Emmett Shear, OpenAI’s interim chief executive officer, led the Twitch livestreaming site for more than a decade, building a burgeoning business, but he struggled to keep misogynists, racists and even pedophiles from running rampant on the video service.
The computer scientist helped transform a niche video-game streaming company into an entertainment giant – one that Amazon.com Inc. purchased for $970 million in 2014. From former executives, he gets high marks for his focus on growth, making Twitch the go-to service for livestreaming and gaming culture, and for ferreting out some of the abuses at an internet business built on user-generated content.
Now, Emmett Shear needs to quell an open revolt among OpenAI employees. After his appointment, nearly all threatened to quit unless the board resigned, and both Microsoft Corp. and Salesforce Inc. have tried to poach its talent. At Twitch, Shear left a controversial legacy. While few doubted his technical abilities, he drew criticism for coarse comments and for scandals during his stewardship. He has close ties to the effective altruism movement, whose proponents played a central role in firing of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.
Twitch is still at times an outlet for extremist views and even a haven for child predators. As interim CEO of OpenAI, Shear is at a similar juncture – being asked to balance breakneck growth while grappling with the ethical considerations that surround artificial intelligence. Thanks to social-media posts, some of his opinions on AI are public.
“We can’t learn how to build a safe AI without experimenting, and we can’t experiment without progress, but we probably shouldn’t be barreling ahead at max speed either,” Shear said in September on X, formerly Twitter.
The executive has praised AI’s ability to solve problems involving chip design, material sciences, programming and electricity generation. He’s even suggested AI could take over much of the work done in a company’s C-suite. “Most of the CEO job (and the majority of most executive jobs) are very automatable,” he wrote on X last week.
Several Twitch executives, including some who requested anonymity, expressed confidence in Shear’s ability to lead OpenAI while acknowledging that few executives are fully equipped to step into such a tumultuous situation. None were surprised by the choice, citing Shear’s technical expertise and curiosity, along with his success in building Twitch.
In 2022, several executives departed Twitch amid concerns that the platform had lost touch with its creators. Shear himself left in March of this year to spend more time with his new child.
Over his years at Twitch, Shear worked closely with the company’s product team to continually improve the site’s systems. An engineer by trade, he was still producing code as CEO, according to one former employee. They joke that the last of his work was running the TV in Twitch’s lobby. People who worked with Shear describe him as deeply curious and a voracious reader.
Shear has ties to the effective altruism movement, which expresses reservations about advanced AI. Some people affiliated with the movement have imagined scenarios in which a powerful AI system could wreak widespread harm.
Many credit Twitch’s success with Shear’s early decision to build its own content distribution network – its own interconnected servers. The network facilitated low-latency streaming, eliminating the buffering and interruptions that anger users. Competitors, using leased infrastructure, fell behind.
“Our cost of streaming was a third or quarter of what theirs was,” Shear said at Twitch’s annual convention in Las Vegas in October. “We’d done the very difficult work of building our own in-house backend.”
Shear, who co-founded Twitch predecessor Justin.tv, credits Twitch’s growth to his early recognition that gaming fans like himself would eagerly watch others play online.
“The Twitch thing was because I really, really, really, really love Starcraft,” he said at TwitchCon of Activision Blizzard’s highly competitive strategy game. “Almost no one was streaming gaming.”
Twitch’s success at turning video gaming into a spectator sport helped birth the $250 billion creator economy – allowing social-media personalities to become the internet equivalent of Hollywood stars, endorsing products and attracting advertisers. The company later added the ability to donate money to streamers and subscribe to them. The payment infrastructure helped create gaming celebrities such as Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, who earned millions playing Fortnite. Most of Twitch’s content today falls into its “Just Chatting” category, not gaming.
While former employees praise Shear’s abilities as a technical leader, many question his people skills.
“He may not be the best people CEO, but he is a great tech CEO,” said Marcus Graham, a gaming executive who worked at Twitch from 2011 to 2022.
For years, Twitch was considered a cesspool of misogyny and racism, where women and people of color male were regularly subjected to verbal abuse. In 2016, Shear introduced a machine learning feature called AutoMod that dramatically cut such comments. Moderators more consistently banned livestreamers who made hateful comments, including sexist rants. After several streamers were called out for abusive behavior in 2020, Shear sent a memo to staff saying, “The status quo needs to change.”
While the company has strict policies against such behavior, some problems remain. Child predators systematically find and attempt to groom users who appear to be under 13, Bloomberg News has reported. In July 2022, alleged predators found an average of 673 children on Twitch every day, according to a researcher. The 2022 terrorist attack on Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, was broadcast live on Twitch for several minutes before being taken down.
And a 2020 report from GamesIndustry.Biz described sexist and boys-club attitudes internally at Twitch. Shear himself has made several controversial comments on X, including one remark about women, sex and bondage, that at the very least seemed inappropriate for a CEO.
Although he described himself as “super opinionated” on X, Shear wasn’t an outspoken presence as Twitch’s leader. He rarely gave interviews, and internally at Twitch, Shear was known to focus on the product rather than company culture.
“Some of my more difficult conversations with Emmett were the heart conversations,” Graham said.