How Twitch’s culture of secrecy hurts creators

Twitch isn’t always a friendly place for creators. Between rampant hate raids, sexual assault allegations, and a frustrating algorithm, it’s tough to grow and stay sane as a creator on the livestreaming platform.

Determined to better understand Twitch, I hopped on a video call with Devin Nash, CMO of influencer marketing agency Novo Studios. Nash has had extensive interactions with Twitch executives on behalf of Novo and has been following the Twitch space for a long time. Prior to Novo, Nash was the CEO of esports org CLG.

By day, Nash helps manage a roster of some of Twitch’s top creators (Novo manages Amouranth, TrainwrecksTV, and Quin69, to name a few). By night, he makes in-depth YouTube videos on the state of Twitch, often critiquing the lack of women in esports or the gaming industry as a whole.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I’d love to know your take on the state of Twitch right now. Can you explain Twitch’s “kingmaker system” concept to people who don’t know what it is?

The way we navigate every other social media platform — I’ll use TikTok and YouTube as I think they’re the easier to correlate — is by recommendation systems. So the algorithm tells you, “This person is someone you’d like to watch.” But on Twitch, what tells you that is the number of viewers they have.

Twitch tried to address this by building a recommendation system themselves, but the culture of the website is such that if something is going on in xQc’s stream with 90,000 viewers, you go there. The entire directory and the whole funnel of the website drives people up to these top broadcasts. And that is what the kingmaker system is. It means that the rich get richer. The people at the top get more. The people at the bottom are undiscoverable.

If you look at a category like Fortnite, for example, there might be anywhere from 80-100,000 broadcasts at any given time. How would you find small broadcasters? It’s physically impossible to do so.

So does the kingmaker system exist because there are too many streamers, or does it exist because it makes Twitch the most money?

It exists because it makes Twitch the most money. There’s a couple of really hard facts for smaller broadcasters here. If you’re a new user, for example — and at Novo we create new accounts all the time to see what happens — the Twitch algorithm will always direct you toward the top broadcasters.

Why? Because if someone is watching a person with 90,000 viewers, they are most likely entertaining. Twitch has a much higher chance to grab that user and have that user watch for longer than if it has that person watch a five-viewer stream where the broadcaster isn’t talking and is using a 480p webcam.

The goal of getting the user to watch content for longer than on other platforms is Twitch’s only redeeming quality, basically. Twitch users watch content for an average of 103 minutes (source: internal data obtained by Novo).

The other reason is that bigger streamers are more likely to have better subscription incentives. They’re more likely to run ads because they’re on paid contracts to do so. Basically, the entire website of Twitch is set up from the ground up to monetize on creator viewership. The top 50 streamers represent a massive stream of income generation for Twitch.

You made a good point that a lot of the very small streams on Twitch do suck. But a lot of them don’t suck, and a lot of those streamers are just lost in the shuffle of the 10-viewer-average streams. Letting everyone and anyone stream sucks up Twitch’s server bandwidth, and it’s so hard to sift through everything. What’s the solution? What if Twitch made some minimum requirements to decrease the total volume while increasing the overall quality of smaller streams?

When we’re talking about the people who click the “Start Streaming” button on Twitch, we’re talking about 7 to 9 million people. So for Twitch to, as a platform, make calls on what people can and can’t stream would be a very unfavorable PR move. People will complain no matter what the requirements are.

All of these social platforms are built on people’s ability to access them and have a voice regardless of any stipulations. There are some partner programs with additional requirements, like on Twitch and YouTube. But, allowing everyone to stream greatly increases Twitch’s encoding costs. So that’s the hole Twitch has dug itself into as a result of being a livestreaming platform.

So for smaller streamers that are trying to just do gaming content, what should Twitch be doing to help them get discovered? Why isn’t Twitch trying to create more success stories for itself in 2022?

We have to think about Twitch as a platform, and their marketing. What exactly is it? To me, their biggest outward-facing presence for their marketing verticals is Twitter and their blog. There’s no central place you can go on Twitch to get updates. If you want to read about an update Twitch is doing, you go to their blog, which is really old-fashioned compared to what YouTube does on its platform.

Twitch’s blog approach seems very corporate. I feel like your average Gen Z or Millennial Twitch viewer is not going to be reading that.

I agree with you. And they’re also written very corporately. In the DMCA update they sent out, I had to read it three or four times and then talk to Twitch to confirm what the actual changes were. But Twitch’s Twitter and Instagram actually feature smaller and diverse creators a lot. Particularly, they seem to be focusing on promoting women and minorities, which I think is great, because those groups have by far the most difficult time on Twitch.

But then we get into the question of, can Twitch feature small creators on primary locations on the website that make people more likely to click on them? And then the problem you get is the community saying that Twitch picking and choosing isn’t fair. There is no end to that.

So the answer to growing as a smaller streamer is you build off-platform, and then you drive users to your Twitch. Which I think Twitch did intentionally, because it’s bringing more people to their site. But if you want to be a successful streamer, you have to build a YouTube channel. You cannot get discoverability from Twitch.

The biggest misconception on Twitch is that you can build a brand on that site. You can’t build a brand on Twitch by yourself anymore. It just hasn’t been done.

Do you think that Twitch should be responsible for the success of its creators?

Well, Twitch feels like Uber to me right now with its laissez-faire, independent contractor mentality with its creators. If Twitch is the Uber app service, then streamers are the drivers who bring their own cars. When you try to use the app to get a driver, one is assigned to you. It feels like you don’t really get to choose.

You feel that way because it’s true.

The way that Twitch enforces its Terms of Service (TOS) and Off-Service Conduct policies don’t make sense to me, either. Some Twitch partners have been accused of off-platform sexual assault and fraud, for example. Why does Twitch not take action on those accounts even when allegations have been publicized? Not only are some of the accused still streaming to this day, but they’re also still partnered and have that checkmark of endorsement from Twitch.

So I’m coming from the perspective of being a part of one of the agencies of record for Twitch. We talk directly to Twitch almost every other day. Whether we’re doing deals, talking to Twitch’s Trust and Safety team or something else. The ethos for Twitch is, as a platform, ethically and morally, to what extent do you remain neutral versus enforce your subjective view of what is and isn’t okay? It’s a really difficult question to answer.

Twitch has the same culture as Twitter — based in San Francisco, left-leaning and progressive. But for example, if Twitch bans someone for watching a whole TV show on its platform, banning them could actually be bad for Twitch. If you admit that you’re aware of something, you could have taken greater effort to stop it. It puts the liability into Twitch’s hands when they take action.

There was a huge “Me Too” movement on Twitch where many women came out with very credible accusations, talking about sexual harassment and rape experiences. Terrible shit. It’s really important to look at who Twitch banned after that and who they didn’t.

The people they banned from that — without exception — all admitted to what they had done to those women. Every single person who didn’t admit guilt or denied the allegations can still stream on Twitch.

To me, there were some people who should not have been on Twitch anymore as a result of what was shared. But because those people didn’t take self-ownership in their responses, they were shielded legally and in the eyes of Twitch.

If Twitch then took on the responsibility of judge, jury, and executioner, they would be absorbing a massive amount of liability. If they ban a person for alleged behavior, they’d not only have to conduct an investigation of their own but they’d also have to issue a subjective statement. Twitch doesn’t have enough resources to conduct investigations.

So Twitch’s ethos is to stay as absolutely neutral as possible.

But do you think that partnered, endorsed Twitch streamers should be that questionable, or that possibly dangerous?

Every time Twitch has banned people, they catch hell from the community. The Twitch community has taught Twitch that saying nothing and not getting involved is the best strategy.

“Cancel culture” has also taught public figures that going on vacation and saying nothing when a controversy arises is the best approach, because the media will quickly move on when that person goes silent.

What about streamers on Twitch who have criminal records? Should those people be allowed to be partnered on Twitch? Twitch says that its partners are people that represent its brand?

Twitch looks for Partners who are role models for their community. The people that they endorse are separately labeled and called Twitch Ambassadors. Those are the people they will feature in advertisements, like Pokimane.

I consider a Twitch Partner to be very similar to an Instagram-verified person or a Twitter-verified person. Twitch Ambassadors are a step above that, as they’re people that the company actually endorses on a media level.

Twitch is a company of 5,000 people, most of whom are engineers. They just don’t have the resources to enforce anything. And they never will, because they’re currently not profitable. There’s no amount of enforcement Twitch can do to stop bad-faith actors. So the question is, how much do we do?

Twitch has decided on next to nothing.

Why doesn’t Twitch do background checks on prospective Partners? Some Twitch Partners are using the clout of the checkmark to do bad stuff behind the scenes.

Kids below the age of 13 have been targeted by pedophiles through Twitch. This still happens all the time. And using your example, with the partnership program, there are actual Partners that are scamming people.

So the answer is that there’s just not enough enforcement to go around. The Trust and Safety team is a very secretive group within Twitch. I’ve only met a few of them.

And Twitch is a very small platform. Twitch has 140 million monthly active users, while YouTube has more than 845 million. Twitch is a niche thing — it’s for power users. We might expect Twitch to have the same resources as a Google or a Square, but they don’t. Twitch is under the banner of Amazon Web Services.

Amazon sees Twitch as a vertical for Amazon Prime subscribers. And Twitch is trying to shore up revenue. In 2019, they had a goal of $600 million in revenue, but they only made half of that. So every single change we’ve seen on Twitch in the past few years has been a profit-driven change.

One anonymous review, an employee argues Twitch has “zero communication,” “roadblocks at every corner” and an “uncoordinated workplace.”Glassdoor

From what you’ve told me and from what I’ve learned about Twitch over the years, it seems like the company has a culture of secrecy. Why is that?

I’ve thought about this a lot — and this is my own opinion. Tesla, Twitter and YouTube, for example, all have very forward-facing CEOs who are leading their vision. Twitch has never had that. Emmett Shear is a backroom CEO. He is an engineer.

I’ve always felt that the problems in companies like Twitch start at the top and filter downward. I’ve personally had multiple conversations with every single C-level executive at Twitch. And none of them, with the exception of maybe one, are particularly interested in outward-facing stuff.

What Twitch has always lacked is leadership communication. And when you lack that, you build this culture of secrecy because everybody in the company learns from you. Emmett only comes out once a year at TwitchCon, gives a small talk and then disappears.

So TwitchCon is his Groundhog Day.

If you go to any other company, you’ll find a person who is the spokesperson of that company. But in a way, I think the best thing a brand can do to avoid backlash is to go silent.

In an anonymous review, a Twitch employee calls for its management to quit “so someone competent can take over.” Glassdoor

There’s a culture on Twitch itself that smaller streamers need to make friends with bigger streamers in order to grow, as a result of the kingmaker system we talked about earlier.

Overall, men are more successful on Twitch than women, so the male streamers hold the power. It seems to create a power dynamic where smaller female streamers have to schmooze the larger male streamer. That could result in the female streamer getting hurt, or exploited. But small streamers think that Twitch will protect them from that happening.

I’ve made a lot of content around the topic of the power dynamics women face in livestreaming and gaming. I’ve also built an entire team of women in esports. I’ve put money into trying to solve this. I’ve spoken with Pokimane and Amouranth to try to solve this. But I don’t even think I’m a step closer to solving it.

The reason why so few of the top Twitch streamers are women is the same reason why there are so few women in STEM. The problem in the gaming and livestreaming industry isn’t the gender of the person, it’s the environment. The entire environment of livestreaming and gaming itself makes it almost impossible for women to succeed on Twitch.

The livestreaming space is so toxic that most female creators eventually ask themselves, “why even bother?”

I feel like the kingmaker system is partly responsible for this. For female streamers, they have smaller audiences with no clear way to grow. Twitch isn’t helping them grow. So they have no choice but be funneled into a situation where they look to larger male creators for support.

Twitch has eased up on banning female streamers for sexually suggestive content. That was a good decision, because banning some creators for that limits person expression.

As far as attacking these power dynamics and the culture in general… this is something that is pervasive across all of esports and all of livestreaming. There’s a quote that goes, “pure evil is when good people do nothing.” Right now, I think the only solution is to spread awareness.

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