like it wasn’t the best work I could’ve put out. I want my tutorial series to be a huge help to the community, something I’m proud of that persists.”

With that being said, here’s Monty’s live tutorial for other aspirational VTubers out there: “Take it slow. In the end, VTubing is just regular streaming with tons of extra steps, and you can apply each of those steps one at a time. You don’t have to get it all right on your very first stream or video.”

The creator recommends tutorials to get one started with a basic recording/streaming setup via Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), helping take the VTubing half step-by-step. “The process of getting your own virtual avatar, fully rigged and ready for face capturing, requires climbing either a steep financial commitment or a steep learning curve as you try to figure it out on your ownso don’t feel like you need to do all of that right away, especially if you aren’t even sure if VTubing is right for you.”

“Join VTubing communities and reach out to other people who have walked the same paththey can tell you what to be aware of, or provide tips and tricks.” Monty personally suggests joining the Aspiring VTubers Discord server for the same. “As for your VTuber identity, I suggest looking up Argama Witch’s tutorials on using VRoid Studio. It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but she does wonders in making it look accessible.”

Next up is a one-on-one advice session with Murazrai. “VTubing is a very expensive and time-consuming endeavour that not everyone should be trying.” The creator suggests trying out no-cam streams initially while seeking artists to make a PNG art for your eventual model. “At least if you feel that you are not up for it you didn’t spend too much money,” Murazrai added.

Secondly, be very clear about what you will be doing. “You don’t have to focus on a single niche (and I strongly advise against it unless you know exactly what you’re doing), but you need to know the essentials you want to incorporate into your VTubing activities and learn them.” The VTuber stresses the need for networking like Monty. “Networking threads are good to know other VTubers but don’t stop there. Go and seek out VTubers with the same niche of yours and build up a long-term rapport by commenting on their videos/streams and replying to their Twitter posts.”

One thing to keep in mind here is to avoid isolating yourself within such VTubing circles. “Connect with people outside of these circles related to your niche too. If you can get their support, that’s even better.” “While taking opportunities are important, there are times that you need to create the opportunity on your own. This is how I get to collaborate with Laz,” Murazrai concluded.

The potent way forward

From a third-party perspective, VTubing has immense potential to redefine content creation in a digital-first age. But what do VTubers themselves think of the future of VTubing? Murazrai predicts VTubing to become part of the  mainstream’s awareness soon, just like real-life YouTubers and streamers a few years back. “It’ll be seen as a regular form of entertainment rather than something totally radical,” the creator added.

Monty, however, is not all quite sure. “It’s safe to say that the VTuber phenomenon really only caught wind outside of Japan in the past year or so with the explosive rise of Hololive over 2020but that means the VTubing scene outside of Japan is really only a year old.” Although Monty is optimistic about the future of VTubing, the creator stresses on the “need to be aware of just how young the scene is so far.”

“We’ve not really hit the growing pains that every popular trend has,” Monty continued. “There hasn’t been any major drama or notable jerks on the scene. That’ll change, and I think we’ll all be able to get around it when it does happen, but right now the scene is in a honeymoon phase with lots of growth.”

Monty hopes to take up VTubing as a full-blown career soon. “But for right now I’m trying to keep myself grounded with treating this as a hobby that I’m taking rather seriously, alongside a full-time job.” Monty also pointed out the fact that the creator has not made a single cent three months in.

“I’m not in it for the money,” Monty stated. “I want to make content and grow popular because of it. My biggest aspiration is to join one of the famous VTuber agencies, like Hololive or Nijisanji, and I’m constantly trying to improve my entertainer and technical skills to earn a spot. You could say I’m shooting for the stars while having a safety net and realistic expectations at the same time.”

Murazrai and Monty want to travel to Japan and Scandinavian countries respectively if they get the chance. Be it with the purpose of visiting the Comiket and Music Media-mix Market to meet their favorite doujin singers or exploring the place at their own pace, these two VTubers have one thing set straight: their belief in the power of VTubing along with the determination to keep going—spreading their wings as far and wide as they can along the way.