“Identity shapes what we want to share and what we want to broadcast, [so] it is part of our content,” says Yana Calou, PR director of Trans Lifeline. The nonprofit operates a peer support and crisis hotline and offers microgrants to trans and nonbinary recipients. More recently, it launched a streaming discovery tool called Peer2Peer that functions as a searchable directory. Broadcasters can tag themselves in categories like “trans,” “Black,” or “lesbian,” and viewers can search for the tags they want to see.
With Twitch reluctant to allow identity-based tagging, marginalized viewers’ ability to find streamers and associated communities of people like them has been limited. But when a group of streamers approached Trans Lifeline about hosting the website they had created to facilitate these connections, Calou says they thought it was “a wonderful idea.”
“Having [an identity-based] tagging system that users consent to provides both streamers and viewers with the ability to have an experience that brings them comfort and connection and joy,” says Calou.
Project lead and creative director Steph Loehr saw the demand for this kind of service across years of Twitch streaming herself. “Identity-based tagging is invaluable,” she says. “Streamers of vulnerable minority communities are doing literal lifesaving work on Twitch every day by providing safe communities for others like them.” Front-end developer Lucia Everblack has similar experience. “It really is life changing and potentially even life saving because we’re giving people a direct route to talk to those people who might be able to share a point of view with them,” she says.
Peer2Peer targets gaps in Twitch’s own tagging system. The streaming company removed the ability to create custom communities, which included identity-based tags, in 2018, and streamers, including Loehr, have continually asked for them to be reinstated, particularly the ability to self-identify as trans. Though streamers can tag themselves broadly as LGBTQIA+, trans streamers found that this left them with reduced visibility overall.
Harassment for marginalized groups has long been an issue on Twitch, but it’s a problem that can be mitigated in part through visibility and community. “What we had been hearing from Twitch is that they removed the trans tag and other tags because of harassment, but what we actually know as experts in peer support is that when you have the ability to find and connect with community, you actually have much more resilience and support in dealing with harassment,” says Calou. “Trans streamers are saying ‘we’re getting harassed anyway’… It’s a failure of content moderation and the ability to enforce their anti-harassment policies on their part.”
Peer2Peer helps to provide that community in several ways. Firstly, it’s worldwide, where Trans Lifeline’s hotline is located in the US and Canada. It doesn’t require picking up the phone, which may be uncomfortable for some. And of course, it’s all virtual in a time of a pandemic. “You can’t go to a gay bar or a queer bar right now, right?” points out Everblack. “Streaming has become this really important space where people could connect…and I think as we’ve launched Peer2Peer we’ve really seen this huge increase in people being able to find one another.”
“For us on the hotline so many of our callers report that this is the first time that they’ve ever spoken to another trans person,” says Calou. “And so I think…as a viewer being able to find other trans people on Twitch to be able to watch and connect with as you’re questioning or coming out, having those kinds of contact can mean that that’s maybe the first time that people are really interacting with another trans person.”
However, Peer2Peer isn’t only for trans users. It also has tags relating to racial identity, disability, religion, and so on. Advisory board member Irene Nieves has been central in keeping the site as inclusive as possible. “A large issue that a lot of people have, especially as people of color or as Black people on Twitch, is that it’s near impossible to find other people unless you already have a pre-existing community,” she says. “So a large part of the work that I do is specifically centered around making sure that we have as many voices being amplified as possible.”
“With Twitch specifically, one of the issues that I personally have and that we’re trying to divest away from with P2P is only highlighting people during events. [For example], only uplifting Black voices during Black History Month,” Nieves adds. “So when we do our outreach specifically at P2P we’re just trying to organically as possible make sure as many people are being seen and represented as possible.”
Everblack has also been focused on keeping the site accessible. “I’ll use a screenreader to read the content out and make sure that it makes sense and that there isn’t information that someone using a screen reader can’t reach,” she says as an example. Calou also emphasizes the consent that’s baked into the platform. Streamers can opt in and out of tags at will and unlist themselves entirely if they choose.
So far, the platform has spread almost entirely through word of mouth to almost 1,500 streamers. “I’m gonna cry,” Nieves laughs when I ask her about the reception. “We spent a year on this project…and the response has been mindblowing. So many amazing people saying ‘I feel seen, I feel heard.’” Everblack was surprised to see so many people tweeting out screenshots of their profiles. “[Streamers get] a thrill out of seeing their name and their channel and the tags that they assigned. It’s really rewarding to see that,” she says.
“There hasn’t been any negative feedback,” adds Nieves. “There’s always a concern that there’s going to be discriminatory hate or there’s going to be people who don’t necessarily see the value… but it’s just been amazing.” Calou says that it’s gotten some Trans Lifeline employees into watching Twitch who hadn’t known much about streaming before. “People were really surprised and felt like this is this incredible place to discover and find interesting people who share lived experience.”
As the site keeps growing, it’s also becoming more robust. Everblack says that since the team uses the site themselves, they’ve got “a bunch of ideas for new features.” Users have also been suggesting updates, including new tags, via its feedback system. “It’s so cool because it’s ever evolving,” says Nieves. “It’s this rolling stone where it started from a great place because [we wanted] to have all of the tags be as inclusive as possible and as far reaching as possible, but it’s only getting better because people are able to contribute to those tags themselves.”
She gives examples such as the “aromantic” tag, which now has a couple dozen streamers listed underneath it. “When we added it, people went on social media and said ‘I feel seen. I told [P2P] that I wanted to have it represented and… I go back and it got accepted and I can use that.’ What’s so cool is that no tag doesn’t fulfill a purpose. They’re there so that people can feel represented in their identity,” Nieves says.
All of the team members I spoke to also mentioned that, as Peer2Peer grows, they hope it might have a wider influence, including on Twitch itself. “We’re hoping that Twitch can use our website as a reference for doing better themselves, and owning up to their moral responsibility to empower, protect, and foster marginalized streamers on their platform,” says Loehr.
Nieves says she hopes the industry will see why the service Peer2Peer provides is important and act accordingly. “We want Twitch to see this and be like ‘we should be doing this. Look how many people are getting involved,’” she says. Everblack, meanwhile, notes that she would be happy for the site to continue as is, but if Twitch did take notice, it could go one of two ways. “Maybe they hire us... and we build this out on their site for them, or at least act as consultants for that. Or Twitch just steals the idea and one day we wake up and everything we did and all of our hard work is nullified by Twitch doing it. I’m fine either way really.”
“Hopefully it can be an example to the company that this is actually working well for people,” adds Calou. “That this is what we want, and [that they could be] listening to communities about what they want instead of saying what’s ‘actually’ best for them.”
“In the meantime, it feels really wonderful to be able to build something like this,” they say. “I think particularly what this points to is that if Twitch isn’t going to do this then trans people are figuring out other ways and coming together. If we’re not going to have a seat at the table we’re just going to build our own table.”