On September 25th, 2021, I came across a TikTok Live from a user named ad_god, playing Super Mario Bros 64 DS, a game released in 2004. He was streaming his attempt at getting the max score of 9999 in the Wanted mini-game. The stream setup was pretty typical, with the camera mounted directly in front of his Nintendo 3DS (limited edition Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate version with a brushed metal cover). He placed his phone below his 3DS, at the bottom edge of the frame, with the timer app on to keep track of how much time had passed. As the stream went on, ad_god revealed more and more personal information through his interactions with the audience. Listening to mundane details of this life, his anecdotes ('storytimes'), and his opinions on various topics that viewers asked him to weigh in on made the stream feel extremely amiable and watchable — even though we were just watching one man tap-tap-tapping on a screen. His occasional Yoshi voice impressions were also fun, and surprisingly spot on.
Wanted is basically a Where’s Waldo style mini-game; the player has to find one of four characters (Mario, Luigi, Yoshi, or Wario), hidden among a crowd of the three others. As ad_god established a steady pace, it quickly dawned on him (and the viewers) that his goal was going to take a very, very long time. At around the one-hour mark he got to level 500, which meant that attaining the max score of 9999 was going to take upwards of 20 hours. On the first day he streamed for a total of about 9 hours before finally pausing the game for the night, promising to continue streaming the next day. He then streamed for around 2-3 hours every day from day 2 to day 6. I watched for a couple of hours on the first day, and then checked in for a bit each day after that. Sometimes I just liked playing the stream in the background while I did other things, and sometimes I felt locked into a trance, sucked into the collective experience of witnessing this man performing this feat of endurance. It was truly something akin to a Marina Abramovic performance, in that this livestream also deserved to have been at the MoMA.
I still can’t really believe that I spent so much time that week just watching a camera pointed 320x240-pixel touchscreen, but the livestream had an amazing communal aspect to it. I felt incredibly mentally aligned with the 1.5k-odd people who were watching at the same time as me, a nebulous micro-community coalescing around this one livestream event. This community, inscribed within the temporal and situational confines of the livestream, developed its own inside jokes, its own sort of codified behaviors, its own specific vibe. There was a sense of history that existed on the scale of hours. People would pop in and out and say things like “I was here when he was at level 250”; “I was here from 30 to 500, and now he’s at 3125”. This practice of status signaling, based on how long or how early you had been watching the stream, was just one example of internally codified behavior that developed.
In this way, every livestream with even the most basic participatory user interface, like on Twitch or TikTok, forms an ad-hoc community of synchronized viewers that develop their own micro-body of knowledge and traditions, their own lexicon. In other words, every livestream has the potential to generate lore. As I watched this stupid Mario livestream for hours, I witnessed the community of viewers naturally and instinctively congeal through 3 main activities:
Forming a semiosphere: developing a vocabulary of memes and shared references that became the semiotic ‘world’ of the livestream. This vocabulary wasn't just limited to concrete objects or templatized phraseology. It included complex abstractions and bespoke emotions. In the case of this particular livestream, it even seemed like certain affects like 'incredulity' and 'begrudging respect' were felt so often by the audience, that they became codified, meme-ified, and satirized.
Developing a collective body of knowledge: Asking the streamer and the other viewers questions (answered with a unique mix of trolling and sincerity) in order to amass a sort of collective knowledge pool, not just about the Mario game or about ad_god himself, but also about the censorship practices of TikTok itself, and specifically how the app will just block comments containing certain words and phrases.
Participating in a collective display of nostalgia: Because of the game’s age and cult status, the livestream became a space of collective remembrance where people were compelled to voice their feelings of nostalgia, their own high scores, their lamentation of not having their DS anymore. Many comments were along the lines of “omg, childhood memory unlocked”.
In other moments, lore from other domains was brought into and integrated with the world of the livestream. At one point, ad_god joked about having a multiple camera setup, and told the viewers that if they typed ‘/cam2’, they would be able to switch to the camera pointed as his feet. The chat immediately started spamming ‘/cam2’, of course, because everyone was familiar with the 'spam logic' specific to livestream chats, and felt compelled to activate the joke that ad_god had set up. Or maybe people actually were just jonesing for that sweet sweet feetcam. ad_god went into an explanation of how fake slash commands was a form of online trolling specific to livestreams, and of the lore behind of ‘/cam2’ and the specific livestream that he attributed as its origin. Hours and even days later, people would still occasionally spam ‘/cam2’, '/cam3', '/cam7', and other variations, for the callback value. Even though the livestream itself was a contained event, the lore generated by it was dynamic and extended beyond the confines of the stream. Lore is intertextual, always referencing and bumping up against the lore of related domains. A body of lore and the community that is associated with it don't always match up one to one, as both are nebulous and ever-evolving. The act of circulating lore is also the act of re-authoring it.
In general, just having the shared experience of witnessing the stream felt extremely significant. As ad_god approached his goal of reaching level 9999, it felt like witnessing history in the making. While there are other videos online (as early as 2007) documenting people getting to level 9999, they only documented the last one or two minutes of play-time. This was probably the first time the entire process was being not only documented, but live-streamed, and thus opened up to a participatory audience. Anyone who has participated in a livestream like this is probably familiar with this particular livestream 'hype energy' and 'spam logic' that makes everyone watching feel like they're on the same team. During ad_god's stream, the viewers became intensely locked into their own clicker-like mini-game, fervently spamming likes and gifting the streamer little digital animations (bought with real money) in order to get ad_god to rise up TikTok’s weekly rankings. At its peak, the stream was the top 78th stream on the entire platform. As ad_god said many times during the stream, once he made it to 9999, everyone watching was also allowed to claim that glory.
There were, of course, limitations to the extent to which a ‘community’ could actually form around the livestream. The lifespan of the community was inherently limited by the length of the stream, and its vibrancy was dependent on other factors, like the charisma of the streamer. It felt like a proto-community, with the energy and shared traits of a unified group but without enough time or space to solidify. While it was cool to be able to see internal lore develop in real time, it wasn't always substantial. Tiny nuggets of knowledge developed and spread among the viewers — like the fact that Luigi is the hardest to find, and Wario the easiest. It made me wonder: at what point do streamers' personal anecdotes and stories start to feel like 'lore'? The line felt extremely blurry, and to a certain extent I felt like labelling everything that was happening as 'lore' was simply a way to cement the fleeting and shallow bonds that I was forming. Regardless, I and thousands of other viewers made sure we were watching on day 6 when he finally hit 9999. It turns out that while 9999 was indeed the maximum score, you could technically play forever — the levels would progress but the score would always say 9999. And then he and his girlfriend celebrated with cake, marking not only the accomplishment at hand, but also the intense parasocial bonding and in-joke creation that we had all participated in over the past few days.
After the livestream marathon was over, it felt like there was so much potential for the community to expand and deepen, but tiktok live is so insubstantial that I knew it couldn’t happen here. ad_god has his own discord server (linked in his tiktok bio), but even though the discord consists of basically the same people as the viewers of the livestream, it didn’t have the same energy as the livestreams, and was more geared towards casual conversation that didn't necessarily pertain to ad_god's content. The mechanisms of lore circulation are extremely dependent on platform and format. On Tiktok, there is no way to store or record information, so people coming into the stream late would just ask the same questions over and over again. Questions, like “what game is this?”, "why are you doing this? (because i want to)”, “how are you still doing this (i just am)”, “do your eyes hurt? (no)”, “do you have to use the bathroom (not yet)”, were constantly asked and answered. Earlier attempts to limit the amount of repetitive questions by pinning the most relevant information were eventually abandoned, futile against the velocity of chat's memetic interactions and the friction of tiktok's imperfect UI. So even 7, 12, 15 hours into the stream, people were still asking the same set of questions. The interface customization that TikTok Live afforded simply wasn't enough to support robust community knowledge—that's not exactly livestreams are for. So without many archival mechanisms for lore, the sense of community in the livestreams remained nebulous, mostly dependent on the memories of people who had been watching for a long time.
However, restrictions in user affordances often breed innovation as users find crafty work-arounds. In a fairly limited interface, any UI element subject to user input is fair game as an avenue for humor and meme logic. In this case, on day 6 of the livestream, people started changing their usernames to things like 'ad_gods_mom', 'ad_gods_secret_wife', 'ad_gods_left_shoe', complete with matching profile pictures. This was made even funnier when people realized that TikTok only allows people to change their usernames once per month. The particularities of the platform became context adding to the layers of the bit, and now whenever people encounter these accounts on other parts of TikTok, this livestream serves as the lore, the embodied backstory, behind their usernames. The dearth of user affordances also meant that other tools needed to be relied on, evidenced by the amount of fervor demonstrated around getting screenshots of level 666 and level 6969. Screenshots were another way that artifacts were created that could circulate the lore of this livestream.
Participating in this dumb little livestream really made it apparent to me that on the internet, lore can form basically around anything, because the internet has enabled communities to form around any arbitrary point of connection. These communities develop their own lexicon of memes, jargon, and behaviors, their own body of knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities, their own vibe. But as the limitations of livestream lore illustrates, the specific UI affordances of every internet platform or content format directly impacts how online communities generate, engage with, and retain lore. We might call this 'lore dynamics', or in other words, the various patterns and tendencies of how lore is created, circulated, and archived/recorded, both within and across platforms.
What’s Lore? Why Lore Now?
What exactly does the word 'lore' point to? Why is everyone using this word in the context of online communities? New modes of socializing and self-expression on the internet are constantly revealing themselves and changing. As entire ecosystems of media platforms evolve, diversify and consolidate, they converge towards a sort of equilibrium. Different platforms and models of online social organization are created in order to address the lacks and desires left by existing ones. There are platforms that try to do it all, incorporating novel features and content models from other platforms, with varied success (e.g. stories, fleets), and platforms that serve more niche functions, forming the basis for smaller, more specific communities. This establishes a matrix upon which communities form, sometimes just on single platforms, but more often than not across multiple. The members of these communities are adept at jumping from platform to platform, depending on what specific functions each one offers, and often taking on different screen-names and identities while doing so.
The shifty and shifting nature of many people’s online identity practices, especially younger people who grew up on the internet, suggests that maybe they’re not as interested in developing something like a ‘personal brand’ as marketers have enjoyed predicting. Instead of latching onto one fixed identity across many digital spaces, they embody various roles and play with different and novel modes of interpersonal relationship-building online, and find value in aligning themselves with small, close-knit internet communities.
This protean online identity-building exemplifies how the internet has altered the mechanics of cultural memory in the past 30 years. Content can live forever on the internet, and at this point we have a mountain of it >30 years deep. But the massive amount of information makes it harder to glean any coherent grand narrative from a singular monolithic source. The idea of the internet as forever-archive gets complicated when we, internet users, are faced with the task of filtering and organizing all of its data into digestible storylines. Our ability to do so depends the factors outlined above, like the affordances given to the users of a particular platform, as well as the deliberate practices of communities, which work with and against the intentions of the platform.
So what do history and knowledge practices look like in today’s online environment? It seems like each little internet community is creating these bodies of internal mythology, in various ways and degrees of formality, mostly in parallel to each other (although, like cinematic crossovers, will intersect occasionally, e.g. fandom wars).
Lore is history, myth and knowledge on a smaller scale. It permeates laterally through a community, being regulated and disseminated by a centralized body as objective fact. Lore becomes an alternative to mainstream sources of information, be they journalistic, corporate, or governmental. It is in-group knowledge that becomes the backbone of subculture. The size of that subculture can be large in scale, but it is most mysterious / illicit / exciting when it comes from smaller, more exclusive groups, powering people’s motivation to form and identify with contained, tightly-knit communities. Even within the scope of a single livestream, lore connects people by creating personas, narratives, and lexicons that, once legible to you, let you ‘in’ on something—whether that be a joke, a secret or a world.