How Twitch kept its crown in a controversial year

Its head may hang heavy, but Twitch is still the streaming king.

Elijah Nouvelage / reuters

Whenever Twitch announces a new approach to handling harassment on the platform, there’s been a common, overwhelming response from streamers: “Please, please, be more than just words. Please follow this up with actions.”

That’s how Twitch Partner Jennifer Rynn, who streams under her last name, responded to the company in June. A deluge of reports of sexual abuse in the streaming community that month forced Twitch to release a statement pledging to investigate the accusations and punish aggressors, and Rynn was one of many streamers begging the company to follow through.

In June alone, streamer Jessica “JessyQuil” Richey compiled allegations against more than 60 streamers in a Medium post, and found many of them had multiple alleged victims. On June 21st, in a series of detailed videos, two women accused one of the most popular streamers on Twitch, Thomas “Syndicate” Cassell, of rape. He denied the allegations.

Hours after the videos went live, Twitch published its statement on Twitter, opening with, “We take accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct extremely seriously.”

Judging by the replies, most streamers didn’t buy it.

@TheTeaWrex: “Gonna need to see some actions this time folks.”

@DomesticDan: “These are good words. Please follow up these words with actions.”

@UnicornyLithia: “Actions speak louder [than] words ever will.”

@KaraCorvus: “o rly.”

On top of being the No. 1 live-streaming platform by a wide margin, Twitch has earned a reputation as a hotbed for sexual abuse and inconsistent moderation policies. For years, women in particular on Twitch have dealt with unchecked harassment and confusing clothing-based bans, and the company has consistently failed to clarify its calls.

For instance, Syndicate was not banned and Twitch never publicly discussed its investigation into the allegations against him. He’s still a Twitch Partner today, with more than 3.1 million followers.

However, the June reckoning had a profound impact on Twitch. The company ended up permanently banning one of its top names, Dr Disrespect, plus popular Destiny 2 streamer SayNoToRage, iAmSp00n, BlessRNG, WarwitchTV, DreadedCone, Wolv21, and others. In December, the company unveiled new, more descriptive policies on hateful conduct and harassment, including the addition of a discrete section for sexual harassment.

“With this update we’ve separated sexual harassment into its own category and adopted a much lower tolerance for objectifying or harassing behavior,” Twitch wrote in a blog post.

Twitch harassment policy Dec. 2020

The new rules go into effect on January 22nd, giving streamers and viewers time to change their behavior, if necessary. This has widely been viewed as a positive step from Twitch, as the fresh regulations directly address long standing issues like slut-shaming and the sharing of repeated, unwanted comments about someone’s appearance. Twitch said it will take the context of reported comments into account when moderating under the new rules, allowing friendly banter to stand.

On Twitter, there are signs that the Twitch community is willing to put faith in the company this time around. Instead of pages of replies demanding less talk and more action, streamers and viewers have been more concerned with debating the content of the update. The most common criticism revolves around whether Twitch will apply the policy equitably.

“We are holding you to this @twitch and politely request that you make sure it applies to your partnered ‘top’ streamers too,” streamer KawaiiFoxita said. Responding to a comment, she added, “There’s been enough pressure lately & it may have shaken something up behind closed doors. I won’t place bets, but I’ll keep an open mind.”

Streamlabs Q3 2020 report

With a fresh approach to harassment on the horizon, Twitch is ending 2020 in an enviable position. Twitch is the undisputed king of live streaming platforms, with more than 10.5 million unique channels, compared to about 913,000 for YouTube Gaming and 268,000 for Facebook Gaming, according to Streamlabs. Between July and September this year, Twitch clocked more than 4.7 billion hours watched, while YouTube hit about 1.7 billion and Facebook got just over 1 billion.

One of Twitch’s rivals, Mixer, shut down in the summer, and even though Microsoft attempted to push its audience toward Facebook Gaming, most streamers ended up on Twitch. Following his exclusive gig on Mixer, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the most popular streamer in the world, re-joined Twitch in September. He currently has the most followers of anyone on the platform, with 16.5 million.

Twitch isn’t out of the woods, but it’s built a nice cabin there and is settling in for the long haul. The company is currently dealing with a rash of DMCA takedowns, and every day, it’s attempting to strike a balance in its moderation policies. In late December, Twitch suspended professional Valorant player Taynha “Tayhuhu” Yukimi after her three-year-old wandered onto her live stream and interacted with the chat, alone, while she was answering the door. Twitch’s terms prohibit anyone under the age of 13 from streaming, though children have made appearances on other channels without issue. She shared the news of her suspension on Twitter, and calls for Twitch to reverse the decision rolled in. Her channel was reinstated two days after her Twitter posts with no official word on what happened.

That last part is the trickiest bit for Twitch. With a history of inconsistent moderation practices and poor communication, transparency will be critical to Twitch’s reputation in the years ahead. Now that the company has outlined fresh policies on harassment and bans, it has a solid foundation for explaining its future decisions, and it needs to take full advantage of this reset. When high-profile streamers are banned or otherwise punished, Twitch should publicly explain why. When a notable streamer, developer or community member is accused of abuse, Twitch needs to share the steps it’s taking to investigate. If the company finds evidence of wrongdoing, it has to act quickly and take steps to prevent future infractions, but also explain the situation clearly to the community.

So, yes, Twitch needs to provide the actions to back up its words — but in 2021 and beyond, the inverse is also true.