Could Twitch streamers really unionize?
Twitch has had a tumultuous couple of weeks. The company faced intense scrutiny over its gambling policies, and on Sept. 20, Twitch announced it would prohibit some types of gambling on the platform in October. Later that week, a Bloomberg report exposed child predation on the site. And on that very same day, Twitch introduced a wildly unpopular change to how much its streamers get paid. The collision of all these problems at once reached a fever pitch — and had some streamers asking, Could we really unionize?
With regard to the revenue split, The Verge reported that larger and smaller content creators alike see it as “anti-creator.” Twitch currently offers a 70/30 revenue split to its top streamers, and others have long asked for the platform to spread that to all streamers rather than the 50/50 split it currently offers them. Instead, Twitch is actually moving away from that split, bringing all streamers down to a 50/50 split after they’ve reached $100,000 in revenue.
The reality is that streamers already have been organizing. Though streamers likely can’t unionize in the legal sense like workers at a company or factory might, they are nonetheless able to work together and even use collective action to encourage Twitch to make changes.
Twitch streamers already understand the shared power they hold over the platform they use. While streamers haven’t ever actually organized themselves into an unofficial union or guild, they have rallied together to push for change on the platform. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Before Twitch’s top streamers called on the Amazon-owned company to ban slots and gambling on the platform — led by a hashtag and a proposed boycott — a number of streamers had done the same for other causes. In 2021, Twitch users rallied behind the #TwitchDoBetter hashtag in response to the platform’s alleged inaction to curb “hate raids” (targeted attacks on marginalized streamers). And in 2020, numerous streamers participated in a day-long blackout in response to accusations of sexual harassment against community members.
These two movements prompted a response from Twitch in the form of official statements and in some cases policy changes.
Marginalized streamers are also often leading movements that push Twitch to change. “I don’t get to opt out of being Black, Femme, Queer, and my life is politicized whether I want it to [be] or not,” said partnered Twitch streamer and tabletop RPG developer Tanya DePass, known as cypheroftyr online, to Polygon.
Twitch streamers face a number of challenges in unifying as a collective voice. There’s a vast gulf in how much they make, how much they stream, and their official Twitch “status” — whether someone is an affiliate, partnered, one of the highest earners, or none of these at all. There are more than 2 million “active broadcasters,” Twitch said on its FAQ page, 27,000 of whom are partnered as of 2018. The number has grown exponentially since then, as the COVID-19 pandemic drove viewers to livestreaming platforms.
Though all these different classes of streamers have similar concerns, their needs vary wildly. Twitch streamers acting as one large voice may not be possible; DePass told Polygon that if streamers could organize, they’d likely split off into groups based on official Twitch status. But there will always be that one thing they have in common: They’re required to follow Twitch’s rules, whether they like those rules or not. (Twitch declined to comment for this story.)
Devin Nash, co-founder of marketing agency Novo and a streamer who left Twitch over its gambling policies, spoke to 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) on stream about a proposed action and protest — a big strike in December. Three people — including one of Twitch’s biggest stars — talking about it on a single stream, followed by an outpouring of anti-gambling discourse on social media, made the message loud enough for Twitch to hear. And not only did the platform hear it, but Twitch also did something about it.
Nash said that Twitch streamers with smaller audiences can be impactful, too, and it’s not by stopping streaming — which he said saves Twitch money, because there are fewer streams to support. If a large enough group streams more — a lot more — and constantly broadcasts its message, that could work as an act of collective power, Nash said. That, and reaching out to advertisers, too.
“[These] workers are at the mercy of the platform,” Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers, told Polygon. “If they’re dependent on them for their livelihood and the terms of the split changes, they can’t really do anything individually. Their only ability to do something is really to organize and have enough workers participate that either hits [Twitch] where it hurts in terms of profit, or at least mounts a credible threat to hit them where it hurts.”
A lot of people are tossing around the word “union” to describe the way streamers could organize and use their collective power, but according to Givan, a traditional, recognized union is not an option for streamers (although it would be an option for Twitch employees, or workers elsewhere in the video game industry). There are really two definitions of “union,” according to union organizer and video game industry worker Austin Kelmore. “There’s the legal definition, which is what you can form within the guidelines of the law,” he said. “And then there’s the definition where it’s helping out your fellow workers.”
There’s obviously overlap there, but when Twitch streamers are saying “union,” they likely mean the latter — “the building of power and collaboration,” Kelmore said.
Givan said that collective action would be most effective if the biggest streamers, with the largest and broadest reach, get involved alongside a significant portion of other smaller streamers. It’s what happened on a smaller scale with the gambling ban — even the suggestion of a boycott from Twitch’s most popular streamers allegedly moved the company to answer.
Because Twitch streamers are independent, they’ll have to look to other platform workers for inspiration, like people who are also independently contracted with a company and tied to a certain platform, be it Twitch, Uber, or Etsy.
Kristi Cassidy is a costume and dressmaker and interim president of the newly formed Indie Sellers Guild, which operates like a union for Etsy sellers. Cassidy told Polygon that Etsy has upset creators in the past by changing its terms and implementing rules and features that hurt people whose livelihoods depend on the platform. In April, Cassidy and a group of Etsy sellers formed the Indie Sellers Guild after a weeklong boycott that took a number of shops offline. The Indie Sellers Guild estimated that 30,000 shops went offline during that week; with millions of storefronts on the platform, Etsy chief financial officer Rachel Glaser said in a May shareholder’s meeting that fewer than 1% of sellers temporarily shut down their shops. But after the strike, Etsy did make at least one alleged concession, adjusting the Star Seller program so that it would be less of a pain point for sellers.
The Indie Sellers Guild is still new — it officially launched in September — and its members are still working out the details. Still, their demands are clear: They want an Etsy that better serves their needs. Otherwise they’ll try to head elsewhere. One of the guild’s goals is to accredit platforms that do meet the members’ needs, and to provide support for indie sellers everywhere. Cassidy estimates there are 2,000 people signed up in the guild right now, including allied members who may not have online shops of their own.
The other option for streamers, according to Givan, would be to work with an established union like 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 calls “influencers” — that is, any content creators who do sponsored deals and post them on social media channels, including Twitch. Though the size of a streamer’s reach can vary widely — there’s no minimum — not all streamers will be able to join. Only streamers who do paid advertisements on their platforms would get to join. The benefit here is that a streamer can get health benefits and a pension, and help in collective bargaining and mediation to settle disputes between creators and brands, according to the New York Times. (Benefits are limited to folks who reach a certain earnings point, though.)
SAG-AFTRA, for its part, seems to understand how entertainment is shifting, and its decision to open up union membership to creators is definitely a good thing. For an industry with very few, if any, labor protections, it’s a start, and SAG-AFTRA has also pushed for change in the video game industry before.
Of course, whether their collective actions are called a union, a guild, or something else entirely, Twitch streamers are already organizing, and they have been for a while.
“[Twitch streamers] can actually care about people who are not just their peers in the top percentage of Twitch,” DePass said. “Stop worrying about seeming too ‘woke’ or being ‘canceled’ and show some compassion and humanity for other creators.”
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