SXSW canceled panels: Here is what happened.

I Was on One of Those Canceled SXSW Panels. Here Is What Went Down.

I Was on One of Those Canceled SXSW Panels. Here Is What Went Down.

What women really think.
Oct. 29 2015 4:33 PM

I Was on One of Those Canceled SXSW Panels.

Here is what went down.

SXSW
The SXSW Film-Interactive-Music Conference on March 13, 2015 in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

For most of the past two years, I’ve been employed as a user-experience designer, interaction designer, and, now, user researcher. I lay out software to make it intuitive and easier to use. My dad calls my job “computer ergonomics.”

This is what I do for work, but as a designer, artist, and researcher, I use my design-thinking to create speculative architectures for social media and video games—which involves layout, how the code itself is infrastructured, what kind of feedback people are getting.

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In August, I was one of the organizers of a panel for South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games.” I’d spent all summer researching different kinds of online and social media harassment, trolling, and the manifestation of organized groups online. I had written just a little bit about Gamergate, specifically about the time that Gamergate trolls sent a SWAT team to my mother’s house. (“Swatting” is a ploy that’s been used against other targets of the Gamergate movement; it’s meant to be a prank, but it can end in injury or death.) I also write about online harassment in general.

I don’t want my work to be solely defined by the harassment against my mother and me. And when I talk about harassment, it’s not just “Gamergate”: I’ve referenced Penny Arcade Dickwolves, End Fathers Day, Freebleeding, Your Slip Is Showing—all harassment campaigns that played out on Twitter or blogs, that targeted women and women of color in social media, and that were organized on websites such as 4chan or 8chan. I write about how the design of a site, be it Twitter or Tinder, can be used in a variety of ways that the creators didn’t intend.

For our panel submission to SXSW, my co-organizers and I created an in-depth design discussion on how to stymie online harassment through design: new kinds of layout, buttons, privacy settings, different posting options. We wanted to cover a certain kind of “design thinking” methodology—design thinking is the specific rationale that goes into creating something such as, for example, a mobile application. We didn’t want to talk about Gamergate. We wanted to talk about design, and particularly design around solutions for harassment.

After submitting our panel, we waited for it to go live on SXSW’s website. We were concerned about the SXSW panel voting system being attacked, and we reached out to some friends for support. Every panel that is submitted to SXSW must be voted on by the community, but SXSW includes two voting options: upvoting and downvoting. After a few days, as a panel, we decided to be brave and all tweet out links to the voting website ourselves.

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For a brief moment, I thought, “Fuck yeah, maybe Gamergate … didn’t notice?” Which is probably the most naive thing I have ever thought in my entire life.

* * *

A week or so later, Arthur Chu, a prospective speaker on another panel and target of Gamergate’s threats and harassment, emailed a few panelists—including me—and SXSW Interactive, indicating that Gamergate had, in fact, started a Reddit thread campaigning to downvote us.

I was a bit naive about the whole SXSW process. I’d figured panels went “up” for “voting,” not for “upvoting” and “downvoting.” (I’ve already written at length on why downvoting should be done away with in democratic systems, because it effectively creates a hegemony.) We were told through a series of emails by a SXSW representative not to worry, that the submission panel had already closed, that public voting only counts for 30 percent, that the public can’t even see the amount of down- or up-votes, and that SXSW officials had more weight in selecting panels. I immediately expressed concern over security, over crowd control.

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At that point, it seemed like we were just overly worrying. But I have to overly worry. I have that kind of really proud mother who always came to every soccer game, art show, and cello recital. If my panel got approved, my mother would want to attend SXSW to see me speak.

That kind of emotional negotiation is not just intrinsic to my situation; it’s evocative of larger problems within technology. Being a woman in tech is fraught with all kinds of complications, and speaking up against inequalities in technology and harassment leaves victims open to more harassment. It is a fight I want to fight. But why should it be something women and marginalized groups have to fight on their own? Why do diverse and safe spaces have to come at such a high cost?

Outside of the gaming scene, a lot of people have no idea what Gamergate is or why it’s still such an intensive, long, and ongoing argument. Assuming SXSW as a whole wasn’t familiar with the movement, I sent over some links about Gamergate to the SXSW representative. I tried to explain the way this large fandom tended to skew, and why this should be taken seriously right now, during voting. The representative responded:

I don't see anything within the comments fields on PanelPicker that suggests anything overtly negative, threatening, or harassing. And, our policy with proposals is that the more of a dialogue around ideas the better. In regards to who can and cannot vote on PanelPicker proposals, that is not limited to attendees. Anyone can vote on SXSW proposals in PanelPicker as long as they have a profile / account. This is part of the whole community engagement and interaction …  
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Effectively, I was being told: Yes, there is a campaign against you; it sucks that people are leaving horrible but nonviolent comments, let’s not do anything right now because it will probably die down. After about a week, though, SXSW finally realized they needed to turn the comments off on our panels. Usually panels get one or two comments, maybe a handful; ours had more than 100 mostly negative comments by the time they were disabled. Arthur Chu was watching Reddit, and he kept informing the SXSW rep as to what was going on. By now, Gamergate was submitting a panel and actively planning it on a subreddit called r/KotakuInAction. We were, again, told that our concerns were misplaced. Our rep said via email,

I seriously would not worry about their attempts to put together a panel. They can put it together all they want, but, we are already aware of what's going on and how they are treating their fellow PanelPicker proposal submitters, i.e. you, which is a great case of them getting rejected automatically. So, just let them think they can pull this all together, and bask in the glory of knowing that it's all in vain.  

In these kinds of situations, I tend to think, What would a regular person do? I try to think about that before the panic or queasiness of being targeted sets in. I imagine myself as a person who does not have a large, anonymous group of people on the Internet trying to make sure she couldn’t speak at a huge, crowded conference. A person who doesn’t have to look over her shoulder when walking home at night. A person who never triple- and quadruple-guesses everything she posts online. A person who’s never had a SWAT team called on her mom. What would a regular person do?

* * *

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I went into user-research mode and analyzed this with distance, as if it were happening to someone else. What was the threat model? What could they find? What and how would someone be logically targeted? How had I presented myself in the past few weeks? What had I published? People were already organizing a positive upvoting campaign around our panels, I had written about downvoting, I had expressed anger, but I stayed out of the Gamergate hashtag, and I had friends checking for my name on 8Chan and Reddit. Things felt manageable. Things looked calm, so I calmed down.

The emotional navigation required in situations like these really weighs on me; I wanted to say something, take a stand, and I don’t want the girls I mentor to enter a tech and games world that’s like this. Thinking about threat modeling and where I am “placed” or “sit” in a digital world helps me evaluate situations and figure out where I fall in the landscape. Until now, I’ve flown mostly under the radar with Gamergate, SWAT teams notwithstanding. Part of that may be because I do so many things outside of games culture—I teach, I make art, I write about interaction design. My diversity of interests helps keep me safe.

What also keeps me safe is the belief that conferences do prioritize safety, especially for speakers who have received threats in the past. As a conference organizer myself, I take safety seriously, but I would never misconstrue a situation to my speakers. I would work with them, help them, and try to come to a solution that had actionable results.

On Oct. 7, I was notified that our panel was accepted, and I was elated. On Oct. 20, I was informed by Arthur Chu that Gamergate’s panel, “Save Point: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” had been accepted. I immediately reached out to the new SXSW representative, including links on Gamergate, and ended the email with a question about security and my feelings of slight fear and apprehension around the Save Point panel being included. I heard nothing back for a week; I called twice. Finally, the representative responded to my emails.

Hi Caroline,
We appreciate your thoughts and always welcome feedback from our community. That said, SXSW is a big tent and we strongly believe in showcasing a very diverse range of ideas and opinions, even if we as a staff don’t always agree with them. If everyone shared the same viewpoint, that would make for a pretty boring event.
Cheers,
-andrew
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I immediately responded with:

Hi Andrew and Justin,
My panelists and I completely understand the desire to have different views showcased, and we are all for that. However, in light of the past events and given the ongoing security concerns my panelists and I are all facing, security needs to be present at the panel. This is mainly to make sure that our talk does not get derailed, which has happened in the past, particularly around the topics of harassment and gaming. We want to keep this panel on topic, and we'd like the ability for security to intervene should it get hostile.
Thanks again for understanding!
Best,
Caroline Sinders

I heard nothing back from SXSW until I got an email saying that SXSW was canceling our panel due to threats made against our panel and Save Point. We’d had no idea that we had received threats. SXSW deemed that there was no way to have a civil conversation and preserve SXSW’s “big tent,” so all panels related to Gamergate were being canceled. Including our panel, which had nothing to do with Gamergate and everything to do with design.

So many things about this situation could have been handled better. (Leigh Alexander actually covers this pretty well.) Most importantly, SXSW could have taken our concerns seriously when we first voiced them in August. I understand security can be hard; I understand wanting to show all sides of an issue and creating a panel that is “of the moment.” But SXSW created a disingenuous and potentially dangerous situation. Just as our panel was about design, the Gamergate panel was (technically) about gaming journalism. Moreover, the emails I received are not the proper response to a woman participating in a tech conference who has security concerns. It downplays my lived experiences, as a person. If there were threats made against my panel and my co-panelists, I should have been informed. If there were threats made against the Save Point panel, they should have been informed as well.

I was really concerned about moderation amid a potentially rowdy crowd. If, for example, a panelist were to choose not to answer a certain question, that can reflect badly on us and create new waves of harassment. This same rationale should and could be extended to Save Point; they should not have to moderate the crowd. But if a SXSW-appointed moderator says something along the lines of “Great question, but it’s a bit off topic,” it deflects blame and diffuses the moment. Moderation with representatives from the conference, as well as multiple representatives placed throughout the crowd and at the door, sets a tone of formality and order. Additionally, it just makes the speakers feel safer. Offering these services to both panels would have been a great idea, as would allowing the panelists to decide what range of security they wanted.

Vox, BuzzFeed, and other media outlets have started pulling out of SXSW in the wake of our panel on anti-harassment being dismissed because of harassment. But I would still love to speak at SXSW. I would love to work with them on security, harassment, and code-of-conduct initiatives. I would love to talk about threat modeling and harassment, and point them in the direction of security experts and other professionals who can lead workshops on how to talk to victims of harassment.

Creating an interesting and diverse tent isn’t just about the topics that are covered. It’s also about the speakers and attendees and how they are treated. Fair and good treatment isn’t just free swag—it’s about safety. Safety helps create an open and inclusive environment for everyone. I want to be part of building a tech community that is safe and open for everyone, especially marginalized groups in technology.

Caroline Sinders is a user researcher, educator, and artist based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.