Streaming With Hasan Piker, the AOC of Twitch

“I’m a political commentator with, like, stans.”

9/27/2021 5:12:00 PM

'I want to show people that you can be a progressive and not be a total f*cking scold,' says hasanthehun. luke_winkie reports

“I’m a political commentator with, like, stans.”

“As long as you don’t defang your core values, as long as you’re still speaking truth to power, then fuck ’em,” Piker tells me three weeks later, recounting the drama as we sit in the living room of his nearby apartment rather than the five-bedroom, five-bathroom home he refuses to apologize for buying. “I don’t give a shit. I’m doing this in the least exploitative way you functionally fucking can.” The room is littered with bachelorish clutter: papers, books, and gaming gear are piled on every surface. “It’s my labor,” he says, throwing up two middle fingers painted with chipped black polish. “I’m the one who’s streaming for ten hours.”

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Piker is a Twitch streamer who spends every day in front of a camera speaking to his 1.5 million followers. But unlike most of the platform’s top users, who livestream themselves playing video games while shooting the breeze with their fans, Piker (username @HasanAbi) mostly talks politics. He trawls through Twitter and roasts bad takes from career right-wing correspondents like Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson; he breaks down hawkish New York Times op-eds line by line, steadily working himself into a frothy fury. It is free-associative and open-ended. “I have an accelerated version of brain worms,” he says. “I’m literally always online. I’m consuming media nonstop.” Twitch is owned by Amazon, and it provides no sorting category for civic commentary; Piker lists his broadcast under a section called “Just Chatting.” Tune in to a Piker stream and watch him condemn the civilian death toll in Afghanistan. An hour later, he may move on to revisiting his favorite WWE feuds.

Fans don’t need to have studied Marx to understand where Piker is coming from. He looms over his streaming rig at six-foot-four, broad-shouldered, in a silver bracelet and a paint-speckled Cowboy Bebop shirt, gnashing a cud of nicotine gum against his molars. On Election Night, from this same room, he hosted nearly 230,000 concurrent viewers, making him the sixth-most-watched election livestream across the internet. A month prior, he broadcast playing the video game Among Us with representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar as part of a voter-registration push. Like those similarly alluring avatars of the left, Piker proposes not only ushering socialism closer to the center but making it fashionable. headtopics.com

“For a long time in the Obama era, being a progressive meant that you listened to NPR podcasts and were constantly upset about not having enough representation in the media,” he says, later adding, “The left was always getting a bad rap. It was very successfully turned into a cartoonish depiction of a hysterical person, someone who doesn’t see any joy in life. I want to show people that you can be a progressive and not be a total fucking scold.”

Piker was born in New Jersey and grew up in Istanbul thoroughly obsessed with American movies. (“That’s why I don’t have an accent,” he says.) His first brush with punditry came in 2013, after he secured an internship with The Young Turks, a progressive news show co-created by his uncle, Cenk Uygur. Three years later, Piker became the host of a shortform-video series, The Breakdown, in which he developed both his nose for virality and the profanity he often deploys against his conservative-media rivals. Tomi Lahren was a frequent target, as was Jordan Peterson. The videos were a hit, some topping out at around 20 million views. Piker became known, as BuzzFeed put it, as a “woke bae” — a distinction he happily dined out on through his mid-20s as he plotted his eventual exit from his uncle’s firm.

“I’d take these awful, cringey Instagram-model photos,” he says. “People responded to it: Here’s this good-looking dude who also has some interesting opinions.” At the time, The Young Turks was paying him “$50 to $60 grand a year,” he says; as his audience grew, he figured he could make more going it alone.

He pivoted to Twitch and seized the means of production. In January 2020, Piker started streaming from his home full time, generating revenue from advertisements and subscription fees from his most loyal viewers. And he started feeling more famous: He had gone from getting recognized at Politicon to millennials and zoomers approaching him out and about in L.A. “I’m a political commentator with, like, stans,” he tells me. “That’s not normal at all.” headtopics.com

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His young admirers are why Piker frequently refers to his stream as a “day care.” He’s live from 11 a.m. to the early evening, cultivating the minds of teens, college students, and burned-out 20-somethings around the world. Piker is aware he possesses a rare opportunity to radicalize the youth. “As the boomer,” he jokes at the start of his stream on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, “I want to show you guys how the world changed and how psychotic Americans behaved,” before shuffling through a makeshift slideshow documenting the lowlights of those protean early Bush years. (In 2019, he was briefly banned from Twitch and feuded with Rep. Dan Crenshaw for saying “America deserved 9/11” during a stream. “Obv i don’t support terrorism,” Piker tweeted in response to Crenshaw. “After all i’m critcizing the american govt for supporting terrorism both leading up to, and post 911. i realize i used imprecise language that easily got weaponized by the right but spare me your moral grandstanding.”) Freedom fries, WMDs, and the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi are all mentioned. Many of the most prominent young pundits online, like Candace Owens, Dave Rubin, and Tim Pool, skew right. Maybe, argues Piker, his success will open the door for other young leftists, tipping the scales of the algorithm.

“I think the way I see the world is the correct way. And I think there are plenty of people who feel exactly like I do, but they don’t have the tools to recognize that. I try to help them develop those tools,” he says. “I love shitposting, I love having fun, but I take it seriously as well.”

Of course, that brings us back to the house and the reality that the more Piker’s brand grows, the more prosperous he will become. For a select group of popular leftists, business is booming: Chapo Trap House, the podcast responsible for some of the basic grammar of the movement, rakes in nearly $2 million a year on Patreon. Ocasio-Cortez recently came under fire for her appearance at the Met Gala wearing a dress printed with the words TAX THE RICH. Toward the end of our conversation, Piker mentions that he was recently in contact with a network that wanted him as a host. He passed on the opportunity, but it conjured images of his Twitch persona sanded down to fit the contours of commercial television. Nobody knows how to be a famous socialist. Same as it ever was.

I ask Piker about the AOC dress. Does he see any parallels between her position and his? Would he accept the invitation? Hell, would he show up in a protest outfit?“I think the Met Gala is a disgusting, gluttonous exercise, and if given the opportunity to go, I’d do it in a fucking heartbeat,” he replies. “I’m sorry, everyone would. Why wouldn’t you want to hang out with Frank Ocean? They’re not going to the fucking Davos summit.” He allows that those with real power, such as elected officials, should be held to a higher standard than a jacked Twitch streamer. Still, I get the sense he has grown tired of the left eating its own. headtopics.com

It’s time to get back to work. His Twitch chat is already percolating on the screen behind him. His loyal audience is filtering in, wondering why he’s late. He retrieves an iced coffee from the fridge and elevates his desk to its standing position. Today we’ll be talking about American war crimes, CIA subterfuge, and the California recall. All of those nervy questions — about real-estate valuations, sartorial choices, the ethical maneuvering necessary for a socialist in a capitalist world — fade away. The cameras are rolling, the tabs are filling up on the Chrome browser, and Hasan Piker is at peace on the right side of history. Nobody in the world can convince him otherwise. Maybe it really is that simple.

Read more: New York Magazine »

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