It’s been a whirlwind month for Anne Atomic. The streamer saw her star suddenly begin to rocket into the stratosphere in late May when Twitch introduced both a hot tub section and hundreds of new tags, including a particularly long-requested option: “transgender.” For Anne Atomic, these proved a potent combo; in June, her regular audience went from single digits to hundreds of concurrent viewers. But increased attention meant that she also got brigaded by transphobes from 4chan, who bombarded her chat with ugly, invasive comments. And now, a few weeks later, Twitch has indefinitely suspended her channel.
One month ago, Twitch finally gave streamers what they had spent years asking for: hundreds of new tags, many tied to specific identities and backgrounds like “transgender,” “Black,” and “disabled.” Structurally speaking, this was a big deal. Twitch is a platform with precious few avenues for discoverability beyond a rudimentary recommendation algorithm, a limited search function, and the fickle ebb and flow of specific categories, which are usually dedicated to individual games or broader focuses, like Just Chatting. The platform is overflowing with millions of streamers, and most who start small without an outside means of growing stay small forever. New tags, at least, go part of the way toward remedying that problem, especially for marginalised streamers who previously had trouble finding new viewers and each other.
But Twitch was always hesitant to add identity-based tags, in part because of fears around harassment. If the bad faith masses can click a single tag and have access to hundreds or thousands of potential marginalised victims, it makes their mean-spirited hobby that much easier — or so the thinking went. In the past month, streamers like Anne Atomic have experienced the full range of ups and downs these new tags have brought with them.
“I’m a bit of an exceptional case in this regard, as I am without a doubt the biggest magnet for hate and transphobes on Twitch as the first, and still the only, transgender hot tub streamer,” Anne Atomic, who has seen over 50% of her tag-based viewer traffic come from the trans tag, told Kotaku in a DM. “I think it’s just inevitable with the tag. We aren’t forced to use it, though. I could easily stream without putting that I am trans anywhere and no one would question it. But I prefer not to hide who I am, and I use the platform as a means to educate people.”
Other streamers, some who’ve experienced harassment as the result of tags and others who haven’t, feel broadly similarly: The good of these new tags, they say, outweighs the bad.
“A few days ago, I did receive some race-based harassment in my stream, and I’m sure it’s likely attributed to me using the ‘Black’ tag,” charity and diversity-focused variety streamer PikaChulita told Kotaku in a DM. “Unfortunately, I think this is just one of the trade-offs for having identity-based tagging. I think most (if not all) marginalised content creators expected it. However, for myself and many other creators, it’s a risk we are willing to take in order to share our identities more easily with viewers and find others like us.”
Some streamers say that their experiences with the new tags have largely been harassment-free.
“I had a single half hearted attempt at transphobia, a single comment where I banned the user and they didn’t care enough to ban dodge,” reporter, podcaster, and Twitch partner Laura Kate Dale, who has used trans and autism tags, told Kotaku in a DM. “I honestly expected a lot worse, and I suspect Twitch did too.”
“I will say that the number of people my wonderful moderation team ban every day has remained consistent,” Veronica “Nikatine” Ripley, who founded a group called Transmission Gaming that helped lead the charge for a trans tag, told Kotaku in an email. “I do not believe under any circumstances that tags result in increased harassment. People will find ways to harass minorities online, unless the platform steps in with some new moderation tools.”
since Twitch added the trans tag to begin pride month, someone has created several bot accounts with names like 'Lord_Jesus_Saves' and 'furry_pride_sinful' to spam god-fearing hate messages in trans streamers chats, which is both awful and ridiculous pic.twitter.com/oqj4TQjbWK
— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) June 5, 2021
Other streamers, however, don’t believe that even new moderation tools will suffice. Twitch, after all, has provided many tools meant to target problems over the years. But that approach means streamers — not Twitch itself — are expected to clean up messes, and no matter how well-equipped they are, sometimes there’s only so much they can do. This is a longstanding issue.
“There were multiple troll streamers who actually put my stream on their stream and used my stream as a way to farm hate-based content,” GameRant writer and streamer Kate “PixieKate” Irwin, who is bisexual and used Twitch’s lone, pre-update LGBTQ tag back in 2020, told Kotaku in a DM. “A number of these troll streamers assumed I was trans and made many hateful, transphobic remarks toward me even though I am not actually trans.”
It got bad enough, she said, that she ended up clipping instances of hate speech and getting an openly misogynistic streamer banned. However, they just came back under a different name a few months later.
“Now that there are new tags, I am honestly afraid to use them,” Irwin said. “I am afraid because Twitch does not do a good enough job of preventing misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia on its platform.”
Other streamers agreed that as long as Twitch fails to protect marginalised streamers — an area in which its track record is exceedingly spotty — it’s only gone part of the way toward helping them stand out and find communities.
“Twitch could definitely do better as far as protecting creators,” queer singer and talk show host Project Ruby — who noted that new tags have resulted in new opportunities for him — told Kotaku in a DM, “from having stricter username creation tools, to moderating tools, and even platform-hired moderators to generally make sure the website is safe for marginalised creators.”
Dominick Evans, a queer disabled streamer who consults Hollywood on those issues and who spent years advocating for a trans tag, was less forgiving about Twitch’s halting steps in the general direction of progress.
“This was not a victory,” Evans, who noted that he’s gained new viewers through tags but also dealt with disability-based harassment, told Kotaku in a DM. “This was a consolation prize, and while it will help some people find community, which is always a great thing, they won’t do anything to combat any prospective hate we get as a result.”
Problems with the basic structure of Twitch’s tag system run even deeper than that, according to Lucia Everblack, who helped develop a third-party stream-tagging platform called Peer2Peer.Live that many marginalised Twitch streamers used before Twitch updated its tag library.
“There’s no way to fully verify it if someone using a tag is someone who should be using a tag,” Everblack told Kotaku of Twitch’s system in a DM. “Twitch has limits to how many tags you can have, so you have to sacrifice part of who you are if you have multiple parts of how you identify…They also don’t persist between streams, and people can’t see them when you aren’t broadcasting. They should be part of someone’s permanent identity instead of just a piece of their stream. It’s a huge miss because it would be a great way for viewers to also showcase the most important parts of who they are as well.”
For Critical Bard, a queer Black streamer who is no stranger to Twitch’s issues with supporting marginalised creators, some of these problems are not just theoretical.
“I raided a streamer using the LGBTQIA+ tag once last week, and I mentioned how the tags have been able to help queer folk like us,” Critical Bard told Kotaku in a DM. “They responded saying they are not queer (but are an ally), and it just made me feel some type of way…My fear is that someone will go into another’s chat thinking it’s a safe space, and it turns out not to be.”
Everblack believes that tags and other identity markers absolutely can help streamers and viewers. She said, for example, that prior to using Peer2Peer, a disabled trans man “didn’t even know other trans men who streamed, let alone any who were disabled.” Then they found a community. Others, she said, have learned about new identities by having access to an even broader array of tags than Twitch recently added. Twitch, she concluded, can’t just stop here and call it a day.
“Twitch in general really needs to step up their game,” Everblack said. “It’s far too easy to create anonymous accounts, especially ones with abusive names. There is also a big lack of tools to prevent follow botting, people can still watch you when they are banned, and the punishment for harassment even as someone who is partnered leaves much to be desired.”
Anne Atomic agrees. She contends that her indefinite suspension (effectively a ban in Twitch terms) demonstrates the limits of Twitch’s purported dedication to representation. She said that when Twitch’s hot tub section first opened, she got suspended for “adult nudity” after trolls flooded her chat, despite “wearing a bikini I have worn many times before — and no different than what many cisfemales wear.” She appealed the suspension but never got anything more than an automated response from Twitch. In reaction to this, she started wearing pasties under her top just to be safe, but she later got suspended again, albeit just for one day. Now she’s been indefinitely suspended.
“I have little doubt I get constantly reported by transphobes/misogynists on the platform,” Anne Atomic said. “I really can come to no conclusion except that they either triggered an auto ban due to reports volume that no one bothered to review since I’m not a partner, or that I scorned the ire of a Twitch admin who did not like what I was doing.”
As evidence of this, Anne Atomic points to an email she recently received from Twitch’s partnerships team, which cheerily informed her that she was “on the right track” to become a Twitch partner and that they just wanted to observe her channel’s newfound growth for a little longer before upgrading her to partner status. Twitch did not suggest that she needed to alter her content in any way.
In response to Kotaku’s inquiries about what exactly happened, a Twitch representative said that the company does not comment on individual suspensions and instead pointed to a portion of its recent post about hot tub streams in which it wrote, “We will always aim to avoid being overly punitive based on assumptions–when we have taken enforcement action on this content, we’ve only done so in the case of a clear violation of our guidelines.”
Anne Atomic said that she just wants to understand exactly what she did wrong, rather than receiving an automated list of things she might have done wrong, per the current format of Twitch’s suspension emails. But she fears that won’t happen.
“They simply don’t seem to care enough to even bother reviewing things or so much as even giving a canned reply,” she said, “because being one of the biggest trans streamers on the platform still is very small by their standards and doesn’t mean much.”
As for what happens next, Anne Atomic is at a loss.
“I’ve been devastated by this, and it has seriously wrecked my future plans,” she said. “More than anything I’ve wanted to just give up and go on to other things. I loved doing what I did, though, and every night I actually felt like I was making an impact on people’s lives and changing things for the better…I feel like I’m letting down the trans community now, and that if this stands, it discourages any other trans people from even trying it and sets us back even further.”