Last weekend the city of San Jose hosted TwitchCon, an annual convention for the eponymous online streaming service. A YouTube-like platform specializing in live video, Twitch is best known as a haven for gamers, but also attracts artists, vloggers, and a broad cross-section of fandoms. Convention attendees—a proudly geeky crowd that skewed white and male—sported candy-colored haircuts and anime-inspired getups in the California sun. More than a few were broadcasting themselves live.
Twitch is a relatively self-contained world, and overwhelmingly young, but also far larger, and more profitable, than widely understood. It currently has around 2.2 million monthly broadcasters, with 15 million active viewers per day. In 2014, it was acquired for almost $1 billion by Amazon, whose analytics rank Twitch.tv as the 14th-most-trafficked website in the country.
Even more overlooked are the unhealthy work practices encouraged of the platform’s creators.
Twitch profits by encouraging users to monetize their channels through a tiered, popularity-based system. After amassing a following and putting in the hours, an “Affiliate” or “Partner” can charge a monthly subscription fee, earn commission for referred Amazon sales, or run advertisements on their live-streams. In return for providing the platform, Amazon takes a cut of every dollar generated by its streamers.
“They definitely sell an unrealistic view of how easy it is to make money on Twitch, and I feel like the affiliate program is largely exploitative,” said a streamer with about 5,000 followers, who attended the convention but declined to be named in this piece. “Amazon takes a 50 percent cut from all [subscriptions] off the top,” they added, “[which] is really ridiculous when the creators make 100 percent of the content.”
Most streamers are drawn to a real sense of community, but the company also wants them to monetize, aggressively pushing a vision of self-earned and seldom realized monetary success. Their internal branding, for example, has increasingly aligned with that of their biggest celebrity, Ninja, who shared the main TwitchCon stage with the company’s CEO for a headlining Q&A.
Ninja is best known for shattering concurrent viewer records by streaming online matches of the game Fortnite with rappers Drake and Travis Scott last March, and is estimated to make more than $16 million a year—including well over half a million each month through Twitch alone.
In promoting standouts, Amazon pushes a distant vision. It’s the “gig economy” on steroids, folded into a community model that doesn’t recognize participation as work. It’s great for superstars at the top, but the vast majority make hardly any money at all.
If TwitchCon materialized a virtual community in physical space, it dragged these contradictions along with it. As the Amazon subsidiary sold out its venue, it also crossed a major picket.
The downtown Marriott hotel, attached to the convention center, has been on strike since October 4. It’s part of a national action by the Unite Here union, involving almost 8,000 Marriott workers in eight cities across the country.
Sonia Fabian, a single mother of three, has been at the picket almost every day. “We think it’s fair to spend time with our families instead of having two or three full-time jobs. We’re fighting for full wages, good benefits, retirement, and our insurance.” She was out marching and chanting with her children during the weekend of TwitchCon.
Fabian is a server at Arcadia, a steakhouse inside the hotel, and says she hasn’t gotten a raise in three and a half years. Meanwhile, the cost of living has ballooned on the back of the tech industry, making it nearly impossible to live in San Jose on California’s $11-an-hour minimum wage. Fabian says her rent has risen every six months, from $1,700 when she moved in three years ago to $2,800 today.
“The concept is that one job should be enough,” said Sarah McDermott, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 19.
In addition to demanding a living wage and increased workplace safety from a company that made $3.2 billion last year, the workers want a voice at the table as automation is introduced into the hotel, ensuring that it’s deployed in a way that makes jobs safer and more streamlined without cutting hours or creating job instability.
For example, Marriott recently cut a deal with Amazon, which also owns Twitch, to introduce Alexa-powered voice assistants to hotel rooms. “Right now that may not be able to do some of the job of a concierge or houseman,” said McDermott, “but as the technology improves, it might.” She explained how the point of service for other hospitality work, like requesting room service or extra towels, has moved from human interaction onto the Marriott app.
As Amazon converts community into capital through Twitch, it is also capitalizing on human interactions in traditional workplaces through products like Alexa. It’s a two-pronged push to abstract human social relations: On one end, forms of collective leisure—activities we might have once called “fun”—are transformed into under-recognized labor; on the other, work is rendered invisible behind a bright digital interface. The hotel employees are fighting, in a sense, for their human relationships. They want a stronger foothold as these technologies proliferate and change the nature of work.
Twitch, which stands to make a lot of money from this version of the future, was unfazed by the protests. In addition to drawing significant business to the striking Marriott, the convention held a daylong event aimed at developers, behind the picket line. In the preceding weeks, the union had put up banners outside a Twitch office, tried speaking to people at headquarters, made phone calls, and tweeted at the company, asking them to move the event. But it was all in vain. The streaming service e-mailed Developer Day attendees to warn them about the strike in advance, but ignored the union’s requests.
Not all Twitchers approved. Joe Sondow, who streams live coding sessions and makes entertainment Twitter bots like @EmojiAquarium, had been looking forward to Developer Day—but decided to skip it when he found out about the strike. “I was disgusted but not surprised,” he said of Twitch’s failure to move or cancel the event.
Meanwhile, an anonymous Twitch user set up a “Scabstream” channel, which broadcast convention attendees crossing the picket all weekend—including Ninja, the multimillionaire Fortnite streamer. After the convention, he gave striking workers a thumbs-up when he was spotted checking out of the hotel.
The average Twitch streamer has more in common with the hotel staff than they do with Ninja, whose interests are largely aligned with Amazon’s, but outside of the convention center the strike met mixed reception.
“We actually got a lot of support from [TwitchCon] attendees,” said Sarah McDermott, the Unite Here spokesperson, “but there were also people who didn’t seem to understand what we were doing or why we were doing it, and expressed that they thought that it was an annoyance.”
At least one Twitch user worked to bridge this gap. Philip Angelo, a Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America member, designed and distributed flyers inviting fellow TwitchCon attendees to check out of the Marriott, donate to a strike fund, and join the picket on Saturday evening. “It’s heinous,” he said of Twitch’s decision to hold Developer Day behind the picket line. “There are plenty of other union hotels in the area.”
Angelo explained why Twitch streamers should feel solidarity with traditional workers. “Twitch, as a broadcasting platform, incentivizes people to disaggregate and only think about themselves,” he said. “They present themselves as this community-oriented start-up, but the actual process is driving people to compete with each other in a way that interferes with those connections. This kind of work is precarious, because it’s so new.”
As convention goers mingled with and sidestepped striking hotel staff, the chants continued: “Don’t check in, check out! Don’t check, in check out!”
The scene was a pastiche of tomorrow’s labor struggles and those of today, illuminating new avenues for solidarity as well as the challenges of fighting tech-driven alienation—all in the heart of Silicon Valley.
“The strike goes on no matter what’s happening,” said McDermott. “For Twitch it was a new thing, but the workers have been out there day and night. They’re used to it, and they’re going to keep going.”
The union’s negotiations with Marriott have resumed, and while McDermott says they have been productive, the company has yet to concede a contract that the workers can accept. They expect to return to the table next week.