It’s been yet another long 24 hours for Twitch—the latest in what’s shaped up to be an agonizingly long year for the company (and also everybody on Earth). Yesterday afternoon, Twitch held a live town hall with the goal of illuminating recent policy changes and features around DMCAs, sexual harassment, ads, and other hot-button issues. In the aftermath, however, many streamers fixated on one small portion of the two-hour presentation: Twitch’s decision to ban words like “simp,” “incel,” and “virgin”—at least, when they’re used in derogatory contexts.
Toward the end of the town hall, Twitch COO Sara Clemens elaborated on new Twitch rules set to go into effect next month. Clemens explained that one of the new rules outlaws “derogatory statements about another person’s perceived sexual practices,” which includes “negatively targeting another person with sexually focused terms.”
“Using terms like ‘simp,’ ‘incel,’ or ‘virgin’ as an insult to negatively refer to another person’s sexual activity is not allowed under this new policy,” said Clemens. “In addition to the policy change, we’re also proactively denying emotes that include the term ‘simp.’ We remove them when reported and will keep doing that once the policy changes.”
In an email to Kotaku, Twitch clarified that “simp,” “incel,” and “virgin” are not blanket banned and will only incur penalties when they “negatively refer to another person’s sexual practices.”
“Using these terms on their own wouldn’t lead to an enforcement but we would take action if they were used repeatedly in a harassing manner,” said a Twitch representative. “We deny emotes related to these terms and take them down when they are reported to us. We have a stricter policy on emotes overall because they can be used across Twitch so we take more proactive measures to minimize the potential for harm.”
Earlier this year, Kotaku discovered that Twitch had been removing “simp” emotes since February, so this is not entirely new. But it is a codification of an approach that’s left many streamers flabbergasted because of who most frequently faces harassment (sexual or otherwise) on the platform.
“Yet people can still walk in my chat and call me sluuuurs with little to no actioooon,” Twitch partner PleasantlyTwstd said on Twitter.
“Where was all this outrage when Black and female streamers were complaining about being harassed on Twitch?” said streamer and organizer DaPurpleSharpie. “Where was Twitch’s ‘WE NEED TO STOP HARASSMENT’ stance then?”
“Twitch talks big about inclusion yet can’t global ban the N-word from chat,” said Twitch partner and musician Detune. “Instead we have to type it up ourselves to be modded. You all wanna know how painful it is to type up the racial slur that you are called and to have to think of every variation so it can get an auto ban?”
“Using the words ‘simp,’ ‘virgin,’ and ‘incel’ are now bannable offenses on Twitch,” said Twitch partner SeriouslyClara. “Glad the super marginalized male demographic is safe at last.”
Twitch generally portrays itself as a company that develops new tools and features so that streamers can maintain their own communities as they see fit, but the town hall painted a less-than-encouraging picture of when and how it opts to intervene. In the case of words like “simp,” Twitch chose to make a decision for everybody—and a mystifying one at that. There was no widespread demand for a crackdown on terms that, when used negatively, largely refer to the people doing the harassing, not being harassed. Nobody really asked for this. It came out of nowhere, with Twitch issuing a decree despite streamers’ protests.
However, streamers have been asking for tags centered around specific identities—for Black and trans streamers, among others—for years. The idea is that these tags, much like Twitch’s “communities” feature that tags replaced in 2018, would allow for streamers to find others like themselves and for viewers to discover new streamers who are part of those groups. This would create stronger communities not just within singular streams, but across various broadcasters’ channels. On a hostile internet, these kinds of straightforward community building tools are essential for marginalized groups. And yet, during the town hall, Twitch made another decision for streamers, despite what they’ve been asking for. Near the beginning of the stream, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear acknowledged streamers’ years-long campaign for a trans tag, but not to tell them that one is on the way.
“As we were looking to launch new identity tags, like the trans tag, specifically, we ran into two problems: First problem we found is that usage of the tags can often lead to increased harassment for streamers, especially in vulnerable identity groups,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we tried to solve that so that people aren’t accidentally opting into that kind of harassment.”
The other issue, Shear noted, is that he doesn’t want Twitch staff to be “the arbiters of identity.” “If we’re out there picking which tags deserve to have a tag, there will always be someone who feels left out by that,” he said.
Shear went on to say that some kind of tag system that “allows for self identity” is coming in 2021, but he stopped short of explaining what form it will take. In the meantime, streamers are upset that this is where Twitch chose to draw the line.
“They hand-waved not implementing a trans tag because...they don’t want to incite more hate/harassment directed to trans folk on the platform?” said Twitch partner and voice actor Negaoryx. “They already deal with this, Twitch. Moderate your platform! Enforce your [terms of service] and deal with harassers!”
“I get some targeted harassment for being bi through the LGBT+ tag, but I get 100x more fellow LGBT+ people as viewers who identify with me,” said Twitch partner Novaleesi. “It’s worth it. The whole ‘risk out weighs reward’ discourse is dumb. Give trans people the option to have a trans tag.”
“Tags are opt-in!” Twitch partner and I Need Diverse Games founder Tanya “Cypheroftyr” DePass said. “Twitch can’t be the arbiter of an opt-in tag. Deal with harassment instead of not giving us identity tags. Or bring back communities!”
Twitch has said repeatedly that mitigating harassment is a priority, and to the company’s credit, it tries harder than most. Its new rules target harassers in a suitably harsh fashion, at least on paper (we’ll see how enforcement goes when January rolls around), and during the town hall, the company mentioned that it continues to grow its trust and safety team. Twitch has a longtime habit, however, of ever-so-slightly missing the mark in ways that prove infuriating. Frequently, it does this by offering band-aids for surface-level wounds, like the word “simp,” while telling streamers who ask for more systemic solutions that what they want just isn’t possible, or that it represents too big of a risk. This paints a picture of a company that thinks it knows better than everyone else, even as eons-old problems continue to fester. Streamers, naturally, are frustrated by this.
In some ways, Twitch does know better than its users; it regularly experiments with new features and collects data at a mind-bogglingly massive scale. But data is never the full story, and until Twitch learns how to really listen to its community and communicate its findings without seeming dismissive or woefully short-sighted, we’re just going to keep ending up back in this same place again, just like we have countless times in the past. Perhaps Twitch is just a simp for punishment.