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Twitch CEO Emmett Shear on how moderation creates communities

Twitch is bigger than it’s ever been, and here’s how it’s going to change

Illustration by Alex Castro

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Illustration by William Joel / The Verge

At this year’s TwitchCon in San Diego — a celebratory, over-the-top affair that brought in streamers and fans from all over the world — I sat down with Twitch CEO Emmett Shear who co-founded the first iteration of the site and who’s been steering the ship ever since 2011.

Twitch has become the most popular live-streaming platform in the world

The day before, he’d given the event’s keynote, during which he announced some major changes to moderation: next spring, channel moderators will gain an expanded set of moderation tools, and enforcement actions made by the company will become more transparent — both for people who flag violations and the offenders themselves.

The changes are coming, Shear said, because the company didn’t think it was doing well enough when it talked to streamers about moderating their channels. There were streamers with teams that had everything working, but there were also streamers who felt overwhelmed and like they couldn’t figure out how to use all of Twitch’s moderation tools. “It popped as a problem,” Shear said. “We decided we had to do better. And I think it’s a big step in the right direction.” Twitch’s moderation philosophy, in general, comprises two parts: enforcement works on the level of the individual and on the level of the platform.

That stands in stark contrast to Twitch’s social media peers, which prize unrestrained speech above just about everything else. Facebook, for example, recently said that it would let politicians lie in ads posted to its site. YouTube has found itself dragged under by whirlpools of its own making because its enforcement policies are applied inconsistently at best. Twitter has had enough trouble with its separate set of policies for world leaders that it overhauled them this week — with the feeble reminder that “the accounts of world leaders are not above our policies entirely.” (Emphasis theirs.)

Twitch started as a gaming-focused spinoff of the one-man streaming concern, named after Justin Kan, the cofounder who broadcast his life every hour of every day. After a nearly billion-dollar Amazon acquisition in 2014, Twitch has become the most popular live-streaming platform in the world. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Twitch has already shifted how we think of live entertainment and the people who create it. TwitchCon is only the most visible example, an IRL synecdoche.

“We decided we had to do better.”

“There has been a shift in how I think about the company,” Shear told me. “What’s driving a lot of the ads changes, the brand at some level — it’s all this refocus on the core things that are important to Twitch.” But this year, he continued, the platform didn’t do that many new things.

Two ways of approaching moderation

I met Shear in a small room in what I’d begun to call the “super-partner lounge,” the custom-built space inside a nondescript ballroom reserved for Twitch’s biggest stars. I saw Tim “Tim the Tatman” Betar and Herschel “Dr DisRespect” Beahm IV relaxing with their families away from the bustle of fans and brands. In person, Shear cuts an unassuming figure; that day in the lounge, he wore a black Twitch Staff badge just like the rest of his employees. 

For individual channels, Shear said, Twitch views its job as what he described as “empowerment through tools, empowerment through automation” — both deployed in service of letting streamers have the communities they want. “Some people’s communities are irreverent and a little troll-y and all about memes,” Shear said. “And some people’s communities are really earnest and connected, and people want to have a real conversation.” Twitch wants to make space for both of those kinds of communities to exist on its platform. 

“It’s very explicitly not a free speech platform.”

There’s also stream moderation, which means moderating what people are allowed to broadcast, and it’s arguably more important. The recent mass shooting in Germany that was live-streamed on Twitch, for example, comes immediately to mind. Even so, Twitch focuses on intent; Shear doesn’t think that actions, in the abstract, have a moral valence — they gain that through their impact on other people. 

Though it wants to be for everyone, Twitch isn’t for everything. “It’s very explicitly not a free speech platform,” said Shear, which is a big difference in philosophy between Twitch and its peers.

“I hope people can express themselves. I hope they can share their ideas, share their thoughts. But we’re not a platform for free speech. We are not upholding the First Amendment. That’s the government’s job. We’re a community. And communities have standards for how you have to behave inside that community. And so we think that it’s not anything goes.”

Shear came to that insight because of Reddit, the freewheeling discussion board that embodied the internet’s early approach to speech online. (In the beginning, its slogan was “Freedom from the press.”) He said he remembers being an internet entrepreneur in 2005 and the pervasive utopian desire to build the new free speech platforms of the future. “By opening communications tools to everyone and the democratization of communication and publishing, we were going to connect people and change the world for the better,” Shear told me. 

While he thinks a lot of that did happen, he now understands that it was a misguided goal. “People weren’t thinking about how much you could also empower bad actors by doing that as well,” Shear said. Now, the challenge for social platforms is to make sure that speech is used in ways that are productive and not actively bad for society. Shear said he saw at Reddit the difference between communities with strong moderation versus ones that didn’t have much moderation at all. He said it was obvious which community he’d rather be a part of.

“We are not upholding the First Amendment.”

“The one with good, strong moderation, in many ways, is actually the place with freer speech,” Shear told me. “Because it was actually the place where people could express themselves and not just get destroyed by trolls and abuse and harassment.”

To do that, you need terms of service, and you need to link violations with punishments. At the moment, Twitch has a “three strikes” rule before a streamer’s channel is permanently suspended. TOS violations, however, can happen if a streamer misunderstands the rules. Earlier this year, Mychal “Trihex” Jefferson, Steven “Destiny” Bonnell, and Hasan “Hasanabi” Piker all earned strikes on their accounts because they streamed a presidential Democratic debate and were issued DMCA takedown notices. For his part, Jefferson thought by doing commentary, his stream of the debate fell under fair use — which was not the case.

Twitch, Shear said, really tries to follow its own TOS, even though the process of moderation is occasionally opaque to streamers. Now, Shear said, the company plans to be more transparent: it’ll send the streamer a clip of the moment in a stream when a violation happens and tell them what happened and why that violates Twitch’s guidelines and therefore necessitates an enforcement action. That’s not what happens now, which has led to some confusion among streamers who are subject to enforcement for violations that lie in the TOS’s gray areas. For people who report violations, Twitch plans to do something similar to what Twitter does: it’ll tell a person who reports a violation whether any action was taken in response to their flagging.

“Transparency is how you build trust.”

“Transparency is how you build trust,” Shear told me. If you can’t see how something is done, it’s hard to conclude it was executed fairly. The idea is to make Twitch’s process clearer so that people can see that decisions aren’t made arbitrarily. “Trust is consistency over time,” Shear said. “And so, if a process seems random because you can’t see how it’s working, you can’t ever build trust because you have randomness.” 

He wants users to be able to trust the process, even if they can’t see inside every decision. That goes double for high-profile cases — for example, when Natalia “Alinity” Mogollon appeared to throw one of her cats during a stream. There was an immediate backlash online. Some thought that because Mogollon is an outsized presence on Twitch that she received favorable treatment from the company. While that wasn’t the case — the SPCA got involved, and in the end, said it had found Mogollon to be a responsible pet owner — Twitch didn’t comment on the high-profile case at all. Not addressing individual account actions is one of its policies, but it also gave the online mob the impression that something nefarious had happened.

Twitch’s moderation does take into account public opinion, but only as far as it exposes problems in those processes. Here, Shear was careful to say that the platform isn’t going to change the company’s policy on giving comment on individual cases — which is a privacy issue — and that it’s not going to change its policies on how enforcement works just because a decision might have been unpopular.

“we’re just less afraid maybe than some people to pull the trigger on bad actors who are popular.”

Despite what happened with Mogollon, most high-profile cases don’t go viral. Shear said that it’s hard for an individual piece of content to spread across the world on Twitch. It’s not somewhere where a moment goes global — like on Twitter or Facebook — and then the whole world sees and memes it. Twitch is a place where you have to be consistently good to gain a following; you can’t just capitalize on the one instant in time that brings in a rush of new followers. In Shear’s view, the people who are successful are people who have proven they can do something good over a long period of time. “I think the other half of it is, I think we’re just less afraid maybe than some people to pull the trigger on bad actors who are popular,” he said. “I think we’re quite willing to do that when we think they’ve violated a guideline.”

A new era of live-streaming

After talking to Shear, it’s easy to see how much live-streaming has changed. All of Twitch’s recent changes — its brand refresh, which was intended to showcase streamers’ brands, and its renewed focus on transparency, which will make moderation feel more consistent — are a mark of professionalization. There are new players in the market, and the competition for talent and audience share is heating up. Shear, however, doesn’t think things have changed as much as I do.

“What’s changed is it’s big enough that everything goes,” he said. “Now, when a Twitch streamer goes somewhere, or a streamer comes to Twitch, that’s a news story if they’re big enough.” The obvious reference here is Tyler “Ninja” Blevins leaving Twitch for Mixer, a competitor owned by Microsoft. A few weeks later, Twitch picked up Nick “Nick Eh 30” Amyoony from YouTube, where he had 4.6 million subscribers. Both moves made international news. 

“What changed is not that people started competing over live-streamers. What changed is that live-streamers are now celebrities, like real, legit celebrities,” Shear continued. “And when a celebrity moves platforms, that’s a news story.” Twitch, he said, has been in a competition for talent since 2011. It keeps track of who it’s trying to convince to come over to its platform, and it keeps track of who’s who everywhere else.

“You’re already one of us. You may not realize it yet.”

That focus on streamers is also related to Twitch’s focus on viewers, because one cannot exist without the other — and, obviously, the goal is to get more people watching. Shear said the company wants to match those viewers with streamers who are doing interesting things, which is what its new ad campaign is built around. There have also been quiet changes to search to help new users discover what channels they might like on the site. Shear said that the last internal survey it ran for first-time users came back with data suggesting they’d made big strides in streamer discovery.

Twitch had to run a bunch of experiments so it could figure out a clear idea of where it needed to go next. At the same time, the company is also sticking with the familiar: the logo is still the Twitch glitch, and it is still purple. But now it’s modular, customizable. In other words, it’s grown to encompass every streamer’s unique brand.

“I think we’re looking for a broader range of people, and I think we’re looking to get the message out that this is a thing that is welcoming to everyone,” Shear said. “To quote our own brand: you’re already one of us. You may not realize it yet. But we picked that for a reason. I think that really is the message we’re trying to send.”