The frontline of the culture wars

The not so civil war waging all around us

I don’t like the phrase culture wars. I prefer class war. Or even civil war. Although there’s nothing civil about the current chasm shaping North American politics.

That the conflict is manifesting in the cultural spheres makes sense given the dominance of the Internet and the way in which it makes almost all cultures available or at least visible.

Yet these seemingly cultural conflicts are just symptoms or extension of larger conflicts that underpin our society. Identity, sexuality, values, and power are all expressed through culture, and our digital platforms become convenient stages for these conflicts to play out. Which lets face it, makes them attention magnets, resulting in these sensational conflicts being quite profitable for the platforms in question.

Perhaps it is out of this sense of profit that the platforms feel compelled to wade into the “culture wars” and set terms for ongoing conflict so that they may stoke the attention while mitigating any blowback.

Rather than address the power, toxicity, and rising authoritarianism among their users, platforms would rather focus on platitudes and tokenistic bodies that have no power nor agency to address underlying issues that fuel these conflicts.

On the largest platforms, this activity exists mostly in the realm of the symbolic, although Facebook’s moderation oversight committee, was initially referred to as a kind of Supreme Court, giving it a false power and capability that it does not have. In that case the symbol almost made the body real, which is why the description is being discouraged.

Yet on Twitch, we have an opportunity to look at this conflict from a different perspective.

As active Metaviews members know, we’ve been engaged in a deep dive on Twitch for the past six months. We’re currently playing with some automated tools that we’ve built with the help of our friends in the electricallongboard network.

The results so far have been incredible, and provide a glimpse into the future of media and attention marketplaces, but that’s an issue for another day. Meanwhile if you want to see one of our current projects, watch this stream for a bit and observe the arrival of new viewers/followers.

All a bit of a digression, but the point is, Twitch is weird. Different, in both good and bad ways. But also due to the programmatic nature of the platform, that it combines video, with IRC, and an API (application programming interface) that allows for user experiences and media production that has tremendous potential.

Which is also why it’s interesting to see the so-called culture wars play out on Twitch. This story is both tragic, but also symbolic of the platform’s culture:

Steph “FerociouslySteph” Loehr has been on the Twitch Safety Advisory Council since day one. Twitch announced the eight-member group on May 14th, 2020, and spent the next few days clarifying what exactly it would do. The advisors would offer insight regarding moderation policies and harassment on the site, but they wouldn’t have the power to change rules, arbitrate specific cases or represent Twitch publicly.

Meanwhile, Loehr, a trans woman, was targeted in a coordinated harassment campaign led by Twitch fans who didn’t like the idea of a Safety Advisory Council, regardless of what it would actually accomplish. Loehr became the de facto face of the council and her streams were inundated with cruelty, transphobia and death threats. She was doxxed and she feared for her life daily. She had to move. She stopped streaming for a while.

“Twitch has not done enough to protect me in the slightest,” Loehr said.

Even as a member of the Safety Advisory Council, Loehr has felt like she’s on her own with the death threats, bigotry and vitriol spewing out of Twitch. She may have the company’s ear, but this relationship hasn’t given her any extra tools to combat harassment on the platform.

There’s tragic irony here that the appointment to the safety council results in her facing attacks from people who oppose the idea of a safety council, which incidentally did not help her with her safety?!

What is it about Twitch that opponents are organized and able to attack someone like this, in spite of, or rather because of, their links with the company? You’d think the company would want to do something no?

That’s part of what makes Twitch so interesting. The programmatic environment offers potential trolls, especially organized ones, a wide range of options to obfuscate or automated their identity. Yet that’s not what this story is about. Literally the opposite:

So, she created her own.

Peer2Peer.Live is a third-party site that allows Twitch streamers to tag themselves using identity-based words and phrases, such as “lesbian,” “trans,” “Black,” “disabled” or “Jewish.” This allows streamers to build communities around their identities, while serving as a directory for viewers seeking streams they can connect with at the most basic levels. Peer2Peer is built by a team of five people, including Loehr, and in collaboration with the non-profit group Trans Lifeline.

“The essence is that people of marginalized identities feel safest in spaces that understand them, and the easiest way to find those safe spaces is by finding their peers,” Loehr said. “And that discoverability has been totally blocked by Twitch.”

Twitch has a tagging system offering hundreds of descriptors relating to video game genres, fictional characters and specific ways to play, but it only has one based on identity, LGBTQIA+. If you want to natively find a Twitch streamer who’s non-binary, or Latinx, or disabled, or Muslim, it takes a ton of scrolling and luck.

One the one hand such a system could be used to target people for potential harassments, but more importantly on the other hand the same tool can be used by people to organize and protect themselves!

Twitch may have an incredibly toxic culture among some participants, but it also provides creators with a range of tools to moderate their channel. This also includes a growing culture or sub-industry of moderators who specialize in helping streamers keep the peace in their corner of this sprawling attention marketplace.

It’s frustrating that the companies who profit of this conflict do not offer users more to organize and protect themselves. In this instance we’re just talking about a self-identification system that would allow people to organize.

Yet what also makes Twitch interesting is how people can do this on their own, in spite of the company, and by leveraging the platform. Demonstrating the potential of a programmatic media environment.

Interesting to see this capability used to create a Twitch Pride Festival:

If you’re not at all familiar with Twitch, or have been alienated by what is legitimately a confusing and overwhelming interface, perhaps this Peer2Pride event is a good entre. It’s different from the dominant culture, and it will be deliberately inclusive and inviting.

Twitter avatar for @Peer2PeerLivePeer2PeerLive @Peer2PeerLive
Peer2Pride calendar just dropped!! Starting tomorrow the website will be featuring 50+ streamers in continuous host relay to provide 24hr/day content for 7 days! We're collectively raising money for @TransLifeline and Peer2Peer! (More timezones below!) Image

I tuned in yesterday and Chelsea Manning was streaming! In such an instance her interaction with the community was as much the show as her game play.

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