Twitch is staging its second “interactive public service experiment” on Thursday morning, using the U.S. Senate as a backdrop.
When former FBI director James Comey sits with the Senate Intelligence Committee to answer questions about his private conversations with Donald Trump, he’ll be doing so in front of a live Twitch audience. It’s far from the only way to tune in for the hearing, but it is the destination with the most potential for toxic live chat.
So there’s that?
Comey’s hearing will serve as the kickoff for a just-launched “News” channel, which is described in the official blurb as a destination dedicated to capturing “bi-partisan landmark events.” I’ll look at whether or not that’s actually a good idea momentarily.
The announcement notes that Twitch’s recently introduced feature, AutoMod — short for “automatic moderation” — will be switched on. The smart filter sifts through rapidly accumulating chat posts faster than human moderators are able to, and it’s supposedly smart enough to spot intentional misspellings — a tactic that is often employed to fool similar filters.
Messages that could be construed as harassment or hate speech are automatically flagged and passed along for human moderators to review.
AutoMod hadn’t been introduced in the summer of 2016, when Twitch took its first step toward beaming political happenings to users. The Democratic and Republican conventions that preceded 2016’s U.S. presidential election were both streamed on the site.
Archived versions of the proceedings show a chat window overrun with profanity-laced utterances, incomprehensible debate, slogan-spewing bots, and veiled nods toward hateful world views (Pepe the Frog emoji appear frequently, for example).
Even if AutoMod sterilizes the worst of what Twitch chat brings — it’s been a well-received feature — there’s still another, simpler problem with the idea of using the streaming service as a community engagement platform for a political event: it’s downright hard to follow.
Twitch is a faulty platform for rational conversation because there’s no good way to keep up.
For a must-watch moment like this, thousands upon thousands of Twitch users tune in for the stream. Comments in chat fly by so quickly that you’re often scrolling back up to finish the single-sentence post you couldn’t finish reading because it disappeared so quickly.
If Twitter is a faulty platform for rational conversation because of the length constraints, Twitch is the same when a crowd tunes in because there’s no way to keep up. Even if you yourself pause chat and take the time to respond thoughtfully to one comment or another, it’s likely your voice will be drowned out in an instant.
To be fair, puzzling out how to get users engaged with the news of the day is still a work-in-progress for Twitch. The party conventions of 2016 were its first step in that direction, and — again — that was before the days of AutoMod.
Twitch even acknowledges its noob status in this arena in a statement connected with the Comey announcement, though it’s unfortunately couched in the sort of fantasyland PR speak that doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny.
“When we live streamed the Republican and Democratic National Conventions on Twitch last year, followed by a broadcast from the White House, our community had the opportunity to engage in civic-minded content, while conversing with one another in chat,” said Brian Petrocelli, Product Marketing Manager, Twitch.
“Because [the Twitch community] enthusiastically embraced this interactive public service experiment, it inspired us to experiment further with a News channel dedicated to bi-partisan landmark events beginning with the Comey hearings.”
Petrocelli rightly refers to 2016’s streams as an experiment, and they were successful enough — whatever your impression of it might have been — to inspire the launch of this News channel. But the notion that there was any actual “conversation” in those chats stretches reality.
To date, the laborious process of following along in a Twitch chat has been the service’s greatest Achilles’ heel with regards to fostering an active, cohesive community.
The Comey hearing, and the News channel that it launches, give Twitch a platform — and more importantly, a strong reason — to more actively work toward solving the problem of an unwieldy chat interface. You still might want to shut down the chat if you tune in on Twitch today (just click the little grey triangle at the top of the stream window, next to the Subscribe button), but an optimist’s view suggests that this could be the start of a larger shift for the community side of Twitch.
Or it could continue to live on as a vast ocean of “fuck yous” and Pepes. Whatever works, right? In the end, running a business on the internet is a numbers game — and Twitch has the numbers.