The Strange Appeal of Watching Coders Code
Legions of programmers now stream their work on Livecoding.tv, a site that turns their lonely labor into something more like a party.
The camera does not love computer programming. OK, it’s worse: The camera runs screaming in horror from anything resembling programming. Writing code might be the single least cinematic pursuit humankind has yet devised. It makes paint drying look like Star Wars.
Hollywood has a hack for dealing with this: Never, ever show programming in any detail, particularly chunks of actual code, for more than a few seconds. Step away from the keyboard. Cut quickly to something sexier.
So why are thousands of software developers dallying for hours on a new website called Livecoding.tv that lets them livestream their desktop coding dramas? They’re not, for the most part, seeking to entertain their viewers. (That’s good, given the odds.) The founders of the service say it’s all about education — and sure, there’s plenty of chances to learn stuff there. But what the developers on Livecoding.tv are really up to is something simpler: They’re transforming the solitary, frustrating act of coding into something more convivial. They’re making programming less lonely.
Today there are at least two schools of streaming style on Livecoding. There are the introverts, who sit in a dark room and mumble into their mikes or stay mum while they work their keyboards and mice. (Try Melbourne-based game developer “slateytv” for a taste.) The extroverts, by contrast, stream from busy rooms, talk a blue streak, and drag other people, along with the occasional pet, into the frame. Here, for instance, is a rowdy late-night session streamed from a Santa Cruz kitchen by Portland open-source developer “dogweather” (Robb Schecter), with beer and code both flowing.
On a trip around the site on a recent morning, I came across “famed,” or Dmitry Pavlov, a designer in Kharkiv, Ukraine, who is laboriously transforming a static Photoshop mockup of an online store into Web-ready HTML/CSS. I don’t think Pavlov wants to be bothered much; he isn’t using a webcam, there’s no chat window, he’s not saying much, and the electronica soundtrack is turned up. He is streaming, it seems, simply as a way of declaring, “I exist.”
Over there, a student in Veracruz, Mexico who goes by “codehamster” is finishing up some homework. Again, for the drop-in visitor, there’s not much of a way in. Homework is being done! For codehamster, it’s the 2015 version of working in the university library instead of your room — just a way to share the presence of other souls.
Ah! Here’s a livelier stream: A website builder in Maryland named Elijah Offutt is working on a personal portfolio site. He’s pouring himself some coffee and, as people turn up in his chatroom, he greets regulars by voice. “This is not my focus music,” he declares, and flips the soundtrack from pop to gospel, as he explains the workings of a skills matrix he’s devised, which gives clients and recruiters an instant read on whether he’d be a good fit for a project.
Livecoding.tv opened its doors last winter. It started as a side project by two entrepreneurs, Jamie Green and Michael Garbade, who met in Berlin. They got more serious last December after receiving a seed grant from the European Union, opened a public beta in February, then won entry to the Y Combinator startup accelerator’s summer class. Today they’ve topped 60,000 registered users, and they’re seeing an average of 400 streams a day, or 700 hours of video — not much by, say, YouTube standards, but pretty good for a startup baby.
“When we started,” Green says, “everybody we spoke to said it would be really hard to attract developers to use our platform. Developers are obviously very well-paid. There’s not much unemployment. They’re very busy. Everyone we spoke to said this is going to be a problem — they’re not going to have time to do this, or they’ll want to be paid lots of money. But it turns out that developers do have lots of time, and they want to spend it sharing what they’re working on.”
Green and Garbade didn’t exactly invent the genre of programming verité. Around the same time that they were hatching Livecoding, Twitch.tv — the massively popular site where legions of gamers stream their play for the diversion of exponentially larger legions — opened a category for game development where programmers could share their work. Some of Livecoding’s more popular streamers, like “whilke,” are Twitch regulars who have brought some of their community over with them, along with some Twitch customs (like raffles); others, like “jegas” (Jason Sage), who currently tops the Livecoding leaderboard, make Livecoding their primary platform, taking advantage of the opportunity to make a name for themselves in its relatively uncluttered social environment. For Sage, as for other stars on Livecoding, that success today might mean 30 people tuned in to a live stream, and hundreds or thousands of views on an archived video.
I asked Sage, a motor-mouthed 30-year programming veteran who also fronts a heavy metal band, why he prefers Livecoding to Twitch. “With Twitch,” he said, “you end up with a whole bunch of gamer people, and, frankly, a whole bunch of trolls. On Livecoding, you get people who are into the programming — not necessarily brainiacs, but people that are really into code. Which makes it a lot easier to converse and joke. Everybody’s into it because they actually like it, not because they’re just there to see if you’re any good, and pick, and be annoying.”
Unlike Twitch, Livecoding automatically archives every stream, which means that it’s quickly accumulating an extensive video library — although, right now, it’s not terribly well organized. (The clips don’t even carry dates.) The strategy exemplifies a phenomenon that blogger Jason Kottke identified a decade ago as the key to so many successful web enterprises: Livecoding — like Blogger, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter and so many other services that eventually climbed the proverbial hockey-stick curve, most recently Twitch itself — “takes something that everyone does with their friends and makes it public and permanent.”
In that regard, Livecoding is nothing terribly new, and its fate will depend on the usual factors: Can it keep users happy and contributing? Can it keep bringing in high-profile users like Stephen Wolfram, who spent a couple of hours recently on the site providing a live tour of his Wolfram Language? Can its founders win the hearts of investors, as they aim to do today at Y Combinator’s Demo Day? Can they figure out a way to make money? (They recently posted plans to let people hire and pay streamers for 1:1 or group sessions on “advanced topics, code reviews, bug fixing, platform architecture, school homework, college coursework, or support building a product.”)
But there’s another way in which Livecoding really is different and notable: It’s an unexpected and potentially game-changing mutation in the DNA of the programming field itself.
There is no trait more firmly associated in the public mind with the profession of software developer than “anti-social.” Programmers are loners; they fly from human contact. As with most stereotypes, this one has a foundation in fact. But there’s also a long arc in the history of programming that you might call “pro-social” — a determined and increasingly urgent move toward sharing among programmers. If we’re going to get better at making software, the thinking goes, we have to get better at capturing and communicating how we make it. We have to learn how to pry the act of coding out of the realm of pure abstraction and make it more legible and tangible, no matter how difficult that is, or how boring it looks.
This was the idea behind Donald Knuth’s concept of “literate programming,” which encouraged coders to write for other programmers first and the machine second. It was the motivation behind the explosion of both software-development forums and blogging in the early 2000s, giving voice to a field that had previously labored in obscurity. It lies behind the growing popularity of pair programming, which transforms software development from a solitary pursuit into a collaborative enterprise. In this context, Livecoding looks less like some sort of bizarrely self-indulgent reality-TV parody of software development, and more like a natural next step toward both optimizing and humanizing the work of programming.
But wait a minute: Isn’t the whole notion of “look at me” programming, um, distracting? Maybe. “I could do this stuff so much faster if I wasn’t casting,” Sage confessed to his webcam one day. “But I like hanging out with you guys. I like talking and yakking. I like it when I can help people out. That’s good stuff!”
Sage, who wears a T-shirt that reads “shred neck,” likes to grab a guitar and solo (sometimes heavy-metal leads, sometimes classical) for 5, 10, sometimes 20 minutes at a time in the middle of his streams. The musical interludes don’t seem to have cramped his popularity on Livecoding. “They ask me for it!” he says. “Then half the room will leave. They’re like, fuck that. And the other half of the room is going, yeah! yeah! yeah! And then after that, they want to go back to coding.”
Livecoding founder Green admits that streaming “isn’t for everybody,” but says there’s a class of users who find — pace Sage — that it actually makes them work more efficiently. “It keeps them focused. They know that people are watching, so they’re not going to be messing around with Facebook and wasting time. And those people might even be able to help! You know, they see, you made a mistake on this piece of code you just wrote, watch out there.”
Whether you’re watching a lone wolf or a party animal, you’re going to encounter a whole lot of yawning, throat-clearing and snack consumption. Much of what’s on display at Livecoding is the tedious work of update downloading, patch installation and environment-tweaking. For instance, watch “donmildreone” (British web designer Ben Mildren) as he tries to get up and running on a new Mac. On the one hand: Really? On the other: For better or worse, this is what most programmers spend much of their time doing.
There’s no guarantee that Livecoding won’t turn out to be an ephemeral craze, a digital-era flash in the pan like CD-ROMs or “All your base.” You can just hear the mock-nostalgia: “Remember back in 2015, when they thought it was fun to stream coding sessions?”
More likely, the site’s success is a sign that the play-everything-out-in-public dynamic of the Internet is going to keep invading new social spaces and injecting them with its thrills and worries — all that camaraderie, all that surveillance. Whatever Livecoding’s future, just think of what an incredible, massive trove of data it’s assembling. Some coding anthropologist has got one hell of a binge-view queued up.