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How streaming stars pay the price of online fame

Twitch, more than Instagram, Twitter or TikTok, is an intimate platform, designed to make its stars seem like actual friends of their fans, hanging out virtually with them. Those cozy relationships are a core part of the site's business model. But they sometimes turn unhealthy

By Kellen Browning and Kashmir Hill
Published: Aug 4, 2022

How streaming stars pay the price of online fameThe social media star Kaitlyn Siragusa, in Katy, Texas, on June 29, 2022. Siragusa doesn’t know what more she can do to protect herself, she said, “besides build a moat with crocodiles.” (Go Nakamura/The New York Times)

The unwanted visitor rapped on Kaitlyn Siragusa’s front door and peered through the windows of her home on the outskirts of Houston. When she did not answer, he walked around to the back of her house and jiggled a doorknob there.

He had been sending Siragusa, 28, unsettling messages for months and said online that he had sold his home and possessions in Estonia to fly halfway around the world to find her.

“I’m sorry that it took me too long to get here. It was a hell of a challenge,” said the man, captured by Siragusa’s security cameras in June. Then, speaking to his phone, which he was using to livestream the visit, he added: “But I’m here now.”

The man was one of Siragusa’s 5 million followers on Twitch, where she goes by Amouranth. She called the police, who eventually came and detained him. The incident was terrifying, she said, but it wasn’t the first time she had dealt with what is increasingly going hand in hand with being a high-profile streamer on Twitch: harassment and stalking.

Twitch is best known as a place where people livestream themselves playing video games, but there’s more there these days, ranging from cooking demonstrations to political commentary. While Siragusa does occasionally play Raid: Shadow Legends or GeoGuessr, her all-day, hourslong broadcast is more like a cabaret variety show.

Famed for pushing the boundaries of the platform’s rules against sexually explicit content, Siragusa can be found donning the costumes of scantily clad video game characters or bantering with her audience while doing her exercise routine.

Though Twitch discourages streamers from wearing swimwear if they are not planning to take a dip, Siragusa is able to broadcast in a bikini: She installed an inflatable hot tub in her bedroom last year.

The vast majority of Twitch’s 8 million streamers broadcast themselves for hours at a time and interact with fans who post messages in a chat box. Siragusa said she makes about $120,000 per month on Twitch from fans who watch advertisements, make one-time donations or pay about $5 per month to subscribe to her channel, a commitment that comes with perks like special badges and custom “emotes” — small images used in chat to express a reaction. That’s in addition to the more than $1 million she earns monthly on other platforms, like OnlyFans.

The ability of streamers like Siragusa to attract an audience is the lifeblood of Twitch, which makes money through ads and by taking a cut of payments from fans. Amazon paid nearly $1 billion in 2014 to acquire the company, which averages 31 million daily viewers.

Twitch, more than Instagram, Twitter or TikTok, is an intimate platform, designed to make its stars seem like actual friends of their fans, hanging out virtually with them. Those cozy relationships are a core part of the site’s business model. But they sometimes turn unhealthy.

“In livestreams, they see into your home, into your bedroom, and it feels very personal with them,” Siragusa said. “I think that is what contributes to a lot of the stalking: They feel like they know you.”

Streamers on Twitch and other platforms have had stalkers show up at their homes and at fan conventions, been targeted by armed and violent viewers or dealt with swatting, a sometimes deadly stunt in which someone calls the local police to report a fake crime at a streamer’s home, hoping the raid will be caught live on camera.

Successful streamers like Siragusa have a dream career — they’re paid to hang out and play video games — but they say that as they grow into celebrities, sometimes overnight, Twitch provides little warning about the risks and offers only limited support when dangerous situations arise.

“Harassment or threats have absolutely no place on Twitch, and we use every lever at our disposal to both minimize the risk of harm and respond to harm caused to our community,” Twitch said in a statement.

Tom Verrilli, the company’s chief product officer, said the vast majority of the interactions on the site were positive. “But, of course, it takes one jerk to ruin the campfire,” he said.

How streaming stars pay the price of online fameTwitch streamer DizzyKitten at her home in Bentonville, Ark., on June 26, 2022. DizzyKitten, whose first name is Brandi, learned that the police wouldn’t act on her report of a stalker until he had shown up at her home. (Nick Oxford/The New York Times)

A Different Kind of Fame

In the 1950s, psychologists observed the intense emotional attachment that fans could develop toward actors, newscasters and other celebrities and named it a “parasocial relationship” — one-sided, with fans investing time, energy and emotion in stars who were unaware of their existence.

In extreme cases, a fan will “feel as if they own the celebrity or as if they are a personal partner,” said Chris Rojek, a sociology professor at City, University of London who has studied celebrity.

Alan Hutchings, a 37-year-old in Dallas, discovered Siragusa’s Twitch channel in 2016, when she was playing the shooter game Overwatch and cosplaying as one of the characters in it. An Overwatch player himself, he said, he kept going back because of her ability to tell a story and engage viewers. He got to know many of her other followers.

“It can be a social group, a group of online friends,” said Hutchings, a Texas Army National Guard veteran and an employee at a software development company. “It can act as even a support group if someone’s having a bad day.”

As a moderator on Siragusa’s Twitch stream and the Amouranth server on Discord, a messaging platform, he has also seen the darker side of the connections formed over Twitch. Hutchings has dealt with unruly fans and observed how the attachments can go wrong — the extreme, unhealthy kinds that people form when they don’t talk with other fans and obsess over the streamer at the exclusion of everything else.

Brooke Bond has also experienced the benefits of an engaged community on Twitch — and the extreme drawbacks. In 2018, when she began streaming from her parents’ home in the Portland, Oregon, area, talking to her fans helped relieve stress.

She started out playing the video game Fortnite, but also opened up to her viewers about her anxiety about college, her decision to quit her part-time job to stream full time and her love life, which was of particular interest to her audience after she began dating another popular Twitch streamer. Bond, under the username BrookeAB, quickly amassed a huge following.

A year later, she told her fans about an unexpected opportunity: 100 Thieves, an esports organization, had offered to pay for her to move to Los Angeles and live in a house for content creators.

It seemed like an exciting move for her. Some of her fans didn’t see it that way.

How streaming stars pay the price of online fameMax Gonzalez, who offers tips to Twitch newcomers, in Austin, Texas, on July 12, 2022. Gonzalez said security advice could be more prominent on the site. (Bryan Schutmaat/The New York Times)

Playing It Safe

Viewers accused Bond of selling out and expressed a startling degree of possessiveness over her life. Some doxxed her, posting her and her family’s address on various social media platforms. Others sent her death threats.

Twitch, Bond said, was supportive, barring the worst accounts from the platform, encouraging her to contact the police and offering advice for how to scrub her personal information from the internet. But beyond that, Bond said, the platform did not know what else could be done, especially because the harassment had moved beyond Twitch onto other social media sites.

“I think they want to help — they just don’t have any clue of what to do,” she said.

Bond and her family spent tens of thousands of dollars on a private investigator, who got the FBI involved to track down her harassers. Her situation improved, but threatening followers persist. In April, after Bond, now 24, talked on Twitch about her plans to go to the Coachella music festival, online harassers threatened to kill her mother and set her house on fire if she went.

She canceled the trip. Just in case.

David Huntzinger, a talent manager in Los Angeles who represents digital stars, said celebrities often had to contend with unhealthy obsessions from some fans. But livestreamers, he said, are uniquely at risk because of the personal details they may casually expose. An idle comment about a favorite cafe, a reference to a loved one or even a glimpse of the street outside a window could give obsessed fans the ammunition they need to intrude.

“You can’t expect someone who is 18 and an overnight celebrity to have thought through all of these issues,” Huntzinger said.

Micro-celebrities who are famous among a niche group, such as a Twitch audience, do not tend to realize how accessible their personal information is until the harassment starts, said Leigh Honeywell, chief executive of Tall Poppy, a company that is focused on personal cybersecurity and that has advised Twitch.

Remaining anonymous could be more challenging for Americans than for online talent Honeywell has worked with in other parts of the world because, she said, data brokers in the U.S. are legally able to sell personal information, including home addresses.

“It’s fundamentally difficult to be truly private,” she said.

A Better Warning System?

Twitch has an introductory page for new creators, with advice from successful streamers on getting started. Most of it is technical — about optimal lighting, computer and camera systems — or about attracting an audience. There are no prominent warnings about personal security or the downsides of fame.

However, in an offbeat moment midway through one of the “tips” videos, Max Gonzalez, who streams as GassyMexican and was paid by Twitch to offer his advice to newcomers, sounds a faint warning.

“I might have thought twice about revealing my face,” Gonzalez says. (Some of Twitch’s most popular streamers, such as Ironmouse, use cartoon avatars that hide their appearance.)

Gonzalez said security dos-and-don’ts should be more front and center on Twitch for new streamers to “get that into somebody’s brain early on.”

A stalker has harassed him and people close to him for several years, Gonzalez said. When he attends a convention organized by Twitch where fans can meet streamers in person, he flags his stalker to security to ensure that she won’t be allowed entry.

He used to do public meetups with his viewers, but stopped after the 2016 murder of Christina Grimmie, a YouTube star who was shot while signing autographs after a concert. “It shook up a lot of creators when it happened,” Gonzalez said.

Twitch is not unaware of the threats. A Twitch spokeswoman said the company planned in the coming months to livestream a session that will educate streamers about real-world risks. In recent years, it has increased its efforts to build safety into the platform, said Verrilli. He noted, for example, a change the site made to obscure personal contact information on the Twitch settings page, so streamers sharing their computer screens wouldn’t accidentally expose their address or phone number.

Angela Hession, Twitch’s vice president of global trust and safety, said her team kept creators up to date on “how to protect themselves, both on Twitch and off,” including by offering a safety center with tips for preventing doxxing, swatting and stalking.

Hession said Twitch tried to create “a safe environment” but was limited in how much it could do to help. It can’t, for example, give out identifying information about a potential harasser unless the company receives a valid request from law enforcement. The team at Twitch responsible for corresponding with law enforcement and informing it about threats made on the platform has quadrupled in the last two years.

Last year, the company announced it would begin holding users accountable for misbehavior that occurred “off-service,” saying it was a novel approach for the industry. If a Twitch user is determined to have committed “egregious real-world harm,” according to the company, the user can be barred from the platform.

In 2020, Twitch expanded its definition of hateful conduct and acknowledged that some creators, especially minorities, “experience a disproportionate amount of harassment and abuse online.” Last summer, the hashtag #TwitchDoBetter began circulating on social media after Black and LGBTQ streamers said they were being targeted by so-called hate raids, in which automated bot accounts spammed their chats with racist and discriminatory epithets.

Twitch said it had improved its moderation programs in response, including adding better automated tools to detect malicious bots. But streamers say they themselves — and their moderation teams — are still largely responsible for ensuring that viewers follow the site’s rules.

Klint Harlin, who streams to more than 4,000 followers on his TerribleGaming123 Twitch channel, dealt with a handful of racist hate raids last year. Then, Harlin, who is Black, was swatted. Police officers showed up at his home in Detroit last month and handcuffed him while they checked to make sure the report of violence at his residence was false.

“You can get someone killed doing this,” Harlin, 36, said. “To me, this is attempted murder.”

A Surreal World

A YouTube video viewed over 1 million times addresses the problem directly: “How can I stop my stalker? Please help.”

A popular Twitch streamer known as Sweet Anita, 31, made the video in 2020 after she said a fan showed up repeatedly at her house, at one point with a knife. In it, she talks about her experiences and interviews other Twitch streamers about harassment.

Some streamers do not acknowledge stalking episodes, for fear of making them worse. But others discuss the harassment openly, the costs of their streaming becoming yet another part of life they share with their audience.

Sweet Anita, who asked to be identified only by her alias for safety reasons, said many streamers made a fake wall or hung a cloth behind them to prevent fans from identifying distinctive features in their home that could be matched to Zillow photos or rental listings.

“Disguise your home. Don’t do house tours,” she said. “They’ll find you.”

Despite the precautions she has to take, Sweet Anita said she did not regret going into streaming.

“I laugh every day. I get paid to play video games,” she said. “It’s a surreal world.”

Nor does Siragusa second-guess her career choice. After six years on Twitch she remains matter-of-fact about the harassment that has escalated to the point where an Estonian man showed up at her house. It’s an unfortunate reality, she said, of being a woman online.

“I guess you do get used to it — it comes with the territory,” she said. “It shouldn’t.”

She is expanding her repertoire, though, she said, from the “e-girl genre” (“a pretty girl doing random stuff on stream”) into more mainstream topics, like hosting game shows. She is also starting a management company for streamers.

And she dreams of one day starting a sanctuary for rescue dogs and horses. The animals would be livestreamed.

©2019 New York Times News Service