Last week, Twitch deleted the face of its extremely popular PogChamp emote, Ryan “Gootecks” Gutierrez, after he called for further violence at the Capitol just after a mob sacked the building. In the aftermath, Twitch responded to a suggestion from the community for the emote — why not have a different face represent hype on Twitch every day?
Yo @Twitch suggestion for PogChamp: create a database of streamer and/or general faces. Whenever someone types PogChamp, display one of those faces at random. Would give a really nice crowd feel to a chat spamming PogChamp and allow the meaning to be tied to all of us instead.
— Sean Plott (@day9tv) January 7, 2021
So that’s what the company did. Three days after the experiment began, Omega “CriticalBard” Jones, a partnered Black streamer who writes music for Critical Role, took his turn as the face of the global emote. The racist harassment came almost immediately.
“At the beginning it was fine. I was nervous. I’ll say beforehand I prepped my mods on Twitch,” Jones says. “And they were like, ‘Well, the person who’s a PogChamp today seems like they’re doing fine. So I think you’ll be fine.’ I said ‘Ha but I’m Black.’” Jones started receiving comments on Twitter from people saying that he didn’t look like PogChamp, that Twitch should bring back the old emote instead, and then “a crap ton of people, you know, saying racist things.” After he went live on Twitch, however, the trouble really began.
Jones was playing Overwatch with friends — “not playing it well, which is why I don’t do competitive,” he says — when Twitch users stormed his chat saying that he didn’t deserve to be PogChamp. “But it got to the subject of Black lives not mattering and other stuff,” Jones says. “And then someone mentioned white Lives Matter, whatever. And I said ‘No, white lives don’t matter because a white life isn’t a thing.’” Someone clipped it.
Last thing before I actually lay down.
Some dudebros decided to clip a small part of my stream making it seem like I was “being racist towards white folk.”
Allow me to post the FULL clip & take from it what you will.
— CRITICAL BARD! ✊ (@CriticalBard) January 11, 2021
The clip went viral in places like the Twitch drama subreddit /r/LivestreamFail and across the live stream-watching internet. It was, however, pulled out of its context. “I said you can be proud of being Italian, you can be proud of being Scottish — because those are nationalities,” says Jones, echoing what he said in the full version of the clip. “That’s your heritage.” He continued:
You cannot be proud of being white. Because whiteness is a concept that was only created because blackness became a thing. And the only reason blackness is a thing because we as a Black people were taken away from Africa without our consent, enslaved, and left for dust. Our literal heritage and identity was taken away from us. All we have to hold on to in America — for the most part, most Black people — is our blackness. So, there is a Black culture, there is not a white culture. There was never a white culture.
It’s an elegant way to put a pretty complicated concept, one that people across the internet seem intent on misunderstanding. To discuss race in America is to discuss power dynamics and history, which is something that’s hard to understand if it behooves you to not understand it. Jones says he was trying to explain that to people. “But you know racists gotta be racist,” he said.
Jones says he wanted to be the face of PogChamp because it was going to mean a lot to other people who want to see marginalized people on Twitch. “I can deal with a little bit of bull if that means someone else gets to see something that’s, you know, them. Their color. Or somebody they can identify with,” he says. He was also into the idea of a community-based rotating emote. “The funny thing is people don’t even care about PogChamp as a person. They just care about keeping what they consider to be tradition,” says Jones. “But if PogChamp is about that excitement, it shouldn’t matter who the face of that is.”
Jones’ harassment points to a larger problem on Twitch: the site doesn’t seem to know how to protect its creators from marginalized backgrounds from the toxic elements of its community. Jones told me that the Twitch representative who initially reached out to him about being the face of PogChamp did say the company planned on giving future PogChamp faces additional moderation support in their channels. But Jones says that’s not enough. “What annoys me about that is instead of doing what y’all can do, which is ban these people from your platform — if we want to get into it, you need to start banning IP addresses,” says Jones.
Furthermore, Jones says, it’s not as though the Black Twitch community hasn’t spoken up to the company about the issue in the past. “Like, it wasn’t just yesterday where someone said, ‘Twitch, you need to fix this.’ Racism has been very wild on Twitch for a long time. And they’ve yet to do anything about it,” says Jones. “So it makes us go like, ‘Okay, so what’s the point?’”
Twitch obliquely referenced Jones’ harassment in a Twitter thread yesterday, where the company wrote that it believes in celebrating diversity. A Twitch spokesperson sent me the following statement when I asked for more details:
Highlighting a new PogChamp every day was an idea that came directly from our community and was created in the spirit of celebrating the diversity of creators on Twitch. While we’ve seen an overwhelmingly positive response from both the community and those highlighted, we are also in close contact with the new faces of PogChamp to offer support as needed. We do not tolerate harassment on Twitch, and will take action on any behaviors on our service that violate our rules.
Hateful conduct and harassment stand in the way of that ideal, and they have no place on Twitch, social media, or anywhere else.
We’ll continue to take action against those who violate our community guidelines and seek to harm our community and creators.
— Twitch (@Twitch) January 13, 2021
But in Jones’ view, that isn’t enough. “They didn’t even say ‘we were sorry.’ They said, we’re working to make this place more diverse and all this stuff,” he says. “They didn’t condemn anything. They need to start condemning this stuff,” Jones continues. “They need to start saying, ‘This is not what we want as a platform. This is not what we promote as a platform. And people are going to start seeing the repercussions of their actions. Start seeing the consequences of the things that they do.’”
Jones also took pains to clarify that it wasn’t just random Twitch users who came to his stream to harass him. He says it was directed by some affiliates and Twitch partners. “If Twitch is a company that’s saying, ‘We don’t agree with that,’ then you need to show that you don’t agree with that. AKA, terminating them accounts, getting rid of them partner badges. Getting rid of that affiliate status. Because I’m pretty sure in the partner and affiliate rules and all that stuff, you can’t really be, you know, doing hate speech and all that. But I guess, when Twitch is making money, it’s fine?”
The harassment hasn’t fazed Jones, though. Some members of the community rallied to his defense, like Hasan “hasanabi” Piker, a prominent political streamer, who defended Jones on his own stream. “I loved watching the clip of Hasan,” says Jones. “One of the best things that can just give you all the light, the nutrients that your life needs, is watching these folk look up to somebody and expect them to like be on their side, and they’re not.”
He also told me that he saw a large influx of new subscribers — “But I’m not gonna be like, ‘Thank you for being racist,’” jokes Jones — and that he’s still here. “Black folk have had to walk through this world on high alert, since we were practically born,” he says. “So there is literally nothing they can do. I got doxxed. I got death threats. You can say all that behind your keyboard that you barely can afford, with your two viewership. You can say all that, but understand that you’re only fueling me.”
February is Black History Month, and Jones tells me that Twitch has already started reaching out to prominent Black creators about activations. It’s an open question whether Twitch’s overhauled Hateful Conduct policy — which was announced in December and goes into effect at the end of this month — will have an impact on the droves of people who swarm marginalized creators when Twitch gives them the spotlight. As with everything else, the devil is in the enforcement. Will Twitch protect its marginalized creators?