Running a User Group on Twitch

Last year, I started streaming TriPASS meetings on Twitch. With all the hullabaloo going on, this turned out to be a prescient thing. I’ve also had a couple people ask me for streaming advice for technical topics, so I wanted to put together a blog post where I cover all of this. I’ll start with what we’re doing at the Triangle SQL Server Users Group (as well as a few ideas we’re kicking around) and then share some advice on getting started for yourself.

The TriPASS Offerings

We currently have three things on offer over on our Twitch channel.

Regular User Group Meetings

Our group meets approximately three times a month: the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Tuesdays, though the 4th Tuesday only meets from January through October due to holidays. This gives people a regular schedule to check in and watch a technical talk. The format is similar to a webinar with a presenter lecturing to an audience.

The good old days, back when we could be near people.

This is the easiest to wrap your head around and implement as a user group leader. It’s also convenient for attendees because they know when meetings will be well in advance.

Bonus Meetings

This is kind of the same as above, but I’m taking advantage of the fact that there are a lot of speakers who lost the opportunity to present and would like to do something. These are additional meetings that we have at times more convenient to the speaker. The plus side to this is even more content, but it means that there isn’t a set schedule.

Coding with Kevin

One of the things Twitch has to offer is the experience of unplanned content creation. Shortly before everything was cancelled, I started a series that I called Coding with Kevin, where I’d work on some stuff while I was in hotel rooms in various cities. It is definitely a low-fidelity stream experience and a way for me to get some (usually) presentation work done while giving folks a place to hang out and kibitz.

All the fun of pair programming with half of the interaction!

I won’t say that I’m going to ramp it up much in terms of frequency, but I do aim for approximately one of these a week and they last about 1-2 hours depending on how much I get accomplished and how much of a fool I currently appear to be (spoilers: in the session I took the image above from, I end up looking like quite the fool at the end).

What Else is On Tap?

I’m also looking at expanding this out to include a few other formats, including maybe an interview-based web show or semi-technical, semi-personal content, where we have a few regular panelists and bring on a guest for a technical segment. I also have other ideas kicking around in my head; it’s just a matter of ensuring I have the time to commit to them.

So You Want to Get Started

Here’s where I offer up some advice. First up, let me give you some recommended reading. About 9 months ago, I put up a post with the equipment I use for capturing in-person streams. You do not need most of this equipment if you’re online-only! Chrissy LeMaire has a great post on her setup, and that’s a lot closer to what you’re looking for. But let’s make it even easier.

Minimum Viable Equipment

You will absolutely need the following to broadcast on Twitch:

  • A desktop or laptop computer
  • A microphone, preferably one which isn’t awful
  • Broadcasting software (which is free)

That’s really not that much. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on studio equipment, especially when you’re getting started.

Here’s the equipment I use when online streaming:

  • A Surface Pro laptop. It’s what I have available to me, and it works absolutely fine.
  • A Jabra speaker phone. It’s hands-free and portable, which really helped me when I was doing this from hotel rooms. When I get serious about things, I have a Blue Yeti microphone.
  • An Elgato Stream Deck Mini. I love this thing but it is absolutely not required equipment.

Note that I didn’t say anything about a camera. You might look into something like the Logitech Brio as Chrissy recommends, though they’re sold out due to everybody needing to go buy a new webcam to work from home. I have a Logitech c930 (with privacy shade) at home and bring a c920 with me for in-person meetings with an in-person speaker. But for Coding with Kevin, I don’t have a camera on at all. Maybe in the future.

Minimum Viable Software (Plus Some More)

Regardless of what you’re streaming, you need broadcasting software. OBS Studio is my software of choice. It’s free and open source software and runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux. I’ve also tried out Streamlabs OBS (SLOBS), which looks nicer but I had some problems getting everything working, so I eventually abandoned it.

You’re going to want to spend an hour or two configuring OBS Studio. For that, I recommend the Gaming Careers YouTube channel, in particular videos like this one which give you an idea of how to set things up. OBS has a lot of settings and can be a daunting piece of software when getting started, so don’t be afraid to hack away at it for a few days.

If you want to broadcast remote speakers, you can try your meeting software of choice (Teams, GoToMeeting, WebEx, Zoom, whatever). I’ve had trouble capturing some of them in OBS Studio, though–I just get a black box. As a result, I use Whereby for conferencing. It’s free for 4 concurrent users and because it’s just HTML5, there are no plugins or add-ins you need to install.

Free Advice, Worth What You Paid For It

Here’s some advice that I’d give to people looking at going online for user groups and thinking about Twitch.

Audio > Video

If you’re going to spend money, spend it on a good microphone. A cheap webcam isn’t at all flattering, but unless your face is the star of the show (typically not for technical broadcasts), how you sound matters a lot more than how you look. You don’t need a perfect radio voice (heaven knows I don’t have one of those) but don’t use a crappy built-in laptop microphone. Even a $50 lav mic can work well.

As far as video settings go, I’d recommend broadcasting at 720p (1280×720) at 30 frames per second. That’s clear enough that you can see it on a 1080p monitor without much artifacting on the screen and the bandwidth requirements are low enough that people can watch on not-great internet connections. You can also broadcast at 1080p (1920×1080), but I’d highly recommend keeping the framerate at 30. If you get affiliated on Twitch, they’ll upsample and downsample your stream automatically and then you can broadcast at the highest resolution, framerate, and bitrate you can handle, but until then, keep those low-bandwidth folks in mind.

Contribute at Your Own Pace

At the high end, there are people who broadcast 5-8 hours a day on Twitch, and it’s a full-time job for them. None of those people are streaming technical content, though. We have day jobs (and sometimes night jobs), so expectations are different. It’s easier to build an audience if you have regular content, but “regular” can mean once a week or once a month.

That said, I would recommend that you try to have a schedule if possible. That gives people an idea of when they can probably catch you. Think of it closer to a broadcast TV experience than a pure streaming experience where people can tune in whenever but have little real interaction.

Have Two Screens

You’re going to want at least two screens here. The good news is that they don’t necessarily have to be on the same computer. When I broadcast remote presentations, I can work within OBS Studio, where I get Twitch chat and a little bit of control over the stream. But when I’m doing Coding with Kevin, I’m displaying my entire laptop screen, so opening OBS Studio is pretty much a no-go as you’ll get picture-in-picture-in-picture zaniness pretty fast and that’s not a great look.

Instead, I have a desktop machine where I can tune into the broadcast while I’m presenting (leaving my speakers off, of course). That lets me see what the viewers see and allows me to see chat. I usually respond to chat with voice—it’s a more interactive feeling that way and also limits the number of keyboards I need to clang on.

If you don’t have a second machine, Twitch has a mobile app which lets you manage your stream, so you can get to chat there on your phone or tablet.

Use the Science and Technology Channel

Twitch has you choose your category. If you’re doing a technical stream, you want to be in Science & Technology. There are some good streamers on that category and that’s where your content best fits.

Along with that, I want to spend a moment talking about chat. Twitch chat is, for the most part, an excellent community. Most of this comes from streamers setting the tone. Don’t be afraid to time someone out for crossing the line, but this also isn’t a cesspool—don’t come in expecting that you’ll have to ban everyone all the time as you’re besieged by trolls. It is a lot easier for someone to say something stupid in chat than at a live meeting, but you’re also aiming at a more mature audience, mostly people who should know better. And generally they do. If you’re really concerned, get another user group member or two to act as moderators.

Embrace the Suck

I tune in to some really great Twitch streams where a lot of time and sometimes money went into the setup. You don’t have to be that. I’ve been at this for several months and I’m nowhere near professional-grade streaming. But that’s okay—this isn’t a broadcast TV show with a multi-million dollar budget, cast of trained actors, and dozens of supporting staff. And your viewers don’t expect that.

If you really get into this and find you enjoy it, you’ll probably dedicate a good amount of time to improving the setup, but don’t feel like the barrier to entry is that you need to be a pro with expertise in videography, audio, broadcasting, and everything else. Just take it one stream at a time.

What’s Your Experience?

Have you tried streaming? What have you learned? If you have tips you’d like to share, I’d love to get your comments.

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