It began with a joke. Twitch streamer Johnny_now resolved to make a mad dash toward his fitness goals ahead of his 30th birthday, but he kept stumbling. He got into a good exercise routine, but couldn’t quit overeating. Then he injured his back and fell headlong back into his vices. “I joked around,” he told Kotaku via Discord voice chat. “I told people I needed to be put in a cage.” Then he decided to actually do it.
Johnny_now has been in a cage, overcoming his self-described “addictions” to food, soda, and weed, for the past 21 days. Or at least, he claims he has. You’re not allowed to sleep on stream, so he could theoretically creep out when the cameras are off after 12 AM. But ever since he locked himself in a cage in his living room more than three weeks ago, he’s been on camera all day, every day – until the bleary hours of the night – interacting with a growing community that’s ravenous for content. It sure seems like he’s spent nearly 22 full days in a cage, and to hear him tell it, it’s been a ride. A long, delirious, ride full of talking, exercising, dancing, and other assorted antics that’s given rise to an entire fictional universe.
“I thought I was going to quit right up until the minute I turned the stream on.”
At first, Johnny didn’t actually believe he was gonna go through with it. He’d hurt his back at work doing manual labour and saw a perfect opportunity to try this crazy idea he had, but his friends weren’t impressed when he revealed his big scheme, and he saw “shame” in his parents’ eyes when he told them what he was planning.
“The day I bought the material [for the cage] and stuff, I just had to keep sitting down and being like, ‘Is this the worst idea I’ve ever come up with?’ I thought I was going to quit right up until the minute I turned the stream on,” Johnny said during our chat, for which he temporarily shut down the stream (but stayed in the cage).
The only person fully in his corner was his half-sister, who also appears on the stream (albeit outside the cage) and goes by the handle Queen Assistant. “Johnny has always been a very entertaining guy, very charismatic, so this streaming thing became a natural fit. Like, why wouldn’t we just to see what would happen?”
Right off the bat, Johnny and Queen caught what felt like a big break. Another streamer with over 1,000 followers hosted Johnny’s channel, exposing the whole experiment to a wider audience. Not long after, a website wrote an article about him. Just a few days in, people were clearly taking notice.
Then, some newfound “fans” started leaking Johnny and Queen’s personal information.
“That was the most terrifying couple days of my life,” said Johnny. “The second day, I almost quit when this guy posted every name of every person I’ve ever met.”
“We both turned white,” said Queen. “I was really nervous, like, ‘Oh god, what’s going to happen?’”
But Johnny and Queen decided to keep going in spite of the trolls and harassers. Then something strange happened: Community emerged from the chaos. “Even some of the trolls that were trying to find my address, they kind of came around and now they’re some of my good friends on our Twitch channel,” said Johnny.
Trolls and harassers are still a problem, but Johnny realised that as long as he’s stuck in a cage, he has the ultimate trump card. “I changed my approach,” Johnny said. “People still post our info, but we just laugh it off. I just say, ‘I live in a cage. Send an assassin. It’s only going to make my life better.’”
It’s hyperbole, yes, but there’s more than a little truth to it. As you might imagine, Johnny’s time spent in the cage hasn’t been entirely what one would describe as “fun.” The first ten days were all momentum, a white-hot blend of excitement and terror. Johnny and Queen had created something. People appreciated it. They had regulars coming into their chat every day, just chilling out and shooting the shit. And 4chan was after them, which at least wasn’t boring. Before long, though, the novelty began to wear off, and Johnny realized he still had 20 more days of being stuck in a cage, locked away from snack food and other creature comforts, pressured to keep dancing 16 hours per day for an audience that craved entertainment as much as he craved his old vices.
“Day 12, I cried a little bit on stream,” said Johnny. “I tried to hold it in, but I think day 12 was the hardest.”
“My throat was just killing me, and my eyes looked like I’d been punched in the face.”
Prior to hopping in the cage, Johnny didn’t know much about Twitch – Queen handles pretty much all the technical elements for him, he said. At first he thought he was going to stream 24/7. When he found out that wasn’t allowed, he arbitrarily committed to an 8 a.m.-to-12 a.m. schedule without thinking through how rigorous it would be to entertain people for that long every day.
“I just made that number up, and oh my gosh, it takes so much out of me,” he said. He continued to elaborate on his day-12 breakdown, saying that “my throat was just killing me, and my eyes looked like I’d been punched in the face, and I developed... I still have it. I have this rash that developed. So that really broke me.”
Queen hasn’t had it easy, either. In fact, Johnny thinks it’s been harder on her, because she’s still working a full-time job in advertising in addition to making sure he gets meals throughout the day, managing the Twitch channel and its associated Discord, appearing on stream, interacting with chat, and sending after-hours emails alongside Johnny. Queen admits that she didn’t entirely know what she was getting into. “I was mostly thinking about how hard this would be on him,” she said, noting that on her current schedule, she only sleeps about five hours per night. “I thought the more strenuous stuff, like the being up the whole time, would be Johnny’s problem, and I totally didn’t consider what I would have to go through.”
She’s also had to handle the bathroom problem. Since Johnny cannot leave the cage, he uses a camping toilet, and Queen has to empty it. That, however, is one thing she said she was mentally prepared for. “I knew I had to deal with the whole toilet situation,” she said. “That was going to be gross, but I was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to have to deal with this.’”
As the community’s grown – the Twitch channel now has nearly 2,000 followers – Johnny and Queen have found themselves under more pressure than ever. However, the community’s also alleviated some of that pressure by evolving into an almost self-sustaining entity. There are regulars, and alongside Johnny, they’ve created a vast fiction surrounding what they call “Cage City.”
“A lot of the viewers wanted to be mods, because I gave out way too many mod privileges, and there was kind of like this civil war almost that happened in our chat,” said Johnny, explaining the origin of Cage City. “So I just warped it into being part of our history that we had this civil war, and it was a horrible day for Cage City, and it burned down from within.”
From the ashes arose a bizarre sort of Twitch democracy in which, once a week, community members run to be elected mayor of the channel. If they win, they get to make the rules. The whole thing has, to Johnny, been an absolute riot.
“The first night we did it, I’ve never laughed so much in my life,” he said, noting that people went all out and submitted constitutions. “We were just in tears. We tried to make it as fair as possible, but there’s still people who think it was rigged. A user has a whole dossier called the Jutting Probe, because a user named Jutting became mayor. He’s been teasing it for three days. He’s apparently got a stack of documents on why he thinks it’s rigged.”
Johnny and Queen have rules against racism, homophobia, and things of that nature, but prospective mayors can and have made all sorts of rules, from stipulations that make things easier on Johnny to “Porsches for all” and “death to the monarchy” – which is Johnny and Queen.
“Thankfully, the more serious ones get voted in,” said Johnny.
Community members can also use Twitch’s money-based “cheer” system to give Johnny rewards and penalties. The former includes things like coffee, a fresh tracksuit, and a sponge bath, while the latter often involves exercise and obnoxious music. Community members have, of course, gravitated toward penalties – especially the music – but one purchased the highest reward tier to help Johnny. When he was still mid-breakdown on day 13, that user spent £75 so that Johnny could take a proper shower.
“I was at my lowest point, and this awesome user, Ice Cream Boy, who’s been so nice, he just said, ‘Do this, but with one stipulation: put the timer for 10 minutes.’”
Johnny followed through and immediately darted out the cage. That, he says, is the only time he’s been out of the cage for the whole 22-day duration. And yeah, he’s gotten to take that shower and a few in-cage sponge baths, but he’ll be the first to tell you that he reeks.
“I’m going to have to burn that track suit,” he said of the track suit he wore for his first week in the cage. “People think I’m lying, and I don’t sleep in here. I totally sleep in here every night. They think I have nice hair, so that’s proof that I shower. But if this was a 4k camera, they could see the dandruff. It’s awful. It looks like January.”
The community’s strangest element, however, is without a doubt Johnny_later, a parody account that popped up midway through Johnny_now’s run. Johnny_later is an entirely in-character performance art piece about a hypothetical Johnny who remains in the cage 30 years in the future. The world is in a post-apocalyptic state, and Johnny is a bedraggled, half-crazed chain-smoker who sounds like Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty and sends cautionary messages to the past through temporal fluctuations. Whoever created Johnny_later only kept it running for a week, but after a series of multi-hour Twitch streams, the saga ended with a 28-minute acid nightmare short film featuring multiple actors, in which fictional Johnny either died, or escaped from his post-apocalyptic prison. It’s unclear.
Johnny_now is also completely baffled by Johnny_later. He’s “honoured” that somebody would parody him, but it’s not exactly what he expected.
“The amount of work he’s put in his channel, it’s bizarre,” he said. “Like, it is so weird. I don’t understand it at all.” He also said that people have accused him of somehow being behind Johnny_later, too, but he’s not sure how he’d accomplish that given his current schedule. “We don’t have time,” said Johnny. “We’re streaming 16 hours a day, and then a couple hours of email. We get to bed by 2:00 AM, and then we’re up again. It’s awful.”
Johnny_later went all in, with his own, much more extreme punishments that allowed viewers to command that he be spit on or have cheeseburgers rubbed in his hair. “A part of me got almost worried that he might eclipse me, but I think he’s finished now,” said Johnny.
Earlier this week, I spent an evening feverishly trying to sleuth out who Johnny_later is and where he comes from, but I didn’t have any luck. There are no personal details on any of his pages. The only clue of any substance I could find were repeated references to musical artist and producer Joji, better known to some for his previous career as a controversial YouTube surrealist who played characters like Filthy Frank and Pink Guy. Joji has since retired from that career, and his debut non-comedic solo album is coming out on October 26. This caused me to wonder if the whole Johnny_later thing was some kind of elaborate promotional effort for that. If so, it wasn’t a very good one. As of writing, the Johnny_later Twitch channel had 26 followers, and the YouTube short film just 21 views. I’m guessing whoever did this is just a Joji fan, but I’m honestly not sure.
Johnny_later replied to Kotaku’s inquiries with a statement that began by ruminating on the nature of the cosmos, the development of life, and the possibility of multiple universes. He clarified that he is not necessarily a future version of Johnny_now, but rather a similar being from another universe born of a crucial moment in which he decided to have a book about his in-cage experiences ghostwritten instead of writing it himself. He also explained his whole deal. Kind of.
“The concept of Johnny_later was conceived by Twitch users Maxwell_Corrigan, Ann_dean, and Noballsyouwill,” Johnny_later, still in-character, said in an email. “Who these people are is unimportant, but some background information may assist you. Maxwell runs a very small, very private talk show that Ann occasionally appears on, and they both know Noballsyouwill, who is a regular viewer of the show. Another Twitch user, IseenThat, pointed out the existence of Johnny_now to these three somewhere around his tenth day in the cage, and wished for Maxwell to comment on what was going on in relation to Johnny_now. Unfortunately, there is no record of Maxwell_Corrigan yet providing comment on Johnny_now and his efforts to improve himself whilst bringing down big soda, or his desire to purchase land in rural Pennsylvania with the intention of becoming the leader of a mega-church and preaching to caged devotees. It would seem, to all record available, that Maxwell_Corrigan simply vanished after hearing about Johnny_now, and shortly there after, Johnny_later appeared for his first stream.”
After reiterating his cautionary tale of a future in which everything and everybody is content, Johnny_later concluded his message on a hopeful note. I think. “The dark future from where I came does not have to be the future of this place,” he said. “We aren’t all brands. We don’t all have to have messages or sermons... Anyway, I have to go. Apparently you only get an hour with the computer here, and I used forty-five minutes to type this and the other fifteen to look at pornography. We don’t have pornography where I’m from. It’s pretty nifty.”
"It totally is a Black Mirror episode"
There’s an argument to be made, though, that Johnny_later wasn’t too far off the mark – at least, in terms of his stranger-than-a-real-life-thing-that’s-stranger-than-fiction post-apocalyptic storyline. There is something vaguely pre-apocalyptic – or at least dystopian – about the grand Johnny_now experiment. He’s a dude who’s trapped himself in a cage and subjected himself to weeks of physical deterioration and exhausting misery for others’ amusement. They can even enhance that suffering if they so choose. Sure, the core goal of it all is self-improvement, and yes, elements of the community that’s formed are surprisingly wholesome, but it still sounds like something out of a Black Mirror episode. Johnny doesn’t disagree.
“I have suffered on here,” he said. “I had a breakdown. So it totally is a Black Mirror episode... I really hope it doesn’t end like those ones, because they always end sad.”
Some people, Johnny noted, have even accused the whole endeavour of being an advertisement for Black Mirror. And Coca Cola, because of the Coke bottles lining his cage, which are there to represent the amount he used to consume in a regular week. And extremely misguided anti-harassment video game campaign Bully Hunters, for some reason. In response to all of that, Johnny points to his ramshackle setup.
“They think this is a viral marketing campaign,” he said. “And I was like, ‘My internet crashes three times a day. There’s no money behind this.’”
But Johnny is proud of what he’s built, and he and Queen both believe they’ve learned and grown a lot. It used to be that they’d get done with work every day and veg out in front of the TV, snacking incessantly and watching crappy reality TV until it was time to go to bed. Now they say they feel more “present,” like they’re better able to live in the moment. They’ve also both lost weight, and Johnny says he doesn’t even crave his vices much anymore. Johnny and Queen have something to focus on now: a project, a community.
“I think what this cage is doing is, since we’re streaming live, we’re kind of being held accountable,” said Queen. “We don’t wanna pass out on the couch anymore. We’re excited to live our lives again, so I think this has been a really re-invigorating experience for both of us.”
“I was in such a negative rut for, like, honestly 10 years, and this community has helped me so much,” said Johnny. “I was always thinking in the past and, you know, always just, ‘Oh, I should have done this with my life, I should have done that.’ But now I’m constantly thinking of the future.”
Given the preposterous number of hours this project has eaten up and the gratification of essentially having their own reality TV show, I asked Johnny and Queen if they feel like they’ve just traded one addiction for another.
“A lot of people in chat say, ‘Your next thing’s gonna be breaking your Twitch addiction,’” said Johnny. “So we’ll see, we’ll face that one.”
Once the cage experiment comes to an end, Johnny and Queen are considering everything from self-improvement streams to travelling to other sorts of self-imposed challenges, but whatever they end up doing, they want to keep their community together. Johnny swears up and down, though, that he’s gonna figure out a more reasonable schedule for the next thing.
“Oh my gosh,” he said, “I don’t think I’m gonna do 16-hour-day streams again.”
For now, though, he’s still got to spend another eight days in the cage. Every day is a challenge, but he thinks he’s gonna make it.
“Every day, right before I click stream, I think like, ‘How am I gonna keep the content going?’” Johnny said. “And I don’t even know how I’ve done it. Today I had a lot of people bugging me like, ‘We need more content. Smash eggs on your head’... But I’ve told the stream that if there’s a fire, I’m going down with it. If I have a heart attack, they’re gonna have to come here. I’m doing it, I have to do it. I gotta stay positive.”