I think at this point it’s safe to say, even though SXSW 2016 is still several months in the future, that SXSW’s leadership has made some considerable errors.
It’s not a good day for PR when you’re a major conference/festival in the hipster tech world and you’ve got Buzzfeed and Vox both pulling out in protest of your recent actions, when you’ve got ex-NFL star Chris Kluwe’s excoriation of your cowardice going viral on Twitter, and when “dramatically announcing you’re not going to SXSW” is the new “rescinding Bill Cosby’s honorary degree”.
It’s easy to point fingers at outsiders over this and I’m sure people at SXSW are doing just that right now. You could blame the charming folks at the r/KotakuInAction and their less-presentable brethren at /baph/ on 8chan, who have a distressing tendency to try to cause as much trouble as possible “for the lulz” whether or not it hurts their ostensible cause. You could join the legions of other people who’ve blamed “Twitter outrage culture” for making you guys “look bad.”
You could blame any of the specific individuals who tweeted mean things. You could blame Joan Walsh, or John Scalzi, or U.S. Representative Katherine Clark. You could blame me. After biting my tongue since August I finally decided to write a long tell-all article my and others’ treatment during SXSW’s “PanelPicker” process, in hopes that it would cause some trouble for SXSW. It appears to be succeeding.
But while it’s tempting to cast blame on the outraged for giving you a hard time, it bears asking what, exactly, led to all these people having something to be outraged about.
In this case, as in so many others, SXSW screwed themselves over. By the time they got to the point of creating a big public stink by canceling two panels they’d already announced were approved and making sanctimonious references to the “sanctity of the big tent” as they did so, it was already too late. No one would’ve consciously chosen to be in that position. Even the lowest-level intern at SXSW must’ve known that there’s no good outcome from doing something like that.
SXSW didn’t get to that quandary by making any particular decision. They did it by making a series of non-decisions. Like so many big, clueless organizations before them, SXSW screwed itself over by thinking it could always take the safest, easiest path of least resistance, the (non-)choice that pleased everyone.
The problem is that that doesn’t work for serious issues where there are real stakes.
I get that SXSW wants to keep things “positive,” in the shallow sense of “positive,” by which I mean generally avoiding upsetting, unpleasant conflicts and pretending things are already basically okay. It wouldn’t make a very good recruiting landscape for Goldman Sachs otherwise.
And that’s fine. I really mean it, it is. Concern trolls defending SXSW’s actions keep coming up to me and my friends saying “SXSW has no obligation to host a ‘fight’ if they don’t want to.”
Of course they don’t. But if they wanted to keep it light and fun and avoid stuff that might attract controversy or bum people out at the afterparties then the time to make that decision was before putting panels about the topic of Internet harassment up on the Internet to be harassed.
This isn’t just them, this applies to a lot of people across the board. I can’t count how many times I’ve experienced or observed people trying to “start a dialogue” or “draw attention” to online harassment doing it in exactly the wrong way such that all they do is increase harassment.
We have generally agreed-upon rules for how to report on suicide and mass murders so that the reporting doesn’t harm people. These are only professional standards, not laws--some outlets violate them regularly and gleefully--but they provide a basic foundation for not putting yourself in the hypocritical position of “fighting” school shootings by creating an environment that encourages the next shooter.
The same applies to coverage of online harassment. It especially applies because online harassment and online media coverage is directly linked. This is the kind of work done by organizations like the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative and Digital Sistas. It takes a special degree of cluelessness to invite people from those organizations to speak about their field of expertise and ignore everything they have to say in the process of doing so.
They had numerous opportunities to realize they’d made a mistake when they saw their comments sections being flooded and saw their PanelPicker website targeted by a hostile Reddit thread.
But maybe they wanted to rigidly adhere to the process that had worked in the past for them. A weird stance for an organization that celebrates “disruption,” but not uncommon. That kind of bureaucratic rigidity sucks but it happens in big organizations where people want to avoid the blowback from unpopular decisions. I get it.
SXSW’s sin wasn’t just bureaucratic rigidity, though. It was the far worse crime of being mostly rigid but bending only when pushed too hard and only in the direction of appeasing whoever’s pushing on you hardest at that moment.
You can look at their approach to comment moderation that way. Moderating comments--going through them one by one to see what should and shouldn’t be hosted on your site--is the best strategy, but it’s the most time-consuming one. Closing comments--so that no comments get posted at all and the content has to stand on its own merits--is another option, but one that flies in the face of SXSW’s ethos of totally “open” debate.
What did they do instead? They let comments flow freely until things got really bad and really toxic, and then they locked comments. Anyone who was quick on their trigger finger enough to get their comments in within that first weekend got to see their graffiti emblazoned on the PanelPicker site for the duration of the voting process. Anyone else was locked out.
This didn’t reverse any of the damage done, including the link, as I mentioned in my earlier piece, maliciously revealing the birth name of a trans person who wasn’t even on any of the panels. But it did keep things from “getting worse” to a degree that might have made SXSW uncomfortable--it stopped the possibility of SXSW getting in the news for a full doxing of someone’s address, for instance, once one of my fellow panelists brought that up as a possibility.
That’s the hallmark of a bad decision. One that does just enough to say you “did something” while still changing the underlying situation as little as possible, kicking the can a few feet down the road.
Then, once the bombardment of verbal attacks from r/KotakuInAction was forcibly stopped by the comment threads being locked, r/KotakuInAction immediately organized to put together their own panel for SXSW.
The obvious response would have been to simply say no. In fact, the bureaucratically correct response, the one consistent with SXSW’s own posted rules, would have been to say no, given that their own FAQ says in black and white “We will be strictly adhering to all posted deadlines for 2016 PanelPicker entries.”
But the funny thing about online harassment--again, something we would’ve ended up talking about had the panels gone ahead as planned--is they have a way of changing what the path of least resistance is.
After all, SXSW had just witnessed, firsthand, the kind of assault you invite when GamerGaters decide you’re a target. They’d had the luxury of not being hit by it personally by presenting themselves as a mere “neutral facilitator” of conversations rather than “taking sides”--an impression the whole idea of a public-vote “PanelPicker” is meant to reinforce--but now they were the ones being put in the hot seat.
They could have said no. Then they would’ve made themselves the next target of r/KiA’s brigades of flooding comments sections, emailing advertisers and making life hell for their “bias.” (Refusing to approve a new panel because the deadline has passed isn’t actually a “bias” but that’s never stopped GamerGaters before.)
Or they could have taken the late panel submission and put it up on PanelPicker and publicly committed themselves to the idea that both the harassed and harassers deserve a voice.
I would not have liked or respected that decision. But I would have respected the fair warning aspect of coming out publicly with it. The panelists behind the Level Up panel say they would’ve had no issue with the other panel existing and would’ve done their best to ignore it. I, personally, probably would have chosen to withdraw from speaking at SXSW.
But that would have created its own controversy. The obvious response to GamerGate lighting up our panels through their channels and then having a panel of their own would be us lighting them up in return. The “war” would continue, and SXSW’s repeated exhortations to us to “let this die down” in email would have been for naught.
So, again, they kicked the can down the road. Telling applicants that their application for a panel will be “considered” without seriously intending to do so is arguably unprofessional. Telling other panelists who’ve been harassed by those applicants that their panel will be rejected before it actually is rejected is arguably unprofessional.
Saying both of these things when in reality you haven’t made your decision yet is unprofessional as all hell. But it got, for the moment, exactly what SXSW had repeatedly told us they wanted--it got the controversy to “die down,” as GamerGaters settled down to wait for their panel to be approved and we waited for it to be rejected.
I don’t know what they expected to happen when the panels were ultimately announced. I would guess they had the same vain hope common to big organizations committed to doing everything necessary e to avoid bad PR in the very near term--that in the long term, the controversy will “blow over.”
It didn’t. Appeasing “both sides” didn’t tone down abuse and violent threats, it intensified them. Remaining “neutral” by deciding to throw both panels under the bus didn’t make the problem go away, it intensified it to headline-level national news.
I get it. It’s tough to pick principles and stick to them. It’s scary, and it shrinks the size of your potential “big tent.”
But that’s how you end up where you are today, SXSW. The cliché “If you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything” is overworn (especially after being in a Katy Perry song) so I’ll be more specific: If you don’t set an “agenda,” if you don’t have a “mission,” if you don’t take a “side,” one will be chosen for you, and it will be done by the most aggressive, least scrupulous actors.
I don’t believe for a moment that anyone on SXSW’s staff is “a GamerGater” or even cares that much about GamerGate. But here’s the sequence of events:
People GamerGate didn’t like submitted applications for panels. GamerGate flooded those applications with wild accusations, insults and slurs, and SXSW froze those comments in place and kept them on the applications for the rest of the voting process.
Then SXSW took an application for a GamerGate panel created in response to our panels and, in secret, approved it, encouraging GamerGaters to come to Austin in person to confront people they’d attacked online.
Then once the original panelists objected, that became a reason for SXSW to cancel both the late panel that had been approved outside the rules and the original panel that hadn’t mentioned GamerGate at all.
No one intended it to end up this way. But by making the weakest, most reactive decisions they could at every point in the process, SXSW more or less systematically created a process for GamerGate to fuck with people they don’t like and get their event canceled. Every action where they enforced their own rules was against us, and every action where they bent their own rules was in favor of the GamerGaters. I don’t believe that SXSW Interactive was on GamerGate’s “side” but they acted exactly as they would have if they had been.
That’s what happens when you negotiate with terrorists--or, if you consider that too melodramatic, that’s what happens when you consistently grease the squeakiest, loudest, most harassing and intimidating wheel. When you “don’t take sides” you end up for all practical purposes siding with the bad guys, and the more you try to dig yourself out of your hole the deeper it gets, until you find yourself where SXSW is today.