canaries and camwhores in the coal mine: a qgcon talk

I celebrated my birthday this year by presenting some research at the Queerness and Games Conference in Montreal. I’ve been looking at what it means to be doing digital work in the contemporary economy, and what it means for those who make their livings online. In particular, I’ve been looking at Twitch streamers who have been branded as “titty streamers” (or otherwise) with my colleague, Amanda Cullen, and UCI faculty, Bo Ruberg.

Suffice to say that a lot of my time has been spent sifting through vitriolic Reddit comments and YouTube “analysis” videos of what makes a “Twitch thot.” More on that to come, hoo boy. The bright spot in all of this was that I got to share the early stages of this work with the wonderful folks at QGCon — and what better test audience than the radically queer games scene?

Below is my talk, in full, and its accompanying slides are here.


My name is Kat Brewster, I’m a second-year PhD student at the University of California, Irvine. This is the title of my presentation, and here is a joke about it.

Anyway. But for real. What is this presentation about?

[SLIDE]

It’s about: Labour models on lean, privately owned digital platforms. Models which have allowed for the gig economy to flourish – or, if you like, the “sharing-economy” and the “on-demand work economy,” and all the other things we call it. The platforms which facilitate these models are often called lean: they rely on users to do the legwork while direct employees maintain and run the platform upon which that labour is sourced. These are platforms like Uber, AirBnb, and Paypal as well as (I believe), YouTube, Twitch, Twitter, Snapchat, Patreon, etc. etc.

Those who use these platforms to provide their primary source of income has increased exponentially over the past decade. However, these platforms’ systems of remuneration is often opaque and fragile. It relies on unstable metrics for growth and sustainability, and reinforces fraught relationships of affective labour.

Within recent months, platforms like Twitch and Patreon and PayPal have made significant changes to their terms of service or community guidelines. Several of these platforms have been reacting to – either directly or indirectly – consequences of FOSTA/SESTA. FOSTA/SESTA is an item of legislation which purports to protect at-risk individuals from sex trafficking online. A side effect of this legislation has made for a drastically different internet landscape for those platforms reliant on user generated content. I hope to show how this legislations affects not only sex workers, but anyone involved in work on a digital platform.

[SLIDE]

I wish I had hours and hours to discuss this with everyone in this room, but in sharing the stage with my inimitable colleagues, I have only allotted myself ten to twelve minutes to give you a brief overview of the landscape as it stands for further research. For your general interest, or -- for the academics among you – your perusal, here is a brief list of the literature, thinkers, and workers who have served as a foundation for my own work.

[SLIDE]

I have tried to approach their work, and my research, with the following huge, glaring, red-alert, Danger Will Robinson questions.

- First, what is a wage, and how do we understand it in the labour we perform? How has this been changed in the contemporary gig/sharing/whatever economy?

- Second, how might our understanding of a wage become alienated or otherwise obfuscated from the labour which supposedly is what produces those wages?

- Thirdly, and most importantly, who is most at risk on these fragile financial models? How? Why? And how, in future, can we protect them?

[SLIDE]

Now, the phrase “digital platform,” is likely old hat to us tech-savvy aficionados. But I’ve danced around the phrase, “lean platform” for a good while here, so let me clear some things up: a lean platform, crucially, is one which “attempts to reduce their ownership of assets to a minimum and to profit by reducing costs as much as possible.” A lean platform prioritises a model of growth before profit. Think Uber, AirBnB, YouTube… None of these platforms engage in the production of what they are famous for providing. It is, instead, provided by users, on-demand.

Now, on the one hand, this on-demand model offers ostensibly flexible work hours, a wealth of job opportunities, and the freedom to pursue remote work.

[SLIDE]

For employers, labour and transaction costs are significantly reduced when hiring workers on a per-contract basis. On the other hand, this has the potential to lead to a commodification of unregulated labour. In the words of the CEO of CrowdFlower, a company which utilizes this model…

The worker in this labour model is only useful (and only employed) when producing a surplus value – what might be considered the ideal capitalist work scenario. In the perfect gig economy, no work goes unpaid and no nonwork is compensated.

The problem with the hyperbolic “ideal capitalist work scenario,” of course, lies in the historical relationship of unwaged labour in capitalism and the history of unpaid labour – which is closely tied with the wage. In her feminist reconsideration of housework as unwaged labour, Silvia Federici declares that:

[SLIDE]

under capitalism every worker is manipulated and exploited and his or her relation to capital is totally mystified. The wage gives you the impression of the fair deal: you work and you get paid, hence you and your boss each get what’s owed; while in reality the wage, rather than paying for the work you do, hides all the unpaid work that goes into profit.

[SLIDE]

So let’s talk Twitch:

Twitch is owned by Amazon. I cannot even begin to unpack that here. Twitch also self-reports that there are 2,000,000+ broadcasts a month, and only 2,000 partnered streamers. And so, there is a very slim chance that anyone who has a Twitch account can even begin to imagine that they are a temporarily embarrassed Twitch Partner. Even for those who apply and are approved to become Twitch partners, a fewer number still can say that their revenue from Twitch pays them a living wage. Twitch does not make these numbers available to the public, or upon inquiry. And yet – Twitch puts this page on every streamer’s dashboard:

[SLIDE]

The “Path to Partner,” is a series of achievements, given to every streamer regardless of whether or not they’ve applied to partnership. It is simply assumed to be something they want, and here is how they need to do it. In this way, it is understood that this is how one might succeed on Twitch.

[SLIDE]

On Twitch, a “successful” streamer’s work schedule is not simply livestreaming: In addition to the eight-hour days in front of a webcam, streamers self-report additional planning, secretarial work, administrative work, chat room moderation, website maintenance, equipment maintenance, and fan relations. Even for those who maintain this diverse set of skill required to succeed on Twitch, income is a frustratingly opaque system – further obfuscated with microtransactions, on-platform currencies, fluctuating ad revenue systems (which must navigate both seasonality, time of day, views per day, and ad-blocking plugins), affiliate links, donations, merchandise sales and potentially, Patreon pledges. Not to mention all the various layers of nuance and internet grammar which accompany any and all of these revenue models.

Many streamers self-report a fraught relationship with income and their mental health simultaneously – feeling a sense of obligation to fans, and not wanting to feel like they are asking for money too overtly, lest their fans feel that they are ungrateful, or money-hungry.

So, how are streamers’ activities mediated through Twitch to generate the wealth they do accrue, and how this is compounded by affective labour – self presentation, chat and fan moderation, domestic labour, sexual labour – and especially that labour which comes from at-risk groups.

Because who is at risk here?

[SLIDE]

Here are a sampling of streamers who I have looked at specifically for their larger audiences, affective relationships with fans and viewers, and the charged conversations which have carried on around them – what might otherwise be called “Twitch drama.”

From the top left and going clockwise, the streamers seen here are: Dr Disrespect and Ninja, Kaceytron, ZombiUnicorn, Zoie Burgher, OMGLove, Abigale Mendler, PewDiePie and Alinity. While they are a light smattering of nationalities, they are predominantly white and arguably, conventionally attractive. They are also, insofar as I am aware, cisgendered and heterosexual. They perform in ways which have been read as hypermasculine or hyperfeminine, and often in a way which has been read as sexually charged.

Or, perhaps more plainly, people have been made aware of their own sexuality by looking at some of these streamers, and got angry about it. Or, one of these streamers became aware of their own sexuality and they got angry at someone else about it.

All of them have also, at some point or another, made their primary source of income either from Twitch or other overlapping digital platforms which purport to be primarily focused on the livestreaming of video games. All of them, also, have been subject to questioning about the following:

[SLIDE]

The Twitch Community Guidelines and Terms of Service. Now, the Twitch Terms of Service are RIFE – RIFE with affectively charged language. They implore their community, nay, their family to create the “best content” the world has ever seen, because it’s the streamers who make this community great. And this was seen most especially when Twitch updated their terms of service and community guidelines in February/March of this past year.

[SLIDE]

As a brief aside, when looking at the blog post Twitch wrote to address the new community guidelines, we can see some pretty significant comingling of affect and labour here, while those streamers who literally are Twitch report having a wage so confusing and obfuscating, they aren’t quite sure what their income will be each month.

[SLIDE]

You ARE Twitch. Yikes!

[SLIDE]

The largest changes to Twitch’s ToCs were to deal with Nudity, Pornography, and other sexual content, with special consideration given to Nudity and Attire.

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Nudity and attire, Twitch claims, relates to the “public nature” of livestreaming. The way that you self-present, these guidelines suggest, determine how people were interpret your stream. They emphasise how people would interpret your clothing in “the real world.” They emphasise that you must wear clothing which would be contextually appropriate – fitness clothes for a workout stream, a swimsuit for the pool… But the bedroom – where many streamers perform – is left out of the conversation.

Other changes were to encourage cross-platform enforcement of these rules, so that streamers would be expected to uphold the values of Twitch on other digital platforms and social media sites, like YouTube or Twitter.

[SLIDE]

These changes came to mixed reviews – especially those rules for sexual content and harassment. This is a conversation had on Reddit, that bastion of internet etiquette, following a Twitch town hall about the community guidelines change. Calling streamers “camgirls,” Twitch said, may (or may not) qualify as harassment on Twitch. I emphasise “may not” here, because there still remains a confusing system of reporting harassment on Twitch -- but the specific word, “camgirl” and its more weaponized counterpart, “camwhore” definitely qualifies as harassment on the Twitch subreddit. Which, while not officially affiliated with Twitch, enjoys a heavy overlap with the platform, and is moderated heavily.

[SLIDE]

While we’re on the subject of camgirls, I would be remiss if I did not talk about camgirls. There is a heavy and prolific history of webcamming and sex work. “Camming” as a verb carries with it the connotation of performing sex work. Although, as Kacetron so eloquently puts it, everyone on Twitch is camming. Yet, As Twitch beats around the bush every year with moral-panics and crackdowns obsessed with their streamers’ attire, there are parallel crackdowns on digital platforms.

Four Chambers is an independent porn production company run by Vex Ashley. Vex has been very open about her recent frustrations with Patreon, a privately owned subscription service which allows creators all over the world to be directly supported by individuals. Unless, of course, they’re engaging in sex work. Or suggesting that they might be supporting sex work.

[SLIDE]

And so, they have been asked not to be on Patreon anymore due to Patreon’s relationship with conservative banks and payment processing servers, like PayPal – which has also removed sex workers from their system, keeping them from being able to receive payment safely and securely.

[SLIDE]

And they’ve been kicked off of Instagram, multiple times, due to Instagram’s unclear, uncommunicated, and conservative terms of service. Deplatforming sex workers in this way keeps them from achieving a safe and secure level of visibility which they control and offers them a level of agency and validity. It keeps sex workers from a legitimized income, because the platforms by which work is validated in contemporary contexts are privately owned, privately regulated.

People who turned to precarious labour models for any number of reasons: an economic recession left more traditional labour models no longer viable, or their identities are not in line with those who control or benefit from traditional labour models.

Those people are punished and exploited for their reliance on privately owned digital platforms which offered them that work in the first place.

[SLIDE]

And how is it happening now? FOSTA/SESTA Y’ALL. FOSTA/SESTA is a piece of legislations which encourages platforms to eradicate purportedly sexual content, and makes platforms more liable for the content which users publish on those platforms. Oh, and it was passed just before PayPal, Patreon, and Twitch’s guidelines were also changed – with their increased focus on sexual content and cross-platform behaviour.

[SLIDE]

So. What happens next? God, I don’t know. First of all, let camwhores play video games. Then, stop FOSTA/SESTA. Then, ask questions: ask these questions. And most importantly remember the following:

[SLIDE]

Protect sex workers.

on queerness

Yesterday, as I walked to my office, I listened to a podcast episode on the history of the word queer. It wasn’t some heady academy-burdened series of definitions – more for popular audiences than not. The host asked a number of people from the LGBTQIA+ community to explain what the word meant to them. 

“It’s an umbrella term,” said matter-of-factly. Or, “It wasn’t until we gained marriage equality that I started to embrace the word,” (I grimace). Or, perhaps more pointedly, “I’m haunted by that word.”

To be haunted by queerness resonates for me. The sort of “I am haunted by this haunting,” kind of haunting ad infinitum.

Last week I facilitated a conversation on Sara Ahmed’s essay, “Happy Objects.” We settled into a discussion on happiness for the queer child, read as unhappy by the adults around them. Ahmed looks to a coming out scene in the novel Annie on My Mind – one of the four queer books stocked by my public library around the time of my own coming out. It was written in 1982, but I read it almost two decades later while spending my free time kissing girls backstage at my community theatre. Three and a half decades later, it shows up in my seminar room. Haunted, I guess. 

Someone in seminar asks me, “What does queer mean for you? Does it lie in negation?”

I am not sure if it is meant as a jab – an attempt to discredit queer theory in all its frustrating nebulous definitions. Sometimes it seems that all things which cannot be settled become queer, read as queer, queer queried. Struggling with queerness is a biweekly conversation with my adviser: What does it mean to do queer work if queer is in constant opposition? What does it look like to build a queer foundation when queer survival has relied on a mutable mobility? What will our monuments look like? 

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote Queer and Now in 1993, a decade after Annie on my Mind and a decade before I will discover it. She opens the essay by declaring her motive for queer work. “I think everyone who does gay and lesbian studies is haunted by the suicides of adolescents. To us, the hard statistics come easily: that queer teenagers are two to three times likelier to attempt suicide… I look at my adult friends and colleagues doing lesbian and gay work, and I feel that the survival of each one is a miracle.”

I relay this to my seminar-question-asker. “It comes down to suicidality,” I say. “And the importance of care work, care activism.”

“So it isn’t negation,” he says back to me. 

I keep playing this one-to-ten-second interaction over and over again in my head. What I should have said was, “Yes. Yes of course it is negation, this all lies in an indelible negation of queer youth. I just want queer youths to be happy.”

I didn’t, though. I just nodded my head in the hopes of moving on. I just want us to be happy moving on.

Ahmed writes that the speech act, “I just want you to be happy,” is damning for queer youth in their coming out. “What does it mean to want ‘just’ happiness? What does it mean for a parent to say this to a child?” The father in Annie on My Mind wishes happiness for his queer daughter in the same breath as fearing for her happiness. “The father makes an act of identification with an imagined future of necessary and inevitable unhappiness,” Ahmed writes. “Such an identification through grief about what the child will lose reminds us that the queer life is already constructed as unhappy, as a life without those ‘things’ that would make you happy (husband, children). The desire for the child’s happiness is far from indifferent. The speech act ‘I just want you to be happy’ can be directive at the very point of its imagined indifference.”

My first interaction with the word queer came from academia. I wrote an essay for a literature class on Peter Pan and its queering of heteronormativity. Wendy Darling, virgin mother, darning socks for all of her boys. A sexless desire to play house, Peter’s homosocial utopia, the erotically charged feuds between Tiger Lilly, Tinkerbell, and Wendy gone unnoticed, yadda yadda yadda. It meant a lot to me at the time – almost a decade ago, and almost a decade after reading Annie on my Mind, and almost two decades after Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote Queer and Now.

My life is punctuated by meaningfully queer work. I am haunted by it. I am trying to build a foundation from this haunting, I am trying to build some sort of monument to its negation. Most of all, I am trying to care for the queers around me. After all, the survival of each one a miracle.
 

On death, dying, and depression in academia

At the end of December, as so many queers are to do, I purchased an enamel pin. My mother was at my side in a romance bookstore in Culver City. The pin reads, in large pink letters, ALIVE. I got it as a celebration for making it through the year. I still haven’t pinned it to my denim jacket. I do not yet feel as if I have earned it. 

The irony is not lost on me that a pair of tumors my mother kept from me were making their way across her right kidney – 4 and 5 centimeters each. 

“I didn’t want to stress you out,” she said over the phone to me a few weeks later. “It’s just that now we have a surgery scheduled.”

My mother had cancer and then, suddenly, she didn’t have cancer anymore. The doctors (for whom this is their job) took their special magnifying glasses to x-rays or MRIs or infrared ultraviolet pictures or what-have-you, and decided for sure. And then a couple of other doctors decided for sure. And now she gets wheeled around to a doctor every other week or so to make absolutely, 100% sure. I suppose that’s what it will look like for the rest of her life.

I lay in my sun-kissed white-linened bed in southern California surrounded by books waiting quietly for some urge to do anything other than die, and my mother carefully pencils in a partial nephrectomy. She always uses pencil in her datebook.

“You have to be prepared to erase, Kathryn.”

It feels garish to write on my mother’s condition in the same line as my struggles with an impasse in academia. I can’t help it. As I walked to lecture, I watched my reflection walk to lecture in a mirrored wall and wondered how many academics were kept from publishing to tend to sick families, to process death, to grieve. My job is simple: do not die and produce good work. I cannot say I have been doing particularly well with either. 

The other day on Twitter (and no story which ends up well begins with that) a prominent philosopher made a slight jab -- a small joke, really -- referring to the suicide of a colleague. You know, just one of those topics rife for joking. This move, abhorrent and distasteful, I saw minutes after closing Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling. Her book discusses the depression which kept her paralysed through much of her academic work, interrupted by bursts of manic productivity. It is part memoir, part cultural theory, navigating an affective turn toward sentimentality and feeling in contemporary theory work. “How does capitalism feel?” Cvetkovich asks. How can this focus on “sensation, tactility, and feeling…resist what have sometimes been overly reductive models within Marxist theory for analyzing the mechanisms of social change”?

As I read about Cvetkovich’s struggle with depression, I can’t help but think of Mark Fisher and his own. 

Is there any writer who is not so constantly plagued by the push and pull of productivity and self-flagellation in its absence?

Berardi has argued that the intensity and precariousness of late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated. The brain is exhausted by too much to do. The feminist postcapitalist thinkers J.K. Gibson-Graham resist the mind/body dualism which spurs late capitalism, in turn. They resist the idea that thinking operates somehow in a “register above and separate from untamed bodily sensation.” And yet, of course, we have all experienced the feelings which accompany new knowledge – how the body folds inwards upon hearing devastating news, or tremors of joy when receiving the opposite. 

In a stark example, I remember my own bodily response in the months following the 2016 US general election. In that great fog of depression, I was sick with cold after cold after cold – bedridden in ways I had never before experienced. I kept my partner up nights, coughing and coughing. They, in their impossibly British way, attempted to soothe me with apologies: 

“I’m so sorry you’re coughing.”

“No, I’m so sorry that I’m keeping you up.”

“No, no, I’m sorry you’re not getting any sleep!”

I could write for ages and ages about sleep – how it entices and eludes, how the Silicon Valley tech bubble promises an escape from its weight on productivity. It’s cliched and useless – Ariana Huffington has already made her way to it. I try and only dip my toes into this late capitalist fever for insomnia, de-eroticizing a culture inundated with people always up, always working. This is Berardi, again, who tells us that the art of seduction takes too much time for the contemporary. The mysteries of culture are lost to us, and so we make up that time in the sludge of feeling which we then, of course, guilt ourselves for having. 

I am unable to min-max my output, no matter how many flow charts or bullet journals or time spent meditating. Worse, perhaps, is the overwhelming feeling that the goal centered in my research, abolishing metrics for success outside of the affective, is unobtainable in any feasible way. “No one is going to want to take on these models,” I whine to my advisor. “No one will hire me if I say they should be giving more of their money away, or that they should incentivize post-capitalist forecasting.” I berate myself for writing over-indulgent essays about my academic impasse.

Yesterday I sat in the sun outside the mechanics, waiting to hear how much repairing a broken head gasket will cost me. I called my dad on the phone to check in. “Your mother had a pain-free day yesterday,” he said. I decide that is pretty good, as far as things go.