Vtubing has Opened the Door for Underserved Communities

Elvino Da Silveira*

Projekt Melody

What is a Vtuber?

At the beginning of 2022, humans spent online 12½ trillion hours. Out of the 8 billion people in the world, almost 5 billion are active social media users. Among them, we find Vtubers.

A vtuber, or ‘Virtual Youtuber’, is a live streamer, a youtuber, who uses digital modelling, motion capture and other computer-generated imaging to create a virtual character. Instead of posting his/her/their videos with their own faces, they use avatars as their virtual selves.

With the growing popularity of Vtubing, especially in Japan and the US, it could be interesting, as it is with new technologies in general, to ask whether and how this can be used to restore or protect marginalized people’s human rights.

Looking for an answer we will focus on some artists, get to know them and understand how they use their avatars. By reading their stories it will become evident how the possibility of using a digital substitute allows for more active involvement of people with disabilities, but also for more protection of the privacy of those in dangerous lines of work.

Vtubing’s Impact on People with Disabilities

            Let us start with focusing on the impact Vtubing might have on people with disabilities, by considering the case of the US Vtuber Ironmouse. Ironmouse is now one of the most popular female live streamers in the world and she is part of the Vtuber organization Vshojo, based in San Francisco. The person behind Ironmouse has an autoimmune disorder, Common Variable Immune Deficiency, which means she is extremely susceptible to viral and bacterial infections, which limits her freedom of movement. Her disability caused her, like many others who face a severe disability, to forfeit her dreams of becoming a classically trained singer. In fact, she had to sacrifice all things requiring going outdoors, she has spent most of her life in her room and many relationships she has centered around her disability.

Yet, through V-tubing she has managed to take her freedom back, although partially. In an interview with Youtuber Anthony Padilla she stated how once she became bedridden she began to feel less than a human, a feeling that has since changed.  As she says, “since I started Vtubing, this has brought meaning to my life again…  I felt like a human for the first time”. Most recently she was able to virtually attend a fan meet up at the popular streaming platform Twitchcon. Here she and her fans could move past an otherwise impossible barrier and meet each other virtually avatar to faces. Also, Ironmouse was able to meet with her friends she made by V-tubing and even achieve a previously impossible dream of holding a concert where she can sing through her virtual avatar.

Vtubing and the Protection of Privacy

            Privacy protection has generated growing concerns in the last decade and it is precisely the interest in protecting their privacy that pushed Vtubers to use a digital model, instead of their faces and bodies to post their content, especially when it is explicit. Let us take Projekt Melody as an example. Projekt Melody originally debuted as an independent streamer on porn live streaming website Chaturbate on February 8th, 2020 presented as a digital model of a ‘sentient A.I. that became infatuated with porn’. Besides getting instantaneous success on Valentine’s day through the website donation system, Melody has been a major player in humanizing sex work. Sex workers have constantly faced defacement and frequently dealt with assault. Yet via V-tubing, Projekt Melody helps to completely mask sex workers’ identity from potential harassers; in addition, despite her avatar not being real, her fans do view her as a human being rather than a sexual object, as it appears evident from users’ comments.

Surely, Melody still does face harassment online sometimes even by fans who have developed para-social relationships with her, still this appears to be less distressing for the people behind the project than if they were the direct targets of abuse.

At the same time, there is another advantage in using virtual selves to live stream: the easier migration to other platforms and contents.

For instance, Melody has successfully transferred to non-adult industries on YouTube and Twitch with enough success to join a mainstream company. Nonetheless, even though Melody has the option of leaving sex work thanks to V-tubing’s anonymity she still faces discrimination for her initial career choice. For example, a collaboration with another prominent V-tuber, Kiryu Coco was shut down by her company Hololive once they learned about Melody’s adult content.

Not all that shine is gold: the dangers of Vtubing

            Both Project Melody and Ironmouse have been good examples of what Vtubing can and has done for so many. However, just like any tool, vtubing can be used in abusive ways. While anonymity protects privacy and shields from abusive behaviour, it can also allow sex traffickers, targeting minors in particular, to cover their tracks through virtual models and get away with their crimes.

In addition, this technology, readily available through virtual reality games, has first been used by a public of minors and has allowed them to encounter sexually explicit contents by masking their age with their avatar of choice. While there are surely pros in anybody possibly being anybody, it is evident how this brings serious issues with this. Indeed, many children and concerned adults have already reported minors having experienced grooming by adults online. So, if the internet has always been a dangerous place for minors, unregulated V-tubing could surely exacerbate problems before adequate protections can be put in place.

A Tool for Change

While V-tubing remains an expensive medium that can only virtually bring people with disabilities to places not physically accessible to them, it is a viable and precious tool to remove the personal embarrassment often associated with showing one’s body in a world where differences are not always cherished, protecting people from direct bullying.

At the same time, precisely by granting anonymity, V-tubing protects one’s privacy to a degree that other forms of virtual sharing do not.

For communities that face constant discrimination, such as, among others, members of the trans community, or the already mentioned people with disabilities, V-tubing can be a safe space to express themselves in the way they want.

Still, V-tubing brings with it certain risks, so the hope is that this technology is able to evolve and support many more people just as it did for Ironmouse and ProjektMelody, while preventing abusive behaviours and putting in place the proper regulations to protect minors from harassment and groping.

*Elvino da Silveira (They/Them) is a senior college student in political science, economics, and pre-law at American University in Washington DC, USA. He has an active interest in new media technology, political systems, and MMT (Modern Money Theory) Economics.

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