Bad Twitch policies are inspiring streamers to work together

Even in the absence of a union, Twitch broadcasters can organize.

Twitch has had a turbulent few weeks. Twitch attracted heavy attention over its gambling policy, and on September 20, the business stated that it will outlaw some sorts of gambling on the site beginning in October. A Bloomberg story the next week revealed child exploitation on the platform. On the same day, Twitch implemented a divisive adjustment in how much its broadcasters get paid. The convergence of all these issues reached a fever pitch, prompting some streamers to wonder, “Can we truly unionize?”

The income split, according to The Verge, is “anti-creator” for both bigger and smaller content providers. Twitch presently gives a 70/30 income split to its best performers, and others have long requested that the network extend that to all streamers rather than the existing 50/50 split. Instead, Twitch is shifting away from that ratio, with all broadcasters receiving a 50/50 cut after they achieve $100,000 in earnings.

Streamers, in fact, have already begun to organize. Though streamers are unlikely to be able to unionize in the same way that workers at a firm or factory might, they may still work together and even use collective action to persuade Twitch to make changes.

Twitch streamers are already aware of their collective influence over the site they utilize. While streamers have never formed an unofficial union or guild, they have banded together to advocate for reform on the platform. It works occasionally and not always.

Prior to Twitch’s top broadcasters calling on the Amazon-owned corporation to prohibit slots and gambling on the platform, which was accompanied by a hashtag and a planned boycott, a number of streamers had done the same for other causes. Twitch fans united under the #TwitchDoBetter hashtag in 2021 in reaction to the platform’s claimed failure to combat “hate raids” (targeted attacks on marginalized streamers). In reaction to allegations of sexual harassment against community members, many streamers joined in a day-long blackout in 2020.

Twitch responded to these two movements with formal comments and, in certain cases, policy changes.

Marginalized broadcasters are frequently at the forefront of initiatives that force Twitch to reform. “I don’t get to opt out of being Black, Femme, Queer, and my existence is politicized whether I want it to [be] or not,” said Tanya DePass, a partnered Twitch streamer and tabletop RPG producer known online as cypheroftyr, to Polygon.

Twitch broadcasters encounter a variety of obstacles when it comes to uniting as a collective voice. There’s a big difference between how much they make, how often they stream, and their official Twitch “status” – whether they’re an affiliate, partnered, one of the biggest earners, or none of the above. According to Twitch’s FAQ website, there are over 2 million “active broadcasters,” with 27,000 of them partnered as of 2018. Since then, the number has expanded tremendously as the COVID-19 epidemic has driven viewers to livestreaming services.

Though all of these distinct types of streamers have similar problems, their requirements vary greatly. Twitch broadcasters functioning as a unified voice may be impossible; DePass told Polygon that if streamers could organize, they’d most likely break into factions based on official Twitch status. But there is one thing they all have in common: they are compelled to obey Twitch’s rules, whether they like them or not. (Twitch did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

Devin Nash, co-founder of marketing agency Novo and a former Twitch streamer who left the platform due to its gambling policies, spoke on stream with top streamers Imane “Pokimane” Anys and Matthew “Mizkif” Rinaudo (the latter of whom was later dropped from his gaming organization for his alleged role in a sexual assault cover-up) about a proposed action and protest — a large strike in December. Three people talking about it on a single stream, including one of Twitch’s greatest stars, followed by an outpouring of anti-gambling debate on social media, made the message loud enough for Twitch to hear. Not only did the platform hear it, but Twitch also took action.

Twitch streamers with lesser viewership, according to Nash, can have an influence as well, and it’s not by abandoning broadcasting — which he claims saves Twitch money because there are fewer streams to maintain. Nash believes that if a large enough group streams more – a lot more — and consistently broadcasts its message, it may operate as an act of collective power. That, as well as reaching out to advertising.

“[These] laborers are at the mercy of the platform,” Rutgers assistant professor of labor studies Rebecca Kolins Givan told Polygon. “If they rely on them for a living and the conditions of the split alter, they won’t be able to achieve anything on their own.” Their only option is to organize and mobilize enough employees to either hit [Twitch] where it hurts in terms of profit, or to issue a credible threat to strike them where it hurts.”

Many people are using the term “union” to describe how streamers may organize and wield their collective power, but Givan believes that a conventional, recognized union is not a possibility for streamers (although it would be an option for Twitch employees, or workers elsewhere in the video game industry). According to Austin Kelmore, a union organizer and video game industry worker, there are two meanings of “union.” “There’s the legal definition, which is what you can make inside the legal limitations,” he explained. “And then there’s the definition where you aid your coworkers.”

There is definitely overlap, but when Twitch broadcasters mention “union,” they are most likely referring to the latter — “the creation of power and collaboration,” according to Kelmore.

Givan believes that collective action will be most successful if the larger streamers, with the greatest and broadest reach, join forces with a considerable number of lesser broadcasters. On a lesser scale, it’s what occurred with the gambling prohibition – even the threat of a boycott from Twitch’s most prominent streamers supposedly prompted the business to respond.

Because Twitch streamers are self-employed, they will need to search for inspiration from other platform employees, such as those who are independently contracted with a firm and attached to a specific platform, such as Twitch, Uber, or Etsy.

Kristi Cassidy is a costume and seamstress and the temporary president of the newly founded Indie Sellers Guild, which functions similarly to an Etsy union. Cassidy told Polygon that Etsy has already irritated creators by modifying its terms of service and adding regulations and features that harm people whose livelihoods rely on the platform. Cassidy and a handful of Etsy vendors created the Indie Sellers Guild in April, following a weeklong boycott that forced a number of stores to close. With millions of storefronts on the site, Etsy chief financial officer Rachel Glaser stated at a May shareholder’s meeting that less than 1% of merchants temporarily shut down their stores.However, following the strike, Etsy allegedly made at least one concession, altering the Star Seller program to make it less of a pain point for merchants.

The Indie Sellers Guild is still in its early stages (it formally began in September), and its members are still ironing out the kinks. Nonetheless, their requests are clear: they want an Etsy that is more suited to their needs. Otherwise, they’ll try to go somewhere else. One of the guild’s missions is to accredit platforms that satisfy the demands of its members, as well as to assist indie merchants everywhere. Cassidy believes that the guild currently has 2,000 members, including affiliated members who may not have their own web stores.

The other option for streamers, according to Givan, is to join an established union, such as the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), which recently opened up its membership to a class of workers it refers to as “influencers” — that is, any content creators who do sponsored deals and post them on social media platforms such as Twitch. Though the extent of a streamer’s reach is not limited — there is no minimum – not all streams will be allowed to participate.Only streamers who run sponsored commercials on their networks would be eligible to participate. According to the New York Times, a streamer can get health benefits and a pension, as well as participate in collective bargaining and mediation to resolve issues between producers and companies. (However, benefits are only available to those who achieve a particular income level.)

SAG-AFTRA, for its part, appears to grasp how the entertainment industry is changing, and its decision to allow artists to join the union is clearly a good thing. It’s a start for an industry with little, if any, labor safeguards, and SAG-AFTRA has already advocated for change in the video game business.

Of fact, whether they label their collective acts a union, a guild, or something else completely, Twitch broadcasters are already organizing, and have been for quite some time.

“[Twitch broadcasters] can care about folks who aren’t only their colleagues in the top tier of Twitch,” DePass remarked. “Stop being concerned about being too ‘woke’ or getting ‘canceled,’ and instead show some compassion and humanity towards other creators.”