Content warning: The following article discusses sexual assault, verbal and physical abuse, harassment, and suicide.
When the games industry saw its most recent wave of abuse allegations take shape in June, it included dozens of accusations against Twitch streamers.
Twitch CEO Emmett Shear posted a memo he sent to staff about the allegations on Twitter, saying, "We support people coming forward, commend their bravery in doing so, and know there are many others who have not. The gaming industry is not unlike others that have had to reckon with systemic sexism, racism, and abuse that rewards certain people and disadvantages -- even harms -- others. The status quo needs to change. This reckoning and industry-wide actions are overdue, and this is another issue that we, and the industry, need to address to create lasting and positive change."
Shortly after that statement, a former Twitch employee approached GamesIndustry.biz to come forward with allegations of systemic sexism, racism, and abuse like Shear had referenced.
"I've been hesitant for years to share my story and the events that happened to me during my employment at Twitch," she said, "but with the recent events and their statement on Twitter, I feel compelled to share and speak out against their blatant lies to 'create a safe community.'"
"It took place in the office. At events. In meetings and behind closed doors. It was rampant and unavoidable"
This employee made it clear she had nothing to gain by coming forward, but felt it was more important to hold Twitch accountable for its actions, and lack thereof.
"Twitch repeatedly swept accounts of harassment and abuse under the rug: sexual, verbal, physical abuse, and racism. And not just my own. It took place in the office. At events. In meetings and behind closed doors. It was rampant and unavoidable. We heard about it in the halls. We saw it at our desks. It was overt and part of the job."
In the months since, we have spoken with 16 Twitch employees from every era of the company dating back to when it was Justin.tv. A few said they never saw anything of the sort in their time with the company; most of them had stories confirming different aspects of the original employee's allegations.
When we told Twitch what we had heard from those employees, a spokesperson for the company replied, "We take any allegations of this nature extremely seriously, whether on our service or within our company, and work swiftly to investigate and address them as appropriate. Any suggestions to the contrary misrepresent our culture, leadership, and values.
"Many of these allegations are years old, and we've taken numerous steps to better protect and support our employees and community, and will continue to invest time and resources in this area."
"No one really took women seriously there."
One of the most common assertions we heard from employees was that Twitch is not a welcoming environment for women, with one saying the company demonstrated "an explicit tolerance for misogyny."
"It was a boys' club," another woman said of working there. "There was a definite bias, a definite sense that females and males were different, and females weren't given the same opportunities. They were prey."
One early employee recalled an atmosphere of casual sexism in the office that ranged from ignorance to outright misogyny. Another said it was common to hear women referred to as bitches in the office.
Future VP of partnerships John Howell was well known inside and outside the company by his Twitter handle, @johnsfatcock. He changed the user name as Twitch grew, but it was a known enough entity that someone re-registered it in 2014 with a user profile explaining, "john went all corporate and left this legendary handle behind."
2014 was also when Amazon acquired Twitch for $970 million, which multiple people we spoke to pointed out as a division between eras in the company. After the Amazon acquisition, we were told Twitch became more professional, began employing more women and marginalized people, and brought in consultants to talk about diversity and culture.
Despite that, our conversations with employees who worked at Twitch before, during, and after the acquisition made it clear that the increased professionalism only helped so much. The people we spoke with for this article did so on the condition that we preserve their anonymity, and some felt putting time frames with their stories would risk identifying them. That said, the stories we collected were not confined or even concentrated to one specific era of the company.
"The women on the platform were held to extreme standards, and it was always blamed on them if they used sexuality as marketing, and it was deeply degrading"
Perhaps predictably, the office culture's attitudes toward women were reflected on the Twitch platform as a whole. Women streamers were routinely called "boob streamers" by men in the office. One employee recalled instances of male co-workers joking about streamers sleeping with people to get favors or slut-shaming them.
"The women on the platform were held to extreme standards, and it was always blamed on them if they used sexuality as marketing, and it was deeply degrading," one woman said.
One employee involved in moderation recalled professional streamer Kaceytron as an example of that, saying there was an abundance of concern when she started becoming popular on Twitch while wearing low cut tops.
"It was one of those rare moments where some of these guys just came out with it and were honest: 'This woman is a problem because she's showing too much cleavage. And we need to come up with a way that does not bend our rules but allows us to get her off of this website.'"
While Twitch has at times been hands-on about the sexuality of women, most of those we spoke to said it was less engaged when it came to the harassment of women.
"Women streamers' concerns were not taken seriously," one early employee said. "There was never any talk about 'Should we make a formal system?' or tools of any kind to help them manage the constant harassment. There was an attitude in the office, especially among the partnerships team, of 'What do boob streamers expect'?"
We were told one woman had been called a cunt and spat on by a co-worker. Her manager responded by asking her what she did to deserve it
This extended not just to streamers, but to Twitch employees. We heard accusations of victim blaming and downplaying serious offenses when women reported problems in the office. We were told one woman had been called a cunt and spat on by a co-worker. Her manager responded by asking her what she did to deserve it.
When another reported abusive behavior to a member of senior management, he made excuses for it, saying the individual in question had a difficult upbringing.
Multiple women said they'd been sexually assaulted by men at the company, including forced kisses, groping, and inappropriate massages. One described suffering verbal assault that was "extremely inappropriate, abusive, degrading, and cruel."
Several women we spoke to said they expected some of this kind of treatment when they were hired, but were still surprised at the extent of it.
"I certainly don't want to justify it at all, but you hear of all these companies that are young," one said. "You have young 20-year-olds and they all of a sudden have money and it's just something that they do. And it's not like I didn't know that going in. I assumed that was going to be what the environment was going to be just because you hear about it happening.
"For me it was just shocking to see the higher-ups do it. I just assumed you hear these stories that it would just be like, normal people, and not people in power. It's the people you're supposed to be looking up to, the people you're supposed to be respecting who are the ones acting out, which I thought was shocking."
Some of these incidents were reported formally to HR or informally to senior members of management. None of the people we spoke to felt their reports were handled appropriately. A number of people said they didn't report some of the things that happened to them because they knew either by reputation or by their previous experience reporting incidents that the company wouldn't do anything.
"If I were to report [to management at another job] something that was done to me, I know something would be done about it, that it was not OK, and that these would be the next steps," one person said. "That is not something Twitch was set up to handle in any situation."
"It just didn't feel safe there ever. Nobody ever really took responsibility for anything and there was nobody to go to if you were threatened, or felt threatened, or were harmed in some way."
One woman said she was told to continue working with the man who sexually assaulted her and "show him respect." One person who raised a concern about the treatment of women at the company said they were told that, "if they don't feel safe here, they should just leave."
"It just didn't feel safe there ever," one woman said.
"Nobody ever really took responsibility for anything and there was nobody to go to if you were threatened, or felt threatened, or were harmed in some way. HR was not on the side of the employees, for sure. They were on the side of the executive team. That was the sense; if you went to HR, that would just ruin you even more."
One person reported a Twitch manager for non-sexual harassing behavior, and HR said they would speak to the manager about it.
When we asked if that was the end of it, they replied, "Well it was not the end of it for me, but it was the end of it for HR."
Not only did the harassing behavior continue, but the person felt they were retaliated against for making the report, both by the manager and the company itself. Another person who made a formal report to HR said they were retaliated against by the person they reported as well, both physically and verbally.
In multiple cases, women said the men they reported were promoted after their reports.
That idea that the HR existed to serve people in power rather than employees was echoed for us by a former HR team member who worked with the company in recent years.
"[HR] weren't a source of support for employees. If anything, they just worked to minimize the complaining person and their complaint"
"I'd seen many people go to HR and HR ultimately would not resolve things in favor of the complainant," they said. "They weren't a source of support for employees. If anything, they just worked to minimize the complaining person and their complaint. They were always in favor of and working for the person with the most power."
Another former HR employee from several years ago believed the department addressed complaints appropriately during their time with the company, but acknowledged it had a pre-existing reputation for inaction.
Even senior executives could have trouble marshalling the company to care about harassment. In June, Samantha Wong and her husband former Twitch VP Justin Wong publicly questioned a Twitch statement about how seriously it takes sexual harassment.
"These are empty words considering you, as a company, minimized and dismissed my sexual harassment and continued to let the predator attend your events and gave him live segments at E3 on your official channel," Samantha said on Twitter.
Justin backed up Samantha's version of events, saying, "I was a VP at Twitch and I reported this to the relationship-owning VP, the head of HR, and the CEO. All assured me it would be handled. Next year he was in the same VIP space at the same Twitch event. I was told he was the VP's uncle and an 'important' initiative launch partner."
One of the former employees recalled the incident, saying it was demoralizing to see the company not just tolerate abuse, but to continue promoting and aiding the abuser.
"What's disappointing about that from a female's perspective is if Justin couldn't get that through, then there wasn't really hope for any of us," she said. "It was extremely disheartening at the time to see nothing done about that."
However, the company was not uniformly negligent when it came to punishing people. We were told a somewhat similar incident happened more recently, with a Twitch employee being harassed by someone from Ubisoft at a gaming conference party. In that instance, Twitch made a formal complaint to Ubisoft management and had the offending employee coached and counseled. (Ubisoft did not return a request for comment.)
Beyond that, a number of individuals we spoke to also said they had positive experiences with individual HR employees who did their best, but were ultimately not able to see things handled properly.
"It wasn't until I finally left that I realized how broken the culture there was, and how horribly I had been treated," one woman said. "Working there felt like being in an abusive relationship and finally I had escaped."
In response to the above employee allegations, Twitch's spokesperson said the company is "dedicated to building communities" and has an internal culture that reflects that.
"We strive to ensure that Twitch as an employer provides a supportive environment where all employees feel valued, engaged, and safe to express themselves, regardless of their gender, age, race or abilities," they said. "We have invested significantly in our HR team, bringing in new, diverse leadership and reducing the ratio of employees to HR business partners so they can provide more support and better foster inclusivity. We also have a number of highly-engaged employee Guilds that provide space for employees to connect, produce, and engage in celebratory programming, and tackle complex issues."
They added that the company has processes that allow employees to report confidentiality through an anonymous website or a hotline, and that it uses third-party investigations to look into allegations when appropriate, and then takes action in line with their findings.
"Twitch has a woman problem," one employee told us. "I don't know if there are enough people who would also see that Twitch also has a racial and ethnic minority problem as well."
While we heard fewer stories of overt racism directed toward employees by their co-workers and managers, one employee saw a lack of diversity in the company contributing to a broader problem with racism and prejudice of all kinds at Twitch and on its platform.
"Historically, the decision makers have been predominantly white and male, so they have brushed off safety concerns of racial and ethnic minorities, women, and people from other under-represented groups," they said. "They have brushed off those concerns and said, 'When we are prioritizing product road maps, this is where certain safety tools and safety interventions lie; we're going to put those at the bottom because they're not important to us.'
"And they're not important to them because of their experience, and taking their [personal] user experience as the [universal] user experience. And they don't have voices at the table who say, 'Actually, this is really important.'"
"Hate speech was dismissed as teenagers being edgy and thus not as serious. It was almost like it was dismissed as not being real racism"
Another employee suggested the company was less actively racist than it was tolerant of racial slurs and racist attitudes on its platform.
"Hate speech was dismissed as teenagers being edgy and thus not as serious," they said. "It was almost like it was dismissed as not being real racism."
One employee said racism was accepted within the company, recalling one former executive making repeated racist comments to an Asian woman on the team. Another early employee said people within the company had to fight for a year to get the n-word on the global ban list. Streamers also were expected to moderate their own chats and could ban individuals from their channel, so it was not seen as the responsibility of the platform to police behavior.
One person from the Justin.tv days recalled an early meeting about establishing rules for the new gaming side of the business that would eventually grow to become Twitch. They knew gaming would need special rules because they didn't want, for example, someone streaming an M-rated game to get banned for showing pornography because of brief nudity in a cutscene. While logistical issues of that sort were the focus of the meeting, this person recalls future Twitch CEO Shear insisting that Justin.tv "needs to be a service that has no opinion," to the point where he insisted the Ku Klux Klan be allowed to stream so long as they adhered to the platform's rules.
Twitch's representative emphasized that it "is not a free speech platform," noting that it has rules banning hateful content, language, and behavior.
"We have taken, and continue to take, aggressive action to curtail hate speech and harassment on Twitch, including issuing permanent bans," they said.
Beyond the incidents above, the employee quoted at the beginning of this section said people within the company pushing for diversity were typically punished for inconvenient activism even as the company has spent recent years paying lip service to social justice causes in public.
In July, Twitch posted a video montage of streamers expressing support for Black Lives Matter and calling on people to lift Black voices, but pulled it after people pointed out the video was overwhelmingly white, with only one line spoken by a Black streamer.
(Incidentally, in the same week, the company edited a Pride celebration video after it claimed "the G in LGBTQIA+ also stands for gamer.")
More recently, it celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month in the US with a series of emote modifiers that let people deck out their favorite emotes with sombreros or maracas. When people objected, Twitch said it "clearly missed the mark" and removed the modifiers.
"While actual harassment could not convince Twitch to pull the raccoon emote, we were told fear of harassment has been a key part of the platform's refusal to re-introduce a trans community tag"
Several years ago, the company also rolled out a global emote of a raccoon that was quickly seized upon by some users as a way to harass black people. In June, former Twitch product manager Olivia Grace posted on Twitter that even though the emote "was being blatantly widely used for racist harassment" and the Twitch Black Guild employee group requested its removal, Shear declined to take it down.
While actual harassment could not convince Twitch to pull the raccoon emote, we were told fear of harassment has been a key part of the platform's refusal to re-introduce a trans community tag, something that would be optional and has been requested by a group of trans streamers for years.
The Twitch representative addressed the trans tag directly, saying, "We've heard from our Trans community that discovery is important to them, and this is a request that we care deeply about and have been working on for some time. While creating a Trans Tag seems like the obvious answer, we believe there might be a better solution to handle this with more care and are currently working through the details. This is an important issue, and we want to make sure we get it right."
They added, "We believe Twitch is made better when diverse voices of all kinds are represented on our service and have robust guidelines in place to help ensure everyone feels safe and welcome. These guidelines include, among other things, a zero tolerance policy against hate speech and hateful conduct of any kind. As a part of this, we deny emotes that are designed to abuse or demean others, or can be misused for such behavior."
One understanding shared by many of the people we spoke with was that certain higher-ups at Twitch were effectively beyond accountability, an inner circle of mostly male executives in the ear of Shear and company co-founder Kevin Lin. (Lin was COO until 2018, but remains with the company in a "Culture, Strategy, and Innovation" role.)
"It was just known that this group of people are the ones who were early in [the company], and they could do whatever they want," one person said.
"If they didn't get their way, they could just go to Kevin and the next thing you know you're having a very serious discussion about whatever the fuck it is," another said.
Those executives also commanded outsized influence over the company operations at its highest levels.
"There was a general apathy for sound decision-making. It tended to be very emotional. It tended to be very clique-y"
"There were so many times where it seemed like decisions were made behind certain closed doors," one former executive told us. "And leaders might represent themselves one way in front of a group, and represent themselves in a completely different way in private."
"There was a general apathy for sound decision-making," another executive from several years ago said. "It tended to be very emotional. It tended to be very clique-y. Who was in whose ear dominated the conversation, whether it was the right decision or not.
"With the senior leadership, I found it to be extreme arrogance. You said there were allegations of racism or sexism, etc. For me, it was more general apathy, extreme arrogance, and righteousness about their own beliefs that led me to believe this was not a culture that fosters diversity of thinking and styles."
That lined up with another colleague's description of Shear as a person with an unshakable belief in his own opinions.
"One thing you see from a lot of these tech leaders is that they have been treated as these geniuses, so their opinion on everything and their knowledge is thought to be expansive," the person said. "And they will weigh in and share opinion as if it is an authoritative position."
The same executive who described an apathy for sound decision making said there was chaos and confusion within the leadership of the company, and "a lot of sniping, toxicity, slamming people on Slack channels. It just wasn't a very supportive culture."
We were also told the harsh culture around the executive ranks perpetuated itself throughout the company.
"What we started to see was leaders who might have been, or might otherwise be, good people... Because the culture specifically at the leadership level was so bruising and aggressive, it was hard for that not to feed down, for the leaders not to perpetuate that same behavior within their teams."
One former employee described some of the behavior as Machiavellian, with managers who disliked certain reports setting them up for failure by giving them impossible targets or creating circumstances that made it impossible for them to succeed.
Lowering the Bar
One particular story of Twitch's reluctance to impose consequences for bad behavior has apparently reached a level of folklore among the company's staff. Most of the people we spoke to heard some version of this story, even if they didn't actually work at Twitch when it took place in 2016.
Like many start-ups and tech companies of the time, Twitch had an employee happy hour. Unlike many start-ups and tech companies, the company had an open bar at its 225 Bush St. offices in San Francisco.
Every Friday after the weekly all-hands meeting, employees would begin their weekend milling about the office with free beer, wine, and hard liquor, playing games and socializing. The problem was that Friday evening socializing stretched into Friday night. Then people would spend their weekends relaxing, gaming, and drinking at the office. Then they would bring their friends to do the same.
The company decided that was an abuse of what had been intended so it shut the bar down, locked up the alcohol, and had bartenders come in to serve the drinks, cut off inebriated people, and lock it up again each Friday night. This apparently did not sit well with everyone.
"[It] seemed like anything goes. There were never going to be any repercussions for anything. So people didn't know what any boundaries were"
"Somebody had such an issue with that that they defecated and spread it all over the walls," one employee said. "This individual was caught on video entering the men's room. And there was a big debate about how to handle it, which a lot of us thought was kind of odd, that there would be any debate between therapy and firing him."
A former HR employee said the individual was not fired.
"In any other organization, that's your ticket out," they said. "You're just not staying... [But at Twitch], if they're in a tech role, they're not getting fired."
We heard different versions of this story from different people. Some had heard that the defiling of the bathroom was not an act of protest but the straw that broke the camel's back and convinced Twitch to lock up the alcohol in the first place.
"The immaturity that people would get away with in a professional setting was shocking," one person said. "And it seemed like anything goes. There were never going to be any repercussions for anything. So people didn't know what any boundaries were."
That above incident took place at an internal Twitch party, but the invite-only parties the company threw in public at events like PAX or its own TwitchCon were notorious in their own right.
As one employee described it, "The mentality at Twitch was, 'We gotta throw ragers! Everybody's gotta have free alcohol and get drunk!'"
Another called them "a celebration of excess." As recently as last year, the company felt comfortable distributing alcohol by putting open cups of beer on a table for people to help themselves.
"At a previous TwitchCon, we pre-poured and left a few drinks on a staffed and monitored table at our closed event," Twitch's spokesperson said. "Although we believe this was a controlled set-up, we quickly removed it when a concern was flagged."
We were told the VIP sections where Twitch hosted business partners were typically more restrained, but the general admission area of the parties was described as "a hot mess" of wasted people.
"It's not like we hired security staff. We usually just hired whatever the venue provided and just like, great. Party go"
Employees at these parties were expected to serve as bouncers, breaking up fights, turning people away at the door, asking intoxicated attendees to leave, and putting up with the harassment that resulted.
When asked what kind of safety planning went into the Twitch parties in earlier years, one person familiar with the matter said, "Generally there really isn't any... It's not like we hired security staff. We usually just hired whatever the venue provided and just like, great. Party go."
Twitch's spokesperson told us the company is continually adjusting its events to ensure attendees feel safe, adding the company is "in the process of developing a comprehensive in-person events policy to ensure consistency."
"While we can't share specific details, we have security at all of our events and maintain strict guest lists to ensure the safety of everyone in attendance," they said. "We require all event attendees to adhere to a code of conduct, and have quickly removed anyone who was not upholding this standard."
One woman who worked at Twitch said she dreaded the parties, particularly because they were so commonly the settings for harassment and abuse.
"When people were at work, it seemed as if everyone was on," she said. "Everyone had a common goal, and in those moments, that's when it felt good. It felt like everyone had the same goal to make things happen and make it good for everybody, to make the company work. But the times when I saw it get out of control were always at those events. You just knew getting ready for the night that something was going to happen. Watch out for so-and-so. Shit like that. You just knew it was going to happen."
Another said she felt pressured to not only attend the parties but to accept the behavior that went on there.
"Once somebody grabbed my ass, and yeah that's inappropriate and shocking but by this point at Twitch, there was just this sense that... There's this whole thing with Silicon Valley that this lack of maturity and professionalism that is acceptable," she said. "And it's almost like if you don't participate in it, if you don't go to the Twitch party and party all night and do crazy things, then you're not really a part of the organization."
User Safety Not Guaranteed
The company's approach to party safety has some parallels to its track record on the safety of streamers who use the platform.
In 2008, a 19-year-old in Florida broadcast his suicide on Justin.tv. While multiple people told us that suicide was one of the few things Twitch was always serious about, it didn't respond to that tragedy by establishing a protocol on how to handle it when a streamer engages in self-harm.
Earlier this year, former Twitch community manager Jared Rea posted on Instagram about his first day at the company, when he was left to improvise his way through the handling of a suicide attempt on the site because there simply wasn't a guideline to follow. That was in 2011; we were told it would be at least another three years before a formal protocol for suicide attempts on stream would be adopted.
Twitch streamer Sweet Anita has talked publicly about her difficulties getting Twitch to cooperate with police to stop her stalker, who she says has made death threats, moved minutes away from her home, followed her in public, and peeked into her home through the mail slot. Last November she tweeted that police detained the stalker while he had a knife on him, after he assaulted her and confessed to harassment. She said they released him with a warning.
Sweet Anita had been in contact with Twitch over this individual, but the platform had apparently been unresponsive to the point where she eventually took her frustrations to Twitter in order to get a reply.
"At the moment, security measures like banning members who harass you in chat is completely ineffective because they can just use a VPN and make a whole new account"
In a recent video discussing her situation as well as the harassment and stalking influencers face regularly, she blamed her local police for not being willing to write up the minimal paperwork the platform would need to turn over user information, but she also stressed how Twitch's lax account creation standards facilitate this sort of abuse.
"Verified accounts would stop people making bots and spamming chat with doxing information, inciting more stalking and more harassment online from other people," she said, suggesting the platform take steps like linking accounts to a phone number or restricting accounts until they have been shown to belong to legitimate users.
"At the moment, security measures like banning members who harass you in chat is completely ineffective because they can just use a VPN and make a whole new account," she explained.
(Earlier this month, Twitch also rolled out an unban request feature that allows people to plead their case for mercy to a streamer, or alternatively for already-banned users to direct yet another volley of harassment at their target.)
In June, amidst the wave of women describing abuse they suffered from Twitch streamers, Twitch partnered streamer Vio went public with her story about a member of the Twitch partnership team, Hassan Bokhari. She said Bokhari abused his position in the company, wooing her with swag like a purple Twitch hoodie and pulling strings to get her partnered before ultimately sexually assaulting her. (Months later, Kotaku reported that Bokhari no longer worked at Twitch, with the company only saying it had a third-party firm investigate the matter and it took action in accordance with the findings.)
The following month, Wired reported about how easy it was to find children under the age of 13 livestreaming using Twitch's mobile app, as well as the deeply concerning interactions with strangers they have there. While the outlet regularly found apparent children livestreaming on Twitch, it said there were "far fewer" such instances on Facebook Gaming and YouTube Gaming. YouTube has restrictions in place to restrict livestreaming from mobile devices to more established viewers, while Facebook appears to more carefully moderate channel discovery, Wired reported.
The writer of that Wired report, Cecilia D'Anastasio, said on Twitter that one of the ways the outlet discovered children streaming was through the use of sorting functions on the site's Just Chatting section. For example, children would be less likely to have large audiences, so the ability to sort by streams with the fewest viewers could help surface them. A day after the Wired story ran, D'Anastasio noted that Twitch had removed some of its sorting options.
Another example of Twitch's lax attitude toward the safety of its users that received attention recently was that of Erin Hall, who streamed on the platform under the handle "YourStarling."
Hall told us that two years ago, she started streaming on Twitch as part of the Twitch Sings community and very quickly began a relationship with a partnered streamer who wound up verbally and emotionally abusing her. She spent almost a year with him, but when she decided to break it off, a friend who worked at Twitch helped her get out of that situation.
(It should be noted that several people we talked to spoke highly of Twitch staffers helping vulnerable co-workers, streamers, or viewers, but all were seen to be acting as individuals going above and beyond rather than acting at the behest of the company or in their role as Twitch employees.)
Hall says that after she left the situation, her abuser posted a tweet linking to nude videos of her online, tagging in Twitch, and expressing concern that the company would promote her on the front page where his 14-year-old son could see it. Hall said Twitch was her primary source of income at the time.
"He had known about my adult work from the very beginning, like our first conversation," Hall says. "The fact he would weaponize his son to try to get Twitch to take me off the platform, to hurt me, was terrifying."
Hall reported the action to Twitch as violating its terms of service that prohibit witch-hunting, doxing, and revenge porn. She sent messages to a developer on the Twitch Sings team she already had a line of communication with, as well as Jimmy Whisenhunt, a music partnerships manager who worked on Twitch Sings.
She says Whisenhunt told her to contact law enforcement if something criminal was happening, or use the site's reporting tools otherwise (which she had already done). She received no other follow-up, nothing from Twitch assessing her report, no explanation of next steps.
A couple months later, Hall was planning to attend TwitchCon where she would perform at an official party for Twitch Sings. She says she was one of 20-30 people selected to sing at the event, which would be broadcast on the front page of Twitch. Hall was worried that her abuser would also be there since he was a partnered Twitch Sings streamer, and says she informed the event's organizers about it beforehand. She checked the list of scheduled performers and confirmed he was not slated to perform.
"To just know that the people you trusted with your story and what you experienced -- people you trusted to do something about it -- not only did nothing, they essentially sided with him. They gave him special treatment. And it was so fucking invalidating"
However, once the event began, a change was made and her abuser was inserted into the lineup, giving him a coveted platform to perform on and bumping back other performers in the process.
"It was infuriating," she said. "I left the party. I was there and I suddenly hear my abuser's voice. Not only did they not address my experiences and follow up or do anything, but they gave him a platform... To just know that the people you trusted with your story and what you experienced -- people you trusted to do something about it -- not only did nothing, they essentially sided with him. They gave him special treatment. And it was so fucking invalidating."
Hall credits her community on Twitch with offering crucial support to help her through that period of her life, but she remains clearly disillusioned with the company itself -- and many of the individuals within it -- after seeing repeated allegations of abuse and harassment enabled by the platform.
"We talk about abuse and addressing abuse in generic terms, in the big scheme of things," Hall says. "We're like, 'Yeah, stand against abuse!' If someone comes to you with things, generic 'be a good person' shit, it seems obvious. But then, when you have an individual opportunity to actually do something about it... Someone has actually come to you with a story of abuse, telling you, 'Hey I don't feel safe coming to your event,' you have a choice. You have an opportunity to be a good person, to do the right thing. And you don't.
"It just happens so much, over and over, and we have hundreds of people now who have come forward saying, 'Hey, I had the same thing happen to me.' Does nobody give a shit there? Does nobody at Twitch actually give a fuck?"
We asked about Hall's case specifically, but Twitch's spokesperson provided a statement addressing harassment of streamers generally, saying, "We take allegations of sexual abuse and harassment involving Twitch streamers extremely seriously and review each case as quickly as possible, while ensuring appropriate due diligence as we assess these serious allegations and issuing permanent suspensions in line with our findings.
"While we can't singlehandedly tackle pervasive issues across the gaming and broader internet communities, we take our responsibility as a service for our community seriously, and will continue to assess and implement strategies to protect our community."
All Things in Moderation
From Justin.tv through the early days of Twitch, the company relied almost solely on a volunteer moderator staff. A team of as many as 50 volunteer moderators were given simple guidelines about what was not allowed (physical violence, people falling asleep, serious intoxication, non-gaming content, etc.) and access to admin tools that would allow them to ban any account they wanted.
Through 2013, Twitch employed a single person as a full-time moderator, and had a handful of other individuals whose job duties overlapped with moderation. We were told the company viewed moderation as a cost center, a black sheep that was dealt with reluctantly and chronically under-supported.
"As long as nobody died on the site, they could not give a shit. That was a priority. Just make sure no one dies on the site. If they do, scrub it. Delete everything"
"As long as nobody died on the site, they could not give a shit," one employee of the era said. "That was a priority. Just make sure no one dies on the site. If they do, scrub it. Delete everything. I think they were more concerned about that kind of stuff and being sued by Telemundo and UFC for sports. That was their big priority. Otherwise they didn't care."
"Twitch had this thing where if something was a problem, they would just try to ignore it and see if it went away," one employee said. "And then if it doesn't go away fast enough, maybe they'll do something about it."
Twitch would begin focusing on moderation a little more in 2014, one employee told us, but only because external parties wanted it. Twitch was in discussions with Sony and Microsoft to incorporate Twitch streaming functionality into the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, but the platform holders had reservations.
"Both Xbox and PlayStation were very concerned with what our operation looked like in terms of moderation because they, especially Xbox, had a very large and very focused moderation team," one person told us.
As a result, Twitch hired on a number of its volunteer moderators and created a formalized moderation team with a schedule to provide 24/7 coverage. (It still uses volunteer mods, however, which a spokesperson described as "a crucial layer of safety on Twitch" that works with a team of safety operations specialists and "AI and Machine Learning tools that detect harmful content.")
Beyond that, Twitch as a larger organization would take an active interest in the moderation of the site when popular streamers received bans. All of the people we discussed moderation with readily admitted Twitch partner streamers were held to a different standard than other users.
"A lot of the people that were hired to build the partnerships team were gamers and YouTube creators who knew all these people. So of course there's a personal take on [what action to take]," one person said. "To a degree it was thoughtful, but at the same time it was very much in favor of, 'Let's set up a different set of rules for partners.' Just in general. At some point, when that sort of activity keeps happening, we were like, 'Let's not ban them yet, let's not ban them yet. Let's have a conversation.'"
"People would want to hang onto some of the abusers on that website because, 'Well one time at DreamHack we got shitfaced, ha ha ha.'"
Another person said the partnership team would wade into moderation decisions using the company's fear of competition as leverage. If Twitch banned a popular streamer, they argued, they would just show up at a would-be competitor like own3D.tv. They would also advocate for people to be returned despite repeated bans for racial slurs (even after Twitch barred the n-word), or because the offender had apologized.
"It was always about who makes the most money, who can get the most subs, and just whether or not these people liked to hang out with you," we were told. "It was that shallow sometimes. People would want to hang onto some of the abusers on that website because, 'Well one time at Dreamhack we got shitfaced, ha ha ha.'"
One employee said there was major hesitation to discipline large streamers in part because of the revenue they generate and partly "because we all just know what kind of trouble their followers and fanbase could potentially be stirred into doing."
That sort of harassment was a problem. And because it was rarely as straight-forward as a streamer specifically asking their followers to break the site's rules or harass people, Twitch largely refused to take action against dog whistles and the like.
"If somebody doesn't explicitly energize their base to do something, it's really tough to hold them accountable for it," one person explained.
As a result, we were told any public-facing employee who somehow offended certain partnered streamers could expect their fans to go on the attack.
Several Twitch employees of the early years said death threats were common. One said death threats were so common they didn't take them seriously with rare exceptions. Another couldn't recall any such exceptions. For many of the early employees who built and shaped the company, this sort of behavior just wasn't seen as a big deal.
"Nearly everyone at Twitch was a pretty hardcore gamer where we had all been embedded in the space for a very long time," one early employee said. "That's largely why we were successful, because we culturally understood the space and had enormous passion to make the platform successful. But that does mean most employees existed in spaces where toxicity was normalized. I think pretty much all competitive gaming communities were toxic to some degree."
Twitch's spokesperson told us that "Trust & Safety" is one of the company's biggest areas of investment at the moment.
"We have doubled the size of our safety operations team this past year, enabling us to process reports much faster, and added new tools for both moderators (ModView, moderator chat logs) and viewers to control their experience (chat filters)."
One story surrounding moderation highlighted a number of the problems in Twitch. It involved the company's first paid moderator, Russell "Horror" Laksh, and the "Remove Horror" user campaign in November of 2013, in which people egged on by Twitch partners dogpiled him with death threats, doxing, and other harassment.
Twitch's official version of events surrounding Remove Horror, as detailed by an Emmett Shear-penned Reddit post, goes like this: After Laksh took over-reaching disciplinary action against a speedrunner, angry users discovered that he had an emoticon added to the site that violated rules regarding copyrighted images, even though it had originally been commissioned for use as an emoticon on Twitch. They began to harass and defame him on Twitch, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media sites with a rallying cry of "Remove Horror."
"Horror was too close to this situation and should have recused himself in favor of less conflicted moderators. Being personally involved led to very poor decisions being made"
Emmett Shear in a 2013 statement on the Remove Horror incident
Shear said that Laksh responded by banning a number of users from Twitch, some correctly and others for innocuous remarks.
"Horror was too close to this situation and should have recused himself in favor of less conflicted moderators," Shear said. "Being personally involved led to very poor decisions being made."
When a volunteer admin of Twitch's Reddit community took action against harassment of Laksh on that site, Shear said that was "obviously a mistake" and the volunteer admin was removed.
"We at Twitch do not believe in censoring discussion, and more to the point know that it's doomed to failure," Shear said.
Shear went on to explain that Twitch would be rescinding the bans against Twitch users and partners, and taking disciplinary action against Laksh and volunteer mods.
The CEO's post initially said Laksh voluntarily stepped back from public-facing moderation, but it was edited to say he would no longer moderate in any capacity at the site "as right now pretty much every moderation issue will be tainted by this episode."
Shear also held up Twitch's lack of investment in moderation as a shield in a section called "In Our Defense," noting that some of the mods people were upset about were volunteers rather than actual Twitch employees, so it would be false to attribute their actions to Twitch staff.
Laksh has a strikingly different view of events, as he discussed in an interview on YouTube two years ago.
As Laksh explained it, he wasn't working when the Remove Horror bans went down. When he saw the campaign gaining steam, he took the rest of the day off knowing how ugly it could get.
Instead, Laksh said the bans he was being disciplined for were the work of his boss, adding that he had moderation records to back that up.
However, when he returned to work, he was told he was being removed from moderation duties and found himself in a meeting with a C-level executive.
One of the details the Remove Horror crowd seized on in its harassment was Laksh's open status as a furry. While Shear's Reddit post explaining Remove Horror didn't seem concerned with it, Laksh said the unnamed C-level executive was very much interested in that.
"He started asking me questions about my sex life, the whole being gay, who my boyfriend was," Laksh said. "And this is the reason I quit. So he starts asking me way too many questions I was uncomfortable with... I was trying to explain, like, 'No, let's not talk about that.' And he would push into other details and keep asking for more and more information that just didn't seem necessary to me."
"[It] was a real low point of what we were as a company and who we thought we were. When even your CEO is feeding the mob mentality and throwing somebody under the bus, it was like, 'Wait, what are we trying to do here?'"
He added that it was demeaning and uncomfortable, to which the interviewer asked, "What did he ask you, something stupid like, 'Do you fuck animals?'"
Laksh responded, "I think that was almost an exact quote."
Laksh said he reported the incident to HR, which forced him into another meeting with the executive, "who proceeded to tell me that he recognizes I didn't do anything, but it was my team and I had to take the fall for them."
"Until that very day, I thought the company had my back," Laksh said. "Until I found out they were listening to Reddit over me."
Laksh was not the only one disappointed in Twitch.
"It's something I still remember because it was a real low point of what we were as a company and who we thought we were," one person said. "When even your CEO is feeding the mob mentality and throwing somebody under the bus, it was like, 'Wait, what are we trying to do here?'"
Trust & Safety
In many ways, Twitch today is a profoundly different company than it was at the beginning, from headcount to bureaucratic professionalism. But many of the people who created the company and built its original culture -- flaws and all -- have continued to shape its growth. Shear and Lin in particular are still there.
The company has made a show of its commitment and concern around many of these issues in recent years. It has made a point of featuring marginalized creators, particularly during Black History Month, LGBT Pride Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month. Even before the flood of abuse stories hit, the company established a Twitch Safety Advisory Council in May because "keeping our community safe and healthy is a top priority."
We asked former Twitch employees how much faith they put in the company's public statements and efforts on these fronts.
"I feel like in the early days, the company believed internally in the values they were putting out there publicly," one male employee who left in recent years said, adding that they always felt the company had a positive culture while they were there.
"You can spend all the money in the world on hoodies and a primo cafeteria for the San Francisco office. But what are you actually doing from a systems-level standpoint to encourage diversity?"
Other former employees were more skeptical.
"[That's] absolute bullshit," one said of Twitch's public commitment to create a safe environment for its employees. "Show me your budget. You can spend all the money in the world on hoodies and a primo cafeteria for the San Francisco office. But what are you actually doing from a systems-level standpoint to encourage diversity? That work wasn't happening."
One person suggested that to the extent Twitch's commitments on these issues -- particularly moderation -- are genuine, it's because advertisers have expressed concerns about being tied to online controversy like when Guy "Dr Disrespect" Beahm livestreamed from within a bathroom at E3. (Beahm was reportedly permanently banned from Twitch earlier this year, although Twitch did not say for what.)
"It's frustrating," one early employee said. "Really frustrating. Twitch during the period of time I worked there, it really felt like anything is possible. We have so much control over this platform, so much good will, we have that unattainable coolness factor we talk about from The Social Network. We had the clout to hire anyone we wanted. Top talent was dying to work at Twitch. And every single step of the way, Twitch chose nepotism. They chose selfishness. They chose profits. They just chose pretty much every self-destructive solution to any of the problems."
When the first former Twitch employee approached us and started us looking into the company, she did so with a prepared statement directed at Twitch, one that emphasized her motivation in coming forward was not revenge, but to spark introspection and hopefully reformation:
This is about a broken company, toxic culture, and unsafe environment for women and the fact that these men continue to be rewarded and move up within the industry while the women that are targeted continue to be held down. I challenge you to stand by your word and prove to this community that you aren't just reacting to public pressure through an empty-worded tweet, and show your commitment to stand by creating a safer workplace and community for women.
Create a non-biased HR.
Clear out the offenders and hire people that live by the principles you wish to see on your platform.
Just be good people.
Believe women when they tell you they don't feel safe. Give women an equal opportunity to shine. Hear them. Create a diverse perspective within the company so that the platform represents an accurate view of the world. Follow through with your Terms of Service and act on bad behavior.
I am only one of thousands of women in this community that has a story like this. The time is now for change. We've had enough. Twitch, are you ready to take action and finally listen to their stories?