The Queen of Twitch Wonders What Turns Teenage Fans Into Trolls (Published 2023) (2024)

The Queen of Twitch Wonders What Turns Teenage Fans Into Trolls (Published 2023) (1)

Mamadi Doumbouya for The New York Times

Talk

By David Marchese

Imane Anys has experienced a turbocharged version of the ostensibly good and indisputably awful that can come with being a star in the world of online content creators. (Itself a turbocharged version of the volatile, attention-hungry digital world so many of us are living in.) Best known by her screen name, Pokimane, Anys, an approachable, puckish on-camera presence, is the most-followed woman on Twitch, a livestreaming platform favored by gaming enthusiasts, having amassed more than nine million followers. She also has more than 23 million followers on other social media and video platforms, who eagerly consume her posts about her emotional ups and downs, her responses to fan prompts and, when the time calls for it, her endearing attempts at viral dances. That’s the good. The bad is that she has been a frequent target of misogynistic comments and a lightning rod for gossip and, most egregious, was forced to suffer the indignity that occurred when another popular gamer was caught streaming while his internet browser showed that he had been watching p*rnographic deepfakes of Anys and other female gamers. “It becomes so easy for people to burn out or lose touch with themselves,” says Anys, who is 26, about the psychic toll of building a career as an online personality. “Trying to figure out how to make this feel more sustainable is very interesting to me.”

The way that technology and our culture are going, your experience with online misogyny is probably just a heightened example of something that more and more women and girls are going to be dealing with in the future. I’m sure it’s even just a matter of time — if it’s not happening already — before sexually explicit deepfakes of classmates seep into the social lives of school-age kids. So as someone who has been dealing with this stuff for a while, how do you navigate it in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling completely cynical about online gender dynamics? Honestly, there are people in the streaming industry who don’t find misogyny deplorable, who don’t think it’s a big deal, who don’t think deepfaking should be punishable in any way. It’s almost like they’re trying to gaslight you into thinking that something that is so damaging to one’s mental health, you just shouldn’t think it’s a big deal. For me, it’s been invaluable to have fellow female streamers who know what I’ve gone through, who can validate my feelings. Having people there to tell you, no, it’s not OK, that goes a long way to preventing you from going crazy thinking that what you’re feeling is somehow wrong.

Do you think being immersed in the gaming world has given you any insight into young men’s attitudes about women that other people might be blind to? At first seeing all the misogyny was a bit confusing and surprising. I was like, have young boys always been this way? But the accessibility and anonymity of the internet allows for these things to happen. A very interesting thing that I’ve experienced — there’s this thing on my channel called unban forms, which is basically if you get banned because you say something weird, you can send in a form where you say: “I apologize. Will you please unban me?” The amount of young boys that say something when they’re X age, then three years later they’re like, “I’m so sorry, I have no idea why I said that, and I’ve changed a lot”? It leaves you thinking: Was it puberty? What happened there? It feels like they’re testing things out. Like: I’ll say the craziest, weirdest stuff and see what happens. This is all still unprecedented territory, so young kids need to be taught how to treat people online. But since I’ve seen people realize that things they were saying weren’t OK, it does make me think that there can be more redemption stories out there.

The Queen of Twitch Wonders What Turns Teenage Fans Into Trolls (Published 2023) (2)

Imane Anys being honored at the Shorty Awards in 2018. Craig Barritt/Getty Images

You’ve been doing less streaming lately and instead making more content for YouTube and TikTok, where the demands on your time aren’t as all-consuming — you don’t have to be sitting there playing a game for eight hours a day the way you do on Twitch. Is the hope that making content for those platforms will feel more manageable? I don’t view things like one platform is better than the other. They’re different. For example, Twitch, you have live positive and negative feedback. So the highs can be higher than they are from a positive YouTube comment because somebody is interacting with you in real time — and those lows can potentially be lower because you can have hundreds of people coming into your chat and you are being berated by these people all at once. But I’m not making this change because it’s easier or better on other platforms. It’s what my heart yearns for. In the past, I was trying to fit my life around all of this work, but now I want to look at it from the perspective of fitting my work around my life. If I want to travel, let me bring you along. If I have a particular interest in pottery, let me showcase that instead of just focusing on gaming and streaming. I want to evolve as a person and not limit myself so much, and share that evolution with my audience. I want to develop a sense of self, values, morals, and then attract an audience based off those things, as opposed to doing it almost the opposite way, where I see what the audiences are responding positively to and then pander to that.

Where have you felt a disconnect between who you are and whom people saw online? That’s definitely happened when people have pushed these negative narratives about me like, oh, she’s fake, oh, she’s a bitch. Or people thinking that I’m just trying to make money off my viewers.

That’s a funny thing about being a content creator, though, right? You are trying to make money off your audience, and obviously sometimes you have to behave in ways that you wouldn’t be behaving if the audience weren’t there watching you. You and your audience are just supposed to operate as if that’s not the case. Yeah, it gets very meta. Of course, we need to make money, and you are doing it by putting yourself in front of so many people. So sometimes when I’m not actually happy, I’ll try to seem happier than I am. Does that make me fake? All human beings, at some point you might be able to say that they’re acting fake. There are times where I try to be nicer than my emotions or my instincts really want me to be, and that might come off disingenuous to some. I understand that, but I feel like it’s part of the job.

The Queen of Twitch Wonders What Turns Teenage Fans Into Trolls (Published 2023) (3)

Anys streaming on Twitch this year. Screen grab from Twitch

Before when you were talking about wanting to grow as a person, you said you wanted to develop your own moral sense and sense of values and then be able to attract an audience based on that. You also said that if you wanted to try something like pottery, you wanted to be able to bring viewers along. In both instances, you were talking about personal-developmental stuff as means to professional ends. For you, are they ever not? I get what you mean, but my confusion is why something like the pottery example seems like a career end. In my perspective, I’m prioritizing natural interests and hobbies that if I then choose to share I can. The way that I used to lead my life is like, I spent almost all of my time either streaming or working on things relating to streaming. Now I’ll work if I want, and then if I want to pursue any interests, I will, and if I want to share those, I have the opportunity.

I guess my question is really whether you draw any lines between your life offline and your life online. Or maybe that doesn’t matter. There is definitely a line that needs to be drawn. Relationship matters, familial matters — those things I typically don’t share. When it comes to personal interests, what I try to do is I’ll have on days and off days. If I’m just taking a day off and I go do something with my friends, if it’s pottery, if it’s biking, it’s an off day. I’m not going to film it. But the other way is, like, for example, pottery is something that I’ve mentioned to my audience, and I think I featured it in a vlog. Then I was thinking of making a video out of it, but when I went to make the video, I noticed that having a camera on took me out of the flow that is required when you’re making pottery. So, yeah, it’s partially a learning process and partially some things you just know you should keep to yourself. Otherwise it’s easy to lose your sense of self. I think that sometimes the way that I separate the public me from the private me is kind of a defense mechanism. Like, the things that people are saying are about Poki, not about me. But obviously what I put out there is connected to me. I work on myself as a person so that I can then put out cool things as Poki, but I still have to keep in mind, even from a P.R. standpoint, how would people perceive me doing X, Y, Z? It’s weird.

It’s very easy to see the world of streaming gamers as basically one big social and emotional minefield. But can you tell me about the good side? What do critics miss? For me, in high school, as an immigrant, coming from an immigrant family, there were certain values we upheld. To some extent I felt like my household was a bit quote unquote stricter than other households. It wasn’t as acceptable to be out late or go to parties or do these things that I saw my friends in school doing. One of the ways that I was able to cope was to game with other people online and socialize that way and have fun and build friendships without having to do things that my parents weren’t OK with. Not only that, but growing up in the town that I did, I knew maybe one other girl in my entire high school who liked to play video games. Being able to connect with other people who are interested in the same things as you is so validating. That’s the best thing that you can get from the internet: You can find like-minded people. That is such a beautiful thing because human beings, at the end of the day, all we want is to belong.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and writes the Talk column. He recently interviewed Emma Chamberlain about leaving YouTube, Walter Mosley about a dumber America and Cal Newport about a new way to work.

The Queen of Twitch Wonders What Turns Teenage Fans Into Trolls (Published 2023) (2024)
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