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Emmett Shear is cofounder and CEO of Twitch, the fast-growing streaming service popular with video gamers, which was purchased eight years ago by Amazon for nearly $1 billion. Emmett is also a part-time partner for the startup accelerator, Y Combinator.
Twitch has been in the news recently: It was the platform used by the alleged shooter of 13 people at a Buffalo grocery store to livestream his actions. The company says the stream was removed less than two minutes after the violence started, but, as Shear explained to HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius, “there’s obviously still work to be done” to make livestreaming platforms safer.
Ignatius sat down with Shear in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:
- Tactics and strategies for keeping platforms like Twitch free of racist, hateful, and abusive speech.
- The present and future of the creator economy, which he says promises to be, for some, a more fulfilling alternative to not just the gig economy, but regular full-time employment.
- Monetization, and how it works differently for small creators with 5 followers, and experts with 50,000 followers.
- From his time at Y Combinator, the best pieces of advice he’s developed for young startup entrepreneurs.
“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.
ADI IGNATIUS: Emmett, welcome to the show.
EMMETT SHEAR: Thank you for having me.
ADI IGNATIUS: I really want to talk to you about Twitch, how Twitch represents the evolution of the economy. I want to get into all that in a second. But before we start, it would be odd not to talk about the tragedy in Buffalo. The alleged perpetrator was initially trying to livestream on Twitch, and that has brought out criticism about whether platforms are responsible for the content that’s on them. I’d love to give you a chance to address that.
EMMETT SHEAR: It’s obviously a horrific hate crime. And that kind of violence, that kind of hate, white supremacy, racism, don’t have any place, I mean, really anywhere in our society, or especially on Twitch. And we’re working, of course, with law enforcement and taking every action we can find to respond to the tragedy. And we’re going to continue to invest heavily in ensuring the safety of everyone on Twitch. I think this is an example of one of those places where we’ve done a lot of work, but there’s obviously still work to be done.
ADI IGNATIUS: I appreciate your addressing that, and obviously this is a tough time for all of us.
Let’s get into it. In some of your comments right there, it points to the fact the world is changing and there are platforms like Twitch that are playing new roles in the economy and in how we think about business.
Creators: they’re non-employees. With your front row into this aspect of the economy, how do you see the creator economy evolving?
EMMETT SHEAR: One of the things about the creator economy that I think is most interesting, from the point of view of streamers, is the degree to which being a creator is a career path independent of any one company. Almost every creator these days is on multiple bits of social media, right? They’re on every service.
And they may pick one that’s their primary service. One place they are most likely to go to, but it’s not like a traditional job where you would have an employer and that employer would choose the ratio of your usage. Instead, there’s a bunch of different places you can spend your time, different ways you can connect with your audience, different ways you can monetize so you can grow your audience, and you pick the balance.
We’re always in competition with every other service, trying to win the time, effectively, of the creator and convince them that we’re the best place they should be spending their time, we offer the best combination of reach, of positive interaction with their community, of monetization. And that’s a very different dynamic than a regular job.
ADI IGNATIUS: At so-called regular companies, we think a lot about culture and we think that to develop and sustain a culture you need employees who are committed to you and committed to the long-term, and you’re skilling them up and mentoring them and giving them reasons to be there. Do you think about culture differently?
EMMETT SHEAR: There’s a question I asked an employee one time who asked me a question about culture. This was many years ago. I mean, we were first getting started 12 years ago, 13 years ago, and they asked me, “What do you think our culture is?” And I asked them, “Well, what do you mean by culture?” And they gave me the best answer to that question. Something that I’ve kept as my answer to the question ever since which is, “Oh, well, your culture is the set of behaviors that you reward and the set of behaviors that you punish.”
If there’s a set of behaviors that get you positive reinforcement, you’ll get more of those behaviors in your company. And if there’s a set of behaviors that you react negatively to, you’ll get less of that. And over time, that is your culture. Culture is what we do, but people ultimately are rewarded by what causes success and what avoids failure.
I would add a nuance. My addition to that is it’s actually the set of behaviors that people perceive are punished or perceive are rewarded. If in fact you’re rewarded for doing one thing, but everyone believes you’re rewarded for doing something else, they follow what they think they’re rewarded for, not what they actually are always. So, occasionally a little gap opens up there.
So, what’s our responsibility as a service? Well, it’s pretty different from a full-time employer, right? As a full-time employer, we get all of your time. We can dictate your working hours. We can dictate all kinds of things as an employer. For a streamer, they choose how many hours they do, they choose when they do it, and they choose like what content they want to do. We have very little control compared to the normal thing.
And yet, there’s a certain set of things we can reward and a certain set of things that we can punish. Our culture is the combination of what causes your stream to grow, what causes your monetization to go up, what causes you to get discovered on Twitch. How does our discovery work? We choose which streams go through the recommendation engine, and therefore whatever we choose is the way that what tends to get promoted, that is the set of stuff that you’ll tend to get more of.
And then obviously if you act out of line, if you say something racist or hateful, if you say something that is abusive towards other streamers, we’ll punish that. Those sets of tools are how we manage creating a culture for streamers.
But actually I would say that’s just the baseline, because really a lot of the culture from streamers comes from the other streamers. A lot of the reward people get is from other people saying, “Wow, that was cool.” And so, there’s this whole second layer of culture that’s been created by our streamers themselves. That’s traditional for Twitch, actually. We might provide the baseline, but ultimately almost everything gets done by our streamers.
Our culture varies a lot by game. This fighting game culture is very different from League of Legends culture.
ADI IGNATIUS: That sounds unique to what you are as a streaming platform. Do you think more traditional companies can learn from that? I mean, do you think there’s a shift happening, not just in streaming, but where creators have the power, or gig workers have the power, that we all need to reckon with?
EMMETT SHEAR: I think bringing up gig workers is a really good place to look at, because I